Love is never enough. Madness is enough. It is complete, sufficient unto itself. You can only stand outside it, as a woman might stand outside a prison in which her lover is locked up. From time to time, a well-loved face will peer out and love floods back. A scrap of cloth flutters and it becomes a sign and a code and a message and all that you want it to be. Then it vanishes and you are outside the dark tower again. At times, when I was young, I wanted to be inside the tower so I could understand what it was like. But I knew, even then, that I did not want to be a permanent resident of the tower. I wanted to visit and even visiting meant nothing because you could always leave. You’re a tourist; she’s a resident.— "Em and the Big Hoom', Jerry Pinto,
Publishers Speaking Tiger recently published an anthology of personal essays titled A Book of Light: When a Loved One has a Different Mind, edited by writer and journalist Jerry Pinto. I would declare with certitude that it is perhaps the most important book of the year, chiefly because as a people we hardly ever talk about mental health with the seriousness it deserves.
Ours is a country with a very high suicide rate. Coupled with the lack of awareness about possible treatment options – which are now widely available, even in government hospitals – and niggling perceptions of social stigma, we struggle – for decades at a time – in the dark, alone, bereft, often unable to articulate the words out loud to seek help for ourselves or our family members and close friends.
A Book of Light collects 13 pieces based on the real-life experiences of people who have lived with and cared for loved ones suffering from mental illness (I deliberately use this ghastly phrase here) and have been generous enough to share these stories of darkness and light in public for others to take heart.
There could be no better editor for the project, of course. Jerry Pinto’s extraordinary debut novel Em and the Big Hoom, based on his own experiences with his mother’s battle with bipolar disorder, is a finely nuanced, profoundly moving book that has come out of India in recent years. At one point, the narrator says:
I had thought of starting a support group for carers, for those who lived with the mentally ill, but this kind of conversation unnerved me. In the days before the Internet, I put an ad in the papers. I didn’t get as many responses as I thought I would. One woman would turn up, but only if the place was Jungian. Another thought that it was a place where she could leave her brother while she took a break. A third wanted us to petition the government to set up more mental hospitals. Yet another said the group should be anonymous and modelled on Alcoholics Anonymous. No one could agree on the time and the place and the date.
This book is that support group – but without the specific individual annoyances. And you can add your own story to it in the confines of your home or head, whenever you are ready.
Meanwhile, we wanted to use A Book of Light (and Em and the Big Hoom) as a sort of twinned springboard to leap at light and start other conversations about mental health with five (fairly) extraordinary contemporary books that put “different” minds at their centre. They are drawn from diverse genres – fiction, humour, memoir, and there is even a cookbook – and will provide you with five very different narrative companions.
The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides
The third – and perhaps most perfect yet – novel by the prodigiously talented Jeffrey Eugenides is the story of three bright, sparky undergraduates in the Ivy League university, Brown, and their complicated relationships. The compelling if somewhat spoilt Madeleine Hanna, who is working on a thesis deconstructing “the marriage plot” in nineteenth century fiction, stumbles into marriage herself, with the brilliant manic-depressive polymath Leonard Bankhead.
Meanwhile, her former best friend, Mitchell Grammaticus, who has long been in love with her, studies religion and takes a gap year to volunteer in Calcutta (this bit of the novel you can justly hate for its clichés). The most memorable of the three protagonists, frozen in their eternal triangle is, however, Leonard, the scientist. Eugenides has charted his journey with manic depression in the early 1980s (when lithium was just being deployed as the miracle treatment) with simultaneous sensitivity and flamboyance, marking him out perhaps as the right anti-hero for our times.
True mania, this time. So many magnitudes behind the exhilarated spirits of his high school days that it bore little resemblance. Mania was a mental state every bit as dangerous as depression. At first, however, it felt like a rush of euphoria. You were completely captivating, completely charming; everybody loved you. You took ridiculous physical risks, jumping out of a third-floor dorm room into a snowbank, for instance. It made you spend your year’s fellowship money in five days. It was like having a wild part in your head, a party at which you were the drunken host who refused to let anyone leave, who grabbed people by the collar and said, ‘Come on. One more!’ When those people inevitably did vanish, you went out and found others, anyone and anything to keep the party going. …
Like a drunk on a bender, Leonard had a blackout afterward. He woke up next to Lola Lopez in a state of utter collapse. …
It seemed especially cruel, then, when three days later, in the hospital, when the doctor came into the room to tell Leonard that he suffered from something that would never go away, something that could only be “managed,” as if managing, for an eighteen-year-old looking out on life, could be any life at all.
Saved by Cake: Over 80 Ways to Bake Yourself Happy, Marian Keyes
Bestselling writer Marian Keyes has always been open about her past. In her thirties, she suffered from acute alcoholism and tried to take her life.
Writing her first novel, Watermelon, had in some ways interrupted that tragic arc, and she did manage to step back from the brink then, and several times after. Keyes has gone on to write about addiction (drugs in Rachel’s Holiday and alcohol in Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married and This Charming Man) with great insight, empathy and candour.
Around two years before Saved By Cake, Keyes entered another period of crippling depression, when she would sit in front of a blank screen for hours and forget what she was there for. She was unable to type a word, let alone write another book, which was probably already due.
Everything looked ugly and pointy and scary, even babies and flowers and Mulberry bags… I wondered if I’d accidentally managed to die without noticing it – and was in hell.
Unable to face the blank screen anymore, at one point, she took to driving around vaguely, offering lifts to unsuspecting pedestrians who would flip out and run away imagining her to be some sort of serial killer. Eventually, she decided to bake a birthday cake for a friend who was visiting. It helped so much that she took to baking. Soon, the meditative powers of creaming eggs and sugar, sifting and folding flour, melting chocolate slowly, mixing batter and inventing flavour combinations, eased her into a sort of self-therapy. “I need to tell you that baking hasn’t ‘cured’ me," she writes.
