**Trigger warning: suicide, depression, self harm, mental health, bipolar disorder**
As is clear from the title, I’m not messing around with this post. After much thought and careful consideration, I’ve been able to compile a list of 5 affordable books that have helped me live with my myriad of health problems. Knowing how difficult it is to navigate the realms of mental health support, and how often treatment is neither available of affordable, I’m delighted to share with you some of the literature that, even years after being handed it, often by my well meaning parents or doctors, has remained on my bookshelf.
I’ll start my summarizing my current life and diagnoses. Bare with me, it’s a laundry list of issues, some I still struggle to admit I have:
- I am, thankfully, high functioning and currently holding down a 9-5 that would make Dolly Parton proud
- Thanks to science and trial and error I am now perfectly medicated
- My biggest “disease” is Bipolar II. Any manic episodes I have are few and far between. The depression? A literal daily struggle
- Generalised Anxiety Disorder- general in the sense that nothing particular triggers it save for crowds, situations out of my control, being rushed, being late, being kept waiting, arguments and altercations, getting lost, forgetting things, flying, meetings
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that comes in the form of obsessing over thoughts and actions rather than rituals or things. I play past and potentional conversations over and over in my head before bed, and will take days to get over things.
- More recently, it’s suspected that I have inattentive ADHD. Yikes. I miss details at work, I’m distracted easily and have serious trouble focusing. It’s a running joke in my office that I don’t listen when spoken to directly- you HAVE to start with my name in order for me to know you’re actually talking. Sorry guys.
My mission with this post, as it is with any of my posts on mental health, is to inform, educate and enlighten. I am choosing to be open about things because many cannot. Some people find it hard to talk about or even admit they have a problem, some seek improvement stoically and alone, while others may still be on the journey of self discovery, and it is to all the above that I dedicate this post. Each book will have the chapters that helped me summarised, but trust me when I say, you need these books already!
Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy- David Burns M.D.
As I found out last summer, this book is more course literature than self help, but it is worth sticking out to the end. There is something about reading about the science and theory behind a disease that makes you appreciate that you are a survivor and that this is a disease in the same way that cancer is- both are treatable, while there isn’t necessarily a cure, and both can kill. I’m serious. In one of the later chapters, Burns speaks frankly about the death toll directly attributed to depression. Over 1/3 of people living with a form of depression have had suicidal thoughts or wishes. I say wishes because as is clear from this chapter- you can wish, in a passive sense, to be dead, you just don’t want to die or for it to be at your own hands. I’ve wished for death on several occasions, despite knowing first hand the horror and pure agony of losing someone that way. Burns makes clear that it is the depressives way of thinking – whatever the opposite of rose-tinted is- that fuels our pervasive and pessimistic actions and visions. Depression, in whatever form it presents itself in, distorts the past in such a way that we shrug off any happy memories we have, “oh I wasn’t actually happy then”, “well that was a one off” and so on. The inability to conjure up the happy moments we’ve had becomes hard- birthdays, holidays, dates…all become tarred with the same brush which has been dipped in Doom & Gloom- an awful dark grey colour that smells like rotting flesh.
If I took one thing away from this door-stop of a book, was what it takes to discover, accept and build on my self worth. I’m a humanitarian by nature, but I will never look at saving myself. Not in a martyr kind of way, in that I often think I’m not worth saving. My self worth, for years- in my eyes at least- was based on what I was achieving. There was a direct correlation between my professional life and how happy I thought I should be. By putting my career first, I cut off all other forms of satisfaction. By working harder, I became a slave to the wage. When I failed to get a promotion or a job I applied for, this meant I was worthless. I couldn’t accept that during the times when I was being less productive (the events industry has slow periods, as does any sector I guess), I wasn’t any less good at my job. Burns taught me to flip my mentality completely. Work and worth ≠ love, respect or happiness. You may think people who achieve more are worth more thanks to the Kardashians and the like. But consider your office mates, and your closest friends. Do you decide their worth in your life based on their salary or job title? No. So apply the same thought process to your own self and own worth. I am not my salary. I am certainly not my job title. Challenge your inner critic (that’s a whole other chapter in itself), and you shall change your world. Yes I might be forgetful, but I have processes in step to remedy that and people see it as sort of quirky and it really isn’t the end of the world. And here’s the flip side: if I am better at something, genuinely good at something, like photography or writing or baking cookies- that does not make me superior. As my worth is not dictated by what I haven’t achieved, nor is it decided by what I have.
To steal an intro from Amazon:
“Shortly before her 13th birthday, Forney was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Flagrantly manic and terrified that medications would cause her to lose creativity, she began a years-long struggle to find mental stability while retaining her passions and creativity.”
