I love reading nonfiction books and memoirs related to mental health. I'm also a mental health writer.
My Bipolar Mind by Samantha Steiner is written as a series of blog posts that capture her recovery from addiction while living with the effects of bipolar disorder. The story begins in April 2017 she hit her personal rock bottom, and from there began her slow journey towards recovery. Of course, the full story began long before that.
Along the way, she describes her experience of rapid cycling mood episodes and multiple mixed mood episodes. After she stopped drinking, she was also diagnosed with PTSD. She explains that she began self-harming at age 12 to try to cope with the domestic violence that was going on at home.
Samantha openly shares the excuses she made for her drinking, and her thoughts that she could quit on her own without help, despite the fact that she'd experienced alcohol poisoning multiple times and needed to be resuscitated after an opioid overdose. She also shares her struggles against the desire to drink again, and the important role her partner's limit-setting played.
She provides an excellent example of how the "good" parts of mania are actually not good at all. She wrote regularly both on her blog and in her job as a writer for a website, but during manic episodes she would often become hyper-fixated on writing, to the point of neglecting her most basic needs. She explains that there were times she decided not to reach out for help because she didn't want to be hospitalized, something I can certainly relate to.
She described feeling emotionally overloaded: "I hate feeling like this; like I am drowning again, like I am getting pulled under the water and I can’t get out, and I can’t breathe. I feel like I can’t fight this or these feelings."
Unsurprisingly, stigma makes an experience, as it so often does in stories of mental illness. Someone she had known for years accused her of just making excuses, saying everyone is bipolar. We all know that people say these kinds of things, but it still makes me heart hurt each time I hear about a specific instance.
Relationship challenges are hard to avoid with mental illness, and these make an appearance in Samantha's story. She shares her difficult breakup with her boyfriend and the subsequent reconciliation that prompted some of her family members to break off contact with her.
The book ends with two blog posts that convey a more hopeful tone. In the final post, she observes "I really do feel like I am learning to love life for the first time." There's no happy ending, but instead an acknowledgement that the work of recovery is ongoing.
This book offers a raw, uncensored look into the daily realities of living with concurrent mental illness and addictions. Some bits aren't pretty, and others are downright ugly, but that's what makes it so real.
My Brother's Journey: From Genius To Simpleton by Marie Abanga is a moving tribute to her younger brother Gabriel, whose life was taken away far too soon by mental illness. It includes not only Marie's words, but also the words of others who knew and loved her brother.
In the book she shares what a kind person he was with great personal and academic promise until illness entered his life and irreversibly changed him. The "simpleton" reference in the title reflects the challenges he had with performing basic tasks towards the end of his life. The book includes letters he had written, which showed a clear decline given that he had previously done very well in school.
He was diagnosed with epilepsy while he was still in school, and had multiple hospitalizations. He was later diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. He moved to Germany to further his studies, but ended up being deported because his illness was uncontrolled. Marie shares how difficult it was when he returned home to Cameroon; it was difficult to tell which parts of what he was saying were real and which were not, and she described him as resembling a ghost.
He later was able to get a visa to move to the United States. At the time, it was thought that it would be the best thing for his health, and perhaps the "black magic" that affected him might not be able to cross the ocean. However, his health further deteriorated there. Marie describes the numerous challenges in trying to get adequate care for him, made even more difficult by the fact that his immediate family was back in Cameroon, and Marie was unable to get a visa to go to the U.S.
When the family were informed that Gabriel had died, the cause was unknown. Marie is openly critical of the health care system that let him down. In particular she condemns the institution where he was held after an altercation with police. She shares a letter her mother had written to the institution asking that his medical needs be addressed, but this seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
Marie writes about the stigma around mental illness in Africa, where the subject is considered taboo. Those who are ill may be shunned by their families and rejected by their communities, and may be talked of as being wicked, bewitched, or possessed.
What really stood out for me was the prevailing attitudes in Cameroon regarding mental illness. I've heard that ideas such as black magic exist, but this book really brought it to life. It's also interesting that he seemed to do the best when he was in Cameroon, and worse when he was in countries with supposedly more advanced health care systems. This is a sad story of a very promising young man who fell through the cracks – the very wide cracks – in the health care system.
