Prozac Nation chronicles a bright 19-year-old woman’s struggle with depression. Elizabeth “Lizzie” Wurtzel is an aspiring writer and freshman at Harvard University. With a childhood plagued by divorce and abandonment, Lizzie has a history of depressive episodes and self-confidence issues. The book is set in the 1980s, when mental illness was very much a taboo topic, and medication for psychiatric conditions was rarely prescribed. Lizzie certainly meets the criteria for abnormal behavior and major depressive disorder, and tries to cope throughout the book. Although her efforts are misguided, they are certainly typical of someone with her disorder.
Lizzie, who suffers from major depressive disorder, displays many common symptoms of depression. The book is mostly set in present-day, but includes flashbacks to her childhood, where she also shows many telling symptoms, like social isolation. Presently, she describes feeling empty, hopeless, and pessimistic. Although she does not openly admit it, it is apparent that she also feels extremely guilty about her condition. She cries in her mother’s arms while screaming about how sorry she is several times. Lizzie also suffers from decreased energy, which is clear when she is unable to get out of bed in the morning. This affects her schoolwork and her passion, writing. On the flip side, she also experiences difficulty sleeping, and even goes several days without rest at one point. She cannot concentrate on work or writing, which frustrates her and makes her even more irritable. Irritability is a common symptom of depression, especially in adolescents who are not sure how to regulate their emotions (NIMH, n.d.). She also turns to drugs and alcohol to numb her pain, which is very common for people with any mental illness. Perhaps the most alarming symptoms of Lizzie’s depression are her suicidal ideation and self-harm. A flashback shows a young Lizzie cutting her leg, while a shot from the present-day shows her cutting her wrists. She admits to suicidal ideation towards the end of the story. All of the symptoms mentioned align with the National Institute of Mental Health’s guide to depression (NIMH, n.d.). The author did a great job portraying someone with depression; Lizzie is shown suffering from almost every common symptom of depression, and talks about how her life experiences have led to her current state. It is tremendously common for people with depression to be able to identify causal factors in their illness, although some people may not be able to find any reason at all.
Lizzie has experienced many traumatic and heartbreaking events in her life which lead to her current state. Her parents divorced when she was only two years old; it was a bad breakup and led to many tumultuous years. Her father disappeared when she was fourteen, leading to a lot of abandonment issues for Lizzie. Major life changes, trauma, and overwhelming stress are common causes of depression (NIMH, n.d.). Additionally, she describes her mother as overinvolved and overbearing, which leads to Lizzie placing unrealistic expectations on herself. All of these events from her childhood certainly trigger her depressive episodes, as do events in the present day like breaking up with her boyfriend and fighting with her best friend. These types of interpersonal conflicts can certainly lead to feelings of isolation, loneliness, guilt, and ultimately depression.
During a flashback, it is revealed that Lizzie was put in therapy at a young age. However, she discontinued treatment, and now is totally against it. When her mother suggests it again after she discovers Lizzie is isolating herself, Lizzie is combative. She eventually agrees, and begins seeing a psychiatrist every week. She participates in individual talk therapy, and eventually starts Prozac, an antidepressant. This is a common course of action according to the National Institute of Mental Health; usually, talk therapy is utilized at first. If this is not completely effective, a regimen of medication is often added. If these treatments are still not helping the client, then, rarely, electroconvulsive therapy is considered (NIMH, n.d.). This is the course Lizzie followed as well. First, she tried talk therapy, and when she was still very symptomatic, her psychiatrist started her on Prozac. By the end of the book, Lizzie admits she is beginning to feel better. She says she is recovering the same way she fell into her illness, “Gradually, and then suddenly,” which is very common for people suffering from depression.
Depression often has an immeasurable impact on family and friends of the person suffering. It can strain relationships, and make the family and friends think that they are at fault for the other person’s illness (Croft, 2016). This certainly rings true for Lizzie and her loved ones. Her mother seems to be the person most affected by her depression. At times, she blames herself, and sometimes she even dares to blame Lizzie for her own illness. This is common for people trying to support someone with depression; they may feel helpless and angry at the same time (Croft, 2016). The portrayal of Lizzie’s mother is very realistic and heartbreaking. She just wants to see her daughter return to her old self, to be able to write and succeed in her dreams. When Lizzie is not yet at that point in her recovery, it is frustrating for the whole family. It cannot be ignored that Lizzie is particularly difficult to handle during her depressive episodes; she lashes out at her family, behaves irresponsibly, and shuts others out. However, these are all characteristic of someone who is deeply hurting. The portrayal of her best friend and boyfriend is also spot on. At first, they try to be supportive and loving, but grow tired of catering to Lizzie and eventually cut off contact altogether. This is unfortunately common with friends and family who do not understand depression (Croft, 2016).
Prozac Nation is a profound look into the life of someone with depression. Lizzie suffers from many of the common symptoms of this illness, which are successfully portrayed throughout the book. As someone who lives with major depressive disorder, it is refreshing to read literature that isn’t afraid to show the ugly side of mental illness. Lizzie tends to act out when she is struggling, by lashing out at family and friends, experimenting with drugs, sex, and alcohol, and fighting with her therapist. I tend to “act in”, and experience symptoms internally, not giving others a clue that I am struggling. Although Lizzie and I are different in this way, the underlying illness is still the same. It is exhausting to live with depression and battle your own mind. There are few other illnesses that feed into themselves the way depression does. It is difficult to reach out for help due to the overwhelming stigma, an unfortunate truth that was relevant in both the 1980s, where the book is set, and the present day.
While reading the novel, we may find ourselves saddened, shocked, and intrigued by many of the chapters. Reading about how Lizzie lashes out at her loved ones and then profusely apologizes was painful to digest because it shows the true reality of depression. It is an internal battle, one that other people often underestimate and do not understand. Prozac Nation portrayed this in a very tasteful manner; however, it could benefit from a more decisive focus on the issues of suicidal ideation and self-harm. Both issues are passively mentioned to be a huge problem for Lizzie, but aren’t really explored. Additionally, the book portrayed people with depression as largely problematic and combative. This is sometimes true, but definitely not always. As long as people understand that the book is only portraying one single person’s experience with depression, and that everyone is different, the message will stand strong. More literature needs to be produced that show the truth about taboo subjects in society, like mental illness.
Croft, H. (2016, June 20). Effects Of Depression On Family and Friends. Retrieved April 11, 2017, from http://www.healthyplace.com/depression/articles/effects-of-depression-on-family-and-friends/
Depression. (n.d.). Retrieved April 11, 2017, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/depression/index.shtml