Trigger warnings: suicide, drug abuse
I’ve previously written about Adichie’s use of mental illness in her novel Americanah, and I’d like to again applaud her. In chapter 41, Ifemelu’s cousin Dike attempts suicide by taking an entire bottle of Tylenol and anti-nausea pills. The way the author shows this attempt is realistic, and she avoids a lot of the preconceptions of mental illness that we see repeated in literature.
Dike’s actions are shocking and unexpected, much like many real-life suicides. His method is revealing of his mental state. The inclusion of anti-nausea pills to prevent his body from rejecting the overdose means (at least to me) that this was not a spur-of-the-moment decision or a cry for attention. This was a premeditated and intentional action, and even though Adichie doesn’t explicitly mention it until later in the novel, the reader can infer with a fair amount of certainty that Dike is suffering from a mental illness (or illnesses). This wouldn’t necessarily be unusual, as illness does tend to run in families, and Ifemelu suffered from depression earlier in the novel. An important concept here is the lack of any prior indicators of Dike’s attempt. This doesn’t mean that they weren’t there; it just means that Aunty Uju and Ifemelu didn’t know what to look for. There are warning signs of suicidal intentions, but not everyone knows how to recognize them or what to do if they see someone who needs help.
We see a lot of literary stereotypes surrounding mental illness. Quiet teens who wear a lot of black and write sad poetry – sound familiar? Illness is often used as a plot device to drive the protagonist into a relationship with someone who ultimately “fixes” them. While that might be nice to read about, it doesn’t represent reality. Anyone can be mentally ill or bullied or abused, meaning that anyone can be pushed to attempt suicide. Dike might not fit the suicidal stereotype, since he’s physically healthy and athletic and well-adapted to life in America, but here’s the thing: suicide doesn’t have a type. The way Adichie completely avoids sugarcoating or romanticizing Dike’s attempt makes his experience crucial to broadening the conception of the mentally ill.