Fiction and Mental Illness: A Lifelong Fascination

Some people collect dolls, or postcards, or cookie jars. In my house, I trip over stacks of books about people with mental illness. Depression, schizophrenia, Tourette’s, addiction — the specific malady doesn’t matter, as long as it affects the mind. Bonus points if the protagonist spends any time in a mental hospital, or if there are extended descriptions of therapy sessions.

My love for these novels and memoirs has not been simple or static. At different points in my life, I have sought out these books for vastly different reasons. These include:

Old-Fashioned Morbid Curiosity

I was a little budding psychologist in elementary school. All people were interesting, but people with disorders that made them eccentric or unpredictable were fascinating. I remember reading Elizabeth Benning’s “Please Don’t Go” over and over at the age of eight or nine. The main character, a teenage girl being treated for bulimia, was engaging and sympathetic — but the information about eating disorders and how they affect their sufferers interested me far more than the novel’s actual plot.

Looking back, I realize it was wrong to treat people this way, even fictional characters. No one is just a collection of interesting symptoms. But I didn’t have much of a framework for understanding this at the time. It’s not like the media of the early 90’s was full of engaging, complex, sympathetic characters struggling with mental illness — not that I can remember, anyway. The available options for reacting to the mentally ill seemed to be derision, fear, or detached curiosity. The last one seemed like the kindest approach.

A Search for Role Models

As I got older, my own mental health issues worsened. (Is that irony? I can never tell.) As I grew into an overly anxious, paranoid, sometimes suicidal teenager, I found it increasingly difficult to relate to any of the teenagers on TV or in most books. I began looking harder for characters I could actually relate to, so I could see how they held it together, how they managed their emotions, how they carved out a space for themselves in the world.

This is the spirit in which I read “She’s Come Undone” by Wally Lamb, and “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath, and “Girl, Interrupted” by Susanna Kaysen. Each of these books had a character I could see a little of myself in, and even though they’re not happy books, they were comforting, just because I was finally seeing myself reflected.

Wish Fulfillment

During adolescence, my favorite “crazy girl” books were the ones in which the main character received some kind of treatment. Because I knew I needed help myself. I desperately wished for it, but lacked the language to actually ask for it. I didn’t know that telling my parents “I need psychiatric help” was an option — I’d never heard of anyone doing any such thing, and I had no idea how my parents would react.

Most of the kids I knew ended up in therapy after taking desperate measures, but I lacked the nerve to blow up at anyone, to display the cuts on my upper arms, to do anything loud or violent enough to get an adult’s attention. So I read about therapy, I read about treatment centers and drugs and kind, intuitive counselors. The way some kids daydream about being whisked away by a handsome stranger, I fantasized about exposing my problems to someone who would listen, someone who could do something about it.

Familiarity

So now I’m an adult – a very fortunate adult who has received (and is still undergoing) effective treatment. And I still re-read some of my old favorites from time to time. I’m still more likely to pick up a new book if the DSM figures into it somehow. Some of it is just human self-absorption — I think we all like stories that remind us of ourselves. Some of it is a continuing quest for advice and useful new ideas. Some of it is just the comfort of familiarity. I’m not thirteen anymore, but it still feels nice to catch a glimpse of my reflection somewhere — to remember I’m not completely alone in this.

Recommended Reading

Some of my favorite books about mental illness and/or the mental health industry include:

  • “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” by Joanne Greenberg
  • “Girl, Interrupted” by Susanna Kaysen
  • “Motherless Brooklyn” by Jonathan Lethem
  • “The Last Time I Wore a Dress” by Daphne Scholinski
  • “Sybil Exposed” by Debbie Nathan
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