Liberating Works

Whether it be to feel that you’re not alone, or to know how to get better, literature and visual works can be of great help. Here is a completely subjective list of books, films, TV shows episodes, graphic works, where mental health issues are, in my opinion, bravely confronted. This page is not intended as a must-read or must-see list of any kind. As ever, there’s no ‘must’. Only help and guidance, should you ever need any.

From the mainstream to the arty one, from the self-help book to the poetic prose.

Since I know that some topics can be really triggering depending on your personality and experience, I’ve added a content warning each time. I hope that thanks to this, you’ll feel empowered and more secure in your choices, knowing what challenges are at stake. Be aware, nonetheless, that I read and watch all sorts of material: some can be quite graphic and explicit, some can make you very emotional, etc.

So here it is, by alphabetical order of titles:

The Alcoholic, by Jonathan Ames and Dean Haspiel, Vertigo, 2008.
Genre: graphic novel
alcoholic_ames

A graphic novel about being a male teenager and then a male adult, whilst not always being sure about who you are. Not so much in the ‘I’m lost’ sort of way. More on the ‘we’re all unsure about ourselves, what do we do then?’ level. This is a book on addictions. Loads of them. Drugs and alcohol. But also love and ego. Or how to talk about defining experiences and sexuality far from stereotypes on being a man in today’s world… Finally, this graphic novel emphasizes our bodily experiences, and reminds us that the world, is also very real and physical around us. Even when it feels so incredibly far and abstract. In short: a graphic novel about wanting to live even when it means feeling ridicule, sad or alone.

A few quotes:

‘My problem is I tried to kill the pain of being alive with drugs, but that’s like stopping a leak with an ice cube. Doesn’t hold. If you could stay high forever then you’re set, but the body gives out. Sobriety is a curse for guys like us.’ (p. 49)

‘We also had incredible sex, like nothing I had ever felt before. It was the first time, while making love, that I didn’t wonder at some point: “What the hell am I doing?”’ (p. 73)

‘It’s always the same with me – I poison myself and then I desperately want the poison out of me. I try to kill myself and then I try to save myself.’ (p. 131)

Why read this book?
– Because you have addictions. Whatever they are.
– Because you’ve already got drunk just for the masochistic pleasure of hating yourself.
– Because you’d like a different take on alcoholism than either: ‘oh come on, it’s fun!’ or ‘oh come on, that’s so irresponsible, you useless crap!’
– Because you’ve been a teenager.
– Because you’re interested in what masculinity looks like when it doesn’t conform to the most common clichés. (I fuck top models, I drink and smoke, I’m powerful and I have a big big car.)
– Because you really miss a friend from childhood. Or your first love.
– Because Bret Easton Ellis recommends it.
– Because you’re interested in autofiction and literary doubles.

Content warning:
Some sex scenes deal with the notion of sexual abuse.
Heavy drug and alcohol usage too.

Am I Normal Yet?, by Holly Bourne, Usborne, 2015
Genre: Young Adult Novel – first part of The Spinster Club trilogy

Am I Normal Yet Holly Bourne

Evie is just a teenager who wants to be normal, but her OCD and acute anxiety always get in the way…

Why read this book?
– Because it’s a great book which dares to engage with OCD, mental illnness, feminism, gender and stereotypes.
– Because the book is self-aware of the stereotypes associated with depictions of OCD (especially when associated with cleaning obsessions and counting), and deals with them in a very creative way.
– Because it engages with: medication, therapy, CBT, sectioning.
– Because we are all made of contradictions, and so is the main character Evie.
– Because it highlights the incredible power of friendship and trust.
– Because it also shows what OCD does to people around you – not always the way you were sure they’d react…
– Because the structure of the book, with the literal intrusion of bad thoughts, offers an insight into the brain affected by OCD.
– Because it clearly advocates against the trivialisation of mental health associations and health professionals are warning us against.
– Because it reminds us that we’re all fighting a battle, and therefore despite our guilt, getting better is not a selfish, self-centered endeavour: it helps you to be more present for others too.
– Because there are some pretty damn funny quotes!

Content warning:
Depictions of rituals involving self harm (through repeated washing). Also explores consent in sexual activity.

Autism and me, by Rory Hoy, Jessica Kingsley, 2007
Genre: Documentary
autism and me

18-year-old filmmaker Rory Hoy, who has been diagnosed with autism, tells us his story. A short book accompanies the DVD.

Why watch and/or read it?
– Because to you, autism is just someone who doesn’t talk. Someone we’ll never be able to understand… Something extreme, something you’ll never have to deal with anyway, because you’re not a carer… Actually, autism can affect many people to varying degrees.
– Because you’d like a jargon-free and quick presentation. The film lasts less than 20 minutes; so does the reading of the accompanying book. Also, you don’t need to both watch the DVD and read the book: both can be explored independently.
– Because you’d like to know how someone with autism can react to crowded environment with high noise levels, new encounters, social situations, everyday routine. Each task, however insignificant to most, can be challenging. When to brush your teeth? And how? What about combing hair? As Rory Hoy says in the movie: ‘It’s like having a blank page in front of you every day.’
– Because you suffer from obsessions, and need to see that whatever the cause, you’re not the only one. It’s something our brains do.
– Because you believe that learning socially acceptable behaviour is the easiest thing in the world. Also because you’re really offended if someone with mental health issues can’t do the same.
– Because the message of the film is extremely positive and encouraging: we all want, and need, to feel ‘accepted, protected, respected and loved’.

Content warning: None

Aviator, directed by Martin Scorsese, 2004
Genre: biopic
An account of the life of the rich and famous Howard Hughes, a well-known sufferer of OCD.
aviator

Why see this movie?
– Because you have absolutely no idea what OCD can look like, and why sufferers say it’s so hard to live a normal life with it.
– Because you don’t understand why sufferers from OCD – including you, maybe – can seem so contradictory. For instance, being scared of contamination but being unable to shower for days. Or being a compulsive checker and forgetting something crucial (since you’re focused on something else).
– Because explicit depiction of OCD is not that common in Hollywood-type movies.
– Because it will remind you that you can be successful with no apparent issues, whilst being a constant worrier.
– Because there’s Leonardo DiCaprio, and he’s brilliant, as ever.
– Because I don’t recommend many films from Scorsese, especially since I’ve seen the unbearable Woolf of Wall Street. (I still have nightmares because of this distressing movie.)

Content warning:
If you suffer from OCD yourself, in particular with regard to contamination issues, watching certain scenes can be quite challenging. If you’re used to reading other accounts of OCD sufferers, you shouldn’t worry, as you know most of what is going to be depicted already. However, in all cases, it’s liberating to enable oneself to think: I’m not alone… And I’m not a failure.

Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults, by Laurie Penny, out in July 2017, Bloomsbury.
Genre: Clever, accessible, and inclusive feminist essays
Bitch Doctrine Laurie Penny

It’s not the first time a powerful political voice features in this highly subjective list of liberating works. (See below Virginie Despentes’s King Kong theory and Eve Ensler’s In the Body of the World)

Laurie Penny’s book Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults is indeed immensely liberating. Firstly, it gives us rhetorical and analytical tools to fight against unbearable stereotypes and hate speech so many of us have to deal with: sexism, racism, xenophobia, transphobia, homophobia, queerphobia, and so on. Secondly, this book clearly is about mental health. Some pieces deal with such issues more directly (see Laurie Penny’s brave accounts of her struggle with anxiety and anorexia), but as a whole, this book is an incredibly helpful companion to have. As a feminist living with OCD, depressive episodes and intrusive thoughts, and therefore rather scared to voice my mind, I am so grateful in particular for the piece: “Political Correctness is ‘Manners’ by Another Name” (pp. 306-313). It tells you about those times when you publish something online, and then are so ashamed, because you fear you’ve hurt people – which is, too, my biggest worry; it is both a blessing and a pain if you want to be political… This is why this book is great: not for a second does Laurie Penny forget (and it is quite rare…) that politics isn’t just about rich dudes yelling at each other on a screen… it’s about us, feeling vulnerable, and helpless, and tired, and wanting to protect each other. The piece about Trump’s election, and associated threats and grief (“Against bargaining”, pp. 39-54) very much reminded me of how I felt (= not well) immediately after the pro-Brexit vote. As a French immigrant living in the UK, I am probably among the most privileged of all immigrants there… And yet, I felt so scared in June 2016, and so disappointed, and so ashamed, and so… uncontrollably anxious. Laurie Penny reminds me that I’m far from being the only one, and actually, it might well be a very sane attitude, to panic when facing such disgusting policies and discourses: “Psychiatric orthodoxy envisions anxiety as an individual problem, a maladaptive response to everyday conditions. There is nothing everyday, however, about Donald Trump and his march to the presidency on a carpet of hate – and to feel anxiety in response is anything but ill-adjusted.” (pp. 45-45)

Why read this book?

– Because you don’t consider politics as external – most of it is in your head, and you want help to deal with that.
– Because you want to approach mental health and issues of anxiety from a different perspective that self-help or medical books.
– Because you’re fascinated by social media and online publications, but fear the aggressive atmosphere women have to deal with when they dare enter such spaces.
– Because you value empathy and kindness. So does this book, even though it is also uncompromising and unapologetic.
– Because you have felt or still feel responsible for a trauma somebody had caused to you, and you want reassurance that you’re not, never will be, the one to blame.
– Because you’ve suffered or know people who’ve suffered from eating disorders, and want to read hopeful, honest accounts of similar experiences.
– Because this voice, just like all the voices Laurie Penny so eloquently defends, needs to be heard.

When read this book?

It will be out in July 2017, but you can pre-order it here: http://www.bloomsbury.com/au/bitch-doctrine-9781408881606/

Content warning:
Discussion of violence (including but not limited to: physical, sexual) against women, people of colour, LGBTQIA* people. The book is self-aware in that respect, because you’ll also find several pieces in it about the importance of feeling safe (whether it be through trigger warnings, safe spaces, etc.).

Books v. Cigarettes, by George Orwell, collection of texts published by Penguin in 2008.
Genre: Collection of essays and autobiographical texts.
books v cigarettes George Orwell

I’ll refer here in particular to the text ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’ (pp. 65-126) as it provides a brutal, therefore painfully honest and incredibly bleak, description of punishment and abuse in the name of education. It’s not about parents, but about a school, where bed-wetting is followed by corporal punishment and lectures about how bad it is to do it, and where masturbating (or just having dark-circles around the eyes… which is apparently an obvious evidence of the aforementioned masturbation) causes you to be beaten up and excluded. It’s also about how kids were manipulated and kept in constant fear, and the development of so-called masculinity.

Why read this book?
– If you’re interested in the idea of sins and religious education: ‘I knew that bed-wetting was (a) wicked and (b) outside of my control. The second fact I was personally aware of, and the first I did not question. It was possible, therefore, to commit a sin without knowing that you committed it, without wanting to commit it, and without being able to avoid it. Sin was not necessarily something that you did: it might be something that happened to you.’ (p. 70)
– If you’re wondering where feelings of shame and blame can come from: Shame of your body, your background, your class – so they blame you.
– If you want to know one of the reasons why and how people keep on living after suffering such abuse: ‘But this sense of guilt and inevitable failure was balanced by something else: that is, the instinct to survive. Even a creature that is weak, ugly, cowardly, smelly and in no way justifiable still wants to stay alive and be happy after its own fashion. I could not invert the existing scale of values, or turn myself into success, but I could accept my failures and make the best of it. I could resign myself to being what I was, and then endeavour to survive on those terms.’ (p. 113)
– If just as I did, you feel like there’s hardly a truer expressions than: ‘the almost lunatic misunderstandings which are part of the daily experience of childhood’ (pp. 66-67)
– If you’re interested in the social construct of masculinity, and the pain it causes to young boys.
Content warning:
See the summary above. Violence is graphically depicted.

Break Free from OCD: Overcoming Obsessive Compulsive Disorder with CBT, by Dr Fiona Challacombe, Dr Victoria Bream Oldfield and Professor Paul Salkovskis, Vermilion, 2011.
Genre: self-help book.
break free from OCD
Quite frankly the best self-help book I’ve ever read on OCD. Whether or not you’re already familiar with CBT, this book will provide immense help in understanding your issues. It will also give you many ways to tackle them, and how to teach your brain to think differently.

It provides great definitions too. For instance:
‘Compulsions (also called neutralising or safety-seeking behaviours) are the physical or mental actions and reactions that follow from intrusive thoughts or obsessions, and which are motivated by the meaning which the intrusion has for them. There are two main types of compulsions, which are best understood in terms of what the person is trying to do. One is to verify (to check, to make sure of) something, most commonly by physical or mental checking. The idea is that if you verify things, you can either feel completely sure that it is okay, or put it right if it is not. The second type of compulsions, restitution, is where the person aims to put right, make amends or correct something they think has already happened, for example by cleaning something thoroughly which they regard as contaminated, or by thinking a positive thought after having a negative thought they regard as dangerous.’ (p. 15)

It will help you understand why, as a non-violent person, it’s the most violent intrusive thoughts that you can’t deal with.

This book makes you think about common factors for mental distress, such as perfectionism:
‘Positive perfectionism is when we persist in things which are important to us, allowing ourselves to apply lower standards in other areas. We can enjoy the rewards of a good job done well, and easily tolerate the imperfect trivia. However, if we treat everything as equally important and try to do everything perfectly, we are doomed to a negatively motivated perfectionistic life of slavery linked to our blindly high standards, and may be tortured by our fears of things going wrong (meaning, things which are not perfect).’ (pp. 44-45)

… or religious beliefs:
‘Religious and moral obsessions are some of the earliest reported forms of OCD. Many famous religious figures in history have had disturbing intrusive thoughts and doubts about their faith; Martin Luther and John Bunyan are amongst the more famous.
‘Blasphemous’ thoughts are a very clear example of how the same thought can mean something different to different people. For example, a thought about a religious figure naked can be horrifying and upsetting to someone of that faith; it is insignificant to an atheist and may even be amusing to someone who feels strongly against religion.’ (pp. 118-119)

Finally, you’ll be taught how to do things ‘the anti-obsessional way’ (p. 178)

What if OCD isn’t your only issue? Here, you’ll learn more about hoarding, depression, generalised anxiety disorder, social phobia, autistic spectrum disorder, PTSD and experiences of abuse and neglect, health anxiety, Body Dismorphic Disorder, eating disorders and vomit phobia. (pp. 233-239)

Why read this book?
– Because you suffer from OCD
– Because a friend or relative suffers from OCD, and you’re wondering why and how to help them.
– Because you’re interested in OCD and want one of the most accessible books about it.
– Because it’s a fantastic book. I’m so thankful to the authors.

Content warning:
None in particular. The language is incredibly supportive, clear and respectful. You’ll feel less lonely, better understood, and far better equipped after reading this self-help book. The title might well be a spoiler… You can indeed break free from OCD – at least partly – after reading these words.
Busy: How to Thrive in a World of Too Much, by Tony Crabbe, Piatkus, 2015
Genre: Self-help, business-/career-oriented
Busy Tony Crabbe

Why read this book?
– Because you’re a workaholic.
– Because you don’t need to manage your time better, you need to accept you should actually be doing less.
– Because you’ve realised that not once have you felt satisfied with the amount of work you’ve done.
– Because you’re constantly connected, and you fear this makes you less effective.
– Because you like to read evidence from psychology experiments before working on your behaviour.
– Because career is very important to you, yet it doesn’t mean you should do more for it. Au contraire.

