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3 Books You Can Read to Better Understand Depression

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Editor's Note

If you struggle with self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, visit this resource.

I imagine describing depression to someone new is kinda like describing dry land to a fish. “Dry land? Preposterous!” a fish must think, not because he doubts the fish talking to him, but because he cannot envision a world without water. Even an exhausted fish need only extend a fin or open a gill and it’s right there — sometimes forgotten, often muddy, but always within reach. How can a fish learn what it feels like to flap helplessly on land, terrified and unable to breathe?

Thankfully I’m not a fish, and I assume you aren’t one either. But the metaphor above illustrates how hard it is for someone struggling with mental illness to describe to a friend, a loved one or a doctor what the storm inside their mind feels like. And I can only imagine how concerned and frustrated those friends, loved ones or doctors might feel when they can’t help the person they care about, even when it’s obvious something is very wrong.

Books do a great job of giving me words when I am speechless. Whether you struggle to describe what you’re feeling and want to know you’re not alone, or you want to understand what someone you care about is going through, these three books are a good place to start.

1. “What Made Maddy Run” by Kate Fagan.

“Everything was in her control, except the one thing that wasn’t: this pain that had embedded itself inside her, somewhere she could not find, and no matter how tightly she controlled everything else, it wouldn’t go away.”

“What Made Maddy Run” documents the life of Madison Holleran — a beautiful, popular all-American teen and Ivy-league track star — whose secret struggle with depression and anxiety led to a suicide that caught an entire campus by surprise, let alone her family and friends.

Kate Fagan wrote Madison’s story originally as a piece of long-form journalism for ESPNW. Madison’s family, coaches and friends opened their lives to Kate in an extraordinary manner and gave Kate access to Madison’s entire digital life — her text messages, social media accounts and laptop. The result is a haunting glimpse behind the mask few people knew Madison wore throughout her freshman year at UPenn.

2. “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath.

“But when it came right down to it, the skin of my wrist looked so white and defenseless that I couldn’t do it. It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn’t in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get at.”

“The Bell Jar” is a classic book about mental illness for a reason — very few others come close to describing depression from a first-person perspective like Sylvia Plath does. The book chronicles the mental breakdown of Esther Greenwood, a beautiful and talented college writer who slowly loses her sanity.

“The Bell Jar” might not be an easy book to read. Several scenes are disturbing and finishing the book was a marathon effort for me. And content aside, Sylvia Plath’s writing style isn’t for everyone. But if you’re able to finish “The Bell Jar,” it will stay with you for quite some time for all the right reasons.

3. “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes.

“You don’t know what it’s like to have something happening inside you, that you can’t see and can’t control, and know it’s all slipping through your fingers.”

“Flowers for Algernon” is the dark horse of this list. The book is actually a science fiction classic and doesn’t explicitly deal with mental illness like “What Made Maddy Run” and “The Bell Jar,” but I include it here because 1) it’s one of my favorite books of all time, and 2) the end is very relevant to mental breakdowns.

“Flowers for Algernon” is presented to the reader as the journal of Charlie Gordon — a grown man with the mind of a child who undergoes an experimental surgery that boosts his IQ far beyond most geniuses. What makes the book relevant here is the end; Charlie’s mind begins to regress back to its original IQ, and Charlie is painfully aware as the process strips him of everything he had become.

Charlie struggles to hold on to his gifts much like people struggle to hold on to their relationships, happiness and sanity during a mental breakdown. You can do everything right — take medication, go to therapy, practice self-care — but sometimes it simply is not enough. Watching your happiness slip through your fingers is a terrible ordeal, and Daniel Keyes’ description of Charlie’s regression is hauntingly familiar to anyone who’s experienced a mental breakdown.

A version of this article originally appeared on

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

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Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Originally published: April 14, 2018
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