Girl, I feel you. When first diagnosed with depression (just depression in 2006, the bipolar diagnoses didn’t come until my late-20s), I was part way through my first year at art school. Petrified of my creativity being suppressed, I pretended to take my citalopram and learned to fake it at the doctors office. I was caught out though, when they started me on a new dosage- I took it for a week and went into such a spiral that it was clear that I wasn’t taking the pills to begin with. This taught me to heed the advice of medical professionals a bit more, actually take my meds and not to be afraid of them. Not surprisingly, my creativity didn’t get zapped. Instead I became more focused and more vocal. I was able to put my hand up in class, take feedback less personally, even accept that the course wasn’t right for me and that I needed to quit. Years later, when I tried again with university on a course that fitted me better (and one that I completed!), I wasn’t afraid of side effects of any of the meds I was given. In my final year, when trying to balance internships in America and a dissertation that was draining me, I had to admit that medication wasn’t enough. I sought support and therapy through the wonderful NHS, and found a local psychiatrist that was able to properly diagnose me. Like the scene in Blues Brothers where Jake sees the light, so I saw my own light in a doctors office. Moods were explainable. Attitudes were now diseases. The scores of inexplainable emotions suddenly had a label, and all was right with the world.
What I got, and still get, out of Forney’s book is an insightful, often terrifying look into a mirror. I too have struggled to find a medication that leaves me less like a zombie and more like myself. Chapter 4 set the horrid and familiar scene of a true depressive episode.
“I couldn’t seriously consider adding to suicide statistics, I knew it would ruin Mom’s life”
And how does she remedy her self? BY READING DR. DAVID BURNS! Yes, she read what I read. She approached his teachings with the same deference that I did. And what was the one thing she took away and actually drew in the book? The same thing I had pawed over time and time again: talking to your inner critic. I truly was seeing myself in each brush stroke of her drawings. Seeing someone else’s journey pan out over 230+ pages and end with a resounding “I’m okay” as she smiles at herself in her own bathroom mirror, blew my mind. It gave me the insight and strength to tackle my illnesses head on, to be at ease with them and to take each day at a time. I shall be forever thankful for Forney’s book, it is a joy to dip in to every now and then, and I’m still trying to work out how I can turn her pages into posters.
Though it pains me to say this, I am extremely wary of any book that calls on me to talk to God. I am not religious, more spiritual if anything, and I am known to have more faith in horoscopes than religious texts. Ellverton’s book is one that has helped some of my closest friends and family get a better understanding what I needed when I could barely tell the time, let alone give them any insight into my struggles. This book offers readers the chance to work some things out on paper right there with the author. When he recommends exercise, you can then chose to either following along with the crudely drawn instructions or make your own routine. The book is peppered with summaries of what the Black Dog (depression) does not like. It doesn’t like balance. Planning or stress management “is essential in the taming of your Black Dog” and my personal fave?
“If you do not have an acquaintance whom you really admire, then it’s time to take a critical look at the company you keep.”
This quote leads neatly to the one big takeaway I got from his writings, or rather teachings. Conscious that I have neither a role model nor a mentor in my life at the moment, rereading this book for this post, hurt. I am not great at making or keeping friends, but I am close to many and forging better friendships both here at back home. But what I need now more than ever is a role model. At summer camp, kids would have WWJD? bracelets and I would be envious that they had some sort of ethical guidance strapped to their wrists, and on speed dial too by the sounds of it. “What WOULD Jesus do?” I’d ask myself when lost or unsure or scared. But who would be a suitable replacement? My idol is a good place to start.
Drew Barrymore fits the bill p e r f e c t l y. Devoted to her family, a strong work ethic, stunningly creative, just, kind, funny, down to earth. Drew is all about hustle, heart and being herself. Ellverton warns not to choose a celebrity because of their fame or face, but for their drive, humanity and love, something Drew posses in spades. He chose Churchill, for many reasons, one being that he too had battled depression. So has Drew. A notorious wild child, she has not shied away from discussing her mental health problems and I admire her deeply for being so frank. I now ask “What Would Drew Do?” when facing conundrums on life and love, work and money. She helps me everyday and yet she doesn’t know I exist. (On a side note, her autobiography, Wildflower, is such a delight! Do buy a copy if you can.)
There is a lot to digest with this particular book- but you will come away feeling more educated on how to live with with triggers and symptoms. You have to commit to yourself, more than just a #SelfCareSunday every couple of weeks. Serious commitment to yourself through the anticipation of your successes, praise- of yourself and others, patience, a clear conscience and to taking one day at a time. The quickest read of the 5, this can be palmed off to someone who doesn’t quite know how to help you, and wait for the words, and them, to work their magic.
(click here to pre-order the US copy)
I knew this would happen. I’m tearing up as I write my paragraph on Laura’s book.
Some people fall in love with characters like Mr. Darcy or Heathcliffe, but as Laura’s writing is so fantastic and direct, I ended up falling in love with the main character of this book, me. If I ever meet her, I probably won’t let her go for a while, at least not until I’ve bored her senseless with all the wonderful things I have achieved since finishing her book. Like starting this little blog.