In Stories Behind My Art, Maranda Russell shows that being an artist is more about staying true to yourself than doing what others might think you're supposed to do. The book includes several pieces of her art, along with descriptions of the meaning behind each one. I found having the combination of visual art and words allowed me to see things in the art that I wouldn't otherwise have seen. There was a good mix of pieces that contained profound messages and others that captured some of the simple beauties and pleasures of life.
In Thriving Not Surviving: Bravely Pursue a Life That Will Blow Your Mind, Dianna (Dee) Kelly shows readers how to break free of what is holding us back and change the way we think in order to live the life we truly want to live. Anyone who’s familiar with cognitive behavioural therapy will likely notice a hint of CBT flavour thrown in. The book is interspersed with thoughts and stories from Jae-lyn, who blogs at The Wonderful and Wacky World of One Single Mom, and Jo, who blogs at A Creative PTSD Gal.
Dee explains how important it is to acknowledge and question the stories we tell ourselves, which are often rooted in our early years, and the beliefs that are limiting us. She identifies four mindsets to change to help direct us to our best life: accountability, perspective, gratitude, and forgiveness.
On the topic of accountability, Dee gets right to the point and doesn’t sugar-coat. We shouldn’t blame others or expect others to change; instead, we need to take responsibility for ourselves and our choices. And in case you were thinking “yes, but…” she clarifies that this is not about blaming ourselves, but rather taking ownership of those things we can control and change. She writes: “You get to write your story. By holding yourself accountable for your thoughts, beliefs, choices and actions you can decide whether to believe the negative messages that are thrust upon you every day.”
Something I didn’t necessarily agree with entirely was Dee’s assertion that it’s impossible to feel both grateful and unhappy at the same time; I don’t know that this is always the case when looking at it in the context of mental illness. However, I do agree with her that gratitude is essential in making the most our of our lives, and she offers excellent suggestions on how to cultivate gratitude.
Dee offers support in moving toward forgiveness, suggesting ways to shift thinking and take responsibility for one’s own happiness. She also points out that in learning to forgive others we learn self-forgiveness. She encourages clear boundary-setting and removing toxic people from our lives.
The book includes a lot of recommendations on changing thinking, but it’s also very action-oriented. It’s like having a combined coach/cheerleader on your e-reader. Dee tells her own story as an example of facing challenges (including divorce and becoming a single mom), then actively making choices to improve her life and point her toward her goal of pursuing a life of absolute abundance. She’s doing an excellent job of just that, and is clearly eager to share what she’s learned along the way in order to help others.
From Both Sides: A Look Into the World of Foster Care from Those Who Know It Best is a short book of prose poems that’s written both from the perspective a foster child and that of a foster parent. Maranda herself has been a foster parent. She explains that her aim is to clarify the challenges faced by foster kids and parents, and bring encouragement and inspiration.
Themes in the poems about being a foster kid include feeling like damaged goods, being shuffled around and lacking permanence, and self-hatred. One poem that I found particularly moving is False Hope, which is about being led to believe that a return home will be happening soon. One of my favourite lines in the book: “I’m like fruitcake, the gift that no one really wants.”
The parents section talks about things being stolen, the ongoing effects from the child’s previous abuse, powerlessness, and a flurry of other challenging emotions. The poems provide insight into both the rewards and the difficulties that go along with foster parenting.
In Not Afraid To Be Real: A Poetry Collection, Maranda writes that she prefers “gritty, down-to-earth poems that speak to the heart and make us see life in a way that we might not have before.” The themes in the book move from love to struggle and darkness and then on to hope, concluding with some quirky fun.
I really liked the ending of the poem Accept Me As I Am:
“Hurt me –
then heal me.
And most importantly,
keep loving me
even when I
refuse to love myself.”
The Living Dead looks at expectations that we let go of dreams that are no longer considered acceptable. Other themes running through the darker sections of the book include feeling dismissed, unwanted, and unaccepted. Everybody Loves You ponders the rose-coloured glasses through which we tend to see those who have passed on, and whether its worth being remembered in such a way.
And, fitting for this time of year, does flatulence belong in Christmas? Absolutely, and it makes an appearance in Bad Christmas Poem!
I very much enjoyed this collection, and it's written in a way that’s very accessible and real even for people who don’t typically read poetry. Maranda definitely delivers on her preference for a gritty, down-to-earth style of poetry.
