Tag: mental health

Six Degrees of Separation: The Bell Jar

Posted 12 May, 2014 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in memes

The Bell Jar is the book I had been waiting my whole life for. I read it for the first time in 2010 and was completely blown away by it. The realism of this novel makes it a must read for anyone who has personal or familial experience with mental health, consider it a how not to manual.

In addition to mental health The Bell Jar touches on issues in feminism. This of course, must lead me to a Margaret Atwood novel. Why not go with my first Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale. I’ve said it many times on this blog, but it bears repeating, I picked up this book my senior year of high school just because there had been a controversy in the paper about banning it from public schools. I was totally hooked on Atwood after that.

Since, The Handmaid’s Tale was my first Atwood novel and also a dystopia, I suppose it’s only fair to travel back to the very first dystopian novel I read. George Orwell’s 1984. I fell in love with both Orwell and dystopias, I suppose I probably first read this sometime in high school.

I can’t think of reading in high school without thinking about my AP English Lit. class my senior year and I can’t think about that class without thinking about Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. If I remember correctly it was assigned as summer reading and it was by far the most unique book I had ever read at that point in my life. I’ve reread it a few times since, once while I was in the military and once again after I had gotten out. It meant radically different things to me during each different period of my life.

I spent much of my military service in Germany and seeing Europe. It turns out that London is my favorite place on Earth. One day, I’ll retire there just like the (Queen) Elizabeths. Forced to choose one, I’ll go with Alison Weir’s biography of The Life of Elizabeth I.

As badass as the (Queen) Elizabeths are,  do you know who my superhero is? That’s riiiight! George Washington. I haven’t made it through Chernow’s monster biography (Washington: A Life) yet, but my favorite George bio is Joseph J. Ellis’ masterpiece His Excellency: George Washington. Washington becomes more real and accessible than that kid who couldn’t even lie about chopping down a cherry tree.

I will fangirl all over myself all day over George if you let me, so wouldn’t it be appropriate to end this list with Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl?

So that’s how I get from The Bell Jar to Fangirl in six easy steps. Thanks to Annabel and Emma for hosting. Do you want to play? Here’s how:

April @ The Steadfast Reader



Release Day Review: Hyde

Posted 18 March, 2014 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

Release Day Review: HydeHyde by Daniel Levine
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on 2014
Genres: Classics, Fiction, Gothic, Historical, Horror, Literary
Pages: 397

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange honest review consideration. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

What happens when a villain becomes a hero? Mr. Hyde is trapped, locked in Dr. Jekyll’s surgical cabinet, counting the hours until his inevitable capture. As four days pass, he has the chance, finally, to tell his story—the story of his brief, marvelous life. Summoned to life by strange potions, Hyde knows not when or how long he will have control of “the body.” When dormant, he watches Dr. Jekyll from a remove, conscious of this other, high-class life but without influence. As the experiment continues, their mutual existence is threatened, not only by the uncertainties of untested science, but also by a mysterious stalker. Hyde is being taunted—possibly framed. Girls have gone missing; someone has been killed. Who stands, watching, from the shadows? In the blur of this shared consciousness, can Hyde ever be confident these crimes were not committed by his hand?

I enjoyed this book quite a lot. I love retelling of classic tales and this was not an exception. Levine twist Stevenson’s original story into something that I never considered when reading the original. 

I will say, if you haven’t read The Strange Case of Dr. Jeykll and Mr. Hyde, do that first. Levine makes this easy because he includes it in the back of this novel. (Public domain, what a wonderful thing.) It’s been a few years since I had read it and while I looked up a summary on Wikipedia – I think that this book would have been more enjoyable if I had actually re-read the entire thing. The tone of the book is very similar to the original so it’s not hard to imagine Hyde as a companion piece.

Though Stevenson’s original has been reimagined many times, including in a musical, Jekyll & Hyde, with David Hasselhoff, no less – here’s a clip of the confrontation between Jeykll and Hyde. I digress… 

I’m pretty sure that this is the first retelling of the story that turns Hyde into a truly sympathetic character. The reader feels sympathy and almost affection for Hyde, who is definitely among the more under-explored villans in literature. 

The mental health aspect of this book is also interesting. While it’s definitely not an academic tome on dissociative identity disorder I found it to be an interesting peek into what it might be like (in a highly stylized and romanticized way) to suffer such a condition.

If you’re into alternate tellings of classics ala Wicked, Hyde is probably a novel you’ll enjoy.

