There are so many niche genres in the world of literature, and over the next couple of days we’re going to be spotlighting some memoirs about people with mental health problems. Today we’ll cover women, and tomorrow we’ll be back with memoirs by men, to give a full and inclusive view of this sensitive topic, break down the boundaries and stigma that surround it, and show that these issues can affect everyone, no matter what walk of life we are from.
Through literature we learn understanding, we see ourselves reflected, and we start conversations, and that’s why books about all topics are important. So whether you just want to understand mental health a little better, or whether you want to read about people who might be facing the same challenges as you, here are ten memoirs by women with mental health issues.
Down Came the Rain – Brooke Shields
When Brooke Shields welcomed her newborn daughter to the world, her joyful expectations were quickly followed by something unexpected–a crippling depression. In what is sure to strike a chord with the millions of women who suffer from depression after childbirth, Brooke Shields shares how she, too, battled a condition that is widely misunderstood, despite the fact that it affects many new mothers. She discusses the illness in the context of her life, including her struggle to get pregnant, the high expectations she had for herself and that others placed on her as a new mom, and the role of her husband, friends, and family as she struggled to attain her maternal footing in the midst of a disabling depression.
Ultimately, Brooke shares how she found a way out through talk therapy, medication, and time.
Willow Weep for Me – Meri Nana-Ama Danquah
Meri Nana-Ama Danquah is an immigrant artist and poet. In this strikingly honest memoir she writes about living with depression as a black women.
The 1998 memoir is an unflinching account of one woman’s personal struggle with depression, the hidden roots of her illness, the effect it had on her life, and her ability to cope with the disease.
Furiously Happy – Jenny Lawson
In Furiously Happy, a humor memoir tinged with just enough tragedy and pathos to make it worthwhile, Jenny Lawson examines her own experience with severe depression and a host of other conditions, and explains how it has led her to live life to the fullest:
“I’ve often thought that people with severe depression have developed such a well for experiencing extreme emotion that they might be able to experience extreme joy in a way that ‘normal people’ also might never understand. And that’s what Furiously Happy is all about.”
Fast Girl – Suzy Favor Hamilton
During the 1990s, three-time Olympian Suzy Favor Hamilton was the darling of American track and field. But her perfect facade masked a dark truth: manic depression and bipolar disorder that drove her obsession to perform and win. For years after leaving the track, Suzy wrestled with her condition, as well as the loss of a close friend, conflicted feelings about motherhood and her marriage, and lingering shame about her athletic career. After a misdiagnosis and a recommendation for medication that only exacerbated her mania and made her hypersexual, Suzy embarked on a new path, and assumed a new identity. Fueled by a newfound confidence, a feeling of strength and independence and a desire she couldn’t tamp down, she became a high-priced escort in Las Vegas, working as “Kelly.”
But Suzy could not keep her double life a secret forever. When it was eventually exposed, it sent her into a reckless suicidal period where the only option seemed out. In this startling frank memoir, she recounts the journey to outrun her demons, revealing how a woman used to physically controlling her body learned to come to terms with her unstable mind. It is the story of a how a supreme competitor scored her most important victory of all—reclaiming her life from the ravages of an untreated mental illness.
An Unquiet Mind – Kay Redfield Jamison
Dr. Jamison is one of the foremost authorities on manic-depressive (bipolar) illness; she has also experienced it firsthand. For even while she was pursuing her career in academic medicine, Jamison found herself succumbing to the same exhilarating highs and catastrophic depressions that afflicted many of her patients, as her disorder launched her into ruinous spending sprees, episodes of violence, and an attempted suicide.
Here Jamison examines bipolar illness from the dual perspectives of the healer and the healed, revealing both its terrors and the cruel allure that at times prompted her to resist taking medication. An Unquiet Mind is a memoir of enormous candor, vividness, and wisdom—a deeply powerful book that has both transformed and saved lives.
This Fragile Mind – Charlotte Pierce-Baker
A step away from the rest of the list, this is a woman’s view of helping her child deal with a mental health issue.
Told in a mother’s own words, this is a moving story of a loving African American family that faces the daily crisis of an unpredictable mental disorder. Charlotte Pierce-Baker and her husband did everything right when raising their son Mark: providing emotional support, the best education possible, and the freedom to choose his own path. At age 25, Mark was pursuing a postgraduate degree in film, living with his fiancée, and seemingly in control of his life, so Pierce-Baker never imagined her high-achieving son would wind up handcuffed, barely clothed, dirty, mad, and in jail. Mark’s bipolar disorder manifested late and included hospitalizations, calls in the night, pleas for money, jail, lawyers, prescriptions, doctors, alcohol and drug relapses, and continuous disputes about how to live—and not live. This autobiography weaves a fascinating story of mental illness, race, family, the drive of African Americans to succeed, and a mother’s love for her son.
Prozac Nation – Elizabeth Wurtzel
Elizabeth Wurtzel writes with her finger on the faint pulse of an overdiagnosed generation whose ruling icons are Kurt Cobain, Xanax, and pierced tongues. Her famous memoir of her bouts with depression and skirmishes with drugs, Prozac Nation is a witty and sharp account of the psychopharmacology of an era for readers of Girl, Interrupted and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.
My Body is a Book of Rules – Elissa Washuta
As Elissa Washuta makes the transition from college kid to independent adult, she finds herself overwhelmed by the calamities piling up in her brain. When her mood-stabilizing medications aren’t threatening her life, they’re shoving her from depression to mania and back in the space of an hour. Her crisis of American Indian identity bleeds into other areas of self-doubt; mental illness, sexual trauma, ethnic identity, and independence become intertwined. Sifting through the scraps of her past in seventeen formally inventive chapters, Washuta aligns the strictures of her Catholic school education with Cosmopolitan’s mandates for womanhood, views memories through the distorting lens of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and contrasts her bipolar highs and lows with those of Britney Spears and Kurt Cobain. Built on the bones of fundamental identity questions as contorted by a distressed brain, My Body Is a Book of Rules pulls no punches in its self-deprecating and ferocious look at human fallibility.
Haldol and Hyacinths – Melody Moezzi
Born to Persian parents at the height of the Islamic Revolution and raised amid a vibrant, loving, and gossipy Iranian diaspora in the American heartland, Melody Moezzi was bound for a bipolar life. At 18, she began battling a severe physical illness, and her community stepped up, filling her hospital rooms with roses, lilies and hyacinths.
But when she attempted suicide and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, there were no flowers. Despite several stays in psychiatric hospitals, bombarded with tranquilizers, mood-stabilizers, and anti-psychotics, she was encouraged to keep her illness a secret—by both her family and an increasingly callous and indifferent medical establishment. Refusing to be ashamed or silenced, Moezzi became an outspoken advocate, determined to fight the stigma surrounding mental illness and reclaim her life along the way.
Divided Minds – Carolyn & Pamela Spiro
Growing up in the fifties, Carolyn Spiro was always in the shadow of her more intellectually dominant and social outgoing twin, Pamela. But as the twins approached adolescence, Pamela began to succumb to schizophrenia, hearing disembodied voices and eventually suffering many breakdowns and hospitalizations.
Divided Minds is a dual memoir of identical twins, one of whom faces a life sentence of schizophrenia, and the other who becomes a psychiatrist, after entering the spotlight that had for so long been focused on her sister. Told in the alternating voices of the sisters, Divided Minds is a heartbreaking account of the far reaches of madness, as well as the depths of ambivalence and love between twins. It is a true and unusually frank story of identical twins with very different identities and wildly different experiences of the world around them.