Mental illness touches every person's life in some way — that's one of the reasons Mental Health Month was created. Memoirs about mental illness can be invaluable resources, giving insight and detailed, honest accounts about what it actually feels like to deal with a disorder. You know that wise saying, "Don't judge a woman until you've walked a mile in her shoes?" Well, these memoirs allow us to slip into the shoes of people who live with these illnesses day in, day out.
For fellow sufferers, these personal, intimate accounts of eating disorders, schizophrenia, bipolar, depression, and OCD can be life-savers, making a diagnosis seem a little less isolating and a little more manageable. Education and awareness, both for the people who are diagnosed and their supporters, are the keys to recovery, and nothing is more eye-opening than a firsthand account.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimated that nearly one in five Americans suffer from some form of mental illness, and in reality, due to underreporting and lack of diagnosis, the number is probably much higher than that. That means you, your sister, your mom, your significant other, or your best friend is living with a mental illness.
So, take a look through these memoirs about mental illness; so much can be gained by reading what incredibly strong, brave people have written about how they learned to treat, manage, and live with their diagnoses. Reading and learning about these disorders can help erase the stigma they carry, and help you become a source of support and wisdom for yourself, for someone you love, or both.
Shoot the Damn Dog: A Memoir of Depression by Sally Brampton
Sally Brampton had the life many of us aspire to. She was the founding editor of ELLE magazine, a prize-winning journalist, and a wife and mother. She was literally the "I don't know how she does it" woman. But beneath Brampton's glossy, flawless exterior, she was falling apart. As she so poignantly makes clear in her memoir, no amount of success, love, or intelligence can save you from depression.
Over the course of one terrible year, Brampton slips completely into darkness, her descent hastened by a divorce, a move, a thyroid problem, and alcohol dependency. She was in and out of the hospital, on and off medications, and completely unable to pull herself out of a deep, sucking, all-consuming clinical depression. What makes Brampton's story important and powerful is the way she eventually scrabbles and claws her way back to life. She shares how she's learned to manage and contain her illness — friendship, long walks, yoga, acupuncture, cognitive behavioral therapy, and a plethora of other coping mechanisms — but the "black dog days" Winston Churchill famously referred to never feel far enough away for her to be comfortable. Brampton knows that her depression will never be cured, but she has gotten it under control, and her lyrical, moving memoir may be able to help others do the same.
Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia by Marya Hornbacher
This Pulitzer Prize-nominated memoir is a testament to Marya Hornbacher's immense talent, but nothing, not her obvious gift for writing, her family, friends, or endless therapy, could save her from herself. Hornbacher binged, purged, starved, abused drugs, and indulged in risky sexual behavior even after five lengthy hospital stays and the loss of everyone she loved and everything she cared about. She goes into her self-sabotaging behavior in wrenching, graphic detail, and her honesty makes it all the more affecting. What becomes painfully clear through the course of the memoir is that the decision to get help had to be Hornbacher's. No one could make it for her; she had to recover on her own terms. But once she decided to change her life, she was determined to "never, never, not ever, I repeat never, give up." Hornbacher's story is deeply personal and intimate, and ultimately inspiring.
Hurry Down Sunshine by Michael Greenberg
Michael Greenberg chronicles his 15-year-old daughter's terrifying descent into madness in this gripping, moving memoir. Sally was a precocious and vivacious adolescent one day, and in the throes of a devastating psychotic episode the next. “She had learned to speak from me; she had heard her first stories from me,” Greenberg writes. “And yet from one day to the next we had become strangers.”
So many people who are forced to watch a loved one grapple with a mental illness will deeply relate to Greenberg's utter confusion in the face of his daughter's devastating transformation. At one point he takes some of Sally's antipsychotic medication simply because he wants so badly to understand what she is experiencing. He doesn't try to make sense of Sally's illness, or even try to figure out where it came from, but instead records his struggle to get his daughter the help she needs. We don't often mental illness from this personal, intimate perspective, and it's one we can all benefit from.
