If you are one of the millions of people living with a mental illness you may spend a lot of time feeling lonely. You may suffer from a depression that has stripped all the joy from your world. You may have intrusive thoughts. You may be so anxious that you literally shit your pants at the first sign of (perceived) trouble. Chances are your brain will make you believe you’re the only person who’s ever felt this way so maybe you don’t tell anyone how you’re feeling. Whilst everyone’s circumstances are unique, I can guarantee that there is someone alive right now who has felt as desperately awful as you do on your worst days.
When the darkness surrounds you and life doesn’t really feel worth living you need to firstly ask for help – whether from a doctor, a friend or one of the hundreds of fantastic mental health charities in existence. While you wait for help to arrive you should read one (or all) of these books. There are dozens of academic books about mental health, but I don’t need to hear from a scholar, I need survival tips from someone who’s lived with mental illness.
Disclaimer: these books are not intended to replace medical advice, but they should make you feel less alone.
Writing lists is one of my favorite pastimes. My desk at work is littered with lists as is my home. In my 20s, I wrote a list with two columns – one was “Reasons I Want to Die” and the other “Reasons to I Want To Live.” I’m sure I’m not the first or last person to ever write that list. Sometimes when everything in life has gone wrong and you are desperate for escape dying seems like the only option. If you’ve ever felt like that you should read this book.
In the introduction novelist Matt Haig states, “There is no right or wrong way to have depression, or to have a panic attack, or to feel suicidal. These things just are. Misery, like yoga, is not a competitive sport.” What unfolds is a three-year decent to the depths of despair from the author’s 20s to recovery via conversations across time where the suicidal author speaks to his future self:
“THEN ME: I want to die.
NOW ME: Well, you aren’t going to.
THEN ME: That is terrible.
NOW ME: No. It is wonderful. Trust me.”
The chapters are short and easy to read but the page “Things people say to depressives that they don’t say in other life-threatening situations” really made me stop and think. People with mental illness are often told to “get over it” but you would never say that to someone with cancer or another life-limiting illness. Or maybe you would if you were a terrible human.
This book is not only a lifeline for those of us who have hit rock bottom, it’s for their loved ones too. Sometimes when you are depressed or anxious it feels like you’re talking in a language “normal” people don’t understand and in that respect Haig feels like a translator between the well and unwell. And something to remember from the chapter Reasons to Stay Alive, “Things aren’t going to get worse. You want to kill yourself. That is as low as it gets. There is only upwards from here.”
Cathy Rentzenbrink knows true heartbreak. Her brother was knocked down by a car at the age of 16 then spent eight years in a vegetative state before a legal battle enabled his life to end. Her family experienced pain that made them realize there were fates worse than death. Heartbreak and grief are ubiquitous, although the way we respond may be vastly different. In the last decade, my life has been shaped by grief that often felt life ending. I couldn’t breathe when traumatic memories invaded my sleep and waking days. I spent months masking my pain so I didn’t upset anyone but realized, as did the author, “For us to truly know one another we must be able to share our heartache.”
I found this book by accident when I was teetering on the brink of a breakdown. I took comfort in the words right from the introduction which states, “I’m sharing my way through. I think of this book as a verbal cuddle, or a loving message in a bottle – tossed into the sea to wash up at the feet of someone in need.” Without the pages that followed, I am not sure how I would have navigated that mental collapse. The book gave me hope that I would survive, that I wouldn’t suffocate under the weight of my own sadness.
This book isn’t just for people in pain, it’s for their friends, their family, their loved ones. It gives advice on how to support the grieving, what not to say and how to be a better human. I wish this book had existed when I was going through a divorce or when my mother died but now my well-worn copy lies by my bed with passages highlighted to help soothe my soul when life gets unbearable.
3. Remember This When You’re Sad: A book for mad, sad and glad days (*from someone who’s right there) by Maggy Van Eijk
By the time Maggy Van Eijk reached her late 20s, she’d had three therapists and three different mental illness diagnoses. Her most recently diagnosed condition, Borderline Personality Disorder, is one we both share. I was diagnosed with BPD in 2015 then promptly ignored it after a quick consultation with Dr. Google told me I would likely die alone, probably of suicide after ruining my own life and those around me.
The book isn’t specifically about BPD and the explanations of the effect mental illness can have on your life, work, friendships, relationships, self-esteem, and body image are universal. The book is grouped into sections which correspond to inside your body, such as “Remember This When You’re Scared of Your Own Brain” and to the outside world “Remember This When You’re Losing Your Job.” The easily digestible chapters are a blessing for anyone who’s depression has robbed them of their ability to concentrate and each chapter is concluded with a handy list which is often as humorous as it is helpful.
