Book review: Bipolar Me

Book cover: Bipolar Me

Bipolar Me by Janet Coburn explores her journey with bipolar II disorder.  The book is made up of blog posts, which are divided into chapters based on theme.  The chapters cover topics like the symptoms of bipolar disorder, the “med-go-round”, times of struggling, dealing with social situations, and broader societal issues.  Each post is pretty self-contained, so this grouping by topic feels very natural.

Janet explains that it took her a long time to be diagnosed with bipolar II because her hypomania tended to show up as anxiety.  It also took a long time for her to find the right medication.  She refers to spoon theory a number of times throughout the book to describe the effects of chronic mental illness, and she describes the extra energy expenditure associated with hypomania as borrowing extra spoons, which will need to be paid back later.

She writes about how treating her bipolar II disorder improved her concentration and as a result boosted her creativity and expanded the scope of her writing, which is interesting since the common perception is that mania increases creativity.  Still, she notes that she’s able to be more productive with her writing during hypomanic episodes.

The book includes tips for the newly diagnosed, and offers some work hacks to compensate for mental illness.  She lists the seven wonders of the bipolar world, starting with “I wonder if I can get out of bed today.”  She also gives a rundown of the various “natural” strategies that are supposed to help with depression but didn’t help her.

Janet brings a self-deprecating sense of humour to her writing.  She quips that “If catastrophizing were a power source, I could light up Chicago.”

Throughout the tone is wonderfully direct.  She describes herself as a crazy cat lady.  She calls BS on the saying “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”  Taboo subjects like self-harm are openly addressed.  As for being open about her illness, she says “I’m not doing this because I’m brave. I’m doing it because I’m stubborn.”

The author also admits to self-doubt, writing: “Like many people with bipolar disorder I often have the sense that all along I was faking it, that during the periods when I seemed to be functioning best, I was pretending.”

The book addresses the financial toll that bipolar takes, and the author’s fight to get disability as well as insurance coverage.  She writes about how her illness impacted her ability to work outside of the home, something that a lot of readers will likely identify with.

Janet shares that she was bullied as a child.  She acknowledged that the bullying worsened the illness that she was already biologically predisposed to, wryly commenting: “It’s a wonder I’m not a spree killer today.”

This book offers very good insight into living with bipolar disorder, and it’s written in a conversational style, as though the author is speaking directly to the reader.  I continue to be impressed by the calibre of books being written by mental health bloggers.

Stigma is addressed throughout the book.  There is a chapter “Beware the Mental Health Meme”, in which she addresses inaccurate and supposedly inspirational memes circulating around the internet (e.g. “nature is the best therapist”) and includes comments on the matter by several other bloggers.  She also addresses the legal system’s treatment of mental illness, media reporting of scientific studies, and media suggestions in the media attributing tragic events to mental illness.

 

You can find Janet on her blog, Bipolar Me.

 

You can find my other book reviews here.

Have you checked out my first book, Psych Meds Made Simple: How & Why They Do What They Do?  It’s available on Amazon as an ebook or paperback.

 

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Book review: No More Grumpies

Book cover: No More Grumpies

Here’s a quickie second book review for today, No More Grumpies by fellow blogger Maranda Russell.

This lovely children’s book will likely remind any adult of their own grumpy moments from their childhood. The little boy’s complaint “This bacon isn’t crispy enough” was music to my ears. As the book follows little Michael through a variety of grumpy moments, his mom tells him not to be grumpy, and he tries his best to do what he says. As the book nears the end, Michael gets in trouble for his grumpies in a delightfully positive twist.
This is a great little book for both children and adults alike.

Book review: What Is The Worst Case Scenario?

Book cover: What is the worse case scenario?

What Is the Worst Case Scenario? by Marie Abanga includes a foreword by mental health advocate and Olympian Amy Gamble. For anyone familiar with Marie’s blog, you will very much recognize her distinctive voice in this book.

Marie explains that writing this book was “my journey to a new me, a me who wants to keep facing and fighting fear, and also a me who wants to share with the world in all candidness.”  She shows her own evolution from FEAR as in Fold Everything And Run to instead Face Everything And Rise.

This memoir covers the birth of her sons, her marriage that turned out to be a sham, and her her own mental health challenges.  She shares that while pregnant with her third son things became so desperate that she picked up a knife and was ready to end her life.  It was feeling her son kicking inside her that saved her.

After her marriage ended, she left her sons at home in her native country of Cameroon and went to live in Belgium.  While living there she had to deal with the death of her brother as well as others stressors, and she became depressed and started having panic attacks.

She writes about the various fears she has had to tackle, including fear of failure, fear of love, and fear of being happy.

She explains that in Cameroon, mental illness tends to be attributed to “witchcraft, greed, or maybe a crazy lineage.”  Inspired in part by her brother’s experience of mental illness before his death, she chose to become a mental health advocate.  She writes: “Whenever I smell stigma, I spray more spirit on the open cut to burn it out and tell it to its darkness that I am an over-comer.”  She includes posts that other bloggers have shared about stigma.  Throughout the book there are also quotes included from various inspirational sources, including Maya Angelou.

This story captures Marie’s spirit and ability to persevere through adversity.  She has chosen to be vulnerable in sharing her story, and in doing so demonstrates how much strength there is in vulnerability.

 

You can find Marie on Marie Abanga’s Blog.