Willow Weep for Me: A Black Woman's Journey Through Depression by Meri Nana-Ama Danquah
It's no coincidence that the title of Danquah's eloquent, poignant memoir comes from a Billie Holiday song. Certain parallels exist between the lives' of the two women, from their difficult childhoods, to their substance abuse problems, to their creative, artistic personalities. Danquah is a performance artist and creative writing instructor, and her natural gift with language shines through in her memoir. She writes about being abandoned by her father, experiencing childhood sexual abuse, struggling with racism, and her subsequent descent into overwhelming depression, with courage and honesty. Unlike the tragic Holiday, Danquah was able to slowly pull herself out of the depths of her depression and alcohol dependency. Her memoir details her path to recovery, and her experience finding strength and peace in music, meditation, and vigilant self-monitoring. Like Billie Holiday's most moving songs, Danquah's story is poignant, heartfelt, and ultimately uplifting.
An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness by Kay Redfield Jamison
I'm sitting here staring at this book, remembering how utterly transfixed I was the first time I read it. It was required for one of my psychology courses in college, and while I was reading it I felt for the first time like someone really understood me. Here was this smart, talented girl, who made extremely questionable life choices and engaged in risky behavior not because she was stupid, but just because — consequences be damned. Or, more accurately, the consequences were never even considered. Honestly, it compelled me to go to a therapist for the first time, because I did not want to hit rock bottom the way Kay Redfield Jamison did. And maybe I never would have, but honestly, I thank my lucky stars I read it when I did. This book isn't described as "life-changing" or "transformative" just to sell copies, it's described that way because it's true. Take it from someone who knows.
Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel
When people think mental illness memoirs, they think Prozac Nation, and for good reason. It was pretty groundbreaking in 1994 because Wurtzel writes so candidly about her unpredictable, dangerous mood swings and bouts of debilitating depression. And she's funny. I know mental illness is nothing to joke about, but supposedly laughter is the best medicine, and a little comic relief here and there can be a beautiful thing.
The memoir also delves deeply into the dark side of mental illness, and Wurtzel unflinchingly details her absolutely inability to feel happiness, and how that in turn made it very difficult for her to feel empathy. She is brutally honest about how her depression makes her an almost perpetual navel-gazer. In the end, she is far from well, but at least has found a bit of equilibrium. Her intensely personal narrative helped a whole generation open up about depression, suicidal thoughts, and mood swings.
Blue Genes by Christopher Lukas
I was devastated by this memoir. If only this family had felt like they could talk about their history of mental illness, the outcome may have been so different. But therein, also, lies the power of the story of Christopher (Kit) and Tony Lukas, because it is a testament to the absolute necessity of discussing every aspect of mental illness, from the symptoms, to the diagnosis, to the treatment.
The Lukas' mother committed suicide when they were children, and no one discussed it, or their family history of bipolar disorder and depression. Both brothers grew up to be gifted, successful, adults, Tony as an accomplished journalist, and Kit as a television director and producer. Kit was able to make peace with his own depression as well as his family history of mental illness, but Tony continued to be haunted, and tragically committed suicide in 1997. We need to be talking about these issues.
Lucky by Alice Sebold
As the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses becomes higher-profile, memoirs like Alice Sebold's become more and more important. Sebold was an 18-year-old college freshman when she was brutally raped and beaten in a park near campus. Her memoir details the fallout of this excruciatingly painful, horrible experience. While struggling with PTSD and other side effects of severe trauma, she had the grit and determination to pursue justice and helped secure her attacker's arrest and conviction. This is such an important read for anyone who has experienced sexual assault, or loves someone who has. These survivors need to know that they are not alone, that they can gain control over what happened to them, and ultimately, their lives.
Skin Game by Caroline Kettlewell
Caroline Kettlewell began cutting herself at age 12, and continued into her 20s, physically hurting herself in order to deal with her feelings of pain and alienation. I think this disorder in particular is often portrayed in pop-culture as an affliction of the "crazy" adolescent girl, but as Kettlewell writes, "in the U.S. alone as many as two to three million people engage in self-injury." Obviously hurting yourself on the outside to deal with the overwhelming feelings you're having on the inside is not as "crazy" or uncommon as people would like to think. Which is why it's so important for people like Kettlewell to tell their stories, to bring attention to the problem, and to help those suffering from it realize that they can ask for help.
