Three Books That Helped Me Overcome My Mental Illness

Three Books That Helped Me Overcome My Mental Illness

The year 1990 was a tumultuous one for me, right from the beginning. I was in a very stressful situation, working night shifts, going to high school all day and my dad and I were not getting along. Starting in February of that year, my mental health slowly declined until I had to be forcibly confined to a psychiatric hospital. It was my first experience being medicated and locked up. Not only did I want to convince the doctors I needed to get out of the hospital, but I tried to hide my symptoms from them. I honestly felt if I told them I was having delusional thoughts and bizarre, complex hallucinations, they would keep me in the hospital forever. I was so afraid to let the truth out. As a result, I not only didn’t get help for what was happening in my mind, I lost everything when I left the hospital — my job, my place to live, an old car I could no longer afford, a motorcycle and any social status I had among my schoolmates.

Reading was always my one solace in life. As the years passed after my release from the hospital, I desperately needed to find writing that spoke to me — not as a teenager who wanted to travel, but as a displaced and marginalized person with a mental illness who wanted a better life than one in $15-a-night shared rooms in a backpacker’s hostel in downtown Vancouver, Canada. Over the years, I’ve found many books that I believe helped me live a better, healthier life. I’ll share three of them with you here:

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

One night, in my brother’s apartment, I found a book I can still put in the top five I will cherish forever: Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I was fascinated with motorcycles at the time, and was also searching for some kind of spirituality to reconcile the things I experienced while mentally ill. But I was lost among all of the options and didn’t know where to start. This book offered me solutions to so many of my problems. Little did I know it would also help me find peace with my illness.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig is such a skilled weaver of storylines. Somehow, he finds the perfect time as he motors down the road to dive into fascinating talks he carries on in his thoughts as he shares his philosophy. He takes apart the origins of values and the concept of quality. But this book, for me, holds so much more.

I stayed up all night reading it, but got only about halfway through it. It was my brother’s copy and I had to return it. Eight months went by before I found another copy. What kept me fascinated about the story was how, while first reading it, about one-third of the way into the book, the author hit me with a knockout punch. Something was desperately wrong most of his adult life, and he introduced it in the book, while seeing something that reminded him of a life he once had. The story takes a sudden turn with the words, “This was all familiar. He was here!”

I applaud Pirsig for having the courage to openly discuss his mental illness in the 1970s, in times of so much ignorance and stigma. 

He goes as far as to admit he has schizophrenia, yet at times I  wondered if he fully accepted his diagnosis, even though his illness derailed his life. He later discusses being subjected to repeated rounds of shock treatments by court order. It was, for me, terrifying to think of, since I saw my mom go through these same treatments.

I don’t know how much of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was factual, but I do know it was a story that touched me deeply and made me feel OK about having a mental illness. The honesty and beauty of this book helped me to eventually find treatment and experience recovery. 

Girl, Interrupted

Another book that offers amazing insight into mental-health treatment is Girl, Interrupted. Written by Susanna Kaysen, it is the true story of two years of her life in the late 1960s spent in a psychiatric hospital. One of the first things I noticed about this book is the author’s ability to write lucid, entertaining prose. She brilliantly crafts a story from her experiences that details her life as a patient, in sometimes dark, disturbing and humorous ways.

Girl, Interrupted is interspersed with examples of Kaysen’s clinical notes, allowing the reader to learn about Susanna and her diagnosis from many angles. We also learn a great deal about the staff and other patients.

In this amazing book, Kaysen brings out the essence of her characters — from Lisa, the young woman addicted to needle drugs, to the differing personalities of the nursing staff and doctors. Though it is also a popular movie, reading the book is essential to understanding what the author is trying to say about maturing and the human condition. This book shows how sometimes the best of us are ostracized, labeled and even confined because of ignorance and stigma.

