5 Books That Portray Mental Illness With The Humanness It Deserves
I recall a presentation by a former batchmate who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder at a young age. She kept it a secret for a long time, because of the stigma attached to having a psychological illness. It was when she came to accept that she is not her illness that she began talking about it. After all these years, I don't recall most of what she said, but one thing that remains etched in my memory is these words she spoke: "I am not bipolar. I have bipolar."
Much like her, characters in these books aren't their mental illness; they simply have a mental illness. Their stories and relationships are so powerful that you often forget the label they live with.
Girl in White Cotton by Avni Doshi
The narrator Antara's mother is forgetting, thanks to an ageing brain. But, even though the story begins with the mother's failing memory, and visits to the doctor to figure out what's "wrong", it is much more than that. It's about who she is and was - with all her imperfections and idiosyncrasies. It's about a daughter who feels unloved by a perfectly healthy mother. It's about anger and disappointment, and little moments of joy. Just like life is for anyone, with or without a mental illness.
An Unquiet Mind by K.R Jamison
The one scene from the book that still stands out for me is where Jamison describes running around the parking lot of her university campus where she is a tenured professor, at an ungodly hour. She had been going through a manic phase, and had learnt that running was helpful in containing the burst of energy that comes with it. This autobiographical account of living with bipolar disorder shows that while things might get tough, a mental illness doesn't mean you can't have a successful career or fulfilling relationships.
Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto
What would it be like to be raised by a mother who has schizophrenia? It would have a lot of ups and downs, yes; moments of intimacy, and moments of repulsion perhaps; some heart-to-heart conversations, some secrets; ritualistic chit-chat over chai followed by periods of silence and distance. Just like being raised by a mother who doesn't have schizophrenia.
Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
Lia suffers from anorexia, and sometimes cuts herself. Neither of the two mean she must be force-fed and locked in a room with no sharp objects. She's human. She has social struggles and deals with peer pressure just like the rest of us, all the while making sure her mental illness doesn't become her.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
This book, which has also been adapted to film, will haunt you for a long time after you read it. Not because there are five teenage suicides in the book. But because the teenagers are so relatable and endearing. But, they are depressed. Since adolescence is often characterised by a sulky gloominess, juvenile depression is often easy to miss. This is a story of such missable depression, and one of grief. When it comes to mental health, the Virgin Suicides demonstrates how it is not always about labels.