April @ The Steadfast Reader



Super Sunday: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened

Posted 2 February, 2014 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

Super Sunday: Let’s Pretend This Never HappenedLet's Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson
Published by Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated on 2012-04
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Essays, Form, Humor, Personal Memoirs, Women
Pages: 318

For fans of Tina Fey and David Sedaris—Internet star Jenny Lawson, aka The Bloggess, makes her literary debut.   Jenny Lawson realized that the most mortifying moments of our lives—the ones we’d like to pretend never happened—are in fact the ones that define us. In the #1 New York Times bestseller, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Lawson takes readers on a hilarious journey recalling her bizarre upbringing in rural Texas, her devastatingly awkward high school years, and her relationship with her long-suffering husband, Victor. Chapters include: “Stanley the Magical, Talking Squirrel”; “A Series of Angry Post-It Notes to My Husband”; “My Vagina Is Fine. Thanks for Asking”; “And Then I Snuck a Dead Cuban Alligator on an Airplane.” Pictures with captions (no one would believe these things without proof) accompany the text.

This is laugh like a crazy person funny. This is don’t read it in public because you’re going to get weird looks funny. Let’s Pretend This Never Happened is one of the funniest books I’ve read in a long time. Just thinking about it makes me have to clench my jaw to stifle giggles. I’m getting weird looks from my husband right now.

It’s best at the beginning, she really packs most of the hilarity in the first half of the book but there are still little places where I started laughing maniacally in the second half of the book as well. In the essay, “If You Need an Arm Condom, It Might Be Time to Reevaluate Some of Your Life Choices (Alternative Title: High School is Life’s Way of Giving You a Record Low to Judge the Rest of Your Life By)” she recounts a formative episode in her high school years where she impregnates a cow. 

I’m positive that there’s something deep and important there and even if there isn’t, well, at least I don’t have my arm stuck up a cow’s vagina.

So while clearly, this book is highly amusing, it also tackles a very important topic. Lawson speaks freely and honestly about her generalized anxiety disorder. This makes me happy for several reasons, not the least of which is that this book has brought tales and experiences of a mental health disorder to those who otherwise never would have experienced or read anything other than what mainstream media and Hollywood churns out. She undoubtably reaches a wide audience both with and without the mental health community. 

I love this book and think that everyone should read it. While some of the experiences are pulled from Lawson’s blog (The Bloggess) there’s a narrative flow to the book that makes it an excellent example of how to properly write a book after offered a book deal because of your blog.

One last personal note. 
I have a signed copy of this book. I went to a book signing with my sister in St. Louis. It was downtown and we underestimated her rabid popularity so we reserved a table at a nice restaurant before the signing. We had a few cocktails, shared a bottle of wine and then walked down to Left Bank Books where the event was being held. We were late, this meant that we were the second to last people in line. By the time we made our way to the signing table you could just tell she was totally exhausted. That didn’t stop her from being a total pro.

My sister was there on serious business, to get a book signed for a Christmas gift, so being a little intoxicated we had a long discussion on how we were going to have her inscribe it. At this point I’m waffling because I have an acquaintance who loves her, so I was thinking of getting it inscribed for her but then thought that might be weird. If I had known then what I know now about book collecting I would have just had her flat sign it, but I didn’t so here we are. 

Stephen King is hands down my favorite author. So when there are probably only five people left in front of us I turn to my sister and exclaim, “Do you think I could get her to sign it as Stephen King?!” my sister looks at me with dead eyes and hisses, “You wouldn’t.”  

Au contraire, ma soeur. My sister doesn’t like to inconvenience people and she doesn’t like to be embarrassed, so naturally I’m always inconveniencing her and doing inappropriate things to make her uncomfortable. I take her response as a dare.  

It’s our turn. I place my slip of paper on how I want her to sign it and as she lifts her pen I break in and say, “Hey, this is going to be weird, but can you sign it as Stephen King?” if she missed a beat, I didn’t notice it. She grinned at me and said, “Absolutely!” In retrospect she may have been thinking, “Almost done, just sign the signatures, at least you don’t have your arm in a cow’s vagina.” but if that’s what she was thinking, she never let it show. 

My sister was mortified and gave an uncomfortable laugh when I pointed it out. I think that she threatened my life several times on the way home, though you would have thought after growing up with me she would be used to it by now. 