I Am the Architect of My Own Destruction is Juansen Dizon’s second book of poetry. The book opens with a letter to the reader, which begins “It’s hard to write when you want to kill yourself. It’s harder when you don’t really know the reason as to why.” Throughout the book I felt like I as a reader was being directly spoken to.
The poems capture the darkness and depth of mental illness, and often I was left thinking wow, that’s exactly how I have felt. Thoughts of suicide are shared in a way that feels very genuine and non-triggering. The book touches on a range of topics including body image and the difficulty of self-love. Along with the difficult part of mental illness, Juansen also writes about healing and happiness. This provides a good balance to some of the darker poems.
Many of the poems were quite short, which I really appreciated because as I was reading the book depression was doing a number on my concentration. Some are only one line, but carry profound meaning in those few words, like Numb and Casket. I was impressed by the emotional depth that could be captured in just a few words.
The book explores love and navigating relationships, and how challenging this can be when in the depths of mental illness. Juansen clearly bares his soul as he writes about this. The book also includes touching letters to his girlfriend and his brother.
I particularly liked the one-line poem Seraphim: “Melancholy is an angel that fell in love with a demon.” Another favourite was Warriors, which talks about the strength it can take to stay alive.
This book carries the reader on a poetic journey into the author’s mind and heart, giving an intimate look at the experience of mental illness. The poems are very accessible, in the sense that even people who don’t normally read much poetry would likely find it easy to engage with this book. It’s well worth checking out.
Unraveled: Her Reality Is Surreality is the latest book by Meg Kimball. It’s young adult fantasy fiction, which is definitely breaking out of my usual box, but Meg is a blogger buddy of mine so I wanted to check it out.
The book opens in 16th century France with a pregnant young woman being assaulted by her mother. The book then shifts to the “here and now”, where we meet 16-year-old Marilyn, who is in the emergency room after overdosing on pills. She is then transferred to an adolescent inpatient psychiatry unit and diagnosed with schizophreniform disorder. Much of the story is set on the inpatient unit, although the shifts between different time periods and settings continue throughout the book and form an important part of the story.
The staff on the unit represent some of the unhelpful types that can unfortunately be found all too often in mental health care, seen through the lens of a teenage girl who tells it like she sees it.
Marilyn can be delightfully awkward, coming out with lines like “Let me be your toilet paper.” On the inpatient unit, Marilyn becomes friendly with several other co-patients. As the book continues, it becomes clear that none of the characters are what they originally seem. There is unexpected twist at the end that leaves the reader wondering what was real and what wasn’t.
The book is very visually descriptive, and I had to laugh at the mention of Marilyn’s chestnut hair, as pretty much any story I wrote when I was a kid was graced by chestnut hair. The descriptive detail helps to really bring the characters to life.
While this is a work of fiction, there are elements of real life slipped into the story. Parts of the book are more comical, while deeper issues like parent-child abuse are also tackled. The lead character is quirky in a likeable way, and the book makes for an interesting read.
In Living with Vaginismus: Dealing with the World's Most Painful Pleasure, Victoria Johnston provides a comprehensive overview of this pelvic pain condition. She opens up about her own personal experience in order to try to raise awareness about an issue that most people either don't know about and/or aren't comfortable talking about.
Vaginismus involves the involuntary contraction of pelvic muscles (the pubococcygeus or PC muscles) making it difficult or even impossible to penetrate the vagina with even small objects like a tampon. It refers specifically to the muscle contractions, and doesn't encompass other sexual difficulties related to things like desire or ability to orgasm. One physiotherapist cited in the book describes vaginismus as panic attacks of the vagina, and Victoria describes sex as feeling "like you are being ripped apart".
Unfortunately, even many medical practitioners have a poor understanding of vaginismus, and the book includes multiple stories of negative experiences with health care providers. The causes of vaginismus can be complex and multifactorial, and the book describes various physical and psychological factors that have been identified. The book also includes stories about the often devastating effects the disorder can have, including strain on relationships and problems with mental health.
Victoria describes the various treatments that are available, taking a holistic view and explaining that what's most effective can vary greatly from person to person. Treatments include the use of dilators slowly progressing in size, physiotherapy, counselling, and medication. There is a chapter devoted to physiotherapy exercises, complete with photos to demonstrate. Another chapter describes Botox, a promising approach that isn't yet commonly performed and is quite expensive.
