Like 1/5 of the modern adolescent population, I have anxiety and depression, and like centuries of readers and writers before me I have often found my illnesses aggravated or soothed by books and poetry. Reading The Bell Jar for example, I find triggering, even though I love Sylvia Plath. As I read, my mood will sallow and I’ll find myself slipping back into toxic and dangerously comforting thought patterns, just as Esther slowly slips into a suicidal haze by the novels climax. As such, I’ve learnt to steer clear of books that I know will retrack my thoughts onto rocky routes. Books I have found helpful however, allow me to acknowledge my melancholy, and move on from it.
The best book I’ve personally read about mental health, is Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison. I picked it up second hand from Oxfam, never having heard of her or the book before, completely by chance. Kay is an American clinical psychologist and the book is an autobiography of her struggles as a bipolar woman, who is also a psychologist specialising in bipolar disorder, while hiding her mental illness from pretty much everyone around her. Although a difficult read, Kay has a unique insight into both the irrationality of mental illness and the cold hard science of it as a disease. Not only that, but she is an amazingly compelling writer who is able to dissect her mental illness with clarity and care. I found the book to be an important lesson in the value of knowing yourself and the parameters of your own mental illness.
A similar book which I also found useful to consider my own mental health is When Breath Becomes Air. Another memoir by a doctor, which I actually read because of my love of Unquiet Mind, the book details the journey of Paul Kalanithi from residency as a neurosurgeon to discovering he has metastatic lung cancer and his eventual death – the book was published posthumously by his wife. For both Redfield Jamison and Kalanithi what struck me was their unwavering resilience in the face of hardship and their astounding ability to dissect the experience of life. It wasn’t just inspiring, but realistic, neither of them sugar coated the realities of life, and they showed that it is possible to understand the daunting parts of life to the fullest extent and keep going.
From an entirely different genre, How to Be Famous by Caitlin Moran was the exact tonic I needed when I was going through the breakup of particularly bad ‘situationship’. Within the book Suzanne Banks, a singer based on Courtney Love and ‘shame free zone’ as the Guardian calls her character, describes how some men ‘huff [girls] vaporising confidence like crack cocaine’. At the time, having been huffed, it felt so empowering to read about these jolly, thoughtful, eccentric women go through the same as me, and live to tell the tale. Caitlin manages to keep the novel incisive to the heart of why ‘bad men’ can be so dangerous to young women and their self-esteem, while also managing to keep an overwhelmingly positive outlook throughout the novel. It’s the best kind of escapism, and the lovely John Kite was exactly the kind of substitute boyfriend I needed until I could find my own gentle man.
Ultimately, finding books to help your mental health is a journey to figuring out what lifts you up. Like all mental health cures, it’s a specific combination for you and your symptoms at the time, it’s never a cure all. We could be entirely different, and you find the books I’ve just suggested the most depressing things in the world, but The Bell Jar lifts you up. Maybe self-help books are your bag, or distraction through escapist fantasy. Either way, the next time you feel the deadlines starting to get you down, or your relationships to be causing more anguish than serenity, try finding comfort in books – it might be hard to carve out the time, but it’ll be worth it.
Image: From Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons License CC0 0.1.