Being an English Literature student, books had always been my form of therapy for most things… Sad? Read a book. Happy? Read a book. Hungry? Read a book. It goes on.
Last year, at the hands of PTSD, I had a nervous breakdown. It hit me at full speed and knocked me off my feet, and the months that followed saw depression and severe anxiety take total control over my mind, body and spirit. Anyone who witnessed it recalls that I became a total shell, and the person I was prior to it was certainly not there anymore. I dropped out of university with only a term left to go, was having multiple panic attacks daily, couldn’t eat or sleep properly, and quickly became severely agoraphobic. I’m not particularly comfortable with shouting it from the rooftops, because the stigma still lingers, however, in the hopes that what I’m about to talk about will help or comfort just one person, I’m more than happy to be open about it.
It’s no wonder that the only solace I found during this time was in literature. I can completely understand that there are many who, in my position, could never attempt to sit and read a book with an anxious, racing mind and fidgeting disposition, even if they wanted to. Nevertheless, here are some very similar, yet very different books that can, in my experience, shed a little light in the darkness and even help guide you out of it.
Matt Haig – Reasons To Stay Alive
I am in no way hesitant to admit that this book saved my life.
It was less a couple hundred pages bound together, more a dear friend. Matt Haig’s honest and reassuring words sparked a comforting sense in me that I was not alone, and that I was not the first human being in the world to endure this very harrowing yet human experience. The narrative flows so easily off the page that it wouldn’t be hard for the more apathetic reader to get through. It serves as a stark and powerful reminder that there is life after – as well as throughout –depression.
For someone like me, who didn’t feel remotely brave or functional enough for the real world at the time, one of the most valuable things I realised from reading it was that depression weaves a web of lies that create an illusion that nothing lives outside of it, and nothing thrives within it, that is the only way it survives itself. It is, at its core, an intensely personal account of one person’s experience of anxiety and depression, yet it is so extremely relatable and relevant that the ripples it creates through many of its readers are much more of hope than of further despair.
“Sometimes I doubted I would even make the next ten minutes. […] One of the key symptoms of depression is to see no hope. No future. […] So the fact that this book exists is proof that depression lies. Depression makes you think things are wrong.”
Silov and Manicavasagar – Overcoming Panic and Agoraphobia
This second book is somewhat on the opposite side of the spectrum, yet was equally as helpful to me. It is a self-help book by the name of ‘Overcoming Panic and Agoraphobia’ that is recommended on the Anxiety UK website.
It is an incredibly insightful book, almost a tool, as it is very much fact based – and facts are sometimes the very thing to strip anxiety of its power over you. Split into two parts, the former is heavily focused on the inner workings of panic, as well as the depression it can lead to. The latter part that follows very much explores the cognitive behavioral approach to coping with and recovering from the issue. The book is generously laced with quotes from real patients that are hugely relatable (which hugely helps beat the ‘I feel so incredibly alone’ feeling), and equips you with the knowledge to start seeing your illness in a more rational light, rather than the mental vice you may know it as from which there is no escape or hope of overcoming.
“Remember that your experience of anxiety, although painful, has taught you valuable lessons about the impact of stress on your health.”
Dr Claire Weekes – Self Help For Your Nerves
I read ‘Self Help For Your Nerves’ by Dr Claire Weekes after watching a Youtube video in which a favourite ASMR artist, ASMR Angel, recommended it (I would, FYI, fully encourage anyone suffering with even the slightest smidge of anxiety to give ASMR videos a try – it made a glorious dent in my insomnia).
This book was honestly a little hard to initially pick up; perhaps because I knew that the original edition was first published over 50 years ago in 1965 and I was worried it would be outdated. I also remember reading the title, rolling my eyes and thinking ‘Sure! Of course these are just NERVES!’. I’m pleased to say that I was unexpectedly surprised.
Dr Weekes is very methodical in her explanation about anxiety, and she deconstructs it to explore its symptoms, inner workings, and causes on a much deeper level. She gained my trust fairly early on in the first chapter and her words sparked a small light within me that grew the more I read on and learned to practice acceptance and to breathe through my anxiety. The tone she adopts in her narrative is both firm and professional, whilst simultaneously being gentle and almost motherly, which I found restored a great sense of balance and calm within me that remained steadfast throughout the remainder of the book.
“Each of us has unsuspected power to accomplish what we demand of ourselves, if we care to search for it. You are no exception. […] I have no illusions about you: I am not writing this book for the rare brave people, but for you, probably a sick, suffering, ordinary human being with no more courage than the rest of us.”
Paulo Coelho – The Alchemist
Although ‘The Alchemist’ is a book that can be enjoyed by anyone, I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone suffering with mental health issues. The number of people I have spoken to about this book whose instant reaction when bringing it up is ‘that book changed my life’ is unbelievable! It follows the journey of a young shepherd to fulfil his personal legend, encountering multiple obstacles along the way.
‘The Alchemist’ taught me to (without sounding horrendously cliché) really become in-tune with the things that my heart was trying to tell me when my brain was on a constant dysfunctional loop of flight-or- fight mode. The sheer wisdom and soulfulness that billows off the pages of this book is both exhilarating and heart-warming, and Coelho’s quietly explosive words make light work of doing a bit of soul-searching.
‘“My heart is afraid that it will have to suffer,” the boy told the alchemist one night as they looked up at the moonless sky. “Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself.”’
All of these books have the ability to give you some serious self-care time, as well as a gentle sense of routine, however, if you don’t feel like you can focus enough, it’s a good idea to try an audiobook and have it on in the background throughout your day. Or perhaps you’re not comfortable with the books I’ve suggested, and that’s totally fine too! Instead, you can try re-reading a book that that once lit a fire within you or defined a happy point in your life to create a sense of comfort, calm and familiarity. Returning to favourite authors or storybook worlds (Big shout out to Harry Potter) and immersing yourself in them can make you feel at home when ‘at home’ might be the furthest thing you’re feeling.
I am in no way a professional or expert on mental illness; I can only speak from first-hand experience on the things that helped me. This is just one piece of advice in an absolute sea of others, which I know can be a pretty hard place to navigate through when you can barely focus on one thing at a time. There will always be kindness in the world, and there will always be people who want to help, some of them just write books to do so. And please remember that sometimes, the power of words can offer a hope that nothing else ever will. I’m rooting for you.