A few weeks ago, I went to see Dr. Julie Holland talk about her most recent book, Moody Bitches, at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. (I discovered her thanks to her February NY Times piece.) In a room almost entirely full of women, Holland spoke about her journey to the realization that many more women than men take antidepressants. She argued that the fact that 1 in 4 women take this class of medication reveals something deeper, something sinister even, about society's values, and especially about workplace norms. Because my friend Elissa is going to read the hard copy and then pass it along to me, and because I wanted to know more about this lady right away, I looked online and found that she had written a book a few years ago about about her tenure as a psychiatrist at the Bellevue Psych ER. Of course I was going to read this.
Over the weekend, I finished Belzhar, a YA (young adult) book by Meg Wolitzer, author of, most recently, The Interestings. In Belzhar, the young protagonist Jam suffers from depression after her boyfriend Reeve dies mysteriously. Sent by her parents to a boarding school for "emotionally fragile" teens, Jam struggles to find the will to recover her earlier self. I don't usually enjoy YA books, but this one felt especially deep and genuine. Near the end of the book, Jam reflects:
Today, as I was poring over Holland's earlier book, Weekends at Bellevue: Nine Years on the Night Shift, it occured to me that there was a theme in the books I'd read recently: craziness. That's not the PC term, of course, but rather the sensation or the feeling one has when one's mind decides to work against oneself. As I began to write this post, I looked back to the "finished" folder on my Kindle to see if there was anything else I should include. Sure enough, Irvin Yalom's 1989 book, Love's Executioner, topped the list. He chronicles his experiences with a variety of patients, struggling to figure out the most effective way to help each one.
Why is it so fascinating to read about other people's mental struggles? Why is it so enticing to watch other people waffle between sanity and psychosis? Why do we want to know what psychiatrists and therapists really think?
Well, why wouldn't we? They're the experts on thinking and feeling, so of course we want to know what they think of other people. It's a shortcut to our own thoughts and feelings. It's like gossip, but deep. And true. Also, It's much easier, much less intense, to inhabit someone else's mind for a little and learn something than to dwell in your own experiences. Feeling grief vicariously seems immensely preferable to feeling it firsthand.
These books provide, in their own way--Holland's through personal narratives of a Psych ER, Wolitzer's through first-person fictional chronicle of a girl's depression, and Yalom's through a psychotherapist's interactions with 10 patients over several years--an immersion into emotions that can seem too oppressive, too uncomfortable, or too frightening to abide with on our own. I heartily recommend all three.