I will never forget my experience of reading It’s Kind of a Funny Story for the first time.
At the time, I had had depression for over 2 years. I was cutting. I had survived a suicide attempt a year prior. While I had an amazing group of supportive friends, I felt so very much alone in what I was facing because none of my friends had faced any of the mental health challenges I had faced. (Years later, I found out two of those friends had, but due to the stigma, both kept silent about their own struggles.)
I was just getting back into reading when I read this book. The emotions that Vizzini wrote about for Craig Gilner–they were real. It was unlike anything I had read previously, and for the first time, I felt that someone understood me. At the time, I very rarely bought books, but I bought a copy to reference and read again when I needed to do so. Almost 2 years later in 2013, when I found out that Ned Vizzini died by suicide, I wept. It still upsets me, to be honest. I wrote these words 3 years ago when I found out:
“And I hope to God that when my battle begins again that I will remember you and remember to just breathe in and breathe out, remember that it’s not worth it, and fight. Your death is tragic, and I renew my vow to not make it my end.”
That line I wrote, “when my battle begins again,” gets to me because 1.5 years after I wrote it, I found myself ready to take my own life. I can tell you that I honestly remembered Ned Vizzini’s death and that vow, and that’s part of what kept me fighting for my life. Nearly 2 years after that (aka now), I am still alive, and I have continued to live my vow out.
Reading that book set off a love affair for mental health related books. As it stands, most of the books I read in this category are young adult books. I have found that they often times are the only books that deal with this topic sensitively. With no particular true ranking, here are some of my favorite ones (other than It’s Kind of a Funny Story) and how they’ve personally impacted me.
1. The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner
This book. I cannot begin to describe how important this book has been in 2016. When tragedy falls upon Dill, he responds in a way that I responded in April 2015. Zentner’s writing of Dill’s thoughts and his actions tore my heart out more than the actual tragedy itself did because I had felt every single one of those thoughts. There is one particular scene after the tragedy that really connected with me. Dill experiences some emotions and some actions that utterly wrecked me because it was literally my story and actually pretty much exactly was what I was personally planning in April 2015 when I was stopped in the planning process. While the book never explicitly addresses mental health issues, it is definitely a book that touches upon it. My favorite quotation from this book is: “and if you’re going to live, you might as well do painful, brave, and beautiful things.” That line has become a mantra for me ever since I read The Serpent King and has helped me get back into therapy and begin to take further steps for my mental health care.
2. Girl in Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow
Perhaps one of the most painfully beautiful stories I have read that deals with self-injury. It was the first book I’ve read where the main character’s insurance sucks, a story I know all too well, and where the character has to leave treatment just as the process seems to begin to start to work (another story I know all too well). It was also the first book I’ve read with cutting where the character keeps her mechanism around even when she initially thinks she’s done, just in case. The second time that I stopped cutting, I carried my blade with me for 5 months, just in case. No one has ever understood until I read this book. Additionally, this book examines what exactly “better” means and how recovery is a process that is not a straight line trajectory.
3. The Weight of Zero by Karen Fortunati
This was the first book that I read since It’s Kind of a Funny Story where I got chills because an author was able to convey something that I so deeply felt. In The Weight of Zero, Cath has bipolar disorder. She is waiting for the “great Zero” to return, that feeling of utter hopelessness where suicide seems like the best option. My battle with depression and anxiety is chronic. I have periods where life is livable, and I have periods where my depression becomes too great. I have lived in fear of the day where I (at one point) believed my life would end by my own hand. This book is incredibly realistic, even though my diagnosis is different. Since reading this book, I have gotten back on medication for my depression, and it’s helped tremendously with both my depression and my anxiety. I can honestly say that being on this medication, I no longer live in fear of ending my own life.
4. Phantom Limbs by Paula Garner
Phantom Limbs is a book about grief. You may ask why it’s included in here as grief is a natural part of life. There are, however, some types of grief that are so traumatic that they can either exacerbate an existing mental health issue or can become its own issue. Nearly 2 years ago, my 10 week old nephew died of a brain tumor. The way that he died was very traumatic for me. I couldn’t fall asleep at night replaying his death—or living in terror of another late night phone call that someone else I loved had coded or was going to die. I nearly attempted suicide just over a month after his death. I spent the rest of 2015 wanting to die. Even after nearly 2 years, I still have trouble which is part of the reason why I’m in therapy. In the case of Phantom Limbs, the story begins 3.5 years after Otis’s 3 year old brother died in a way that was traumatizing for multiple people involved. Garner’s decision to have the story be told 3.5 years after the death was so important. It allowed me to know in some way that it’s okay that I’m still grieving as well as to remind myself that seeking professional support in this time is critical.
5. The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kletter
Kletter’s debut novel is one of those rare novels that is just a stunning lyrical debut. While I am quite different from the main character, I can relate to going to college thinking that things may magically change or that a new start would help free me from my past. In both cases, it didn’t work out that way. I cannot actually pinpoint exactly what it was about this book that made it so impactful, but I’m including it anyway. Perhaps it’s one where I remembered that unless the root of the problem eventually gets addressed, sometimes our troubles may keep coming back.
6. Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes
Maguire believes she is bad luck. She has numerous people around her die and a house next door caught on fire. She has been unscathed physically, but she is scarred emotionally. The biggest thing for me that I loved about this book was the relationship that Maguire had with her therapist. At the time that I read this book, I was just getting back into therapy. I had been in therapy on and off for years, and I had a series of therapists who either thought there was nothing wrong with me or who left me as a patient. Needless to say, I was very scared about going back. I was incredibly jealous of Maguire having this seemingly perfect fictional therapist, and yet, it gave me hope that I could find a therapist that would work with me. I did. I have been in therapy now for 9 months, and I’m now down to just monthly visits. I have a really positive relationship with my therapist. This book gave me the hope to keep trying and keep believing that therapy could work for me, even with my past experiences.
7. More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera
Aaron Soto’s father died by suicide. Aaron tried to do the same. This book details the months afterwards and some very life altering events that Aaron still goes through. This book is packed with beautiful quotations like “happiness comes again if you let it” and ” I will do my best to always find the sun in the darkness because my life isn’t one sad ending—it’s a series of endless happy beginnings.” as well as “Sometimes pain is so unmanageable that the idea of spending another day with it seems impossible. Other times pain acts as a compass to help you through the messier tunnels of growing up. But pain can only help you find happiness if you remember it.”
For me, while my story isn’t remotely close to Aaron Soto’s story, this book is proof that books can impact you regardless of how similar to the characters you are. In particular, the ending to this book served as this really deep metaphor for me in terms of how I deal with my pain, how I deal with wanting to cut when those emotions come, and how I handle suicidal thoughts that come whether they are serious or passing. It’s helped in moments where those light suicidal thoughts want to come fluttering in and helping to quickly shut them down rather than feed them. It’s part of the reason why I haven’t had a serious suicidal thought in nearly a year. (Quick disclaimer: light suicidal thoughts are ones where very briefly in passing, the idea comes back, but then I remind myself of every reason why I stay and everything I’m doing to keep getting better. They flee so fast, and if they ever come back to stay, I know my resources to get further help.)
Final thoughts: Books that deal with mental health issues are so important. They have the power to help change lives. They can give readers the strength to reach out and get help, whether for the first time or the 100th time. They can give readers quotations to draw back from and remember in times of deep trouble. Done right, they have the power to save lives.