Content warning: None.

Calm: Calm the Mind, Change the World, by Michael Acton Smith, Penguin, 2015
Genre: self-help, self-motivation book.
calm the mind change the world

Why read this book?
– If you love inspirational quotes and beautiful images. These appear in the book every 4-5 pages. And if on top of this you love creative typos, you’ll love every single page. It work a bit like inspirational quote people share on facebook, instagram, etc. Perfect for this generation, then.
– For the emphasis put on sleep and food.
– If you love blogs and posts on mindfulness.
– If you want a short description of meditation exercises, without having to read mindfulness books.
– If, like me, you have no idea of what the Forel-Ule system is, but love the changing colors of the sea.
– If you have to change your password on office computers all the time. Why not follow the author’s suggestion, and make these changes about personal mantras? He suggests ‘BU!LDNEWFRI3ENSHIPS’, ‘SAVE4SKIING’, ‘BEK:ND@HOME’. As he says, ‘it’s an opportunity to repeatedly hit your subconscious with a mindful reminder.’
– If you have no problem associating mindfulness and meditation with entrepreneurial and capitalist behaviour.

Content warning: None.

Can I Tell you about OCD? A Guide for Friends, Family and Professionals, written by Amita Jassi and illustrated by Sarah Hull, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2013.
Genre: Introductory book on the condition, particularly suitable to children, teenagers, and people who don’t know much about OCD. The series also offers other titles, including: Can I tell you about Asperger Syndrome/Dementia/Dyslexia/Epilepsy/Parkinson’s Disease/Depression?
can I tell you about OCD
This very short (47 pages) illustrated book helps to raise awareness and explains, in simple terms, what OCD sufferers may experience. In few words, the author managed to make the condition understandable without ever over-simplifying it – through the voice of Katie, a 13-year old narrator. Anyone who wants to know more will also find suggestions for further reading at the end of the book.

Why read this book:

– Because you’d like to know more about OCD and common related mental health issues, but haven’t much time to invest in the research.
– Because someone you know is suffering from OCD, and is too ashamed to confide in you. You’d like to show understanding and awareness, especially if this person is a child or a teenager, and particularly fears adult’s views on mental health issues.
– Because you don’t want a self-help book.
– Because you’re looking for a concise, jargon-free definition of OCD. And because you’re wondering why anxious people are not all OCD sufferers: ‘At the [child mental health services] assessment I was told lots of people have thoughts they don’t like and people have habits and do rituals, but as my obsessions and compulsions took longer than an hour a day and they were causing me distress and getting in the way of the things I wanted to do, this meant I had OCD.’ (p. 21)
– Because the book explains the very common process of ‘reassurance seeking’: the involvement of friends and family to reassure an OCD sufferer. For instance, answering: ‘yes, you did’ three times to the question: ‘no, but are you really sure I locked the door???’ Once again I’ll put an extract here: ‘Sometimes my friends and parents get really annoyed with me asking the same question over and over. I wish I didn’t have to ask, but I am so scared that I might have hurt someone that I need to check with others’. (p. 17)
– Because in so few pages, the author was able to mention different causes – from the environmental to the chemical factors, not to mention trauma and triggers – and treatments for OCD, such as ERP: Exposure with Response Prevention.

Content warning: none.

The Colour Thief: A Family Story of Depression, written by Andrew Fusek Peters and Polly Peters, illustrated by Karin Littlewood, Wayland, 2014.
Genre: Picture book.
This is the story of an adult’s depression, told from the perspective of his child. Aimed primarily at children, but not by any means limited to young readers, this book also features great and poetic watercolour illustrations.
the color thief

Why read this book:
– Because you’d like to explain depression and mental illness to a child, but have no idea where to start, what to say, or how to say it.
– Because a child you know feels guilty about his parents’ mental issues, and needs to be reassured. This is indeed repeated throughout the book: ‘I thought I had done something wrong, but he told me I hadn’t.’ Many people will relate…
– Because as an adult, you feel as if you’re stuck in a genre; as if all you can read about mental illness consists of either self-helps books or tragic novels.
– Because you’re looking for an artistic yet approachable depiction of depression.

Content warning:
None whatsoever.

The Copper Tree, by Hilary Robinson and Mandy Stanley, Strauss House Productions, 2012.
Genre: children’s picture book
The Copper Tree Hilary Robinson Mandy Stanley

Why read this book:
– Because someone you loved sadly passed away, and you can’t think of anything to feel better.
– Because it reminds us how important it is to remember everything that special someone has taught us throughout their lives, and how to keep their memory alive.
– Because grieving is absolutely exhausting… Here, the texts are short, and the words simple.
– Because you know a child who’s recently been bereaved and don’t know how to start a dialogue with them.
– Because we should all build a copper tree to the ones we love.

Content warning:
None.

The Dark, by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Jon Klassen, Orchard Books, 2013.

Genre: picture book
A story about Laszlo, who used to be afraid of the dark.
the dark by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen

Why read this book?
– Because like everyone, there’s at least one thing that you’re afraid of, and you don’t know how to face it.
– Because you’ve been a child.
– Because you’re still a child.
– Because the illustrations are gorgeous, and the text is a wonderful fable.
– Because it tells you why there’s a reason for everything, even dark stuff: ‘Without a cupboard, you would have nowhere to put your shoes, and without a shower curtain, you would splash water all over the bathroom, and without the dark, everything would be light, and you would never know if you needed a lightbulb.’
– Because at the end, Laszlo is no longer afraid of the dark. We all need happy endings, from time to time.

Content warning: none

Dear Dementia: The Laughter and the Tears, by Ian Donaghy, Hawker publications, 2014.
Genre: collection of very short texts with pictures. This book belongs to the UK scheme Reading Well Books on Prescription.
dear dementia

I have become a dementia friend in May 2015. My pledge was to help raise awareness on issues experienced by both people living with dementia and their carers by promoting a book about dementia on my blog. If you’re interested, you can become a dementia friend too. Just visit https://www.dementiafriends.org.uk/

The main point of this book is to teach us that helping someone isn’t about deciding for them. Instead, this book based on real life experiences gives voice to narrators addressing their dementia directly – hence the title, ‘dear dementia’. Helping someone means asking them what they want, and try our best to make this possible. We shouldn’t presume what people with dementia – and actually with any health issue – would want to do. We should just ask them.

To prove this, two powerful extracts from the book:
‘Dear Dementia,
Everbody finishes my sentences. Every night I’m left with a bagful of unused full stops.’

‘Dear Dementia,
“Does SHE take sugar?”
“Does SHE like porridge?”
“Does SHE want to go out?”
Have you made me INVISIBLE?
Have I disappeared?”

Why read this book?
– If you prefer books with fewer words and more pictures.
– If you want a book that you can read by picking up a few bits here and there, not the huge workbook you read just that one time in one go because it’s too big and complicated.
– If you support the autonomy and respect of people living with dementia, whether or not you are a carer yourself.
– Because becoming more patient and attentive can not only help people with dementia, but each and every one of us.
– If you don’t mind that the only French expression in the book is written wrong: “une [sic] homme vieux” but don’t worry, I’m French, and I’m okay with that…

Content warning: None.

Everyone…, by Christopher Silas Neal, Walker Books, 2016.
Genre: picture book

Everyone Christopher Silas Neal

Why read this book?
– If you want to reassure someone (or indeed, to be reassured) that we all feel the same things, and that you’re not alone, whatever your experience right now.
– If you want something simple to explain mood jumps.
– If you feel frustrated to see that nobody really cares how you feel.
– If you like it that tears can turn into birds, and go far away.
– If you want to be reminded that: ‘When you cry, you are not alone. / When you laugh… / happiness grows.’
– If you’re trying to get back to reading after months of particularly dark depression.

