9 Books That Capture What It's Like To Live With Mental Illness
Memoirs, fiction, YA — these books show what it's like when your brain seems to be working against you.
For many, the stigma around mental illness is decreasing; we’re opening up more, sharing resources, and rejecting shame. But that's not the case for everyone, and there's still a lot of work to do. Below are some of my favorite books which offer a refreshing perspective on mental health conditions, breaking through the cultural, social, and political barriers that can keep people from speaking openly. A mix of fiction and non-fiction, these books show what it's like when your brain seems to be working against you.
McDermott’s memoir illustrates the devastating effects his bipolar disorder has on those around him. The descriptions of mania are gripping, all-consuming, and so intimate you feel like the pages have absorbed you completely. McDermott is extremely candid about how his disorder tests his relationships, in particular with his mother. However, through years of trial and error McDermott accepts that his illness isn’t going anywhere. Lots of mental health memoirs end on a happy ending but McDermott is honest in saying that his mania and psychosis might return, no matter how stable his life seems. There isn’t a sugar-coated happy ending — it's more a tale of trying your absolute best and learning from mistakes.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs is the sister of Harris Wittels, the comedian, writer and producer who died of a heroin overdose in 2015. Wittels’ memoir sheds light on grief and the devastating ramifications of addiction. While this story is heartbreaking, you can’t help but draw strength from Wachs’s courage and her determination to make sense out of what happened to her brother. The memoir is both enlightening in its descriptions of grief but also in its portrayal of addiction — how short stints in rehab can sometimes feel like a high, and how the “just one more time” mentality is often the thing that kills.
Reading Yiyun Li’s memoir is like having a close friend speak to you in a quiet, soothing voice. Li wrote her memoir over a period of two years while battling depression. While the book is an account of her struggles, including two hospitalizations and attempted suicide, the narrative brings fragmented snapshots together to reveal mediations that are extremely life-affirming. You close the book feeling completely in awe of Li’s strength and determination.
The Incantations of Daniel Johnston is a visceral collaboration between Spanish artist Ricardo Cavolo and author Scott McClanahan. Fans of Daniel Johnston and his lo-fi, enigmatic music will devour this retelling of Johnston’s humble beginnings, his rise to fame, and his personal demons. While the prose appears sparse it delves into the problematic mythologizing of troubled artists and how we are guilty of turning mental health conditions into clichés.
Brandy Colbert’s novel details the difficulty of self-discovery amongst the backdrop of love, loss, and identity crises. Suzette comes back from boarding school to find her brother Lionel, who has bipolar disorder, in desperate need of her support. His condition spirals as Suzette tries to juggle her own conflicting signals of sexuality and desire. The book is extremely honest in its portrayal of mental illness, particularly how it affects sibling relationships, without veering into melodrama. Lionel’s character feels raw and real in his determination that he isn’t defined by his diagnosis.
Colour Me In by Lydia Ruffles is a dream of a novel that focuses on grief, mental illness, and how it affects those who on the surface have it all. When Arlo, a 19-year-old actor, loses his best friend after a horrible accident, the familiar tentacles of depression creep back into his head. He decides to travel to the other side of the world, hoping to outrun his demons, but Ruffles shows the reader how debilitating depression can be — how it can keep you locked in no matter how often you change your surroundings.
Get it from Amazon for $16.91.
Wang’s novel shows the reader what happens when you can no longer balance external expectations with your own happiness. The pressures on Wang’s protagonist cause the boundaries between her sense of self and her Ph.D research to blur as she struggles to contextualize her place in the world. The universe of equations, bar graphs, and quantifiable metrics isn’t free from mental illness — no matter how mapped out a life might seem.
Johnny Ruin is an odyssey of a novel with Jon Bon Jovi at the helm of the narrator’s journey through his own mind. It might sound almost too outlandish to tell you anything real and rooted about mental health but Dalton’s writing delicately explores themes of heartbreak, depression, and stifling versions of masculinity. The narrator’s metaphysical road trip invites the reader to see how he’s unable to fix himself with good intentions alone. Memories and ego cling onto him like claws, and he realizes he must confront his past to move forward.
Get it from Amazon for $19.34.
(Dan Dalton is a former BuzzFeed employee.)
Pan’s novel blends magical realism with a very grounded tale of friendship, hope, and mental illness stigma. When Leigh Chen Sanders loses her mother to suicide she travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time. Here she confronts family secrets, ghosts, and the reality of her mother’s condition. The story also delicately uncovers the complex cultural influences on ideas about life, death, and mental health.
How Not To Fall Apart (TarcherPerigee) is her first book, an honest and relatable handbook for living with anxiety and depression.