The book includes contributions from a number of other women who live with pelvic pain. Many felt invalidated by their health care providers, and a common theme running through their stories was how alone they felt in their experience. The book also includes the stories of men whose partners have vaginismus. I was surprised by how many partner stories Victoria was able to gather, and how openly these men spoke. It really illustrated how this disorder isn't just an individual problem; it's an issue that couples need to face together.
Victoria calls out the many unreasonable societal expectations around sex, including the idea that is the only way of truly achieving closeness and connection, and the expectation that it's normal for females to have pain during sex. She advocates for more realistic, open conversations about sex, something I heartily agree with.
While vaginismus manifests itself physically, mental health is often involved, either as a contributing factor or as a consequence. As such, it's important to raise awareness in the realm of mental health as well as sexual health, which is why I thought it was important to review this book on my mental health blog. I would definitely recommend it.
I Am the Stars in the Sky: Finding Light in the Darkness is Karen Horsley's second book of poetry. While her first book, Kaleidoscopic Beauty, included a lot of poems based in nature, this new book focuses on emotions, both positive and challenging. Her own experiences with cancer, and depression, and PTSD are major influences interwoven throughout the book.
The poems are grouped into six sections: fear, despair, isolation, change, peace, and hope. The poems move gradually from darkness towards light, carrying the reader along on the emotional journey. The words chosen are powerful ones, so that even the shortest poems feel very descriptive, and often evoke vivid images.
Karen experiments with different poetic forms, which I must admit I don't have sufficient poetic knowledge to properly describe. She uses a variety of rhyme schemes, and includes a couple of A to Z poems in which each line begins with the next letter of the alphabet. The poems also take a variety of different visual patterns and shapes.
The poems effectively capture common experiences that many of us with mental illness struggle with. Keep Breathing takes the reader through a panic attack, Solitude explores the feeling of being alone even when there are others around, and Distorted Memory uses the metaphor of a volcano to describe intrusive memories.
There were a few lines that really stood out for me. From the poem Gravity:
"Stormy spirit invites
Dark tides in the mind
Surging, they pitch us
And from Invisible Wounds:
"Tight confines of restrictive swaddling
Concealing emotion, impeding action
Suppression of breath
Suppression of self"
The aptly chosen final poem, after which the book is named, draws together past, present, and future, and gives a great sense of hope and potential. It's a wonderful note on which to conclude.
This is a moving collection from poetry from a poet who clearly has great things ahead of her.
If I Could Tell You How It Feels: My Life Journey With PTSD captures Alexis Rose’s journey toward healing from PTSD. The book consists of narratives interspersed with poetry, along with beautiful art by Janet Rosauer. The chapters are short, which I always appreciate since it makes it easier for readers with concentration problems, and they flow nicely. Alexis doesn’t go into details of her trauma, minimizing the chance of triggering her readers.
Over the years Alexis has experienced severe symptoms of PTSD. She has flashbacks which are easily triggered, and she describes the considerable effort she’s had to put in on an ongoing basis toward managing her triggers. As she worked with her therapist she learned tools to manage her ongoing symptoms. However, she has come to understand that for her there will be no cure and she will have long-lasting effects that will require ongoing work to manage.
Alexis describes the multitude of interpersonal challenges that go along with PTSD, from the doctor who asked why she couldn’t just get over it, having to navigate friendships, losing the people that backed out of her life and managing the walls that she put up for self-protection. Her family has been profoundly impacted by her illness, and she describes how roles within the family have had to shift over time, requiring adaptability from all of them.
Self-stigma has been an issue, and she writes “I wrestle with feeling like I’m lazy because I haven’t cured myself of this illness”; this is something that will probably sound familiar to many of us in the mental illness community. She describes self-doubt as an unwanted houseguest, but one that no one else can see. When things get really hard, she has to actively remind herself that she is in the process of healing.
Alexis shares some of the valuable lessons she has learned along her journey. She has come to understand that while PTSD impacts her it doesn’t define her, and while she was a victim she is definitely a survivor. This resonated strongly with me, as I grappled with the term victim with respect to my own experience of workplace bullying. Alexis talks about her struggle to establish an illness-free identity despite her ongoing symptoms; again, this is something I suspect will resonate strongly with many readers. She has learned to set boundaries, remove toxic people from her life, and reach out and ask for help when needed.