Content warning: None.

Footpath Flowers, by JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith, Walker Books, 2015.
Genre: picture book; a bande-dessinée, almost.

Footpath Flowers

Why read this book?
– If you’re feeling so low that you want an inspirational story but have no energy to read proper words. This book only has pictures.
– If you like simple yet powerful metaphors.
– If whenever you’re in a city, you’re fascinated by nature finding its way there, too.
– If like me, you find incredibly poetic just to look at fragile grass breaking through the concrete.
– If you are bereaving.
– If you want to see how one can depict kindness.
– If you’ve liked Amélie Poulain and her ability to see things that others cannot see.

Content warning: None.

F**k It: The Ultimate Spiritual Way, by John C. Parkin, Hay House, 2014.
Genre: Straightforward guide to a simpler life.

fk It by John C Parkin

Why read this book?
– If the calm, polite language of spiritual guides pisses you off.
– If you want to read how a Christian (namely, The Reverend M. Townsend) very convincingly swears in his foreword to the new edition. Here’s just a nice example: ‘Jesus said Fuck It in so many ways’ (p. xiv).
– If you don’t want any religion to take over in the course of the book. On that level, the text is very inclusive!
– If you value individual comfort and happiness over collective well-being….
– … but you also believe that individual comfort and happiness is the way to collective well-being. Here’s an extract, for example: ‘And there’s a fantastic side effect to accepting yourself for whoever you are: you start accepting other people for who they are, too. It may not happen straight away, but it definitely starts to happen. And it happens for a very simple reason: whenever you judge other people, it simply comes from a non-acceptance of yourself in all your parts.’ (pp. 95-96)
– If you want to say F**k It to many things, including – but not limited to – food, disease, pain, money, being a peaceful person, parenting, self-control, goals, your job.
– If you can’t stand to read a book without humour – and if you happily welcome politically incorrect forms of humour.
– If as a spiritual person, for instance, you have no problem being referred to as a ‘bean-eater’ (see p. 51).
– If what you’re looking for is a guilt-free approach to life.

Content warning: Well, needless to say, if you’re offended by the title alone, this might not be the book for you…

Henry’s Demons: Living with Schizophrenia, A Father and Son’s Story, by Patrick and Henry Cockburn, Simon & Schuster, 2011.
Genre: autobiography and biography.
In this book about schizophrenia, you will be introduced to both the voice of the sufferer (Henry) and his father (Patrick).

henry s demons

Why read this book:
– Because the only thing you know about schizophrenia is the split personality often depicted in fiction…
– Because you’re interested in both the sufferer’s and his relatives’ perspectives.
– Because you’ve had to experience the psychiatric system to some extent, either for you or a member of your family.
– Because your children suffer from severe mental health issues, and you often feel guilty, fearing that you’re not doing the ‘right’ thing.

Content warning:
The pain felt by both parties is made explicit…

Here I am by Patti Kim (story) and Sonia Sánchez (pictures), Picture Window Books, 2014.
Genre: Picture book

here I am

This book was inspired by the author’s own experience of moving from Korea to the USA with her family, when she was four years old. It tells a story from the perspective of a child, without any words, about what it is to arrive in a country that you don’t know anything about.

Why read this book:
– First of all, Patti Kim’s suggestion at the very end of the book is a great reason: ‘If you are an immigrant or maybe just facing something new and different in your life, I hope my story helps you see that you’re not alone. / I hope it encourages you to live out your own story of arriving to that place where you can say, “Here I am”.’
– If you feel lost in your new surroundings. If you feel like a child, having to learn everything all over again. If you feel far from home, or if you don’t even know where home is.
– If you know a child who’s just arrived in your country, and you’d like to help but you have no idea what sort of fear and feelings one can experience in such situations.
– If you’ve ever felt lost in translation, been surrounded by a language you didn’t master – or maybe didn’t even know.
– Because you want to believe in kindness and friendship.
– Because it’s a very creative book, and you’re interested in seeing how much can be said without any words, just beautiful and suggestive pictures.

Content warning: None. As this book’s primary reading targets are children, it’s very delicate and positive. Darker feelings are never shown as irremediably oppressive, on the contrary. An inspirational story, however old you are.
I Had a Black Dog: His Name Was Depression, by Matthew Johnstone, Robinson, 2007.
Genre: Short cartoon-like illustrated book
Latest Front Cover.indd

The story told in the book has also been turned into a video, you can watch it here.

Why read this book?
– If you wonder what the signs and symptoms of depression are.
– Because you like short books, with little text and many illustrations.
– Because you feel too depressed to read, but you’d really like to try. This book would be an excellent way to start, and would help you address your concentration issue.
– Because you believe in the ‘Books for Prescription’ UK Scheme, or would like to know what it is. For more information, you can visit the Reading Well page.
– Because you’ve heard the expression ‘black dog’, a metaphor for depression popularised by Winston Churchill, but have no idea why many people identify with it.
– Because you want a very short, yet effective, summary of what depression is and feels like, and what to do to address it.
– If you want to look at depression from a carer’s perspective, you can also read the extremely relevant Living With a Black Dog: How to Care of Someone With Despression While Looking After Yourself by Matthew and Ainsley Johnstone, which was also turned into a video.

Front Cover LWBD.indd

Content warning: None. Suitable for all ages.
In the Body of The World: A Memoir of Cancer and Connection, by Eve Ensler, Picador, 2014.
Genre: Non-fiction. Autobiographical material
in the body of the world
Eve Ensler, author of the world-acclaimed Vagina Monologues, tell us about when she had to fight against cancer. At the same time, she pursues her feminist activism, helping women from Congo through an ambitious and powerful project.

Why read this book?
– Because you’re a fan of Eve Ensler’s writing. As usual it’s moving and accessible, deep yet simple.
– Because you are or one of your loved ones is living with cancer. And you’re interested in both the practical and the metaphysical they’ll go through.
– Because uterine cancer is certainly not the best known of cancers.
– Because you want to consider our relation to our bodies, particularly in Western societies and in America in particular.
– Because you admire activists, especially the way they always find the generosity and strength to help others, even when they are themselves severely ill. A great connection with people and the world.
– Because you want to know more about the fantastic project ‘City of Joy’, whose objective is to give many Congolese women the opportunity to be accepted, protected and loved for a while, before going back, stronger, to their everyday lives.
Content Warning:
Huge warning here…
Very explicit, brave and powerful discussion on sexual, physical and mental abuse throughout the book. Eve Ensler writes about the traumatic experiences and rapes she had to live with, and the traumatic experiences and rapes so many women in Congo have to survive. If the book still promotes hope, some pages are truly devastating. Just be ready for this kind of read.
Also, several mentions of depression and suicidal tendencies. And as you’ve probably guessed by now, ongoing reflection on death, mental health, and intense suffering.
Extracts:
‘Because I did not, could not, inhabit my body or the Earth, I could not feel or know their pain. I could not intuit their unwillingness or refusals, and I most certainly never knew the boundaries of enough. I was driven. I called it working hard, being busy, on top of it, making things happen. But in fact, I could not stop. Stopping would mean experiencing separation, loss, tumbling into a suicidal dislocation.’ (p. 3)

‘I was raised in America. All value lies in the future, in the dream, in production. There is no present tense. There is no value in what is, only in what might be made or exploited from what already exists. Of course the same was true for me. I had no inherent value. Without work or effort, without making myself into something significant, without proving my worth, I had no right or reason to be here. Life itself was inconsequential unless it led to something.’ (pp. 102-103)

