Book Review: Fallible

I enjoy a book that gives you a lot of bang for your buck. (I also, apparently, love alliteration). I’ve established that I love mental illness memoirs, but I also love nonfiction that gives you a powerful insider’s view into an unfamiliar territory. There is a lot to learn from Dr. Kyle Bradford’s Infallible, the story of a physician struggling with mental illness. Not only is it a portrait of the innate, physical, and environmental factors of depression, but it is also a fascinating glimpse into the world of practicing medicine and it even touches upon Mormon missionary work.

We’re probably all familiar with some of the horror stories of medical residency. Doctors showing up to work drunk, or forced to work on so little sleep they have the judgment or motor skills of someone who is drunk. The financial pressure of the pharmaceutical industry on the field of medicine which can lead to corrupt practices like improper diagnoses and prescriptions. Burnt out doctors who become abusive toward patients and staff. Dr. Bradford witnesses it all and despite some of this being common knowledge he still has harrowing and unique anecdotes to tell. It is no wonder that substance abuse and mental illness run rampant in the field.

Dr. Bradford takes a multi-faceted approach to exploring his mental illness, much as I imagine he takes a holistic approach to treating a patient. He struggles with generalized anxiety disorder and depression. He effectively uses the metaphor of a gargoyle to describe its presence—something looming in the distance eerily looking down on him. I liked that while he readily acknowledged that the enormous environmental and life stressors of medical residency, moving, and having children had a significant impact on his mood, he also felt he had a natural genetic and chemical predisposition toward depression and anxiety. He explores how he’d experienced these feelings in the past and coped with them through over-achieving, often referring to his “Superman” complex. He poses the classic chicken or egg question of whether he’d chosen his profession because he was anxious to prove himself and his worth, or whether the profession itself drove that perfectionist anxiety within him, ultimately concluding that it was a symbiotic relationship.

Another interesting angle to Dr. Bradford’s story is that he is a Mormon and spent two years as a missionary in Ukraine. He acknowledges that a feeling of disconnection from his faith has played a role in his depression as well. He also explores how certain aspects of Mormon culture, such as his inability to have coffee, drove him to unhealthy choices like trying to drink soda to stay awake during his long shifts, further exacerbating his depression. 

The doctor’s experiences seeking treatment for his condition from inept doctors were almost comical at times. He met therapists who kicked him out of their office after he talked for twenty minutes and they gave him a curt response like telling him to exercise. He also cycled through a few medications before finding one that worked for him. He spent years identifying factors in his life that could help alleviate his symptoms, which included medication, therapy, church, family, finding more fulfilling and less draining avenues to pursue in medicine and, finally, sharing his story to help others.

The book is written in a very conversational tone that may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Dr. Bradford noted that someone suggested he write the book to help others after hearing him tell his story on the radio, and I can definitely see that. At times it seems to ramble or go off on tangents, and could have used a tighter structure or organization. However, it didn’t particularly bother me as a reader as I found pretty much everything he had to say interesting. 

I think it was very brave of Dr. Bradford to tell his story. We live in a day and age where more and more, it has come to light that people we once entrusted with our safety and looked up to as heroes—teachers, priests, doctors, police—can be deeply flawed people working within broken infrastructures. There is still enough of a stigma attached to mental illness that especially as a doctor treating other patients it was courageous of him to put his “fallibility” out there for all to see and to demonstrate that admitting some of this brokenness and seeking solutions is really a heroic act in the end. 

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