The book is brave, candid, amusing, and at times moved me to tears. It covers everything from falling in love to falling apart. To say I identify with the author’s memoir is an understatement, whole passages of the book could have been plucked from my own head. In “Remember This When You’re Having Sex,” Van Eijk recounts using sex as a form of self-harm, something I wish I’d read while in the grip of it myself.
I’ve read this book when I’m “well” and I’ve read it on days I don’t want to live anymore. I get something different from it every time. The last paragraph of the acknowledgments always makes my heart swell: “to everyone who has found themselves in the pages of this book. You’re not broken. You’re not losing it. Keep going. Take baby steps.” I have given a copy of this book to friends and who are now able to understand me and my actions on a deeper level and for that, I will be eternally grateful.
Bryony Gordon first experienced symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder at the age of 12. She woke up convinced she had AIDS and engaged in rituals of obsessive hand washing, repeating phrases under her breath and worrying that her family was going to die. At 17, she experienced intrusive thoughts that convinced her she was capable of murder and after speaking to her GP was diagnosed with OCD and clinical depression.
Mad Girl narrates the double life that Gordon led for the next 15 years. To friends, colleagues and the public she was a talented, witty newspaper columnist with the world at her feet; privately, life was imploding with bulimia, reckless behaviour and drug dependency taking over her life. So much of what happens to you when you are mentally ill feels like it’s what you “deserve” but as Gordon states, it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy: “Only when I started to believe that I deserved something more than misery did I get something more than misery.”
The book recounts falling in love and having a baby all while in the grip of mental illness but rest assured, this isn’t a case of “I got married and everything was magically better” because that’s not real life. Gordon is at pains to state this is a memoir, not a self-help book but the searing honesty in her battle with the monsters in her head will encourage others to tell their own story. Loneliness is one of the worst qualities of any mental illness, but in this book, I found a kindred spirit and I hope you do too. As the author herself says, “Everyone has degrees of madness in them, everyone has a story to tell.”
5. How to Survive the End of the World (When it’s in Your Own Head): An Anxiety Survival Guide by Aaron Gillies
Comic writer Aaron Gillies (AKA Technically Ron on Twitter) has achieved the impossible – he’s written a mental health book that’s as hilarious as it is insightful. It’s a survival guide for how to deal with the threat to life that exists only in your head.
Gillies’ had been diagnosed with depression in his early 20s and had experienced mild anxiety before but says “I just never knew that anxiety, real full-blown life-altering anxiety, was a thing.” His first panic attack was triggered by the simplest thing – the dropping of a mug in his kitchen – but the description of the terror that enveloped him is relatable to anyone who’s ever been in that position. “Until this my anxiety had been a constant hum in the background; this was the unexpected crescendo.”
The writer doesn’t just suffer from general anxiety disorder – he also suffers from social anxiety, separation anxiety, insomnia and dermatophagia (biting the skin around your fingers, often until they bleed). The book mixes personal anecdotes with input from mental health professionals and fellow sufferers and includes some excellent advice on everything from how to get a better night’s sleep to how to manage anxiety related agoraphobia.
A mixture of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, medication, and making fun of his illness have brought Gillies to a stage of being able to cope with his anxieties. This book doesn’t offer a cure, it teaches you how to manage everyday worries before they spiral out of control.
There’s also an important section on gender stereotypes and stigma men face when discussing their mental health. Toxic masculinity is producing a generation of men who would rather die than open up about their feelings; silence is killing thousands of men every year. I truly believe books like this will start conversations that will change (and save) lives.
6. The Recovery Letters: Addressed to People Experiencing Depression – Edited by Olivia Sagan and James Withey
The question I ask myself repeatedly when I am in the grip of depression is: “Will I ever recover from this?” James Withey thought a lot about recovery during his short stay in the Maytree Sanctuary for the Suicidal in London in 2011. He thought about the importance of hope and what he could do to help others who were suffering from the kind of depression that feels terminal. The following year The Recovery Letters blog was born.
Recovery Letters is a simple premise; people recovering from depression write a letter to those that are currently suffering. Addressed to ‘Dear You’, the inspiring and honest letters provide optimism and encouragement to those experiencing depression and are proof that recovery is possible.
This book is an anthology of some of the many letters received over the years from people suffering from different kinds of depression – including clinical depression, bipolar and postpartum depression. The beauty of the book is you don’t have to read the letters in any order, you can dip in and out or skip any piece that doesn’t resonate with you. There’s no right or wrong way to read this.
Writing and receiving a letter is such an intimate exchange and the ability to bare your soul to a stranger must be as scary as it is liberating. As Withey states in his introduction: “Their letters don’t disguise how painful depression is but they simply and beautifully say that it won’t always feel that way.”
The act of reading these letters always has a calming effect on me and I have a few favourites I’ve read so many times I’ve committed them to memory. Quite simply, when you’re drowning in sadness, these letters thrown you a lifeline.