From Both Sides of the Couch

A therapist reflects on her time with patients, and her time as a patient.

For the Love of Books: Extraordinary Stories

Memoirs written by people with mental illness help us to feel less alone.

I recently stumbled across an amazing series of articles in The New York Times which was published in 2011 (I just got an online subscription to the paper) titled “Lives Restored.” It is a five-part series profiling people who are functioning normally despite severe mental illness and have chosen to speak out about their struggles. These articles are honest portrayals of people dealing with different aspects of mental illness and aid in reducing the stigma because they reach such a wide and varied audience.

The link to these articles is:

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/science/lives-restored-series....

Throughout the many years of my illness I have read memoirs written by people suffering with all types of mental illness. These stories of men and women who face similar — and sometimes not so similar — challenges helped me to feel that I was not as alone in my struggle. When I have spent long periods of time isolated, the books became my friends. The crack I heard when I opened the spine for the first time, inhaling the scent of freshly printed ink, feeling the grain of the paper between my fingers was a ritual that served to calm me.

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When I was unable to concentrate I would pick up a well-worn book and read the same narrative over again. I have books I have read 15 or 20 times. It didn’t matter that I knew by heart what would happen on page 67 or at the end — I found the familiarity comforting, especially in times of crisis.

My affinity for these memoirs started with William Styron’s “Darkness Visible” which was published in 1990. My copy has an inscription from a person named Sally. I don’t know who she is. From what the note says, the best that I can surmise is that I gave her the article by William Styron that was published in Vanity Fair — the article that inspired the book and in return, she gave me the book as a gift. I believe that I can’t remember who she is because of all the electroconvulsive therapy I have had. I call people who have been erased from my memory from the ECT, my “ECT ghosts.”

I read this slim volume and was mesmerized for its sentiments echoed the despair I was feeling. I read it and re-read it, at times running my fingertips over the blackness of the ink. I was inspired to write Mr. Styron and tell him how he was able to put into words the agony that I was feeling.

Mr. Styron responded to my letter with a postcard which read:

        Thank you for your kind letter about Darkness Visible . I’m glad my little book struck such a sympathetic chord in you and may have helped a little bit in your recovery — which I trust is both imminent and complete. Good luck to you.

Sincerely

William Styron

What a gift Mr. Styron presented to me when he sent me that postcard adorned with his elegant handwriting. Although my recovery was far from imminent, he sparked in me the desire to continue to read memoirs of others — some well known and some not — who have fought the symptoms of mental illness.

I have difficulty convincing my patients to read other people’s stories of their challenges with psychiatric illness. I try to convey the idea that it might help them see that others have struggled with the similar issues that they have. The narrators in the book have come to terms with their symptoms usually through a combination of psychotherapy and medication and many have gone on to lead full productive lives. I say to them that I feel that the particular book I am going to recommend will be an inspiration and they may be surprised how much they find it will resonate with them.

They dutifully take down the title and the author and I rarely hear about it again. I understand that often it may be difficult for them to concentrate and my patients often can’t afford to purchase the book, so I recommend that they use the library (a wonderful resource in itself).

I can only hope that the piece of paper on which they scribbled down the name of the book is tucked away in a pocket or a purse somewhere and at some point, when they are ready, they will pull it out and read it. Then they will say to themselves, Oh yeah, now I get it. This is why Gerri wanted me to read this book.

I’m pleased to share some of my favorite titles and authors with you (in no particular order):

Obviously 1) Darkness Visible by William Styron

 2) An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison

3) Appetites by Carolyn Knapp

4) Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp

5) I’m Dancing As Fast As I Can by Barbara Gordon

6) Undercurrents: A Therapist’s Reckoning With Her Own Depression

      by Martha Manning

7) Wasted: a memoir of anorexia and bulimia by Marya Hornbacher

8) Life Inside by Mindy Lewis

9) Brave Girl Eating by Harriet Brown

10) The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn R. Saks

11) Hurry Down Sunshine by Michael Greenberg

12) Beautiful Boy by David Sheff

 

All these authors have given us gifts — the gift of sharing with us their story or the story of someone whom they love. I hope you will gain the same insight and inspiration that I have from these paper and ink treasures.

Gerri Luce is a licensed clinical social worker who publishes under a pseudonym.

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