I’ve always been a reader. Ever since I was a little girl, I loved to have stories read to me, and once I became an older child, it was always such a treat to visit the local library and load my arms with books I would take home to read, where I would lose myself in adventures.
I guess it’s not surprising that I became a librarian when I grew up—in fact, my 15-year anniversary with the Chicago Public Library is approaching in February. Needless to say, it is the longest I’ve ever held a job, and the one that’s reflected my passions the most.
Libraries, and especially free access to books, tie into #MentalHealthMonday in a few ways. Losing yourself in a story can be one of the healthier methods of escaping the stress and anxieties of real life. Studies have also proven that fiction readers often have a greater sense of empathy because through fiction they have developed the ability to walk in the shoes of other characters—sometimes a character who is completely different from them and who they would have known nothing about–and share their experience and learn about it. That includes, of course, stories about mental health.
When I first received my diagnosis of bipolar disorder, I couldn’t get enough of reading people’s memoirs about it. You would think this would have caused me trauma, and at times I did flinch at experiences that mirrored mine a little too closely. It also, however, gave me a sense of comfort. It demonstrated to me that I was not alone—other people had shared my experience and my symptoms, and recovered.
One of the most famous of such books and also one of the ones I related to the most was Kay Redfield Jamison’s memoir An Unquiet Mind. Dr. Jamison was training in the field of psychiatry when she began to experience symptoms much like some of her bipolar patients. I related in particular to Dr. Jamison’s post-manic crash and struggle through the resultant depression. She attempted to take her life by overdosing on lithium but her brother found her and she lived. She described experiencing a sudden horrific clarity about a lot of things she had done during her manic episode, and how her brother helped her go through a stack of receipts from her manic purchases and return what they could.
She also described seeing nothing but death for a long time, visualizing tombstones everywhere. This was so close to my experience, and she described it so well, that it was uncanny. But I knew how the story ended, and what eventually would happen to Dr. Jamison. She would become a successful psychiatrist and an author who helped many, many people by being open and honest about her experience, even when it could have jeopardized her career. She not only made it through the depressive side of manic depression; she thrived. During what was absolutely the darkest and worst period of my life, this book gave me a little sliver of hope and light.
That is the power of books and stories and of course, what I also hope to affect through films in Mental Filmness. The power to learn about and experience empathy with someone else, especially when that person may be stigmatized or misunderstood in some way. So I would like to celebrate the power of books on this #MentalHealthMonday.