‘Drugs and booze saved my life until they started to destroy it.’ (p. 127)

‘I see now how, almost twenty years later, I have never really grieved his loss. He was there. Then he wasn’t. I never experienced it as a loss, more like an essential magic trick. He was a man who adored me, committed incest with me, then regularly tried to murder me. Then, gone.’ (p. 172)

‘It’s not like I don’t see the world. I am not in denial. No, I really see it. Then I work really hard to make it be something else.’ (p. 184)

‘I am standing at the entranceway of the new city. I am still thin and weak. My body is not yet fully mine, in the last stages of this cancer conversion. I am not sure who I will be when all this is over or where I will live or even what I will want to do with my life. But I know for sure that there will be joy.’ (p. 206)
It’s Probably Nothing… Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love my Implants: Surviving Cancer – A Memoir in Poems, by Micki Myers, Simon & Schuster, 2013.
Genre: Poetry
How can you be a cancer survivor, have a great sense of humour and show a thousand emotions at once? The answer with this book. Just great. Also very helpful to fight against depression that can result from life-threatening illnesses.
it s probably nothing

Why read this book?
– Because as a woman suffering from breast cancer, you don’t know if it’s acceptable to have certain fears, and how to discuss them.
– Because you are, or someone you know is, fighting against cancer.
– Because you’re terrified at the idea of a surgery that will impact your life forever.
– Because you think poetry doesn’t talk effectively about real-life issues – and you like to be proven wrong.
– Because you’re convinced that contemporary poetry, just as contemporary art, can’t ever be understood by non-bourgeois human beings…

Content warning:
If the very idea of thinking about cancer prevents you from ever smiling about it whatever the context – and that’s fine, of course! – then this book may not be for you. You may find it challenging.

I want to Be a Cowgirl, by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross, Andersen press, 2001.
Genre: non-sexist picture book
I want to be a cowgirl by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross

Why read this book?
– Because it’s true: ‘I don’t want to be a good girl… / Good girls have no fun…’
– Because we’re taught about gender stereotypes from a very early age. So we deserve to be taught resistance very early on too.
– Because it’s okay, whatever your age, not to be a girlie girl. Just like it’s okay to be a girlie girl if you wish.
– Because you know young girls and would like them to feel able to be whoever they want to be. Because empowerment is key.
– Because it’s also about father-daughter relationship: ‘I just want to be a cowgirl, Daddy, what’s so wrong with that?’ / ‘I’m off to be a cowgirl, Daddy… / Come and be a cowboy too!’

Content warning: none.

Kiki’s Delivery Service, by Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli, 1989.
Genre: Animated fantasy film
kiki's delivery service

Why see this movie?
– If you want an inspirational story about independence and growing up.
– If you’re lacking self-confidence.
– If you’re doubting the quality of your work – especially if you produce art or objects.
– If you have trouble connecting with others.
– If you want to show a kid what depression can feel like, and what symptoms one may encounter.
– If you want to hear a great comparison between art and witchcraft.

Content warning:
None.

King Kong Theory, Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Stéphanie Benson, Grasset, 2006 for the French Version – Serpent’s Tail, 2009, for this English Version.
Genre: one which doesn’t even have a name. One I don’t like to label. But if I really had to… autofictional-political essay?

French feministo-punk Virginie Despentes tells us a bit more about her life and the violence she had to face as a woman. She tells us a lot about how she wanted to feel better, and how porn, feminism, prostitution and art have helped her. It’s about censorship, self-censorship, lack of self-confidence and gender stereotypes.

king kong theory

Why read this book?
– Because you’re a woman.
– Because you’re a man.
– Because you’re neither of those.
– Because it’s the most powerful essay of all times.
– Because Virginie Despentes is a great, amazing woman that I’ll admire and love until death.
– Because you want to read something unconventional about sexual violence and what it means to be on the wrong side of gender binarism.
– Because you’re tired of patriarchy and all the stupid and dangerous stuff it led you to do.
– Because you’re angry at society and people who hurt you, and you’ve been prevented from expressing your anger for too long a time, cause, you know, that’s not ladylike.
– Because if you ever want to know who I admire the most, you’ll have to read both Virginie Despentes and Grisélidis Réal. Now, careful. You’re about to encounter true political sabotage, and it isn’t easy to take. It’s gonna smash you in the face.
– Because you hate sexism as much as you hate racism as much as you hate capitalism.

Content warning:
Don’t even go there… Frankly, if you want to remain on the safe side of reading, you want to make sure you NEVER read King Kong theory, or any text by Despentes for that matter. Contains explicit and true-story based discussions about rape, sexual violence, mental health issues, domination and violence again, slavery, unfair justice, economic exploitation. Stories about non-conformity at large, also.
However, if you do read this book, although it might be challenging, I swear you’ll feel empowered.

To prove my point, let me just quote some of the many wonderful lines of King Kong Theory:

‘I am writing as an ugly one for the ugly ones: the old hags, the dykes, the frigid, the unfucked, the unfuckables, the neurotics, the psychos, for all those girls that don’t get a look-in in the universal market of the consumable chick. I’m making no excuses for myself. I’m not complaining. I would never swap places, because it seems to me that being Virginie Despentes is a more interesting business than anything else going on out there.’ (p. 1)

‘As a girl, I am more King Kong than Kate Moss. I’m the kind of girl you don’t get married to, the kind you don’t have babies with. I am writing as a woman who is always too much of everything – too aggressive, too noisy, too fat, too rough, too hairy, always too masculine, I am told. And yet it’s my virile, masculine qualities that make me more than just any old social misfit. I owe to my very masculinity everything I like about my life, everything that has saved me.’ (p. 3)

‘So I’m writing from here, as one of the left-overs, one of those weirdos, the ones who shave their heads, those who don’t know how to dress, those who worry that they stink, those who have rotten teeth, those who don’t know how to go about things, are never given presents by men, those who’ll fuck anyone who’ll have them, the fat tarts, the skinny sluts, those whose cunts are always dry, those who have big bellies, those who would rather be men, those who behave as if they were men, those who think they’re porn queens, who don’t give a damn about guys but who are interested in their girlfriends, the ones with big arses and thick, dark body hair they don’t wax, brutish, noisy women, who destroy everything that gets in their way, those who don’t like perfume shops, whose red lipstick is too red, who haven’t got the figure to dress like hookers and yet desperately want to, women who want to wear men’s clothes and a beard in the street, those who want to show it all, those whose shyness is due to their hang-ups, those who don’t know how to say no, those who are locked up in order to be controlled, women who are scary, pitiful ones, women who don’t turn men on, those with flabby skin and a face full of wrinkles, those who dream of plastic surgery, of liposuction, of having their nose broken so it can be reset but can’t afford it, women who look like the back of a bus, those who can rely only on themselves for protection, who don’t know how to comfort others, who couldn’t care less about their kids, those who like to get drunk in bars and collapse on the floor, women who don’t behave; and in the same vein, while I’m at it, I’m writing for men who don’t want to protect, men who would like to be protective but don’t know where to start, men who don’t know how to fight, those who cry easily, those who aren’t ambitious, competitive, well-hung or aggressive, men who are fearful, timid, vulnerable, men who prefer looking after their home to going out to work, men who are fragile, bald, too poor to be attractive, men who’d like to be fucked, men who don’t want to be counted on, men who are scared to be alone at night.’ (pp. 3-5)
Life in Rewind, by Terry Weible Murphy with Edward E. Zine and Michael A. Jenike M.D., HarperTrue, 2009.
Genre: biography/true story.
life in rewind

Ed is suffering from very severe OCD. Sadly, due to his condition, he can no longer live a normal life. Even going out of his bedroom can take hours. It also causes extreme pain. Ed meets Dr Michael Jenike, and thanks to his supportive interest and to Ed’s own inner strength, he will manage to fight against his OCD.

