The Value of Mental Health Memoirs From the Sidelines

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Mental health memories They have always been my jam. First, it was the Beatrice Sparks books that claimed to have been plucked from anonymous teen diaries, and then I moved on to the great books like Prozac Nation and girl, interrupted and running with scissors. I gobbled up as many as I could find in my library and haven’t stopped since. But one avenue that is largely missing from the space is mental health memoirs at the margin, that is, from the perspective of caregivers, parents, siblings, children, partners, and friends of people with serious mental illness.

A mental health memo usually comes from the person experiencing the illness, to get a sense of what it feels like to have your brain working against you. But the thing about mental illness, just like any other illness, is that it belongs to the person diagnosed and what’s more everyone close to that person. It is the child’s fear of one day having children of their own and transmitting the disease from their mother to him. It is the brother’s fault for being the healthy one. It is the partner’s anguish at the idea of ​​losing his person.

Many more mental health memoirs are coming out these days, often by young writers, but memoirs from the sidelines remain relatively rare. And it is desperately needed. Not only for the morbid and empathetic, like me, but for people who find themselves in similar situations without books to guide or comfort them.

Cover of the book My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward by Mark Lukach: a couple embracing on a beach seen from behind

The first memory I found that fit this mold was brain on fire by Susannah Cahalan, in which a journalist searches through her medical records, diary entries, and copious notes from parents to tell the story of her month-long episode of paranoia and catatonia. She gets the information from outside, with no recollection of the seizures she had or the words she yelled at her while she was tied to her hospital bed. She is writing about a version of herself that she was not aware of experiencing or witnessing.

On My lovely wife in the psych ward by Mark Lukach, has a front row seat to the agonizing months when his wife became someone he didn’t recognize, spent some 20 days in a mental hospital, and remained in a state of depression for some time afterward. He writes candidly about how devastating and exhausting it is to see someone you love being overtaken by a force that is not their own. During those months, he didn’t have any books from an outside perspective to guide him, so he wrote this to maybe help someone else one day.

This book made me re-evaluate all the ways I dealt with my own depression and showed me how to be a better partner, especially in how I talk about myself when the darkness is especially powerful. When I first wrote about this book, it was 2017 and my partner and I were a new couple: we were recently married. I’m not saying it’s because of what this book taught us, but it’s not no Saying that.

At the other extreme of lateral experience is the other perfect by Kyleigh Leddy, an astonishing memoir about being the healthy sister in a dynamic duo, growing up in the shadow of schizophrenia, and ultimately losing that built-in best friend.

Cover of the book Everything is Fine by Vince Granata: two boys in swimming trunks running along a beachCover of the book Everything is Fine by Vince Granata: two boys in swimming trunks running along a beach

Kyleigh’s sister, Kait, was six years older, elegant, and beautiful. Ella but she suffered several head injuries and began to change in terrifying ways when she reached adolescence. Kyleigh watched with a mixture of fear and annoyance as her sister bounced between health care facilities for years, until the night Kait disappeared. Kyleigh went to school the next day, assuming Kait would show up and everything would go back to normal. But she was never seen again and no body of hers was ever found.

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Her sister’s experience led Kyleigh to study psychology, work as a mental health advocate, and learn as much as she could about psychotic disorders. the other perfect it’s a partial memory of Kait, but also a memory of Kyleigh finding the best way to honor her sister.

Another absolutely heartbreaking memory of a brother is Everything’s fine by Vince Granata. Vince’s brother, Tim, has schizophrenia and, during an episode of psychosis without medication, killed his mother in his house. He was sentenced to 60 years in a psychiatric facility. Vince still visits him and loves him like he always did. This book is a stunning look at pain, love, and mental illness, and how to continue to love someone after their illness caused them to do something horrible.

Each of these experiences is as vital as the narrative of mental illness in the first person. There are many more people outside than inside, and their stories must also be told. Sharing more of these stories could change countless lives and empower caregivers, simply by existing in the world for anyone to pick up.


Other readings: 9 Graphic Memories of Emotionally Devastating Mental Illness

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