Books About Mental Illness are Important, Especially if You Have One
Emery Lord’s When We Collided, a 2016 YA contemporary novel about a girl with bipolar's summer of love, was one of my most highly anticipated reads about a year and a half ago.
I’d never read any of Lord’s books, and was just really diving into my young adult fiction obsession, but I had heard it was a book about mental illness, and that spoke to me. Plus, the cover is stunning!
So when it showed up under the tree at Christmas that year, I was super excited. I read it over the course of one week, and as brutal as its descriptions of the way Vivi’s mental illness works in her brain, I adored it.
“Emery Lord painted the picture of bipolar and love in such real, such delicate and lovely strokes that it couldn't hurt me, it could only make me feel in such a way,” I said in the Goodreads review I gave the book.
I mentioned in that same review that my mother had worried about me reading the book; in fact, more than a year later she told me more about that worry. She explained that the book had affected her deeply when she read it, and not in a good way. It almost seemed to make her feel ill, in fact.
It’s similar to something I noticed a few weeks later. I wrote a blog post entitled “I’m So Broken,” and it was one of the most honest, vivid and plain heart-cracked-open glimpses I’ve ever given into how my depression makes me feel.
I knew it was a heavy piece, so I edited it and toned it down quite a bit.
Or so I thought.
I was staying with my parents at their home in Italy during that time. My mom came home from a meeting having read the blog post in the car. She walked into my room and was speechless. She lay on the ground. She couldn’t articulate her feelings, other than to give off the impression that she felt physically ill having read my descriptions.
It’s funny, though. That same piece, I had another friend read it. She also lives with a mental illness, and she spoke words of high praise and appreciation.
When We Collided didn’t affect me in the same gut-wrenching manner it affected my mother, who is not mentally ill but loves someone who is.
And the pieces I’ve written don’t affect others who live with mental illness the way it might affect my friends who don’t.
When I read about characters living with a mental illness, be it depression, anxiety, and a possible personality (all three of which I live with), I find freedom. I find representation, and in those moments I know that I am not alone.
More importantly, though, these descriptions of others’ experiences show me that there’s nothing wrong with me. I’m not insane. I’m not making it up. I’m not manipulating the truth and fabricating hurt.
My depression lies to me on the daily. It tells me that I have it so, so bad, and it simultaneously tells me there’s nothing wrong with me. It tells me I’m unfixable, and it says my brokenness is only in my head.
So reading about others’ experiences with the same struggle shines a light of truth. No matter how much our actual lived experiences may differ, we have somewhat similar symptoms, and our brains, they function in parallel ways.
And that’s incredibly comforting. It’s empowering.
Books that show my experiences, they don’t worsen my depression by giving me ideas; those ideas are already there. They don’t trigger a similar reaction, as long as I’m aware of what’s coming and able to prepare myself mentally (which, I could write another whole essay on the importance of trigger warnings for mental health, to be honest).
What they do is they show me I’m not alone. They remind me that I’m not imagining things. And often, like with When We Collided, they show hope—there is a way to find love through depression. There is a way to find joy. To make it work. To survive, thrive even.
That’s why I read books about mental illness. That’s why I write them! Because I was a lost and confused 17-year-old who didn’t know what she was going through. And maybe someday, another lost and confused 17-year-old will pick up a book I wrote, see themselves, and know a measure of peace.
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