April @ The Steadfast Reader



Mental Health Monday: The Silver Linings Playbook

Posted 4 November, 2013 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

Mental Health Monday: The Silver Linings PlaybookThe Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick
Published by Ottawa Books on April 27th 2010
Pages: 249

Meet Pat Peoples. Pat has a theory: his life is a movie produced by God. And his God-given mission is to become physically fit and emotionally literate, whereupon God will ensure him a happy ending—the return of his estranged wife, Nikki. (It might not come as a surprise to learn that Pat has spent several years in a mental health facility.)The problem is, Pat’s now home, and everything feels off. No one will talk to him about Nikki; his beloved Philadelphia Eagles keep losing; he’s being pursued by the deeply odd Tiffany; his new therapist seems to recommend adultery as a form of therapy. Plus, he’s being haunted by Kenny G! The former high school history teacher has just been released from a mental institution and placed in the care of his mother. Not one to be discouraged, Pat believes he has only been on the inside for a few months––rather than four years––and plans on reconciling with his estranged wife. Refusing to accept that their apart time is actually a permanent separation, Pat spends his days and nights feverishly trying to become the man she had always desired. Our hapless hero makes a friend in Tiffany, the mentally unstable, widowed sister-in-law of his best friend, Ronnie. Each day as Pat heads out for his 10-mile run, Tiffany silently trails him, refusing to be shaken off by the object of her affection. The odd pair try to navigate a timid friendship, but as Pat is unable to discern friend from foe and reality from deranged optimism, every day proves to be a cringe-worthy adventure.

The Silver Linings Playbook is beautiful. 

I wanted to do a book/movie review, but as it seems I will never get around to watching the movie that will just have to wait. NaNoWriMo looms.

It reads a bit like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time but it’s not like that. This book is about the love of family and friends and what it takes to deal with mental illness or brain-damage.. and what that means to those people suffering from such afflictions. 

I read a review that stated ‘This book ruins the endings to classic literature.” This should not be taken into account when deciding to read this. I almost didn’t read this because of that review! The protagonist briefly discusses The Scarlett Letter, The Bell Jar, and Catcher in the Rye. Don’t let that be the reason you don’t read this!


April @ The Steadfast Reader



Mental Health Monday: Gracefully Insane: The Rise and Fall of America’s Premier Mental Hospital

Posted 28 October, 2013 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

Mental Health Monday: Gracefully Insane: The Rise and Fall of America’s Premier Mental HospitalGracefully Insane by Alex Beam
Published by PublicAffairs on 2009
Genres: General, Health Care Delivery, History, Hospital Administration & Care, Medical, Mental Health, Mental Illness, Psychiatry
Pages: 297

Its landscaped ground, chosen by Frederick Law Olmsted and dotted with Tudor mansions, could belong to a New England prep school. There are no fences, no guards, no locked gates. But McLean Hospital is a mental institution-one of the most famous, most elite, and once most luxurious in America. McLean "alumni" include Olmsted himself, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, James Taylor and Ray Charles, as well as (more secretly) other notables from among the rich and famous. In its "golden age," McLean provided as genteel an environment for the treatment of mental illness as one could imagine. But the golden age is over, and a downsized, downscale McLean-despite its affiliation with Harvard University-is struggling to stay afloat. Gracefully Insane, by Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam, is a fascinating and emotional biography of McLean Hospital from its founding in 1817 through today. It is filled with stories about patients and doctors: the Ralph Waldo Emerson protégé whose brilliance disappeared along with his madness; Anne Sexton's poetry seminar, and many more. The story of McLean is also the story of the hopes and failures of psychology and psychotherapy; of the evolution of attitudes about mental illness, of approaches to treatment, and of the economic pressures that are making McLean-and other institutions like it-relics of a bygone age. This is a compelling and often oddly poignant reading for fans of books like Plath's The Bell Jar and Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted (both inspired by their author's stays at McLean) and for anyone interested in the history of medicine or psychotherapy, or the social history of New England.

Tedious. This book would be better described as the history of an elite mental health institution, the likes of which most of us will never see. Indeed, at the end the only remnant left of ‘the old days’ is a ‘ward’ for the super-rich. 

It’s also painfully apparent that the author has no understanding or serious conception what mental illness (or for that matter being in a ‘standard’ 21st century mental ward) is actually like. 

Decent if you’re looking for a historical perspective of McLean, rubbish if you’re looking at empathy or understanding or destigmatization of mental illness. 


April @ The Steadfast Reader



Mental Health Monday: Personal Thoughts

Posted 22 October, 2013 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in musings

So, it’s almost Halloween again and inevitably the Haunted Insane Asylums are cropping up, just like they always do.

