A post in belated celebration of World Mental Health Awareness Day!

The evidence may only be anecdotal, but it really seems to me that with every year that goes by there are more and more people putting themselves out there on social media and in the public eye talking candidly about mental health.  The old adage that it’s good to talk has been, and still is, the cornerstone of many campaigns promoting awareness of the mind-centred problems that besiege so many millions of us.  As an avid reader, I find it interesting to think about the part that books have to play in stimulating the mental health conversation, and I want to share with you a few that have not only helped me, but whose wider influence I have witnessed first-hand.

Alongside an increase in online and media discussion has come a noticeable growth in the publishing of books – some factual, some not – that explore mental health issues.  Often our instinct is to seek out others whose experiences are similar to our own, and it’s a source of great comfort to me that whatever you’re struggling with, there will in all likelihood be someone somewhere who’s written about it.  It was for that reason I was drawn to “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop” by David Adam, an unflinchingly honest and illuminating book charting the author’s experience of OCD.  I’m fortunate enough not to suffer with that condition myself, but spending many years close to someone who does has raised many questions that I haven’t always felt able to ask.  Now here was someone who could explain to me in black and white something of what it’s like to live with these compulsions, without my feeling that I was being intrusive or inappropriate by wanting to know.  Matt Haig, in his book “Reasons to Stay Alive”, did a similarly excellent job of explaining depression from the point of view of someone who has himself been to places most of us cannot imagine.  The book was incredibly successful commercially, partly I think because so many of us have either experienced some level of depression ourselves or know someone who has; but also because he managed to put his feelings into the most perfect of words again and again.  Finding the most effective language with which to convey the sense of any mental health disorder can seem almost impossible, but this was a book I was ardently pressing into people’s hands telling them that, finally, here were the words that would make them begin to understand.

Responsibly researched fiction can also have a part to play, I believe, in helping to break down the taboos and the mystery surrounding many mental health conditions.  We’ve come a long way, mercifully, from the lunatic in the asylum motif of the gothic horror and into an era where there is in many instances a genuine desire to understand the suffering of others.  Nathan Filer’s remarkable novel “The Shock of the Fall” is one such example: a portrait of a man in excruciating mental anguish that has stayed with me for the past couple of years.  The author actually had experience in the nursing of mental health patients, and I think knowing that before I started reading gave me confidence that the book wasn’t going to be sensationalist, inaccurate or exploitative in any way.

Events such as World Mental Health Day are ideal opportunities to bring the issue back to the forefront of our minds, but the conversation has to continue every single day for it to have an ongoing effect.  The fact that there are so many books out there to help make this a reality is definitely something to be celebrated.

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My Top 5 Tearjerkers

I’m going to put this out there straight away: I cry a lot.  Charity TV adverts make me weep.  If someone writes something particularly nice in a greetings card, more tears.  I start crying telling people about things that have made me cry!  It verges on the ridiculous, is a constant source of embarrassment (many friends who’ve made the mistake of seeing a sad film at the cinema with me will testify to that) and it is also the subject of today’s blog.

The word “tearjerker” conjures up, for me at least, a very specific type of novel: Nicholas Sparks, maybe, or “The Fault in our Stars”.  If I stuck with that definition then this would be a very short article indeed as I usually steer clear of books with an overtly emotional theme.  Thinking over my reading history, however, there are still many books that have in places reduced me to a soggy mess of tears, despite the fact that you may not think of them as fitting the model of your classic tearjerker.  So I thought it would be interesting to share with you today the top 5 books that made me cry!

  1. The Mayor of Casterbridge – I first read this when I was studying it in sixth form and have vivid memories of having to hide watery eyes from my soulless classmates. Michael Henchard has got to be one of the most tragic figures in literature, his character failings bringing him crashing down time and time again in spite of his constant battle to make things right.  One of his last wishes is “that no man shall remember me”:  cue violent sobbing…
  2. Memoirs of a Geisha – to be denied a life that one could, and should by rights have had, is an almost unimaginable cruelty. But the agony of unrequited love is perhaps the greatest cruelty of them all.  There’s a line from this novel that I remember as if I only read it yesterday and it gets me every time it comes to mind:

 

“What if I came to the end of my life and realised that I’d spent every day watching for a man who would never come to me? …And yet if I draw my thoughts back from him, what life would I have?”

Anyone who’s ever experienced a love that was not returned will recognise the excruciating pain behind this paradox; the author hits the emotional nail right on the head.

  1. Ptolemy’s Gate – if you’ve never come across it, this is the final part of the Bartimaeus trilogy, a series of young adult novels featuring a boy magician and his wise-cracking demon accomplice. I think this might win the prize for the most emotionally shattering end to a series ever – when I’d finished I was in floods of tears…and then had to go back and read the last couple of pages again just to make sure I’d read what I thought I’d read!  Heart-wrenching but superb.
  2. The Boleyn Inheritance – this might seem a bit of an odd one to include on a list of tearjerkers, but I found this novel in Philippa Gregory’s Tudor series surprisingly upsetting. The reason is the author’s exceptionally clever take on Katherine Howard; the segments written from her point of view bring home precisely what she was, namely a naïve teenager manipulated by the trusted adults around her in their quest for power.  The horror lies in the fact that we know the terrible fate of this poor girl, but in this interpretation she is pathetically unaware of what is happening to her even in her final days.  It’s genuinely very emotional.
  3. The Shock of the Fall – this was one of the books everyone was talking about last year, and if you haven’t read it yet I’d thoroughly recommend it. Tears will be shed I promise you…and yet somehow, despite the fact that it deals with some very tough issues such as childhood death and severe mental illness, it doesn’t leave you feeling overwhelmed with sadness.  The image of a little girl burying her doll, however, in a scene whose significance bookends the novel, will stay with you for a long time.

Hopefully today’s blog post hasn’t thoroughly depressed everyone!  I do maintain there’s nothing like a good cry though, so as ever feel free to share the books that reduced you to tears!