The best memoirs on mental health

Patricia Pearson Author Of A Brief History of Anxiety...Yours and Mine
By Patricia Pearson

The Books I Picked & Why

Down Below

By Leonora Carrington

Book cover of Down Below

Why this book?

This slender, 70-page memoir of a time in which both one woman and the world went mad is a beautifully-rendered portrait of psychosis. Written decades after the episode, Down Below describes the British-Mexican surrealist painter Leonora Carrington’s psychotic break in 1940, the circumstances of which were themselves aptly surreal. As a 19-year-old art student in London, she had fallen in love with the celebrated (and married) artist Max Ernst, and run scandalously away with him to a farmhouse in Provence. After Germany invaded France, the Jewish Ernst was arrested, leaving Carrington so intensely abandoned and shocked by unfolding history that she vomited repeatedly.

She began to unravel as she wandered her way out of France, eventually entering Madrid, which she perceived “as the world’s stomach, and that I had been chosen for the task of restoring this digestive organ to health. I believed that all anguish had accumulated in me and would dissolve in the end.” Her time enduring brutal treatment in a Spanish asylum and her subsequent escape to Mexico where her career flourished speaks to her tremendous resilience.

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The Center Cannot Hold

By Elyn R. Saks

Book cover of The Center Cannot Hold

Why this book?

Saks offers up her life as a schizophrenic with gripping immediacy and candor. It is vanishingly rare to gain insight into the minds of schizophrenics, who often puzzle and alarm those who walk past them in locked wards or on the street. Elyn Saks was still a girl in suburban Miami in the early 1960s when her sense of self began, periodically, to waver and dissolve. She writes, “The “me” becomes a haze, and the solid center from which one experiences reality breaks up like a bad radio signal.” It would be years before she understood what was happening to her, and years more before she came to accept that her life would be different than what she’d envisioned as a happy child from a comfortable middle-class background.

“If you are a person with mental illness, the challenge is to find the life that's right for you. But in truth, isn't that the challenge for all of us, mentally ill or not? My good fortune is not that I've recovered from mental illness. I have not, nor will I ever. My good fortune lies in having found my life.” And what a life. She is a professor of law at the University of Southern California.

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An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness

By Kay Redfield Jamison

Book cover of An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness

Why this book?

A wryly humorous and gracefully written account of manic-depression that has become a classic in the field. Look into the background of mental health professionals, and you often find their own struggle to hold it together. Jameson is a psychologist who decided to come out of the closet as a florid manic-depressive in this ground-breaking memoir. Her sense of humor and beautiful turns of phrase rescue us from the murkier, inadvertent narcissism of some memoirs of depression, which tend – almost inevitably – to be rather Eyore-ish. “Money spent while manic doesn't fit into the Internal Revenue Service concept of medical expense or business loss,” she notes. “So after mania, when most depressed, you're given excellent reason to be even more so.”

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What Disturbs Our Blood: A Son's Quest to Redeem the Past

By James Fitzgerald

Book cover of What Disturbs Our Blood: A Son's Quest to Redeem the Past

Why this book?

A remarkable, inter-generational tale about madness amongst accomplished medical men. When the Toronto journalist James FitzGerald reached his father’s age at the time of his death by suicide, he felt the haunting pull of family history. His father and grandfather had both killed themselves, sleeping in the same bedroom in the same house.

Dr. John G. Fitzgerald founded the lab that first produced insulin for diabetics, and was also instrumental in the development of a diphtheria vaccine. His son was also a highly respected doctor. Both were pulled under by the riptide of depression at a time when successful, bread-winning men did not talk of mental anguish.

Resolved not to follow in their footsteps, James FitzGerald instead went into therapy and wrote this intensely gripping book about the shadow side of masculine privilege and the history of medicine and psychiatry in the first half of the 20th century.

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Man’s Search for Meaning

By Viktor Frankl

Book cover of Man’s Search for Meaning

Why this book?

An irreplaceable classic of the 20th century, Frankl’s memoir of grief, terror, depression, and anguish during the Holocaust led to a reformulation of human psychology.

A vivid, moving account of the struggle to survive in Auschwitz -- his pregnant wife, his brother, and his parents died – Frankl wrestles with the great, existential questions of what it means for a human being to live and suffer and survive. While not a conventional ‘mental illness’ memoir, in the sense that he might have thrived without Nazi Germany, I include it because of what he explores as the key to transcending psychological suffering, which is meaning-making. In fact, that lies at the core of all these tales. To write about illness is to contain it, surround it, with meaning.

“There was no need to be ashamed of tears,” Frankl wrote of his fellow prisoners. “For tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage. The courage to suffer.”

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