So many vignettes are included in this memoir that are characteristic of life in a hospital or psychiatric ward. For example, Kaysen’s ward had the one thing most patients fear: a seclusion room. Kaysen writes at length about what gets people put in there, what keeps them there and what gets them sent to the locked ward if they don’t calm down in there. In the book, the seclusion room was also a safe place–if they asked permission to do so, patients could go into the room and scream their lungs out and pound on the walls to let out their frustrations.

Reading about Kaysen’s experiences helped me feel better about having lost my grip on reality at different times in my past. It was incredibly encouraging to see that, despite her diagnosis and treatment for borderline personality disorder, not only did Kaysen recover, but she became an accomplished writer.  

The Collected Schizophrenias

The Collected Schizophrenias is a collection of essays written by Esme Weijun Wang. It was, in my opinion, written for anyone who wants or needs to learn more about mental illness because of themselves, family members or their vocation. Wang herself carried on with her life and the writing of this book while experiencing severe symptoms, like hallucinations and delusional thinking, along with facing discrimination in the form of ableism and stigma in most of her endeavors.

In The Collected Schizophrenias, the author writes in-depth about medications and their effects with an authoritative voice. She also writes about the symptoms of mental illnesses and the side effects of psychiatric medication. 

After laying excellent groundwork in the facts of mental illness, Wang tells her story, which is both tragic and inspiring. 

Girl, Interrupted and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance were written more as fascinating and gripping stories of people facing mental illness. Perhaps due to the times they took place (the late 1960s to early 1970s), these two books were written, in part, for readability and entertainment. Wang’s book was published in 2019. Perhaps she had more freedom of expression, less stigma and additional schooling and training related to mental illness. The book definitely provides a lot of relevant information that caregivers, family members and sufferers of mental illness can use in their daily lives, the most important of which is to not give up on education and career goals because you live with a mental illness.

The Collected Schizophrenias does an admirable job of explaining mental illness through Wang’s viewpoint. The author brings up points I had never considered before, like how in some societies mental illness can be seen as a gift of prophecy or in others as a key component in becoming a shaman or spiritual guide. Wang also describes some of the advantages of having mental illnesses. Bipolar people often have vast energy resources to complete tasks that others couldn’t comprehend taking on. People with schizophrenia can look at things from a different perspective, and people with obsessive-compulsive disorder are often musical geniuses, perhaps because of their ability to practice to the point of perfection.

Aside from allowing the reader to acquire exhaustive information about mental disorders, The Collected Schizophrenias is the true story of a person’s journey to awareness of her condition, the incredible amounts of work she did to recover and how far she was able to go despite severe setbacks. Though this book is for the more serious reader, I think it should be on the list of books that can arm those struggling with mental illness with their most important weapon: knowledge and a shining example of resilience in the face of ignorance.

Don’t miss our 50 at 50 series: one current or former prisoner published a day until New Year’s Day 2022.

In conclusion

I can’t imagine how hard it must be to be a young and idealistic mental-health worker and to help a patient recover, then see them come back to the hospital time and again. The sad reality shown in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Girl, Interrupted and The Collected Schizophrenias is there’s a strong possibility of even the most promising patients dying by suicide. Medications can also affect a patient in many ways, causing maladies such as diabetes and lung cancer. I feel books like these are necessary to remind all of us that mental health is a very serious and prevalent issue that needs much more funding and support than it is currently getting.

Finding books that became part of who I am saved me from feeling as though I was wasting my life. Once I realized that many of these writers have gone through at least as much, if not more, than I have, I decided to look at my life not as though I was a helpless victim of the evils of psychiatry. Instead, I focused on the things I could do, like working as a skilled laborer, which funded me so I could write and publish three books of my own on my mental health journey and recovery. 

There are many more quality books and writers working in the field of mental health; the three titles above are just the ones that mean the most to me. These wonderful books have given me a new outlook on life and the illness I struggle with. I hope they continue to be used and respected for generations to come. As new generations emerge, I also hope books like these help inspire more people to take up the good fight of battling stigma and increasing awareness of mental illnesses.

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