Reading has always been my number one hobby, when I was a lonely weird kid who didn’t fit in I could lose myself in books filled with animals and fantasy and escape the world around me that I had no idea how to navigate. But it wasn’t until I was watching Booktube (goddamn was I excited when I found out this was a thing) and I came across Gabby Reads video “Characters I Relate to the Most” that I realized that throughout the hundreds of books I’ve read I was yet to read myself in a book like Gabby had.
Now looking back I can see why. I was a closeted lesbian who didn’t realize she was depressed and wondering why I couldn’t see myself in a sea of straight, neurotypical characters. I finally did have that experience, but that will come later. I realized that reading books that normalize mental health made me feel seen, made me feel valid, made me feel less alone.
So I’ve picked 5 books from 5 different genres that all helped me understand mental health issues in different ways so no matter your reading tastes or mental state you’ll be able to find something that works for you.
1. Graphic Novel– Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh
Hyperbole and a Half started as a Blogspot blog written and illustrated by Allie Brosh on MS Paint. Its quirky aesthetic and hilarious writing style made this blog gain a devoted cult following that eventually resulted in the publishing of this book. Oh and this 2010 viral meme:
It was while reading this that I read myself in a book for the first time. I was reading the story entitled Depression Part 1 for the first time since my diagnosis and I thought, ‘Holy shit, thats how I feel!’ and I cried, because I’m an emotional bitch loves. The way she put her experiences so plainly with pitiful yet funny illustrations had me laughing through my tears like a chaotic mess…and it was fucking glorious.
This graphic novel intersperses Allie’s experience with depression with anecdotal stories about herself as a sugar driven child and her chaotic dogs among others that will make you laugh from beginning to end.
Her second book Solution and Other Problems comes out 22 September 2020.
2. Memoir- An Unquiet Mind by Kay Jamison
An Unquiet Mind has become a classic memoir, written by psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison about her struggle as a mental health professional who also happens to have bipolar 1.
This memoir was thrust into my hands by my sibling with little to no explanation other than ‘You should read this.’ So I packed the unassuming little book into my hand luggage and decided to read it while I flew home for Christmas in 2019. Well, while I recommend this book whole heartedly especially for those with bipolar or have loved one with it, I don’t recommend reading this on a plane.
Yup, you guessed it. This bitch cried on the goddamn plane.
This book is one of those rare pieces that combines the trials of the patient with the experience and training of a professional all in one little package. She details her many manic episodes, juggling them with her hospital duties and fearing the judgment of her fellow doctors. She also manages to succinctly describe the internal battle of wanting to be free of your condition while recognizing its unique benefits. What I really appreciated was how she spoke about the benefits of bipolar and the way it can unexpectedly enrich your life. This always stuck with me and may encourage you to pick this up and give it a go:
[Content warnings-manias, depression, suicide ideation and suicide attempts]
3. YA- Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia
This is the type of YA that I wish I had growing up but it warms my heart to know that teenagers now have access books like this to so they can grow up feeling less isolated and more understood. This often cast aside genre (snobby bullshit) is full of amazing stories that highlight all avenues of mental health issues, gender, sexuality and race in a way that has improved my enjoyment of YA in leaps and bounds. Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia is my absolute favorite that deals with mental health.
The book follows Eliza Mirk, a socially anxious teen with no friends living in a family and a town that don’t seem to understand her in the slightest. But she has a secret, she is the creator of the viral webcomic Monsterous Sea under her pseudonym LadyConstellation and it is here, on the Monstrous Sea forums that Eliza can finally feels at home. Things start to change when a new boy joins the school that, turns out, spends his time writing fan fiction about Monstrous Sea. Wallace has anxiety induced mutism caused by PTSD so they strike up discussions through notes and text. When things start to unravel (I’m not telling you what because its best to go in blind) Eliza has to confront her two worlds colliding and learn that she’s not so alone after all.
The thing that makes this book really stand out for me is the way it so acutely describes the visceral physical feeling of a panic attack, anxiety, your deepest depression in a way that boarders on masterful. It weaves throughout it excerpts from her comic that ties together a narrative methaphor about the monsters in the world and the monsters inside you. I think this one could be very beneficial for parents to read in particular because it shows the importance of listening to your children and being open minded about what they’re feeling. Its also incredibly sweet, nerdy and hopeful and makes you feel excited about the future.
[Content warnings: depression, suicidal ideation]
4. Non Fiction- The Body Keeps Score by Bessel van der Kolk
This book is probably the book I’ve recommended the most in life and I have yet to hear a negative response to it. Bessel van der Kolk is a psychiatrist who is one of the leading experts in post traumatic stress and the effect that it can have on your body and mind.
In the book Van Der Kolk talks about his own journey from med school and entering the working world just as the first antidepressants were put on the market and through the rest of his career as he conducted extensive research into PTSD and pioneered many trauma treatments that are used to this day. With a subject matter as heavy as this, this book could be a dull slog but the way he tells the story, interweaving his own experience with scientific studies and actual patient experiences makes the information easy to digest and ponder for the next few hours.
What I really appreciate about this book is the fact that he considers every type of therapy equally be it talk therapy, EMDR, medication, mindfulness or even theatre and makes the very important point that different therapies work for different people especially those with trauma. If you have mental health issues or if you want to help out someone you love this is a beautifully written how to of the world of trauma and the hold it has our bodies.
[Content warnings-Its a book about depression, so all of that!]
5. Middle Grade- Literally everything by Jacqueline Wilson
I can remember very clearly the day my Mom gave me my Jacqueline Wilson first when I was 9. It was a copy of Bad Girls that I still have to this day, taped together and scruffy from decades of rereads. I have kept my collection all through my childhood, a portion of which you can see above, but it is a tiny fraction of 111 books (the fuck?!) that she has written in her career. Wilson writes middle grade stories illustrated by Nick Sharrat that cover issues over such a broad spectrum that it beggars belief. With her delicate hand and a cast of relatable characters she manages to get you fully invested in the characters from page one. This is why, I think, her work is so effective because she fills her books with a creative child-like aura without talking down to the her younger audience and then uses this safe space to address issues that so many children have to deal with in their lives.
The topics she covers include class, death, disabilities, abuse, cancer, the foster system, divorce, addiction and abandonment; to name just a few. Pick a topic, Jackie’s written about it.
In trying to find a link for her brand new book Love, Frankie that focusses on a queer teen I came across an article where Wilson revealed publicly that she is gay and has been living with her long term partner for 18 years. I’m crying as I write this because, as I said, I’m one emotional bitch and because this proves even more strongly why this author’s work has always spoken to me and so many others, getting those of us that felt like outsiders through times we had no idea how to navigate on our own.
[Content warnings-death, suicide ideation, fat shaming, addiction, cancer, depression, abuse]
And on that emotional note I’m going to leave this here. Please feel free to share any books that helped you in the comments below, I would love more recommendations especially from BIPOC authors, which I battled to find.
If any of these books sound like they are right up your alley please consider supporting your local bookstores wherever you live to keep small businesses alive, especially right now. If you’re in Cape Town like me I recommend The Book Lounge for new books and The Book Shoppe for used books.