Okay, guys. First things first:
If you’ve clicked on this because you’re feeling suicidal or because you struggle with this, please please please know that depression lies. I know how you feel; I struggle with suicidal depression in my own life. You’re not alone. There are others of us out here. If you need help immediately, contact the Suicide Prevention Lifeline or anybody else that you trust to help you.
Secondly, this list isn’t an end-all be-all and if you think reading about characters who have mental illness will make you feel worse, please do not. For me, I find it helpful. Your mileage may vary. Do what you think is right for you first.
I chose these books because the stigma around mental illness often (though increasingly less often) muffles the conversations that can help us relate to each other. We need to relate, I think, and there are plenty of us out there who go through it, but it’s hard to know who you can trust to confide in sometimes. Reading a book can help facilitate that connection, though; I like reading about people who have depression and anxiety because I feel less alone. I’ll see something I can relate to and think, “oh thank God, it’s not just me.”
1. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
If there’s one writer that those who struggle with suicidal ideation can empathize with, it’s Sylvia Plath. The Bell Jar is a fictionalized account of her struggle with depression, and it’s familiar to anybody who has been through the same journey. I can’t always read The Bell Jar but I like it because it reminds me that I can be ill and still have my thoughts seem perfectly rational when they’re not. I need that reminder sometimes.
2. Dora: A Headcase by Lidia Yuknavitch
I fuckin’ loved this book, though I have to say off the bat that the teenage voice of the narrator is not for everyone. Yuknavitch smartly modernized the story of Freud’s famous patient, Dora, and flipped the story on its head. “Dora” is a teenager being treated for mental illness; her life is a shitstorm of circumstances, though, and what she really needs is room to blossom and for someone to hear her rather than someone to “fix” her. It’s a powerful critique of mental health treatment techniques that still need evolution while also being fun.
3. Zazen by Vanessa Veselka
“You know, Della, you’re funny but you’re like a switch that’s stuck open.”
Zazen is one of my favorite books, full stop. It’s beautifully written and powerful and just poetic enough but still readable and I love it so hard. We don’t get to see all the details of what happened, but the protagonist, Della, is living with her brother and his wife because she has suffered a nervous breakdown. She’s a paleontologist but ends up working as a waitress because that’s what she can handle at the moment. I felt Della’s realness in learning how to cope with the aftermath of both personal tragedies and community ones; she stays with me even still.
4. Suicide Notes by Michael Thomas Ford
Suicide Notes is a YA dark comedy about a fifteen-year-old who attempts suicide and ends up in a treatment program in a hospital. While Jeff, the main character, attempts to stonewall the program with irreverence and resentment, he meets a boy who forces him to come to terms with things about himself. This book also has LGBT themes, which is poignant due to the heart-breakingly high number of LGBT teen suicides. (If you’re out there reading this, it really really does get better. Stay strong.)
5. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Everyone but me in my AP English class hated this book, and it frustrated me. Holden, they said, was whiny and annoying; I wanted to jump on my desk and say, “Don’t you guys see that he’s having a nervous breakdown? Of course he’s complaining a lot. Of course he doesn’t feel well.” Holden Caulfield is a kid at the end of his ability to cope and he resonates with a lot of people. I find Catcher centering at times; published even before my parents were born, it’s a thread through time that reminds me I’m not alone and I’m not some kind of freak* for being ill, even if I feel exactly that way.
*Nobody is a freak, by the way. That’s some bullshit people made up to feel better about themselves at others’ expense.
6. The Cry of the Sloth by Sam Savage
I would actually recommend this book to anybody who liked A Confederacy of Dunces, but it’s on this list for being a mental health dark comedy. The epistolary novel unwinds the story of Andrew Whittaker, failed literary journal editor, bad landlord, divorcee, and, recently, shut-in. He’s not necessarily a character you will love, but I think if you’ve gone through a depression spiral, he’s definitely someone you will empathize with. In the meanwhile, what he lacks in likability, he makes up for in humor; I belly-laughed when he compared someone’s book to what Hemingway would have written, “had Hemingway never gone to high school.”
This list is not all-inclusive; it’s just my list of books that have helped me along the way. If you have titles to recommend or stories to share, please leave them in the comments.