Books That Saved My Life

1. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar? Really? I can hear you groaning. Stay with me. I discovered The Bell Jar when I was 15. I was in Barnes and Noble, looking for a book to take me far away from my teenage angst. This book did not exactly take me away from it, rather it plunged me further inside myself, deep enough to bring my pain and confusion to light.

The Bell Jar is a semi-autobiographical story about Esther Greenwood, a character based on Sylvia Plath herself. Esther Greenwood is a successful college student in New York on an internship. Despite her bright future, she feels lost and sad, bored by the men she dates and the events she’s supposed to attend as part of her internship. During a photo shoot, something you’d think would be exciting and fun for her, she starts crying for no reason at all. I related strongly to this. My smiles felt stale and forced. I always felt like I was on the verge of falling apart. Esther Greenwood seemed to have similar problems to me. I had just been diagnosed with depression and anxiety, so having my Esther’s similar thoughts and feelings typed out so clearly on the page was refreshing and relieving. I was not, in fact, alone.

Here are some quotes from the book that describe Esther’s battle with depression:

  • “I guess I should have reacted the way most of the other girls were, but I couldn’t get myself to react. I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.”
  • “All the heat and fear had purged itself. I felt surprisingly at peace. The bell jar hung suspended a few feet above my head. I was open to the circulating air. ”
  • “I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, “This is what it is to be happy.”

2. This is How by Augusten Burroughs

This is How

This is How is a book that stands apart from usual self-help books. It churns out advice weaved in with the author’s own interesting and funny experiences. The frank, dry sense of humor paired with the blunt advice makes for a book that cuts straight to the heart. Burroughs isn’t messing around. He cares about you in that stubborn, angry way. You’re going to get happy, find love, and be successful as if his damn life depends on it because he’s just not giving up on you. He knows what it feels like to be misunderstood. He knows what it feels like when chipper people tell you that it can’t that bad or if you’d just smile, everything would seem brighter. Burroughs knows this is bullshit. This book is full of real advice for real people. By the time I read the book, I was considering my career, lost between what I wanted to do and what others wanted me to do. This book showed me that there are weird people out there just like me who don’t fit perfectly in society and that we are welcome and needed. Burroughs writes in the voice of a friend who wants the best for you. He was a friend when I felt like I had none.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

  • “This is how you survive the unsurvivable, this is how you lose that which you cannot bear to lose, this is how you reinvent yourself, overcome your abusers, fulfill your ambitions and meet the love of your life: by following what is true, no matter where it leads you.”
  • “But feelings, no matter how strong or “ugly,” are not a part of who you are. They are the radio stations your mind listens to if you don’t give it something better to do. Feelings are fluid and dynamic; they change frequently.
  • “Miracles do happen. You must believe this. No matter what else you believe about life, you must believe in miracles. Because we are all, every one of us, living on a round rock that spins around and around at almost a quarter of a million miles per hour in an unthinkably vast blackness called space. There is nothing else like us for as far as our telescopic eyes can see. In a universe filled with spinning, barren rocks, frozen gas, ice, dust, and radiation, we live on a planet filled with soft, green leaves and salty oceans and honey made from bees, which themselves live within geometrically complex and perfect structures of their own architecture and creation. In our trees are birds whose songs are as complex and nuanced as Beethoven’s greatest sonatas. And despite the wild, endless spinning of our planet and its never-ending orbit around the sun–itself a star on fire–when we pour water into a glass, the water stays in the glass. All of these are miracles.”

3. The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness By Elyn R. Saks

The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness

The Center Cannot Hold is a memoir about a woman with schizophrenia that did not let her illness hold her back. She is a professor, lawyer, and a psychiatrist. Saks writes about experiencing her first symptoms of schizophrenia as a young child and up until her first suicide attempt as an adult. While this book stands alone as an inspirational story of a woman who refuses to give up despite crippling paranoia and hearing voices, as well as disorganized thought and speech, this story was especially helpful to me as a senior in high school and in the beginning of college when my symptoms of schizophrenia were worsening due to stress. I wasn’t diagnosed yet, and this book was a vital clue that helped me piece together my experiences to form a diagnosis and finally get the helped I needed. Saks discussion of her paranoia truly hit home because that is something I’ve struggled with as a young child, and hearing someone else put my vague free floating fears into words was eye-opening. I learned that my life was not, in fact, normal. No one else saw the monsters I did at night. No one else was terrified and unable to sleep, convinced people were trying to kill them. When I realized this, I was able to reach out for help.

These are a few quotes by Saks that stood out to me:

  • “Don’t focus on it,” she said. “Don’t define yourself in terms of something which even many highly trained and gifted professionals do not fully understand.”
  • In an interview: In a way, I had a very good and normal childhood. I had loving and caring parents. But I had a lot of quirks or problems when I was growing up. I had phobias and obsessions. I believed that there was a man standing outside of my window every night, waiting to break in and kill us all. A lot of kids have that fear, but mine lasted for years and years.
  • “My good fortune is not that I’ve recovered from mental illness. I have not, nor will I ever. My good fortune lies in having found my life.”

4. Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

Girl, Interrupted

Girl, Interrupted is a memoir about a girl with borderline personality disorder who goes to stay in a mental hospital at 18, intending to stay for only a little while. However, she stays for around two years, meeting interesting people and musing on what sanity and life really mean. I first read this book in 9th grade, and I was struck by the bravery and honesty of the protagonist. Sure, she was a wallflower, but so was I. I wanted to be just like Susanna, friends with the interesting people, standing around when the big exciting things happened, writing down what they meant and how they happened. Five years later, having read the books many more times, I was hospitalized for psychosis. I thought about Kaysen’s stay at a mental hospital and began to view the story differently. Maybe I was not supposed to write about everyone else. Maybe I was supposed to write about myself. The world can go on without me, and people will write about it, but me? If I am gone, then my story must end, too. In my darkest moments, I remember that I thought I was just a wallflower, too, but my story is important. I must go on, writing and living. Girl, Interrupted made me feel understood, valid, even important. I was just a sad girl, too, but maybe someone would hear my story and find the strength to go on like Kaysen’s story did to me. I was inspired, but more than that, I found purpose for my pain as a young woman living with mental illness.

These are just a few of my favorite quotes from the book:

  • “Was everybody seeing this stuff and acting as though they weren’t? Was insanity just a matter of dropping the act? If some people didn’t see these things, what was the matter with them? Were they blind or something?”
  • “In a strange way we were free. We’d reached the end of the line. We had nothing more to lose. Our privacy, our liberty, our dignity: all of this was gone and we were stripped down to the bare bones of our selves”
  • “Was I ever crazy? Maybe. Or maybe life is… Crazy isn’t being broken or swallowing a dark secret. It’s you or me amplified. If you ever told a lie and enjoyed it. If you ever wished you could be a child forever.”

This blog post appeared on Niume and The Odyssey.

profilepicAugust Pfizenmayer is the founder of Survival is a Talent. She is a freelance writer, blogger, feminist, and mental illness advocate. She loves reading,  sweets, and warm weather. She writes confessional poetry, personal essays, and articles. One of her current projects is a collection of prose poetry available on Wattpad.  A story about her life with schizophrenia has been published in the next volume of The i’Mpossible Project. It will be available for pre-order on April 11th and in stores November 2017. You can connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest. 

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