Why I read memoirs about mental illness
©nuvolanevicata / Adobe Stock
Why I read memoirs about mental illness
At the age of 13, my best friend sat me down in the cafeteria at school to explain to me why she had been missing so much class time. The conversation that followed permanently altered my naïve perspective of the world. My friend told me that she had been diagnosed with a severe anxiety disorder and Asperger Syndrome a few months earlier. I had never heard of Asperger Syndrome or anxiety disorders before.1
I did a Google search for anxiety disorders and Asperger Syndrome, as well as to look up the medication she told me she was on. I was trying to find something – anything – to read that might help me to better understand what she was experiencing. While knee-deep into my search, I stumbled across the book Prozac Nation, a memoir about mental illness by Elizabeth Wurtzel, which I then borrowed from the library. Once I started this book, it proved nearly impossible to put down. I was moved by the way Wurtzel described her experience dealing with depression and navigating her mental health recovery. Although this book was also made into a film, which I saw a few years later, I didn’t find it nearly as powerful as the written memoir.
As I got older and refined my taste in reading, I started to realize that books, particularly memoirs and novels, are so much more powerful for me than when the same story is told as a film – good writing is able to balance immersing the reader in an emotional experience, as well as describing the experience itself, far better than any film. Films are not as effective in balancing both ‘showing’ and ‘telling,’ tending to rely more on the former.
Reading Prozac Nation opened a new chapter in my experience with reading because it introduced me to a genre of books that soon became my favorite genre: memoirs about mental illness. I have since read many memoirs about mental illness and mental health recovery, as well as various health and healing memoirs from the perspective of a range of different healthcare providers. Reading memoirs about mental illness and mental health has been an eye-opening experience because these true stories allow me to connect with people and help me to develop my empathy and compassion skills. For example, reading Prozac Nation, considered one of the most powerful and poignant memoirs about mental illness, enabled me to connect with my best friend during a time in her life when she was struggling with her mental health.
Reading at an early age also gave me an opportunity to learn about new experiences and feel things I otherwise might not have been able to at the time. In addition to memoirs about mental health recovery, reading the memoirs written by healthcare professionals nurtured my passion for health and healing. They helped me experience what it is like to be in a healthcare provider’s shoes and to be relieving human suffering daily. I too started to feel a strong desire to understand health and healing, not just from the perspective of patients, but also from the perspective of those treating them.
Reading memoirs about mental illness and wellness helped me understand my best friend’s struggles as well as providing insight into my own mental health challenges. Reading memoirs about mental health by people who have recovered from mental illness gave me ideas and tools for my own mental health recovery. These mental health memoirs allowed me to see life from the perspective of individuals who had already recovered, giving me hope, inspiration, strength, and courage.
Reading books was a way for me to become exposed to new places, situations, and perspectives, as well as helping me to develop insight into how the world works – reading is extremely useful for children given how highly neuroplastic their brains are. Books fulfill children by ensuring they are able to acquire as many positive new experiences as possible, providing them with valuable knowledge to help shape them into compassionate, thoughtful, and well-rounded adults.
Given how much it helped engage my mind and reduce stress in other areas of my life, reading massively improved my emotional resilience over the years. When there were stressors in my life that I can’t control, reading became a way to distract myself from the harsh realities of the world. In my pre-teen and early teen years, I devoured Nancy Drew mysteries with my best friend – these stories were a great way to engage my mind in analytic thinking and take my mind off external stressors. Reading about problems and struggles that other people face, whether in memoirs about health and healing or Nancy Drew fighting for her life, has helped me to put my own troubles into perspective. Reading these inspiring stories helped to instill hope in me that no problem is ever entirely insurmountable.
Reading Nancy Drew books, just like reading memoirs about mental health recovery or working in healthcare, exposed me to individuals who outwitted danger and fear with the help of others. Just as Nancy Drew succeeds with the help of her two best friends, individuals recovering from mental illness also need a robust support system. This support system includes psychiatrists, psychologists, friends, and family. Due to my own experiences as a child and young adult, I was subconsciously drawn to themes that had to do with helping others. These seemingly unconnected genres (mystery stories and self-help books/memoirs) were emotionally comforting and having them in common with my best friend allowed us to connect and develop our friendship.
Another capability that an early taste for reading allowed me to develop was my vocabulary and communication skills. Honing my language skills through reading helped me become more articulate. I learned to effectively convey my thoughts in a way that is engaging and mentally stimulating for the listener. This, in turn, shaped my conversation skills and my ability to connect with others. In addition, the expanded vocabulary I acquired through reading allowed me to become a better writer, refining my grammar and syntax as well as my overall word choices.
When the mind is engaged in the plot of a story, this is a valuable exercise in using short-term memory and concentration to maintain a flexible understanding of the plotline, characters, and themes. In this way, reading, writing, and telling stories improved my memory and concentration, cognitive skills that are essential in an academic setting. I am of the firm belief that my interest and ability to do well in an academic setting is in part due to my avid reading throughout my childhood and adolescence.
Beyond reading memoirs about mental illness, reading has also been a way for me to improve my self-esteem and confidence. It helps me to acquire knowledge about topics that interest me. Whenever I have questions or doubts about an issue or want to learn more about a particular subject, I turn to reading. Reading puts me in a better position to pass on knowledge to others, opening new gateways for communication and socializing as well as improving my confidence in social settings. No other activity confers benefits, both cognitive and emotional, to the same extent that reading does. Reading even helped me develop my discipline, because it requires much more patience than watching television, for instance, where events unfold almost instantaneously.
Overall, reading, writing, and telling stories throughout my childhood and adolescence allowed me to develop into the woman I am today. Reading nurtured my imagination, helped me connect with those around me, broadened my horizons, and helped me improve many of my cognitive skills. Memory, concentration, logic, analytic thinking, communication, and my vocabulary are all cognitive capabilities I have refined through reading. As a psychiatric researcher and healthcare provider, a commitment to reading memoirs about mental health recovery from the perspective of patients, as well as memoirs written by health professionals, has helped me nurture and hone my empathy and compassion. This in turn has helped make me a more caring, thoughtful, inquisitive, and resilient human being.
Although I was subconsciously drawn to seemingly very different genres – mysteries, and memoirs – they both helped me (in similar ways) to cope with my own mental health struggles. Most importantly, they helped me to recognize and value human connection. In the future, I feel that the skills I acquired through reading books about health and healing during my formative years will help me to be a better friend, a better healthcare provider, and a healthier person overall.
Athena Milios is a psychiatric researcher based in Halifax, Nova Scotia