I’ve been mulling a post of this sort for a long time–maybe as long as I’ve been blogging–but never really got up the courage to write it. This will be far from perfect and probably emotional, but I thought that it’s a good time to share. So, in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I’m sharing here a list of books (with commentary – I always have commentary!) that I have found useful on my mental health journey.
I read this book and then shared it with my husband and my mother while I was going through a serious bout of perinatal depression during my pregnancy with my second daughter. It is very simple and easy-to-read, mostly written in bullet-point format, which makes it perfect for when you’re in the midst of dealing with the day-to-day business of depression. Most of my depressive episodes have been perinatal in nature (postpartum, during pregnancy, during weaning, etc.) and I read this five years ago so I’m not sure how much translates to other types of depression. HOWEVER. I will say that for me, it validated how I was feeling. I read the whole thing, nodding to myself, “THIS IS HOW I FEEL.” I was able to hand it to my husband (who was doing a wonderful job of supporting me, btw) and say, “Read this and you will understand me better. THIS IS EXACTLY HOW I FEEL.” He had already implemented many of the strategies in the book, but I felt like it enabled me to explain to him more accurately how I was actually feeling, which I can only imagine helped him cope with the craziness of our life as we battled through. I’ve since recommended this book to many people and will continue to do so. It has to be the single most useful book I’ve read on the subject.
The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner
Despite the title, this book is useful and enlightening even if you don’t consider yourself to have “anger issues.” I’ve struggled myself with depression and anxiety, though in my earliest, undiagnosed times I did express myself through anger. I read this years on, though, and found it illuminating in a couple of ways that have really stuck with me. First, the book describes anger as a secondary emotion, meaning that it is an emotional reaction to some other, more basic emotion. For example, if I’m angry because my husband “got to” sleep in, it’s an emotional reaction to me feeling overtired or overburdened. This lesson then taught me how to cope. Instead of being resentful and mad at my husband, what I need to do is communicate to him that I feel overtired and need a break. I started doing this sort of thing and it has had a huge beneficial impact on my own mental health and in our relationship. This was one of those books that was full of practical lessons for me – which I think, partly, I may have been open to because I’ve gone through years of psychotherapy and self-analysis. For this book to be useful to you, you have to be able to recognize your own faults and willing to implement practical changes.
The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts by Gary Chapman
At first glance this doesn’t seem like a book that’s “mental health” focused, per se. And it’s really not — but what it did for me was allow me to better understand myself and my husband, and therefore to better accept myself. I learned that people show and feel love in different ways, and that’s ok. Rather than seeing differences between my spouse and me as failures or defects on my part, I learned to appreciate and understand myself. Ultimately, this was and continues to be a huge help to me in battling through bouts of anxiety and depression.
The Temperament God Gave Your Spouse by Art and Laraine Bennett
This is another one that is indirectly related to my mental health journey, but has been crucial to my own self-acceptance. Anyone who understands and has experienced the feelings of utter worthlessness that accompany severe depression knows that it’s important for long-term recovery to continually work on self-acceptance. I learned to understand myself and my own communication styles better, as well as my natural emotional tendencies (the “temperament”). A basic self-understanding is key to being able to implement the cognitive behavioral techniques I’ve learned in my many hours of counseling.
100 Days of Mental Health by Paul Green
This is a very different book from those described above in that it is literally a 100-day journal of Green’s mental state. Truth be told, I did not finish the book; I couldn’t. I found that his descriptions so accurately reflected the unpredictability and pain of living with a mental disorder that it was slightly triggering for me. Coupled with the fact that I was reading it just about the time I was weaning my third child (a very sensitive time for me emotionally), I couldn’t emotionally handle reading about his struggle. I remember very clearly a description he writes about depression being like having 1,000-pound rock on top of you; no one would expect you to get up if you had a literal 1,000-pound rock on top of you, but that’s not the case with depression. It’s so often unseen, and sufferers are expected to just get up and live life as normal – except to them, the rock really is there. I recommend this book to anyone who is living with a relative or friend suffering from depression, as a way of potentially understanding their loved one. It won’t perfectly explain everyone’s situation, but it just might grant some insight.
Spaghetti Head by Sarah Tyley
Regular readers might remember I recently reviewed this book here on the blog and commented on how the mental health aspects of the book particularly struck me. Ms. Tyley later told me that people who have undergone therapy are part of her target audience (though the book, I think, does have wider appeal). I won’t rehash everything I said in my original review, but I will say that it’s one of the best fictional portrayals of intensive therapy (futuristic techniques notwithstanding!) that I’ve read. It speaks to the depth of personal struggle, the variety of forms mental illness can take, and the incredible effort it takes to commit oneself to therapy and to implementation of the techniques learned. Therapy, in many ways, is just the beginning – if you can’t take what you’ve learned and apply it to your life, recovery remains out of reach. This book illuminates so much of the struggle without being “a mental health book.”
The Private War of Corporal Henson by E. Michael Helms
I won a free copy of this book via Goodreads giveaway a few years ago (Goodreads tells me I read it in November 2015), and I am forever thankful. The semi-autobiographical novel follows Corporal Henson, a long-time PTSD sufferer from his time spent fighting in Vietnam. He is persuaded to participate in a PTSD support group for veterans and we follow him through his struggles to come to terms with what he experienced at war, how that has haunted him for decades since, and how to move ahead with his life and allow himself happiness. The greatest takeaway for me was perhaps a glimmer of understanding of what life was like for my maternal grandfather, who suffered with undiagnosed PTSD for 53 years (!) after fighting with the US Army in the Korean War; beyond that, it illuminated for me how his mental illness may have impacted the lives of his wife and children (my mother included). I don’t know his full story or theirs, but I felt like reading this book provided me with just a nugget of understanding and resulting compassion for their collective struggle. Because, I know, mental illness doesn’t only impact the person who is ill: it has far-reaching consequences for others, especially close loved ones; this reality alone provided most of the impetus for my efforts at recovery when I was at my lowest points.
So, those are my books and the smallest window into the struggle my family and I face as I continue to struggle with mental illness and accept it as a part of our life. St. Dymphna, patron saint of the mentally ill, pray for me and for all of us who suffer!