Yesterday I read Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan, which is an excellent book and thoroughly recommended. It got me thinking about my predilection for psychiatric memoirs (despite not, in the end, being a psychiatric case history at all – but spoilers, sweetie).
I read a lot of first-person abnormal-psych accounts, and I think I have maybe three main reasons for it.
Firstly, somewhat obviously, in search of kinship. Often when you get several people with mental health problems together, we tell war stories. Therapy courses, hospital stories, destructive behaviours: talking it out is both entertaining and reassuring. Despite feeling very alone in my head, I find it helpful to know that I’m never alone in my illness. When I don’t feel able for friends and sociability, books are always there and they are undemanding in a way that no conversation, even between the closest friends, can be.
Secondly, I find the phenomenon of self-reportage entirely fascinating. You and I may be united under good old 296.30, but your experience could be totally unlike mine. No two depressions are the same; no two depressives are the same. A good writer can convey the destruction involved in the tornado of a depressive episode, but a skilled writer on mental illness can also discuss how their behaviours relate to the diagnostic criteria and how their illness manifests itself.
The need for a bit of inspiration at times is my final reason: it’s good to know you can succeed even with chronic mental illness as your personal albatross. Kay Redfield Jamison is one of my favourite authors. She’s written some of the best mental health writing I’ve ever read – Touched With Fire, on bipolar disorder and creativity, and Night Falls Fast on suicide. She’s a professor and an honourary fellow at several universities, and she’s dealt with bipolar disorder type 1 since she was younger than I am now. Her personal memoir, An Unquiet Mind, shows her to be an amazing lady who’s evolved her own methods of dealing with and fighting her illness.
Oddly, I don’t read an awful lot of depression memoirs. I would probably read more anxiety-related books if there were many (I cried my way through The Woman Who Thought Too Much by Joanne Limburg because she describes the horrible thought-spiral of anxiety disorders better than anything I’d ever seen). Depression, though, seems to cut too close to home. I find stories ending in ‘and I’m fine now!’ trite – and I’m entirely aware that that judgement comes from a keenly felt envy of anyone whose depression cleared up and went away after one or more major episodes, while mine drags on in a horrible dysthymic* malaise that feels like it’s going to last forever. Good writing about depression is a gut-punch to one who knows the state. For instance: I’m currently reading Darkness Visible, by William Styron, and this early section floored me in its stark truth:
The most honest authorities face up squarely to the fact that serious depression is not readily treatable. Unlike, let us say, diabetes, where immediate measures taken to rearrange the body’s adaptation to glucose can dramatically reverse a dangerous process and bring it under control, depression in its major stages possesses no quickly available remedy: failure of alleviation is one of the most distressing factors of the disorder as it reveals itself to the victim, and one that helps situate it squarely in the category of grave diseases.
Sing unto me a new song, Bill, for I fear I know all the bloody words to this one already.
* Dysthymia: a chronic depressive state, often described as ‘low-grade’. Sometimes it’s described as being like a cold as compared to the flu (a major depressive episode). This is rubbish. Dysthymia is to major depression (and cyclothymia to bipolar disorder) what a grindstone is to an avalanche: its nature is insidious and lasting, not sudden and violent, but eventually it wears you away.