BOOKS FOR BREAKDOWNS
13th September 2013
By Emma Bristow
It is incredibly difficult to talk to someone whose life is falling apart. There are no appropriate questions or answers – everything comes off as a platitude, and at the end of the day you’re not actually ‘fixing’, you’re essentially just getting the person to talk until they cry.
If you’re not great at comforting, or the whole thought of getting someone to open up makes you feel a bit sadistic, or you’re just not great at feelings, hugs and hallmark sentiments then I strongly recommend books.
The fact is that a lot of incredibly gifted, incredibly troubled individuals have taken the time to write about their personal crises, and for whatever reason the sentiment in those books doesn’t come off as trite. Sometimes these books will make you hopeful, sometimes they will make you grateful, your stomach may sink and your heart may soar; no matter what though, they will make you feel something. Something beyond whatever circle of hell you (or your nearest and dearest) are currently travelling in.
1. Your Voice In My Head by Emma Forrest
If you, like me, judge books by covers and titles: please do not be misled, read it anyway, order it online (there is a much better cover.) If it helps can I say that the author is highly acclaimed, having written for the Sunday Times since the age of thirteen. It charts her life from early adolescence sitting in the Tate Gallery gazing at Ophelia by Millais and weeping, up to her bereavement at the loss of her psychiatrist. This may seem far removed from wherever you are in your life but Forrest cleverly chronicles both terrifying highs and soul-destroying lows which occur cyclically because of her bipolar disorder. Her life seems like that of Dante travelling back and forth between Paradiso and Inferno with barely time for breath, and with none of the fusty poetry of Alighieri. Instead Forrest has the clear voice of someone who is looking back with the benefit of hindsight, she will make you smile as much as she makes you cry and ache - in that curious way that only people who have suffered can. If you know anything of bipolar disorder, or really anything of the human condition, you will know that at times everything will seem hopeless and at other times you will be in a loving relationship with Colin Farrell and certainly this sense of chaos envelopes the book. What emerges from the book however is the understanding that we are all of us battling death or mental illness or trauma or loneliness or chaos. It somehow makes you feel less alone.
2. The Perks of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
It looks like YA fiction, it starts out like YA fiction, and it certainly has got the youthful aspect to its fanbase; but damn if this book isn’t deceptive. Essentially it is written in that childlike prose (similar to The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas) that you think is fairly innocuous. Yes – this book maps all the challenges of adolesence: love, lust, mental illness, bullying, alcohol, drugs, homosexuality, abuse, self-harm and suicide At a certain point though you realize that there is a reason the book you are reading has been banned in certain parts of the US and I will almost guarantee you have some sort of physical or emotional reaction. If you don’t you may want to seek medical or psychiatric help. I can honestly say that this is one of those rare books that will change your life and break your heart, and, if you let it, it will also fill you with hope and a belief in all that is infinite.
3. Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel
For a long time this book was the insiders guide to understanding and dealing with depression, and, to be honest, it probably still is, because it is so depressing in itself that it had to be written by someone who has well and truly been through the wringer. It is also a great book for talking about divorce, pressure and first-world problems. As much as first world problems are joked about and belittled, they are (at the end of the day) still problems and they can be absolutely overwhelming. It’s much the same thing for divorce – a friend of mine will jokingly ask every person studying psychology how old they were when their parents divorced. Despite time removing the stigma, it is still the destruction of a child’s world. Wurtzel covers this in agonizing detail, she acknowledges that a lot of people are worse off time and again, but that doesn’t change the fact that by the time she hit puberty her body was covered in cuts rather than acne. What makes this book even more interesting is that she looks at the socio-economic factors at play for her; things like the advent of antidepressants, the American healthcare system, even the role of society and divorce legislation in her parents ugly breakup. A lot of people will read this book and think that Wurtzel is a self-centred, ungrateful psycho who went to Harvard and from a young age wrote for Rolling Stone. Those criticisms are absolutely true, but this book shows us that those who are depressed are so entirely consumed by their illness that it is impossible to see through the thick fog of depression. Even if you find it difficult to understand depression after reading Wurtzels book you will be damn grateful for lithium and SSRIs.
4. A Million Little Pieces by James Frey.
This book is as addictive as the substances it talks about; you quickly become hooked on James Frey’s journey to and from recovering from substance abuse and crime. There are times when his story will seem painful, raw and interminable, and there are times when you will think he is an utter bastard. If you have ever felt like your life is spinning out of control then this is the book for you. If you have ever felt like a monster this is the book for you. It is gritty, confronting and peppered with the kind of details that can only be gained from first hand experience. This book should be compulsory reading for anyone who has ever thought about drugs. It will make you think twice before you claim that you’re “addicted” to anything. What you want, and what Frey wants, ultimately however, are answers. How and why do you end up in a rehabilitation clinic, and where do you go from there? Is it possible to come back from the brink of utter self-destruction?
5. The Fry Chronicles & Moab Is My Washpot by Stephen Fry
Advance warning: these are written in much the same way that Stephen Fry talks, if Fry typically annoys you it is probably best that you don’t bother. If on the other hand you find Stephen Fry to be fantastic then read on. Moab is my Washpot covers Fry’s childhood and in many ways it will seem pretty idyllic, mostly because Fry manages to look at the more saddening aspects of his adolescence with his delightfully dry sense of humor. It does become clear that all is not well in Fry’s world though, and this is followed up (in much the same vein) in the Fry Chronicles. If you only have time for one of these books I would recommend Chronicles which discusses firstly the beginnings of Fry’s career, but more interestingly his celibacy, his loneliness and finally his breakdown. As much as Fry’s career, energy and vocabulary seem limitless it should become quite plain to the reader that this is probably one of the better aspects of bipolar disorder. Even as Fry stood on the brink of fame and fortune, the ‘black dog’ of bipolar stood with him and this book talks about how he ran away from it all to die. It also charts his recovery from the depressive episode, albeit couched in charming anecdotes, and it will take you right up to the moment when Fry became addicted to cocaine. Fry’s books are honest and insightful, much like the man himself, and his journey is one of glorious highs and agonizing lows, much like life itself.