I’m pretty neutral towards Halloween. I don’t hate it, but I’ve never been super excited about it like some people. I think it’s usually good clean fun with some make believe and a sack of candy that used to last me six months out of the year. But I’m also a believer that how we talk about things can lead to societal ‘norms’ regarding that thing. In short, words matter. Art matters. How we portray ‘insane asylums’ (see now: Behavioral Health Centers) – even in jest or fun during the Halloween season matters. Too often it leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

I know, I know! Everyone is tired of political correctness, and I agree too it can get in the way of innocent fun, but we have such a deep and terrible stigma against mental health in the United States that it is important that we change our thinking to understand that mental illness is just as serious and just as real as cancer and diabetes.

I just Googled ‘Haunted Cancer Wards’ I got zero hits back for a haunted house style cancer ward. My theory – people understand and respect that cancer is a real and tragic disease that individuals and their families must deal with – it’s not something to be made light of, it’s also not something that cancer patients CHOOSE to go through.

The National Alliance For Mental Illness (NAMI) states that suicide accounts for the deaths of nearly 30,000 Americans a year, and that 90% of people who commit suicide suffer from a mental illness. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. So, yeah, it’s a pretty big problem.

Here’s my point. I feel like that be creating ‘haunted insane asylums’ creates fear of mental patients in the ‘general population’. At best this is counterproductive and at worst actually harmful. One in four Americans suffer from mental illness and by portraying ‘mental patients’ as scary lunatics out for blood, murder, and mayhem furthers the stigma and may prevent people from getting the help that they need — because they think that they’re mental health recovery experience will result in a loss of control of their personal decisions and sanity, which more often than not is not true.

Anyway, just some feelings. I hope it’s not too soapbox-y. What are your thoughts? Am I too uptight? Spirited debate encouraged! 🙂

April @ The Steadfast Reader



Therapeutic Thursday: Next to Normal

Posted 17 October, 2013 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in

Next to Normal (musical)
music by: Tom Kitt, lyrics by: Brian Yorkey, directed by: Michael Greif (of Rent fame)
Winner: 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, (3) 2009 Tony Awards
Nominated: (11) 2009 Tony Awards, including Best Musical
I’m aware that this is a book blog, but we’re going to take a detour today for something that is very personal and important to me.
Next to Normal is a rock musical that follows the life and breakdown of Diana, wife, mother, and bi-polar depressive. It’s an extraordinarily powerful piece that chronicles and demonstrates not only what it is to live with mental illness, but what it is to live with someone you love and their mental illness. I first saw it with a professional touring cast in St. Louis’ Fabulous Fox Theater sometime while I was in law school. I had never heard of it but my legal ethics professor recommended it to me and I was able to get tickets. I saw it for the second time with a local St. Louis company – and while it wasn’t as powerful in less skilled hands, it still resonated true.
My husband openly wept through the entire thing, it hit so close to home. I compulsively listen to the soundtrack (for reasons I’m not clear on myself, catharsis?) and cry nearly every time I do. I’m not a crier. Art (literature, music, movies, etc.) rarely moves me to tears. (Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber should be a noted exception in the music category).
But Next to Normal is so powerful, so true, so real about what it’s like living with mental illness and the havoc it can wreak on a seemingly perfect little family. Don’t let me scare you away, it’s not a total downer, there is humor to be found even in the bleakest of situations. “Oh, doctor! Valium is my favorite color, how’d you know?”
So, take seven minutes and watch Alice Ripley’s performance (introduced by no other than Carrie Fisher, who’s had her own public struggles with mental illness) at the 2009 Tony Awards of one of the seminal numbers in the show, “You Don’t Know / I Am the One“. Ripley won the Tony for Best Leading Actress in a Musical that year and she totally deserved it. After that, I’d encourage you to listen to the entire musical. It’s one of the most convincing and amazing pieces of art that we have on this subject. And it’s spot on true.

April @ The Steadfast Reader



Mental Health Monday: Down Came the Rain

Posted 14 October, 2013 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

Mental Health Monday: Down Came the RainDown Came the Rain by Brooke Shields
Published by Hyperion Books on May 3rd 2005
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Depression, Family & Relationships, General, Motherhood, Parenting
Pages: 240

In this compelling memoir, Brooke Shields talks candidly about her experience with postpartum depression after the birth of her daughter, and provides millions of women with an inspiring example of recovery hen Brooke Shields welcomed her newborn daughter, Rowan Francis, into the world, something unexpected followed-a crippling depression. Now, for the first time ever, in Down Came the Rain, Brooke talks about the trials, tribulations, and finally the triumphs that occurred before, during, and after the birth of her daughter.

This is a quick read. The writing is a bit simplistic, but the intentions are fantastic and I love that it brings mental disorders (post-partum depression (PPD), specifically) front and center. I like that Brooke Shields as a celebrity was willing to share just how hard it was to cope with the (common!) depression that she had after giving birth.