Why read this book?
– Because you can’t see how hard having OCD could be. You’d like to know how OCD can impact daily activities.
– Because you suffer or have suffered from extremely severe OCD, and think there’s nothing for you to do, you’re just incurably crazy.
– Because what OCD led you to do made you feel ashamed many times…
– Because you don’t believe in psychological support. Or because you’re about to benefit from such support. Or because you think that being unable to face psychological problems on your own means that you’re weak. (It doesn’t.)

Content warning:
This book offers perspectives on death, grief and loneliness. Descriptions of extreme OCD behaviours are also discussed at great length.

Mad Girl: A Happy Life with a Mixed-Up Mind, by Bryony Gordon, Headline, 2016.
Genre: memoir
Mad Girl Bryony Gordon Cover

Why read this book?
– Because it is the bravest account I’ve ever read about morbid obsessions and the fear of causing harm. It will reassure and liberate many OCD sufferers. It dares to show the irrational rationality behind rituals and obsessions, and will be helpful to anyone who wants to better understand why people can suffer so much from what seems perfectly improbable: “In an attempt to prove to myself that I am not a potential killer, I try to imagine killing someone. […] My body’s reaction is always the same – pure, unadulterated horror. But any relief at this horror is short-lived, replaced almost instantly by different questions, such as surely the very act of trying to imagine killing someone is enough to make me a potential killer? […]
When I masturbate, which given I am a seventeen-year-old girl, is often, terrible images flash into my head unbidden – images of children playing in parks, or walking to school. It is horrific, a real passion killer. ‘I only like GROWN ADULTS’ I will chant for the next hour, in order to convince the world that as well as not being a psychotic murderer, I am also not a paedophile.” (p.55)
– Because the book still manages to be uplifting and fun, even if the stories told can be extremely sad.
– Because it talks about so many other issues we need to talk about, including depression, eating disorders, fatphobia, domestic violence, perinatal depression and OCD, lack of self-esteem, gender stereotypes.
– Because it emphasizes the need to share your pain: you are not alone, and never should be. If there’s no friend, relative or colleague you can trust, please don’t forget they are associations and charities to help you (see end of book).
– Because in the UK the need for better mental health care is urgent.
– Because it shows you the rituals and magical thinking associated with OCD in great depth: “Tics start to overtake me. For some reason – and reader, I still don’t understand this, almost twenty years on – I have to say my happy words if I drop something on the floor. I have to say them when I am plucking my eyebrows and when I go up the first three steps of the staircase from the landing. I have to say them when I touch my pillow and when my fingers come into contact with the latch on the garage door. All of these actions, I must repeat again and again, the happy words going through my head all along, just to ensure I get everything right because otherwise… what, exactly?” (pp. 54-55)
– Because in the epilogue, the author talks about a lesser-discussed connection between mental illness and writing. We like to see writing as therapeutic and cathartic, but Bryony Gordon tells a different -yet I’m sure quite common- story: “While writing this book, I wasn’t really looking after myself. I’m not sure anyone really looks after themselves while writing a book, which is silly, really, given it is the writer’s equivalent of taking part in a marathon. […] And so it was that as soon as I had finished it, I got sick again. Who knew that writing a book about mental illness might make you, um, mentally ill?” (pp. 295-296) As a writer, I think this is an extremely helpful piece of advice – or at least a helpful warning. Don’t go through it alone. Make sure there’s somebody you can talk to. Writing – and writing about mental health in particular – is hard work.

Content warning: scenes of domestic abuse. Also, because the book explores morbid obsessions and the fear of causing harm, be prepared to read extensive paragraphs about the fear of child molestation and sexual violence. However, it seems impossible to be frank and honest on this topic without such descriptions. Breaking through the stigma and shame felt by sufferers requires to face such thoughts, and acknowledge that we’re not alone.

The Man Who Couldn’t Stop: OCD, and the True Story of a Life Lost in Thought by David Adam, Picador, 2014.
Genre: Memoir. The author of this book has greatly suffered from his fear of contamination, in particular his fear to catch AIDS.

the man who couldn't stop David Adam

Why read this book?
– Because OCD can be seen as just a weird behaviour. It’s not. It is disabling and causes severe pain.
– To be reminded that you’re not alone: ‘OCD is the fourth most common mental disorder after the big three – depression, substance abuse and anxiety. OCD is twice as common as autism and schizophrenia. The World Health Organization has ranked OCD as the tenth most disabling medical condition. Its impact on quality of life has been judged more severe than diabetes. But people with OCD typically wait a decade or more before they seek help.’ (p. 9)
– Because even though it focuses on the writer’s fear of contamination, there are also many developments of other common symptoms: fear of causing harm, need for patterns and symmetry, religious and blasphemous thoughts, etc.
– To discover the ‘Arnold Scharzwenegger effect’: ‘Nobody gets obsessed by thoughts that they will be too nice to people, or by urges to give all their money away to a tramp. People do not complain to psychologists of intrusive thoughts of pushing someone with the build of a heavyweight boxer under a subway train. Intrusive thoughts bother us because the usual imagined victims are the small and the weak, the puny and the vulnerable; the child and the little old lady. It’s what psychologists label the Arnold Schwarzenegger effect.’ (p. 23) Other discoveries you’ll make include the meaning of ‘taphephobia’ = the fear of being buried alive (p. 43), that of the ‘Rapunzel syndrome’ (p. 90): when sufferers of trichotillomania eat their hair, which creates hair balls in the stomach which develop as they ‘loop down into the intestinal tract’. You’ll also learn about the ‘skin-picking disorder’ (p. 90), ‘postnatal OCD’(p. 128) or the ‘thought-action fusion’ (p. 118), where one believes than to think about something is as bad as doing it. It’d be surprising if you don’t learn a lot from this book…
– If you didn’t know that vampires, in Folkore from Eastern Europe, suffer from OCD: they are ‘compelled to count scattered objects. Frightened people would sprinkle grain and seeds around graveyards to keep the undead busy.’ (note p. 30) So you see, it’s not just us humans, and that is reassuring.
– To see the overlap and/or differences between OCD and other conditions: phobias and Body Dismorphic Disorder, for instance.
– To see the connections between religion and OCD. (particularly with thought-action fusion)
– If you’re not against reading a bit of Freud.
– To understand apparent contradictions: ‘Visit the home of someone with OCPD [obsessive-compulsive personality disorder] and not a chair or rug will be out of place. Yet people with OCD whose compulsions demand that they clean often restrict the practice to a specific room. OCD patients can have spotless toilets that sparkle with bleach next to a filthy kitchen caked with months-old food. An OCD washer who cleans his hands 200-odd times a day can wear the same underwear for weeks.’ (pp. 64-65) These contradictions are also noticeable in the aforementioned movie Aviator.
– To understand the difference between not remembering and not being sure that your memories are true. And to understand that OCD is the result of altered perception. (looking at a light and not knowing for use if it is on or off)
– Because it’s also important to bear in mind all terrible experiments which have been made in the name of science, for instance trying to ‘cure’ homosexuals with conditioning and aversion therapy. Brainwashing was feared, and the ethics of behavourial psychology questioned.
– To discover a few people who’ve publicly said they suffered from OCD, for example Conservative MP Charles Walker.

Content warning:
None. This book is more likely to make you feel relieved, both due to acknowledgment (‘I’m not the only one’!) and the useful information provided.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks, Picador, 2015 – first published in 1985.
Genre: Collection of stories of patients suffering from neurological disorder, written from a doctor’s perspective.

the man who mistook his wife for a hat

The book is divided into three parts: Losses, Excesses, Transports, and The World of the Simple. There are 24 stories/chapters in total.