I discovered her book, and I’m admitting something so disgustingly millennial now but I will make no apologies for it, because it looked pretty on Instagram. But it did, and continues to look marvelous on my bedside table, where it lives, with its bold typeface and cheery ice cream sprinkles on the cover and spine. I took my copy down to Miami in the summer of 2017, and snapped beautifully composed photos of it by the pool and I finally felt like one of the cool kids, now I had images of it on my grid. Little did I know that the book would shake me to my core, make me reevaluate EVERYTHING, lead me to start my blog, be in love with myself and, to give a nod to one brilliant chapter, abandon what wasn’t working.
Let me be clear- I’ve bounced between “self help” books for years, and found that many, if not all, spew out the same bullshit and that is kind, almost mild, but Laura just fucking GOES THERE. I felt like she was calling me out on all my flaws, but that it’s OK to be the way I am and “hey, go for a walk more often and call your mother.” Through page upon page of “fill it out yourself” sections, she allowed me to focus and find out what I want in and from my life- to start a blog, get out the house and my comfort zone more, and as I thumb through it again now, I asked myself to forgive a douche-bag I used to share an office with for being a misogynistic c**t. I did. He’s still a misogynistic c**t, but that’s on him, not me.
After moving to the US in January 2015, I felt really lost and alone here, despite a close knit group of friends, landing a pretty sweet job and balancing it with a perfect and peaceful home life. But not once was I focused on myself or selfish enough to do things for me. As with every relationship- platonic and romantic- I found myself becoming what I thought everyone wanted me to be, rather than just be myself. After getting the emotional shit kicked out of me by her superb, superb book, I’m now the owner of an emerging blog that I started for no other reason that I wanted to, I am ticking things off my “hell yeah, shits and giggles” list (Chicago, Dollywood, craft beer, shower sex) all because I sat by a pool in Florida writing and owning my truths.
Holding the book now, it naturally opens to a page where I had to list 19 things I like about myself followed by 19 things I am good at. Here are just some of the things I’ve come to realise:
- I like that I look like my Mum
- I like that I am OK when I’m on my own
- I like that I still get ID’d
- I like that I stand my ground
- I am good at food photography
- I am good at finding my way around London
- I am good at painting the nails on my right hand
- I am good at arranging flowers
Being me, as it turns out, is awesome, and Laura taught me that in under 200 pages and for less than $15. Laura, if you ever read this, know that I may well name my first child after you, even if it’s a boy, and I will be forever grateful for your “dream bigger” attitude.
This final book is one that I am in the process of reading for the first time. So far I am feeling engaged and powerful- rare emotions for a person living with Bipolar II during a depressive episode. In the same line of thinking as Williams’ book, Hay peppers hers with sections for you to complete on your own. I find this style of self help book so worth while as you can come back and check in on your progress, and make the journey from start to finish your own using your own words. She starts by discussing the most damaging word in the English language- should. Should tells us we are wrong.
“I should work out more” = “I’m a fat slob”
“I should stay quiet in this meeting” = “I’m not worth hearing”
Those = signs up there can easily be replaced with a “why?” and it will read just as nightmarish. The should chapter suggests that we swap every should for a could to help us work out what is holding us back. To restyle the above:
“I could work out more” = “I’m not sure where to start”
“I could stay quiet in this meeting” = “I’m sure my opinions will be well received”
In an instant I learned why and how my own brain was holding me hostage, and those = signs? They’re just “buts” now. When I think of all the things I should be doing, I believe I am only putting them off because I don’t want to do them. The truth is, I am not going to the gym because I’ve not been in months and I’m scared to start again surrounded by gym bunnies. I’ve not asked some of my UK girlfriends for a Skype because I don’t think they’ll have or make the time for me. Apply Dr Burn’s Inner Critic theory here and we’ll know that everyone at a gym is thinking the same thing, or thinking that they’re fucking amazing and spend the entire work out either sucking in their stomach or oozing what they believe is Big Dick Energy rather than working out. As for my UK girlfriends, ladies, I miss you terribly- I know the time difference sucks, but can we please make time for a Skype session soon? We have to much to catch up on, it’s too much to fit into an Instagram post or a WhatsApp message. Holla at ya girl.
The most powerful chapter of Hays’ book so far is called Daily Work. It calls on the reader to examine their routine and offers insightful suggestions on how to better manage things. It helps that she lists what she does on a daily basis. Meditation. Affirmations. Expressing gratitude. Enjoying exercise. Reading and learning. I claim that I do not have time for such things in my life, yet I can spend hours on a Netflix binge and not bat an eyelid. I know that everything I just listed would benefit me hugely, and I hope that by the time I reach the final chapter, I can at the very least be more sure of myself and thankful.
I want to extend a huge thank you if you made it this far. It was a long read and not an easy one. That thanks also extends to the many readers and followers who interacted with me on Instagram this week in preparation for this post. I am always wanting to improve myself and my health, and I have a new list of 5 books to read thanks to your suggestions. I will be heeding the advice of many and starting up with yoga again, as well as meditating more often. Self improvement cannot be limited to times of sadness or distress- we must all, depressives and non-depressives alike, strive to improve on how and who we are on the daily. I read somewhere that if you can’t look back on the previous year without a sense of pride, you are stagnant. I promise to you all now, that I will keep moving, flowing and growing.