In the book she continually reiterates that there is no one to blame for PPD and just because no one talks about it, doesn’t mean that it’s not real and more importantly, treatable. She also makes an effort to continually emphasize that PPD is nothing to be ashamed of.

As far as being a mother I had a hard time relating to the book, as I had no trouble conceiving (she speaks of her battle with getting pregnant and in vitro fertilization). I did not experience PPD (probably because I remained on my psycho-tropic medications through my pregnancy). Also, I did not experience the guilt of going back to work (law school in my case). 

Additionally, I was very well educated on PPD and medications related to it because of my previous battles with depression. But she talks of all these things candidly and encourages new mothers to remember that the feelings are normal and there is no shame in getting help – in fact getting help is the best thing that you can do for your new baby and family. 


April @ The Steadfast Reader



Monday Madness: Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness

Posted 30 September, 2013 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

Monday Madness: Darkness Visible: A Memoir of MadnessDarkness Visible by William Styron
Published by Open Road Media Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Depression, Medical, Mood Disorders, Personal Memoirs, Psychology, Psychopathology
Pages: 96

Styron’s stirring account of his plunge into a crippling depression, and his inspiring road to recovery In the summer of 1985, William Styron became numbed by disaffection, apathy, and despair, unable to speak or walk while caught in the grip of advanced depression. His struggle with the disease culminated in a wave of obsession that nearly drove him to suicide, leading him to seek hospitalization before the dark tide engulfed him. Darkness Visible tells the story of Styron’s recovery, laying bare the harrowing realities of clinical depression and chronicling his triumph over the disease that had claimed so many great writers before him. His final words are a call for hope to all who suffer from mental illness that it is possible to emerge from even the deepest abyss of despair and “once again behold the stars.” This ebook features a new illustrated biography of William Styron, including original letters, rare photos, and never-before-seen documents from the Styron family and the Duke University Archives.


“The madness of depression is, generally speaking, the antithesis of violence. It is a storm indeed, but a storm of murk. Soon evident are the slowed-down responses, near paralysis, psychic energy throttled back close to zero. Ultimately, the body is affected and feels sapped, drained.”

More of a long essay than a book, this piece is fantastic. It’s beautifully written by an author that many think was a major literary force in our time. (I sadly, have not read anything else by him but this.)  More importantly this piece accurately describes the feelings of being truly clinically depressed in a way that may be beneficial to individuals with a loved one who is dealing with the disease.

Depression, all mental illnesses really, are mysterious and misunderstood by those fortunate enough not to have ever experienced them. That’s why pieces like this are so important to educate the public at large, giving people some small insight – really just a glimmer – on what it is like to live day to day with some sort of mental illness. In this case of course, depression.

Though Styron’s journey ends in a way that is atypical to those suffering from clinical depression, the bulk of the book is extraordinarily accurate in its depiction of the disorder.

The brevity of this piece makes it a must read for everyone — especially those suffering from or living with someone suffering from a depressive mental illness.

“In depression this faith in deliverance, in ultimate restoration, is absent. The pain is unrelenting, and what makes the condition intolerable is the foreknowledge that no remedy will come—not in a day, an hour, a month, or a minute. If there is mild relief, one knows that it is only temporary; more pain will follow. It is hopelessness even more than pain that crushes the soul.”


April @ The Steadfast Reader



Monday Madness: Requiem for a Dream

Posted 23 September, 2013 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

Monday Madness: Requiem for a DreamRequiem for a Dream by Hubert Selby
Published by Thunder's Mouth Press on 1978
Genres: Fiction, General, Literary
Pages: 279

In this searing novel, two young hoods, Harry and Tyrone, and a girlfriend fantasize about scoring a pound of uncut heroin and getting rich. But their habit gets the better of them, consumes them and destroys their dreams. "Selby's place is in the front rank of American novelists. His work has the power, the intimacy with suffering and morality, the honesty and moral urgency of Dostoevsky's....To understand Selby's work is to understand the anguish of America." -- The New York Times Book Review

Requiem for a Dream is fabulous. It’s a perfect description of the subtle decline in to addiction and what a slippery slope the ‘I can stop any time.’ and ‘I would never do THAT for [enter addiction here]’.

The writing style is almost Faulkner-esque, so you have to pay attention or it’s really easy to lose who’s talking and what exactly they’re talking about (or doing). 
Highly recommended.
A short aside, I’m almost frightened to see the movie because of the power this book has, there are some horrible images that I think if presented properly in film, I would never be able to rid myself of them.
#291 – 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2010)

April @ The Steadfast Reader