The Hilarious World of Depression podcast recently asked listeners to recommend books that get depression right. The results were far from depressing.
I Didn’t Know I was Depressed
When I picked up a copy of Peter D. Kramer’s Listening to Prozac, depression was the last thing on my mind. The reviews focused on the sexier ethical and societal implications of changing one’s true personality through drug use.
I was working in advertising and writing plays at the time. Writing a Pygmalion-like social satire about a designer drug that could create a six- or seven-figure income personality seemed worthwhile.
A peculiar side-effect of reading the book was my first exposure to depression screening questions. I had always chalked up my moods and variable stamina to artistic temperament and allergies. Here, I learned that my collection of lifelong symptoms went by another name: clinical depression.
Prozac wasn’t the answer. But before picking up a book about the history of depression and its treatment, it never occurred to me that there was a question.
How Reading These Books Can Help
The novels, memoirs, and non-fiction works below helped The Hilarious World of Depression listeners (affectionately known as THWoD-balls) practice self love and get serious about treatment. They also offered hope, helped readers process their childhood, teenage years, motherhood, understand what loved ones with depression were going through, and gave them language to describe their experience.
Ten Minute Exercise
The podcast episode “Jenny Lawson and Books That Get Depression Right” runs 35 minutes, and includes the names and locations of the listeners (which I won’t attempt here due to the hazards of phonetic misspelling). I categorized and condensed their recommendations for an episode summary that can be read in less than ten minutes.
1. Use these thumbnail recommendations to find a book that speaks to your situation or that of a loved one.
2. Put a hold on that book at your local library or order a copy if you prefer to own books.
3. See if the book offers any helpful ideas or insights.
Spoiler Alert: I’m going with The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time by Alex Korb
Little Panic: Dispatches from an Anxious Life by Amanda Stern and First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Journey Through Anxiety by Sarah Wilson
“Both of these books talk about the authors’ experiences as highly anxious children, and reading them helped me connect events from my childhood to my anxiety, rather than how it felt and how I viewed it for so many years, which is that I wasn’t brave enough, or strong enough, or capable enough, or whatever it is that I wasn’t ______ enough to go through them on my own.”
Struggles of Young Adulthood
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
“One of the quotes from the book reads, ‘So this is my life, and I want you to know that I’m both happy and sad, and I’m still trying to figure out how that can be.'”
“Fagan’s book can help us talk more realistically about the pressures that affect an eighteen-year-old’s mental health, and maybe help concerned adults spot problems sooner.”
Empty by K. M. Walton
“The book really portrays a young adult’s mind going through multiple things. Dell the main character has to deal with anxiety, depression, an abusive mother, bullying at school, suicidal thoughts, and her constant battle with her body weight and image.”
Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America by Elizabeth Wurtzel
“I read it first when I was in high school and my sister was experiencing depression, and I wanted to try to understand what she was going through… A few years later, I started experiencing depression, and I went back to Prozac Nation. And as I re-read it, I kept thinking, how does she know what’s going on in my mind?”
“I love that it addresses a huge misconception about depression, which is that depression equals a bad parent whose children grow up to ultimately resent them. This book shows a child who grows up to adore their parent and to write a book about their happy and perfect childhood, and how proud they are of their parent.”
Where’d You Go, Bernadette: A Novel by Maria Semple
“As a new mom it’s easy to feel overwhelmed or like the life that you thought it was going to be isn’t exactly what you turned out to have, and that desperation to get it back can lead to some pretty severe depression.”
Case Histories and Science
Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide by Kay Redfield Jamison
“Most of this book is an academic study of suicide from cultural, neurological, and other perspectives, but what made it resonate with me was Jamison’s inclusion of personal narratives, including her own struggle with bipolar disorder and suicidality. On top of being an established academic, Jamison is a terrific writer, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading what she had to say.”
“The recommendations suggested in the book are nothing you haven’t heard before, but it actually tells you how they work, which will most likely inspire you to persevere.”
The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon
“One passage sticks out to me that I think about a lot. He talks to a woman who says, ‘You don’t think in depression that you’ve put on a gray veil and are seeing the world through the haze of a bad mood. You think that the veil has been taken away, the veil of happiness and that now you’re seeing truly.'”
An Illustrated Favorite
“One of the first times when I felt so seen that I almost thought she had been living with me and had been documenting my life.”
The Bible (The Psalms of David)
“God called David a man after his own heart, which helped me to no end when I thought about the struggles that David faced, and the fact that God still loved and cherished him, and saw him, and accepted him as flawed, and still the man that David was supposed to be. And perhaps that God in his wisdom and love and struggles looking at his own creation might go through the same.”
Finding the Right Words
Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig
“Something about this book nails exactly what it’s like to live with these unwelcome little guests of anxiety and depression in your mind day to day. If I wasn’t nodding in agreement along with the way that Matt explains things, I was grabbing a highlighter to mark them because he explained them in a way that I had never thought of.”
Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig
“Intended as a kind of antidote to modern life and the way that that can contribute to making us all unhappy.”
- Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir
- Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things
- You Are Here: An Owner’s Manual for Dangerous Minds by Jenny Lawson
“Depression isn’t funny, but we are. Jenny reminds us that humor can be found in difficult times… Finding real talk like hers helps to empower self love and strengthens us to stand up for folks with brain illnesses… We find common ground in her writings, and that creates dialogue. Jenny Lawson brings the monsters out from under our beds.”
“You do a good job of rinsing your sorrow out with joy.”
Welcome to My Planet by Shannon Olson
“She totally nails how there doesn’t have to be anything exactly wrong in order to suffer from depression. The main character, also called Shannon, has decent people in her life, good things around her, but those people and those things can’t fix everything.”
Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron
“One thing that resonated with me was Styron’s complaint about the word depression to describe depression… ‘Brainstorm… has unfortunately been preempted to describe intellectual inspiration, but something along these lines is needed. Told that someone’s mood disorder has evolved into a storm, a veritable howling tempest in the brain, which is indeed what a clinical depression resembles like nothing else, even the uninformed layman might display sympathy rather than the standard reaction.'”