In the winter of 2014 and the year 2015, I experienced depression. There’s no nice way of putting it: I met the evil inside myself. I felt my soul die inside a body that refused to quit. I felt the world turn to ashes around me, the oxygen turn toxic in my lungs, and the people everywhere just kept on living. The closest I can come to describing the experience is that I am Squidward in the sequence of scenes below. No kidding. A depressed person is misery and despair made flesh, and they carry that burden with them whatever they do and wherever they go.
Although I failed to see it at the time, there is always a spark of light in the darkness. There is the whole history of human experiences of suffering to assure you of that one, incomprehensible fact: You are not alone. As each person is unique, so is each depression, but there is a certain comfort to be found in the fact that someone out there is experiencing something similar to your sadness, even when that sadness seems unparalleled in the history of the world.
So how do we get in touch with these other unfortunate individuals? The answer, of course, is simple. We connect to other as we always have; through words, albeit written on paper, to thoughts made tangible on a page. Even as my mind was shattering into a million pieces, emotion and concentration both equally unreachable, I attempted to read as a drowning man attempts to swim.
The Noonday Demon – Andrew Solomon
Andrew Solomon is the unsung hero of the 21st century. Andrew Solomon offered me hope when I thought there was none to be had. In the depths of my depression, reading was as impossible to me as flying. I lay on my bed, and waited for time to pass. However, I soon discovered that I had not yet lost the ability to listen. Music was too much emotion, too much entwined with memories of happier times, but I was able to listen to the occasional speech. And that’s where Andrew Solomon came along.
Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon: “Depression is the flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair. When it comes, it degrades one’s self and ultimately eclipses the capacity to give or receive affection. It is the aloneness within us made manifest, and it destroys not only connection to others but also the ability to be peacefully alone with oneself.”
Some time after first hearing this TED Talk I ordered a copy of Solomon’s book on depression, a 2001 winner of the National Book Award for Non-Fiction. Reading it, something fit into place for me: there were others out there, just like me. At times, I felt secretly pleased that other people had it worse. At other times, I looked at my friends, who were not suffering from or even reading about depression, green with envy. But Solomon’s book is one that I still return to from time to time, when I need to feel like part of the world. If you’re only ever going to read one book about depression, it should be this one.
It’s Kind Of A Funny Story – Ned Vizzini
Ned Vizzini, It’s Kind Of A Funny Story: “I didn’t want to wake up. I was having a much better time asleep. And that’s really sad. It was almost like a reverse nightmare, like when you wake up from a nightmare you’re so relieved. I woke up into a nightmare.”
“I can’t eat and I can’t sleep. I’m not doing well in terms of being a functional human, you know?”
I read Ned Vizzini’s autobiographical young adult novel on depression years before I experienced the illness myself. At the time, I thought it was a good and engaging book. The style was innovative and modern; it read the way a teenage boy sounds. The storyline wasn’t surprising, but the characters were likable and the ending was reassuring.
I’m sorry to have to tell you this but the ending was a lie. If you want to read this book, be warned that there are SPOILERS ahead. If not, keep reading.
What happens in It’s Kind Of A Funny Story is this: a young boy cycles to the Brooklyn Bridge, intent on jumping off it because the social and academic pressures of his life have driven him to desperation. At the last moment, he changes his mind and decides to admit himself to the hospital because he is a danger to himself.
After a week -long stay at a mental hospital where he meets a supporting cast of characters both comical and tragic, the guy gets better. He manages to get a girlfriend and goes skipping home. The solution to all his problems is changing schools.
No. Just no. This is not how it goes. Recovering from depression is an excruciating process. I don’t mean to generalize or belittle other people’s experiences but I think that it’s safe to say that such a sudden change in mental state is neither stable nor permanent. Realistic portrayals of mental illness are important for a lot of reasons, and Vizzini fails to convey the reality of depression in this book.
It saddens me to tell you that Vizzini’s own recovery wasn’t stable either. He painted a pretty picture, but the reality fell woefully short. Vizzini passed away from suicide in 2013, seven years after It’s Kind Of A Funny Story was first published.
Reasons To Stay Alive – Matt Haig
I read Reasons To Stay Alive last January. Then, I forced all of my friends and family to read it. This book is a truthful account of depression. It’s honest. At times, I think, this honesty can be alarming to those of sound mental health. However, Haig’s style is so concise, so humorous and at the same time emotional and personal, that the distasteful topic of depression suddenly becomes palatable. If you have never experienced depression, this is probably the most suitable book for you on this list. Give it a try and tell me what you think.
Matt Haig, Reasons To Stay Alive: “To other people, it sometimes seems like nothing at all. You are walking around with your head on fire and no one can see the flames.”
All The Bright Places – Jennifer Niven
All The Bright Places is the only book I started and finished in 2015. As a matter of fact, I read it in one go, a coffee-induced nocturnal frenzy of recognition. Theodore Finch and Violet Markey meet atop a bell tower, both intent upon ending their lives by jumping off it. This is a Young Adult novel, the lovechild of The Fault In Our Stars and Eleanor & Park, if there was a little bit of The Perks Of Being A Wallflower mixed in. So if you loved any or all of these books, what are you waiting for?
Lovely bonus fact: a movie adaptation of All The Bright Places is currently in the making and should hit theaters sometime next year. Elle Fanning has already been cast as the leading lady. Personally, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for Logan Lerman, who would make a great Theodore Finch. I always envisioned the leading lad as a young Milo Ventimiglia. I was watching Heroes at the time, and him and Hayden Panettiere seemed like the perfect Finch and Violet.
Jennifer Niven, All The Bright Places: “It’s my experience that people are a lot more sympathetic if they can see you hurting, and for the millionth time in my life I wish for measles or smallpox or some other easily understood disease just to make it easier on me and also on them.”
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
I didn’t read The Bell Jar until a few months ago, when I was already well on my way to recovery. Still, the book resonated with me. Plath is often praised for her command of language; I agree. The Bell Jar is poetic and metaphorical but still down-to-earth enough to be readable. It deals with mental illness in a time of sexism, stigma and ignorance, when there was very little understanding of how depression and related disorders work and what treatments were most effective.
The accounts of electroconvulsive therapy are particularly alarming. All in all, the book made me glad to be a woman experiencing depression in 2016, rather than fifty-odd years earlier in time. I can only hope that the progress we have made in understanding and treating the mind will continue over the years. Should my children ever experience mental illness, I hope for understanding and empathy from society at large, and I hope for medications that do not list suicidal ideation as a possible side-effect.
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar: “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.”
If there is anyone in your life suffering from mental illness, and even if there is not, you should give these books a try. It is my belief that they can have a huge impact on our society, shedding light on mental illness and erasing stigma.