Why read this book?
– Because it’s become a classic – or as capitalism puts it: a best-seller.
– If you’re very rational, and like to talk about mental health issues from a very clinical – chemical even, perspective.
– If you’re interested in medical stories which read just as well as short stories – no deep knowledge of medicine required.
– If the human mind’s complexity scares you, and would like to become more familiar with such mystery, especially memory and hallucinations.
– If the human mind’s complexity doesn’t scare you, and you’d like to go even further in your understanding of what we call a functioning brain.
– Because you’re interested in psychiatry, psychology, madness and all related subjects.
– Because you’re fascinated by the effect of medical drugs on the mind. For instance: ‘Asked to draw a tree, the Parkinsonian tends to draw a small, meagre thing, stunted, impoverished, a bare winter-tree with no foliage at all. As he ‘warms up’, ‘comes to’, is animated by L-Dopa, so the tree acquires vigour, life, imagination – and foliage. If he becomes too excited, high, on L-Dopa, the tree may acquire a fantastic ornateness and exuberance, exploding with a florescence of new branches and foliage with little arabesques, curlicues, and what-not, until finally its original form is completely lost beneath this enormous, this baroque, elaboration.’ (pp. 111-113)
– If you wonder what the relation could be between perception, neurology and art.
– Because it makes us realise that we focus on what’s lacking more than what we have: ‘We paid far too much attention to the defects of our patients, as Rebecca was the first to tell me, and far too little to what was intact or preserved. To use another piece of jargon, we were far too concerned with “defectology”, and far too little with “narratology”, the neglected and needed science of the concrete.’ (p. 193)
– Because, as a sufferer from OCD, I loved these sentences from chapter ‘The Twins’: ‘They see, directly, a universe and heaven of numbers. And this, however singular, however bizarre – but what right have we to call it ‘pathological’? – provides a singular self-sufficiency and serenity to their lives, and one which it might be tragic to interfere with, or break.’ (p. 219)
– Just because the use of prepositions in this sentence is wonderful [about a woman mirroring everyone’s expression in the street, during an observation of ‘street-neurology’]: ‘The woman not only took on, and took in, the features of countless people, she took them off. Every mirroring was also a parody, a mocking, an exaggeration in itself no less convulsive than intentional’ (p. 129) my mother tongue doesn’t allow such play on in, on and off, so allow me to highlight here the wonders of English.

Content warning: However supportive doctors can be – this one in particular – it can still prove quite difficult to read patients’ accounts from a purely medical perspective, when we have developed critical views on psychiatry, madness and deviance. It questions our right to deem someone ‘suitable’ or ‘unsuitable’ for society, fit or not for work and daily autonomous life – as one of the quote aforementioned suggested.

The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, by Robin Sharma, HarperElement, 2004.
Genre: fictional self-help book and philosophic tale

The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari Robin Sharma

Why read this book?
– Because you find self-help books and workbooks boring, but you love novels.
– Because you’re a fan of Paulo Coehlo’s writing – Paulo Coehlo endorsed the book, saying that it was ‘A captivating story that teaches as it delights’.
– Because you love the subtitle: ‘A Spiritual Fable about Fulfilling Your Dreams and Reaching Your Destiny’.
– Because you work too much.
– Because you’re almost burned out but don’t know what to do about it, since you’re scared you are essentially your work.
– Because you want to live a better life, but you don’t really know what that means for you: ‘People spend their whole lives dreaming of becoming happier, living with more vitality and having an abundance of passion. Yet they do not see the importance of taking even ten minutes a month to write out their goals and to think deeply about the meaning of their lives, their Dharma. Goal-setting will make your life mqgnificent.’ (p.80)
– Because you’re too deep into long-life goals to enjoy the present moment. As the character Julian would say in the book: ‘ “never put off happiness for the sake of achievement. Never put off the things that are important for your well-being and satisfaction to a later time. Today is the day to live fully, not when you win the lottery or when you retire. Never put off living!” ‘ (p. 184)

My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread and the Search for Peace of Mind by Scott Stossel, William Heinemann, 2014.
Genre: Scientific-results-based memoir

my-age-of-anxiety-by-scott-stossel
Why read this book?
– If you want to know more about emetophobia (the fear of vomiting). The author suffers from it and explores in great details this little-known -yet widely spread- condition.
– If you like writing based on evidence and facts: Scott Stossel pays particular attention to justifying any argument with appropriate study results.
– If you’re interested in pharmacology. The book describes possible medication at great length, and discusses the findings which have led these options to be either reinforced or given up.
– If you’re not against evolutionary biology and animal testing, on which many studies referenced here have been based (for instance the rather cruel separation experiments on infant monkeys).
– If you’re interested in a range of anxiety disorders.
– If you’re interested in arguments such as the one between Freudians and behaviorists.
– If, moving away from the behaviorist theory, you believe that anxiety could be genetically codified: ‘If extreme anxiety is owed to genetic anomalies, should it be any more shameful than multiple sclerosis or cystic fibrosis or black hair, all diseases or traits encoded by the genes?’ (p. 271)
– Some bits can particularly resonate with you, such as this one about the author’s great-grandfather’s case, who was a successful, yet severely anxious academic: ‘How did this happen? This was a man who had manifestly thrived in his professional and family life. He had had tenure at Harvard for decades, had written a well-used political science textbook, and had been the academic dean of the college for many years. He had been married for thirty-two years. He enjoyed an active social-life as a modest grandee of the Cambridge scene and often presided over morning chapel services for undergraduates. A father, a grandfather, a Harvard professor and dean, a member in good standing of the community-he had all the outward trappings of success, stability, and happiness. Yet inwardly he was crumbling.’ (p. 285)

Content warning: Some pages may be difficult to read for people living with emetophobia, as the author goes on to explain, sometimes graphically, how he tried to address his own phobia.

Content warning: None.
My Feelings, illustrated by Sarah Jennings, Bloomsbury, 2016.
Genre: Board Book

my feelings sarah jennings

Why read this book?
– If you want to explain feelings to very young children, and to reassure them that it’s okay to feel them.
– If you don’t want to only talk about sad things! Emotions covered here include ‘happy’, ‘sad’, ‘worried’, ‘grumpy’, ‘excited’,’scared’, ‘shy’ – because we should also talk about how to enjoy being happy, for instance! It’s not all about coping strategies.
– If you want very simple definitions for your children to understand how they feel: ‘You are grumpy when you get easily annoyed’, for instance (with a funny cat drawing too, because you always need cats!)
– If you don’t know how to explain to children how grown-ups sometimes feel, too.
– If you want to give them strategies to cope with these feelings. For instance, on the ‘When you feel sad… or worried…’double page, it’s recommended that you: ‘Dance’, ‘Have a cake daydream’, ‘Take deep breaths’, and ‘Tell someone’.

Content warning: None!
Probably Nothing: A diary of not-your-average nine months, by Matilda Tristram, Viking, 2014.
Genre: autobiographical graphic novel

probably nothing

The author is pregnant when she learns she has cancer. She describes, through short texts and pictures, what these months have felt like.

Why read this book?
– Because you prefer books with pictures.
– Because you’ve suffered – or are still suffering from cancer, and would like to read someone who clearly understand what that means.
– Because you want to hear someone giving you hope, but also frankly saying when things are shit. If you too are upset, sad and hurt when undergoing treatment. Not just upset by the sickness and the treatment, but by annoying people, bad food, cancer euphemisms and metaphors, chemo, pills and pregnancy, anxiety, and just life in general.
– Because you’d like to read a memoir, but are not a big reader. Because you like being able to read just a few strips at a time.
– Because you like diaries. Because you want to start one.
– Because you don’t know (I didn’t) that carageenan – found in non-dairy milk alternatives, ice cream, cream cheese, etc. – gives mice colon cancer.
– Because of this sentence: ‘Seeing people enjoying breakfast together and not having to deal with cancer makes me cry.’
– Or that one: ‘People often write that they don’t know what to say. I don’t really know what to say either apart from ‘Yes, it’s shit, isn’t it?’’

