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2020 Reading Challenge: Mental Health

By Sarah Adams Permalink

2019 was a rough year for me in terms of my mental health. I've mentioned before that Wire and Honey started in large part because of my mental health issues. I've always struggled with anxiety but was able to keep in it check for most of life. However, after I gave birth to Brady, more specifically after I weaned Brady, my mental health took a turn that I wasn't expecting. Not only did I have Postpartum Depression and Postpartum Anxiety but I was one of the lucky few to experience Postpartum Psychosis. My psychosis wasn't severe, but I did suffer from auditory hallucinations and was potentially a risk to our son. They were dark, horrifying days. I was neither a good mother or a good teacher and therefore left my career. 

I started taking medication (Zoloft, to be exact) for my mental health and was able to mostly get my life back on track. I started this company, was a good mother and wife again, and felt mostly like myself. However, towards the end of 2018 I made a decision that would set back all my progress and send me spiraling once again. I hated the side effects of Zoloft. I hated the weight gain. I hated the brain zaps. I hated the restless legs. I felt mostly okay again and thought that it was time to (self) wean off my medication. 

The weaning itself was fine. I went slowly and didn't have any terrible withdrawal symptoms. Things were going great. Until they weren't. Slowly, I started sleeping less and less. Insomnia crept in with a vengeance and what started as a night or two a week of poor sleep turned into days on end of no sleep at all. It got to the point that the act of getting into bed would send me into a full fledged panic attack which would then boost my adrenaline and cause a vicious cycle of desperation and anxiety. Despite this, I thought I could beat it on my own and refused to go back on anxiety meds. I tried everything. I saw a sleep psychologist to improve my sleep hygiene. I started seeing a therapist. And I started medicating with OTC meds like Unisom and Melatonin. Still, I could not sleep. My desperation grew deeper. My sleep grew dangerously infrequent. And I fell into a deep, dark depression. I didn't want to die, but I also didn't want to live. I just wanted relief. And if relief meant death, then so be it. At my worst I was taking handfuls of OTC medication every night. Literal handfuls. My husband grew fearful and hid all the medication in the house but that didn't stop my passive suicidal ideations. Finally, my therapist told us that if we didn't seek medical health via a psychiatrist then she would have to commit me to a hospital against my will. That was the wake up call my husband needed (I was too deep in a hole to care either way at this point).

My husband found me an incredible psychiatrist. One who doesn't just throw pills at me but who talks to me as well. She immediately put me at ease and finally convinced me that I needed to be medicated. I went on a different SSRI this time around (Cymbalta) and once again feel human. She also put me on an anti-psychotic for sleep. I still struggle with being medicated and the side effects that these meds cause (hello, extra 20 lbs). I'm also attempting to wean off the anti-psychotic BUT under the close supervision of my doctor this time. I'm happy and confident that my mental health is under control but am very cognizant that this is something that I will likely suffer for the remainder of my life. 

 That was a very long winded way of explaining why I chose two mental health memoirs for week 2.



The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness is a memoir by Elyn Saks, a lawyer, professor, and woman with paranoid schizophrenia. This memoir will take you on a roller coaster of emotions. Fear. Mental illness is sneaky. One day you are "normal" and the next day you sliding head first into delusions. It's a reality check that none of us are exempt from being affected. Hope. To see someone with such a profound case of schizophrenia be as amazingly accomplished as Dr. Saks is nothing short of inspiring. It is estimated that only 28% of those with schizophrenia are able to live independently, let alone hold down a prestigious career. Frustration. Dr. Saks is able to manage her condition rather well when she is medicated but time and time again she insists on going off her meds. This fact alone caused a lot of introspection within myself. I found myself mentally wanting to shake Saks whenever she went off her meds. Every single time she would quickly devolve into full blown madness. Every single time. The meds work! Why stop when they work? But then I realized I am also trying to wean off my meds and my meds are working. Most of us want to "beat" our mental illness and I am no exception. So why do we do this to ourselves? Anger. Anger was probably my most prevalent emotion throughout this memoir. Anger at our broken mental health system. Anger at our outdated treatment methods. Anger that no one would take her seriously when she had concerns because she was "crazy." Anger that most of the circumstances in this book took place almost 30 years ago and our mental health system and treatment of patients still has not improved. Finally, intrigue. Saks brings up a number of legal questions about the mental health system that I had never considered. Those suffering from serious mental health conditions are some of the most vulnerable in our country, do the laws reflect that? 

Saks dissent into madness is a journey that everyone who suffers from mental illness or has a friend or family member with a mental illness should read. Dr. Saks is very much an intellectual who admittedly has problems connecting to things emotionally so there are times that the book can be a little dry.  It's not a read in one night page turner, but it's fascinating and relevant and horrifying and beautiful and should definitely be added to your list of books to read in the future. 


Brain of Fire: My Month of Madness was my second "read" of last week (technically, I listened to this one). Susannah Calahan was a young twenty something living in NYC as a reporter for the Post. She was living her dream life when one day, out of nowhere, she began her own dissent into madness. Susannah's story, much like Saks, was infuriating. Once again, the medical community would not take Susannah seriously until it was almost too late. This book was engrossing and I found myself making any excuse to listen more. What was wrong with her? What is the cause of her abrupt psychosis? You can feel the desperation of her and her family for answers. The story of her journey through psychosis was fascinating. However, after doctors find a cause the book begins to go a bit downhill for me. This is one of those memoirs that probably should have ended about 50 pages before it did. I went from tearing through it to just begging it to be over already. It's a good book, and Susannah's strength and resilience along with the tenacity of her family are inspiring. But if I were to choose only one of the two memoirs from this week then I'd stick with The Center Cannot Hold

I'd love to hear your thoughts on either of these books! And as always I appreciate recommendations for other mental health related memoirs/novels to read. Tell me your faves! 


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