The Quiet Room by Lori Schiller and Amanda Bennett
A full-blown schizophrenic episode is absolutely terrifying, both for the person who is experiencing it and for the people in her life. At 17 Lori Schiller had a pretty perfect-seeming life — an affluent, close-knit family, a bright future, and tons of potential. Fast-forward six years, and Schiller is wandering the streets of New York, suicidal and dressed in rags, a slave to the arbitrary voices in her head.
What follows is Schiller's struggle to find some small measure of sanity. Over the next several years she is in and out of institutions and halfway houses, fighting against relapse and often falling into utter despair. She ultimately finds a bit of equilibrium, but she makes it clear that she never would have survived without the help of an incredible doctor and her family. Like so many others, Schiller will never be "cured," but she is managing her illness. What she makes so startlingly obvious through her narrative is the arbitrary nature of mental illness. It can strike anyone at anytime. No one is immune.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is often portrayed humorously in our society. Like "Oh, it's so funny, my aunt can't leave the house without touching the doorknob exactly 45 times," but really, it's not funny. Colas uses humor in her memoir to connect with her readers, and also as a coping mechanism, but she doesn't minimize the disastrous effect the disorder had on her life. Through a series of personal vignettes, Colas shares how the illness infiltrated every aspect of her daily life, from her relationship with her husband, to her ability to leave the house. Her struggle to regain control over her compulsions is touching, realistic, and an eye-opening glimpse into what it's like to live with OCD.
Electroboy by Andy Behrman
Mania is often associated with intense periods of productivity. People who experience manic episodes often describe them as the most energetic periods of their life, when they had the stamina and relentless drive to stay up all night writing, or painting, or composing. But as Behrman so eloquently describes in his memoir, what goes up must come down, and people who experience mania crash hard.
Behrman hid his own manic episodes behind a larger-than-life personality — he was always jumping from high to high, relentlessly searching out the next big thing. Misdiagnosed for years, his craving for stimulation eventually led him to the world of art forgery. The experience ended in incarceration and house arrest. At this point Behrman was swallowing antidepressants and tranquilizers by the handful, and he knew he was losing his grip on his mind for what might be the last time. As a last resort, he opts for electroschock therapy. Behrman's memoir is simultaneously deeply entertaining, and a cautionary tale about the importance of seeking treatment and staying with it.
Loud in the House of Myself by Stacy Pershall
Stacy Pershall instinctively knew growing up in small-town Arkansas that she was different. Highly intelligent for sure, but nothing like the "normal" kids. From 13-year-old Jesus freak to teenage shoplifter, Pershall documents her eating disorders, self-inflicted injuries, and chronic mood swings. She is eventually diagnosed with bipolar and borderline personality disorder, but her journey to understanding her illness and her struggle with the mental health care system are well-documented in this moving, eye-opening memoir.
Welcome to My Country by Lauren Slater
Slater's memoir is a fascinating, astonishing look at treating mental illness from a therapist's perspective. She writes about her patients and their disorders — schizophrenia, depression, bipolar — candidly and with compassion. She really humanizes the treatment process. So often people who suffer from mental illness can be made to feel sub-human, like having this illness strips them of basic personhood or something. Slater's memoir gives us a glimpse at what a therapist should be: sympathetic, understanding, and above all, invested in the treatment of her patient.
Eventually we discover that Slater's deep devotion to her clients comes from a place of personal experience, as she herself was hospitalized for mental illness as a young woman. This is such a powerful story, emphasizing the incalculable importance of finding the right treatment and support.
Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen
Susanna Kaysen, and her story about life in the psychiatric ward, were made famous when her memoir was adapted into a movie starring Winona Ryder (as Kaysen) and Angelina Jolie.
In 1967, after one session with a psychiatrist she had never even laid on eyes on before, Kaysen was shipped off to an institution renowned for its famous clientele like Sylvia Plath and Ray Charles. Her vivid account of what she witnessed as a patient there was groundbreaking. She exposed the fine, arbitrary line society drew between sane and insane, and her critique of the mental health system was, and still is, much needed.
Make a vow to grab one of these books during Mental Health Month — there's a lot to learn.