Content warning: I don’t think so.

Reasons to Stay Alive, by Matt Haig, Canongate, 2015.
Genre: A memoir on depression

reasons to stay alive matt haig

This book does what it says in the first chapter : it ‘lessen[s] the stigma’, and it ‘convince[s] people that the bottom of the valley never provides the clearest view. […] Time heals. The tunnel does have light at the end of it, even if we aren’t able to see it.’ (p. 3)

Why read this book?
– Because you’re thinking: ‘yeah, okay, but no one has experienced exactly the same pain as the one I am experiencing right now’. Like the author says: ‘Depression looks different to everyone. Pain is felt in different ways, to different degrees, and provokes different responses. That said, if books had to replicate our exact experience of the world to be useful, the only books worth reading would be written by ourselves.’ (p. 4)
– Because if you don’t know anything about depression, maybe you’ll understand why people have suicidal thoughts, and yet do not necessarily act on them: ‘I wanted to be dead. No. That’s not quite right. I didn’t want to be dead, I just didn’t want to be alive. Death was something that scared me. And death only happens to people who have been living. There were infinitely more people who had never been alive. I wanted to be one of those people. That old classic wish. To never have been born.’ (p. 13)
– Because you’re a man, and/or are interested in knowing more facts about men and depression: ‘Suicide is the leading cause of death among men under the age of thirty-five. […] Worldwide, men are over three times more likely to kill themselves than women.’ (p. 56) On the other hand, ‘Twice as many women as men will suffer a serious bout of depression in their lives.’ (p. 56) Reflecting on gender also allows for particularly striking remarks: ‘I had never been one of those males who were scared of tears. I’d been a Cure fan, for God’s sake. I’d been emo before it was a term. Yet weirdly, depression didn’t make me cry that often, considering how bad it was. I think it was the surreal nature of what I was feeling. The distance. Tears were a kind of language and I felt all language was far away from me.’ (p. 59) On gender and depression, see also the section or chapter ‘Boys Don’t Cry’. This book doesn’t really offer answers, but at least it formulates questions we have to address.
– Because there are lists. Lists of symptoms, warning signs (I read that one several time: ‘psychomotor retardation’, meaning ‘slow movements and slow speech’ – p. 91), pieces of advice, and of course, a list of reasons to stay alive. This section in particular can be really inspiring, and generate optimism.
– Because you have a resistant approach to medication and pills. This is also the author’s point of view. He says for instance that while we have thought for a long time that working on serotonin levels would help, maybe it isn’t the case, or at least it doesn’t suffice.
– Because you’d like to read a book on depression which doesn’t discuss cognitive behavioural therapy (the author writes that he has never tried CBT). Likewise, if you want to keep thoughts about meditation, yoga and mindfulness to a minimum – they are mentioned, but not at great length – then this is probably the right book for you.
– Because you want to understand why, even though you’re doing a lot less when you’re depressed, those days can still appear as the most intensely lived of your life.
– Because it shows how you can help yourself not by changing the way you think, but by benefiting from your frame of mind: ‘Nothing much had changed. Nothing makes you feel smaller, more trivial, than such a vast transformation inside your own mind while the world carries on, oblivious. Yet nothing is more freeing. To accept your smallness in the world.’ (p. 247)
– Because it provides a short and just-detailed-enough list of further reading.

Before I go, let me just quote this piece of advice that the author gives us: ‘Don’t worry about the time you lose to despair. The time you will have afterwards has just doubled its value.’ (p. 252)

Content warning :
None. Start reading now, seriously.
Scrubs, season 3, episode 12
Genre : Humour. Sitcom depicting life and work in a hospital.

scrubs season 3

This episode focuses on the temporary visit of Dr Kevin Casey, performed by Michael J. Fox. Dr Casey is a brilliant surgeon who suffers from severe OCD.

Why see this episode?
– Because Scrubs is fun.
– Because Michael J. Fox is a great actor, and he made us smile nostalgically each time someone says: “back to”, or “future”.
– Because it proves it possible to depict with acute sincerity the pain, irrationality and stigmatisation of such troubles, in only 20 minutes.
– Because the overall discourse of this episode is very inclusive. Of course OCD is strange seen from the outside, but people who suffer from it are the first to be hurt by it – and to know they look strange. These people too are trying their best to live a normal life. And, if they can, to do what they’re good at.

Content warning : checking and fear of contamination are the two main components of OCD depicted there. Anxiety triggered in the spectator would probably depend on the similarities between their troubles and what appears on the screen. Personally, for these reasons, I found particularly poignant the scene with a light switch and scenes when Dr Casey enters a building. This TV show illustrates it simply, but in real time.

Ten Steps to Positive Living: Second Edition, by Dr Windy Dryden, Sheldon Press, 2014 (First edition 1994).
Genre : Straightforward self-help book.

ten steps to positive living Windy Dryden

Why read this book?
– If you find structure reassuring. Here, you’ve got what’s promised in the title: ten chapters – each one being a step to living a better life. Each chapter are only a few pages, so it’s also worth noting that you never feel lost in the book. This seems crucial when suffering from mental health issues.
– Because the author’s approach to teaching you wisdom is both acknowledged and tackled in a very productive way: at the end of the few first chapters, she writes two ‘lectures’ you could deliver to children. One is healthy, the other is not. It’s very powerful to see things summed up so clearly and concisely, and you don’t need external help to identify what would be best for someone…
– Because apparently, the book is a popular introduction to ‘Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT)’ (p. xi)
– Because you can’t distinguish between responsibility and blame (see pp. 4-5)
– Because you want to move from rigid beliefs, which are causing you harm, to more flexible beliefs.
– Because you’d like to understand how much accepting reality differs from resignation. And here I’ll quote a powerful extract: ‘Whenever I talk about accepting reality, people mistakenly think I am encouraging them to resign themselves to reality. However, this is far from what I mean. “Resignation” implies that there is little or nothing that you can do to change what exists. Therefore, if you are feeling resigned to a situation, you do not make the effort to change it, with the result that the situation does not change. So let me make it crystal clear that I am not encouraging you to resign yourself to life’s adversities and I do not wish to discourage you from taking constructive action – far from it. By accepting reality, I mean that you acknowledge that a situation exists, because all the conditions are in place for it to exist, and that you also make constructive attempts to change these conditions and thereby to change the situation.’ (p. 13)
– Because you don’t see how developing greater tolerance to discomfort is key to achieving all of your goals, both short-term and long term (jump to p. 23)
– Because you’d like to identify your thinking distortions (black-and-white thinking, mind reading, fortune telling, personalization etc. See pp. 65-69 in particular)

Content warning :
None.

Tidy, by Emily Gravett, Two Hoots, 2016.
Genre : Picture book.

Tidy by Emily Gravett

Why read this book?
– If you suffer from OCD relating to cleaning and tidying.
– Because it’s never too early to encourage children not to feel over-guilty about a bit of mess, and to talk about the anxiety it generates.
– therefore, it seems to go against parenting most famous rule (‘Tidy your room!’) but actually, it’s great caring parenting to consider alternative points of views.
– Because it’s very simple, and yet as great children’s literature always does, it contains an infinity of layers: philosophical, ethical, environmental, etc. without being moralistic or patronising.
– Because it’s a sad, but powerful image, that people living with this kind of OCD are trying to fight life itself.
– Because the main character is a badger!!

Content warning :
None.

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