But it gets me through…To be perfectly blunt about it, my choice sometimes is: I can kill myself, or I can make a dozen cupcakes. Right. So, I’ll do the cupcakes and I can kill myself tomorrow.
The recipes offer a backstory each, charming names (“Consistently Reliable Cupcakes” and “Shoes and Handbag Biscuits”), they are often wildly inventive (take, for instance, Carrot Cake Cupcakes topped with marzipan carrots “planted” in “earth” made from Coco Pops, Wasabi And White Chocolate Cupcakes With Salted Caramel Icing, and Slightly Sinister Star Anise Cupcakes with black icing and a liquorice topping) and teach a novice how to bake – and breathe – with the kindness of an older best friend. The perfect book to read in bed on a melancholy, rainy afternoon.
The Man Who Could Not Stop, David Adam
Having suffered from acute Obsessive Compulsive Disorder for two decades, David Adam decided to write a searching book chronicling his own enquiry into the subject. In the process, he crafts an exhaustively researched and deeply open neuro-memoir of suffering, survival and sublimation that will terrify you with its honesty and fill you with a fragile empathy for the unwitting victims of OCD:
I never smoked but I imagine that to resist the compulsions of OCD is what must be like to try to quit cigarettes. Like sticking to a diet, to stop the compulsive checks ultimately comes down to willpower. But what must be resisted in OCD is not a physical craving, but the mental pull of your own consciousness. In the grip of a compulsive urge there is nowhere to hide and nothing to reason with. To resist a compulsion with willpower alone is to hold back an avalanche by melting the snow with a candle. It just keeps coming and coming and coming. The obsessions and compulsions of OCD are linked by a force of nature so strong that to break the connection demands almost supernatural effort. When I was in the grip of the worst of OCD, if you had asked me not to investigate suspicious red stains on a communal towel, you may have ordered me to fly or shoot thunderbolts from my fingers.
If OCD is your friendly neighbourhood monster then you must read this book. (And if you prefer fiction on the subject, there is also A Place Called Here by bestselling novelist Cecilia Ahern.)
The Sibius Knot, Amrita Tripathi
It is only much later, after he dies, that I realise I have to tell the world what we were getting up to. Fighting for all your souls, and you didn’t even realise. I hit college when Mario takes his battle to the Darkness itself. Getting inside the drug haze, fighting inside out – sure, you could say that’s what killed him, an overdose, that’s what doctors say, but I know different.
I looked into its eyes, dammit. Death killed him. Just like that.
Amy, Tara and Mario are children of the nineties, growing up across cities and continents, and together with their bravely scrappy bunch of friends – Little Bastard, Seema, Preetha, Dan, Sid, Dhruv and Ruchika – they face HH, the mysterious, malevolent and all-powerful foe. Who is HH? What is it that governs his/her choice of “others”? And what does the sibius knot, “a one-way route to death and the devil, distorted inheritor of the Mobius Strip”, have to do with all this?
This book is the ultimate outlier: it falls squarely in the realm of experimental fiction, yet you’ll find yourself sitting up at night, turning the pages obsessively, as though it is a thriller. On second thoughts, it is a bit of a thriller too.
In the Acknowledgements, Tripathi writes:
This is clearly a work of fiction, but there are some fundamental truths here. One in four people will have a mental health problem in their lifetime – I daresay four out of four people will need some sort of help at some point. Not all of them will be able to get it.
If you’re one of the tribe trying to survive the darkness, you know it’s pretty much bashing on, day by day…
Impossible to categorise – or ignore – The Sibius Knot is a brave book that demands to be read, re-read and remembered.
Furiously Happy, Jenny Lawson
Jenny Lawson is better known by her online avatar: the Bloggess. Her eponymous blog, in which she talks of her eccentric antics, charming long-suffering husband, taxidermy and other world-changing stuff became such a sensation that Nielsen recognised her as one of the Top 50 Most Powerful Mom Bloggers and Forbes listed thebloggess.comLet’s Pretend This Never Happened shot to no.1 on the New York Times bestseller list upon publication.
Recently, Lawson fell into a severe bout of depression (“I’ve struggled with many forms of mental illness since I was a kid, but clinical depression is a semi-regular visitor and anxiety disorder is my long-term abusive boyfriend”) and when the going got very tough, she wrote a spontaneous post on her blog:
I am fucking done with sadness, and I don’t know what’s up with the universe lately but I’ve HAD IT. I AM GOING TO BE FURIOUSLY HAPPY, OUT OF SHEER SPITE.
… In fact, I’m starting a whole movement right now. The FURIOUSLY HAPPY movement. And it’s going to be awesome because first of all, we’re all going to be VEHEMENTLY happy, and secondly because it will freak the shit out of everyone…
Within a few hours #FURIOUSLYHAPPY was trending worldwide on Twitter as people started talking about reclaiming their lives from the monster.
Furiously Happy, the book, is a collection of pieces in Lawson’s signature style – honest, hysterical and so hilariously insane that every ten minutes you have to put the book down and exhale loudly. When you are not ROFLing over the prose, you’ll find yourself searching “where to buy taxidermied raccoons” on Google. You might also find eerie similarities in your relationship with your spouse, as Lawson’s with Victor (he of charming, long-suffering fame) – but maybe that’s just me.
Devapriya Roy is the author of two and a half books and a PhD dissertation. Her second novel, The Weight Loss Club, deals, among other things, with postpartum depression, another silent killer that nobody talks about.