Alexis identifies a number of strategies that have been helpful on her non-linear road toward healing. Writing has been helpful for processing memories, and naming what had happened to her made it easier to see the bigger picture. Radical acceptance has allowed her to find greater peace, own her past, and acknowledge the hard work she has put in.
While this book talks about the challenges of PTSD, the focus is very much on healing and learning to live your best life even with ongoing symptoms of illness, and as such readers with various other mental illnesses are likely to feel a sense of connection. The title is very apt, and Alexis does an excellent job of capturing what her healing journey feels like and has felt like at various points along the way. This is an inspirational book that I would highly recommend.
In Untangled: A Story of Resilience, Courage, and Triumph, Alexis Rose offers raw, forthright descriptions of the repeated abuse she experienced in childhood and into adulthood. I would caution anyone who has experienced abuse themselves to carefully evaluate whether they are far enough along in their own healing to feel safe while reading this kind of account; I would suggest a better place to start might be Alexis’s other book, If I Could Tell You How It Feels, which focuses more on the healing process. Aside from this caveat, this is a powerful, eye-opening book. It is truly remarkable that Alexis has been brave enough to share her story, and is able to tell it so clearly, in a manner that is calm yet still captures the emotional devastation at the time. She very effectively describes the hell of not only living through traumatic events, but struggling with the lasting trauma reactions afterwards. She also touches on many questions that those unfamiliar with trauma might wonder about, including trauma bonding with an abuser, continuing to follow instructions drilled in by the abusers, and maintaining silence.
The sexual, physical, psychological, and ritualistic abuse began at an early age at the hands of her parents and others. As she was being abused, she would imagine seeing the house next door on fire through her window; she eloquently described how this helped her to find a “golden thread of survival. That thread kept the pieces of my shattered soul together, and gave me the strength I needed to wake up and face another day.” Messages to remain silent were frequently drilled into her, and as she grew older, various techniques were used to keep her under tight psychological control.
Alexis describes a horrific pair of trips to the Middle East, where her mother moved after her father died. She explained the bizarre trauma bond she developed with a man she was forced to live with who exerted complete control over her and frequently spoke down to her as if she were garbage. She was informed that she was to serve as “a killer and a whore,” or else she herself would be killed. She observes that by that point, “any shred of my psychological health had been obliterated.” She ended up being tortured and beaten, and she describes the ways in which she dissociated as her mind tried to protect itself.
When she was finally allowed to return home, she began the processing of repressing the memories of what had happened to her. Without other skills available, she relied on this strategy of repression continued for as long as she could manage. Her abusers continued to make themselves known periodically, through phone calls, mail, and in person, and she was subjected to ongoing psychological abuse from her mother.
She began to have flashbacks, although she lacked the knowledge to understand that’s what they were. She writes that she had “no idea that the level of abuse I survived as a child was worth talking about or bothering with.” At one point she stopped therapy because she was unable to move past the brainwashed messages that she must remain silent. She adopted a pattern of trying to “push feelings aside and keep moving”, as this was the only way she knew to keep going. She made the interesting distinction that “it wasn’t that I was living in the moment; I was just continually on the move.”
Things came crashing down after her daughter was hit by a car while crossing the street. Alexis writes about the extremely intense flashback triggered by the call she received from the police, and finally realized that “my mental health was hanging by a very thin thread that was about to break”. At that point she started seeing the psychologist who became “my healer, my teacher, and the one I would call my Sherpa, who truly started me on my journey. Walking into his office that day I began six years of a difficult and treacherous trek up the highest of mountain peaks, but that was also the day I began to claim my life and start to live, not just survive.” She finally got to a point where she could begin “forgetting how to forget”.
Despite the horrific things that have happened to her, she has been able to leave behind those who have abused her and move forward with healing. She has been able to draw on resilience and an ability to thrive, and has reached a place where she can be optimistic and thrive. Alexis writes: “I’ve untangled myself. My courage has set me free, and now nothing can keep me tied to the past. I can truly live today with blinders off and eyes wide open.” This is a truly inspiring book that tells an amazing story of survival through adversity.