May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and what better time to learn more about depression and bipolar disorder? When I was diagnosed with depression at 15 and bipolar disorder at age 19, I felt utterly alone. I didn’t feel comfortable telling anyone what I was going through, and certainly didn’t think anyone could ever possibly understand. I was standing at the bottom of a black pit, too ashamed to yell out and ask if anyone was even up there to pull me out.
When my therapist suggested I start reading memoirs, I immediately took her advice — I am a bookworm, after all.
Through the following books, not only did I find out that I am not alone, but I’m in good company.
These books taught me that I can indeed dream big, that there is humor in the darkness when nothing seems to light a spark. Through the magic of books, I know other people who deal with similar struggles, and I can be in their minds, watching the ways they interact with the world.
Years later as I was finishing my own mental health memoir, Perfect Chaos, A Daughter’s Journey to Survive Bipolar, a Mother’s Struggle to Save Her, co-written with my mom, these books were my true inspirations. As I wrote, these authors were constantly in my thoughts, many even mentioned throughout the book.
The following list not only includes memoirs, but poetry, non-fiction, and a graphic novel.
1An Unquiet Mind — Kay Jamison
Kay Jamison is the queen of writing about mental health from personal experience. This is one of the most profound memoirs of a bipolar mind I have ever read. Plus, reading about someone who overcame their illness, earned a Ph.D., and is now a world renowned researcher? Sign me up. Hope abounds, as well as many tears, laughs, and all around feels.
2Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness — Pete Earley
Pete Earley is an award winning journalist and devoted father to his son living with bipolar disorder. When his son is arrested for breaking and entering and taking a bath in someone else’s house, he not only follows his son’s personal story through the criminal justice system — but digs deep into the Miami Dade justice system and its treatment of folks with mental illness. This book is riveting, but not without some overwhelming facts and figures. Much worth the slightly longer read.
3Otherwise — Jane Kenyon
Not every poem is about mental health, but Otherwise is a perfect look into the poems and thoughts of someone with chronic depression. Even her non-mental health poems come from someone with the profound understanding of sadness. I specifically recommend the poem, “Having it Out with Melancholy.” Kenyon made me feel part of a fabric of artists and writers illuminating the world.
4Ariel — Sylvia Plath
We all know Sylvia Plath lived a tortured life, but it is in this volume that you can truly see what her struggles with bipolar disorder looked like. At times, this is a difficult book to read as you grasp what suicidal ideation is like from the inside, all the while knowing the sad outcome of Plath’s life. I reread this book every time I am in the hospital — partly out of melodrama, partly because she just really gets me.
5Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened — Allie Brosh
A graphic novel about depression? Need I say more? This is by far one of the best representations of depression that I — and most of my friends living with depression — have ever read or seen. The fact that it is displayed through her fabulous art makes it not only fun to read, but easier to swallow when it hits you in the gut and makes you want to cry on the floor.
6Haldol and Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life — Melody Moezzi
Muslim author Melody Moezzi speaks to her experience as a Muslim living with bipolar disorder in America — and she is downright hilarious. At times very poignant and at others laugh out loud, you will be in awe of this highly educated activist and advocate. Like An Unquiet Mind, this book reminds me that bipolar does not have to hold you back from the life of your dreams.
7Resilience — Jessie Close with Pete Earley
Yes, another Pete Earley on the list — but he knows a good story, and Jessie’s is top notch. Not only is Jessie the sister of world-renowned actress Glenn Close, but she has a fascinating story. The book follows her through her unusual childhood in Africa, through her five marriages, through her substance abuse, and her experiences in motherhood, interspersed with vignettes from Glenn. Jessie’s story truly is a tale of resilience every step of the way.
Electroboy — Andy Behrman
Want a look at the lengths mania can go? Look no further than Electroboy. This book follows Behrman as he changes multiple jobs, jet sets around the country, and eventually is incarcerated for art forgery. Though this may be more exciting than the average mania, it is certainly a good look at the larger than life mindset one develops when the illness takes hold.
9Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression — Nell Casey
Through short stories from amazing writers, Casey has collected a treasure trove of knowledge on depression. There is a story in here for everyone who has ever experienced depression, whether firsthand or through the support of a loved one. When I am feeling low, I know I can always turn to this book for a short read that will immediately bring me some perspective and support. It is essential to have on your bookshelf in times of need.
I hope these books will help you the way they helped me.