Newspaper headlines and breaking news on CNN are dominated by the drama of crisis and disaster. When we rely on this coverage to tell the story of mental illness, we are led to believe that the majority of people with mental disorders are violent, dangerous and sleeping on church steps. But nothing could be further from the truth. It is true that we do not have therapies that cure all forms of mental disorder, and some individuals suffer with debilitating symptoms for decades. It is true that we need to continue research that will help us improve treatments. It is also true that the majority of people with mental health problems are able to know recovery and lead meaningful lives.
The personal narratives highlighted below shift from headlines of crisis and disaster to stories of health and recovery. These authors have fought the pernicious effects of stigma and have successfully enlisted social support and effective treatment. Their courageous journeys inspire me to think about what defines a meaningful life.
If you are looking for a story that inspires or wondering about gifts for the holidays, you might want to consider one of the books below.
1. Shadows in the Sun. Gayathri Ramprasad grew up in a respected Brahmin family in Bangalore India. All seemed idyllic until, as a university student, she found it impossible to “eat, sleep or think straight.” As she fell deeper into a depression, her parents thought it was “all in her head” – and she had no access to medication or therapy. Following an arranged marriage, a move to the United States, two babies, and many hospitalizations later, Gayathri candidly shares the story of her family’s struggle with depression and their evolving understanding of mental illness. At the core of her story is the message that there is hope: people can and do recover and thrive again. Ramprasad is now a mental health advocate and founder and president of ASHA International, a nonprofit organization promoting mental health awareness.
2. The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. There was a time when Andrew Solomon found getting out of bed almost impossible – despite the fact that when he was healthy, he his full and vibrant life even included sky-diving. With honesty, humor, and keen intellect, Solomon brings to life how he navigated his way through the worst of his depression and survived suicide’s siren call. Solomon talks with profound gratitude of his father’s enduring love and support along the journey. On the other side of “the noonday demon” of depression now, Solomon writes that “The opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality, and my life, as I write this, is vital, even when it’s sad.” Solomon is on faculty at Columbia University and has a thriving writing and speaking career. He is married, and he and his husband have a child. I’m not sure if he has taken up skydiving again.
3. An Unquiet Mind. A review in the Guardian says that in the years since this book came out (1995), no greater book about bipolar disorder has appeared. In fact, everyone I’ve asked has recommended this book as an inspiring memoir of living with mental illness. A clinical psychologist and full professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Kay Redfield Jamison has had Bipolar Disorder most of her life. She writes about childhood, family, work, and relationships with raw candor. Redfield Jamison recalls feeling the challenge of living with biopolar disorder, “raging and weeping and full of destruction and wild energy gone amok.” Living an engaged and fulfilling life, her story illustrates how a mental disorder can exist in a lively, inspired soul. She writes, “I have found it to be seductively complicated, a distillation both of what is finest in our natures, and of what is most dangerous.”
4. The Center Cannot Hold. Ellyn Saks has describes the “disorganization” that her schizophrenia brings like this: “Consciousness gradually loses its coherence. One’s center gives way. The center cannot hold. The ‘me’ becomes a haze, and the solid center from which one experiences reality breaks up like a bad radio signal.” Her first symptoms emerged when she was eight years old growing up in Miami, but her disorder has not prevented her from crafting a full life. It has not always been pretty – at Yale Law School, for example, she was forcibly restrained and made to take anti-psychotic medication – but Saks has managed to establish herself as an expert in mental health law and currently serves as professor and Associate Dean at the University of Southern California Law School.
5. Ten Ways Not to Commit Suicide. Depression and suicide are not easy topics for young black men according to hip hop pioneer and Run-DMC’s, Darryl McDaniels. But these are the issues that McDaniels takes on in his memoir. Describing himself as an introvert, McDaniels – a.k.a. Legendary MC, The Devastating Mic Controller, and the King of Rock – hit #1 on the Billboard charts with his group’s rap album. Although he was achieving public success, internally he was crumbling. McDaniels turned to alcohol to numb himself, a retreat that became an addiction. When intoxication could no longer keep the pain away, he plunged into severe depression and became suicidal. McDaniels tells a candid, reflective and hopeful story of rebirth and renewal.
If you have books to recommend, please email me with suggestions to share.