 

You can find my other book reviews here.

My first book, Psych Meds Made Simple: How & Why They Do What They Do, is available on Amazon as an ebook or paperback.

 

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Book review: Searching For The Truth

Book cover: Searching For The Truth

Searching For The Truth: Poems & Prose Inspired by our Inner Worlds by Maranda Russell begins with the dedication: “For everyone who isn’t afraid to search for the truth, even if it means looking outside your comfort zone.”

The book takes a very personal look at difficult topics like death, uncertainty, pain, and fear.  In the intro Maranda describes her writing style as “short, blunt, and to the point”; personally I found that strengthened the poems rather than weakening them.  Descriptors are concise but meaningful, like “emotional sewage” and “their heads sloshing over with tough questions.”

One short, powerful poem focuses on all-consuming bitterness.  Another talks about forgiving someone who only saw the worst in her.  One of my favourite poems was On Opinions, and I think it needs to be put on a sign and waved around vigorously as needed:

Everyone has opinions,
but not everyone
should share theirs.

I’m sorry to tell you,
but your opinions –
no matter how closely held,
do not override
scientific fact.

 

Book cover: Stories Behind My Art

You should also check out Stories Behind My Art, in which Maranda shows that being an artist is more about staying true to yourself than doing what others might think you’re supposed to do. The book includes several pieces of her art, along with descriptions of the meaning behind each one. I found having the combination of visual art and words allowed me to see things in the art that I wouldn’t otherwise have seen. There was a good mix of pieces that contained profound messages and others that captured some of the simple beauties and pleasures of life.

 

These are both short books that are easy to read, and I would definitely recommend that you check them out!

 

You can find Maranda on her blog Maranda Russell.

 

You can find my other book reviews here.

My first book, Psych Meds Made Simple: How & Why They Do What They Do, is available on Amazon as an ebook or paperback.

 

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Book review: Depression the Comedy

book cover: Depression the comedy by Jessica Holmes

Canadian comedian Jessica Holmes shares her experiences with depression in Depression the Comedy: A Tale of Perseverance.

I think Holmes is an excellent comedian, and I love the idea of bringing a comedic approach to a book about depression, but some of the comedy aspect was a bit lost on me.  However, I don’t know that I was in the best place to judge, as I was in a pretty dark headspace while I was reading it.  Still, I think that there’s great value in a comedian writing about depression, as it helps to promote the idea that depression truly can happen to anyone.

Holmes uses a self-deprecating style throughout the book, taking ownership of words often used to stigmatize, like “loopy” or “nut”.  She uses some interesting analogies, like describing depression as “the cold sore of the mind.”  Advice from others was likened to adding “pressure to our hamster wheel of discouragement”.

Depression made her become firmly rooted to her sofa, in what she described as her “sofa-tastic lifestyle”.  She describes other symptoms that will sound all too familiar to those of us with mental illness.  She avoided her kids’ schoolyard because there were too many people, and also avoided her friends because she felt like a fraud around them.  When asked by a produce to emcee a talk given by Oprah, her response was a half-hearted “neat”.  Even though Oprah was on her vision board, there was not a “single trace of epic” and she decided to ignore the news and didn’t even think to tell her agent.

As a result of depression the author got into an anger-guilt-repeat cycle in her relationship, with a “nut/enabler dynamic”.  For a period of time she was blaming all the problems on her husband, and while she thought she was being stealthy, her kids still picked up on it.  She talks openly about how her sex life with her husband became non-existent, and how it felt too vulnerable to be intimate.  She also freely admits that depression kept her from connecting to her kids.  This made her feel guilty, and she “tried to make up for it by making every day like a trip to Disneyland”.

The book has some important messages for people who may not be familiar with depression.  Holmes points out that “watching for signs of depression is a lifelong commitment”.  She also writes that we need to persist in telling our stories until there is no more stigma around mental illness.  I really appreciated her openness, and I’m glad that she’s using her public platform to educate people and challenge stigma.

 

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Book review: The Handbook for Highly Sensitive People

Book cover: The handbook for highly sensitive people

The Handbook for Highly Sensitive People: How to Transform Feeling Overwhelmed and Frazzled to Empowered and Fulfilled is written by Mel Collins, who describes herself as a counsellor, spiritual healer, and reiki master, as well as a highly sensitive person (HSP).

The book begins with a description of the characteristics of HSPs.  The author explains that they process emotions on a deeper level than others, and tend to be highly empathic and intuitive.    They also have difficulty tolerating high levels of sensory stimulation.  She also says that HSPs are more intuitive.  The author writes that HSPs “are some of the strongest people I know and can be assets in any environment, personal or professional, if understood and respected for who they are.”

There is a top ten list of challenges faced by HSPs, along with tips to help address them.  They include being empathic sponges, deep emotional sensitivity, and a feeling of not belonging.  The author also observes that HSPs appear to dissociate more easily.  They also tend to be susceptible to chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, and digestive issues, which she says may “represent problems with HSPs ‘digesting’ other peoples’ issues and processing them”.  Whether or not that’s true in a literal sense, it’s an interesting idea.  There is also a helpful discussion of the masks that people may construct to hide their real selves, and explains how HSPs tend to identify with certain types of masks.

A number of strategies are laid out to boost self-love.  These would be useful to anyone, but the focus is on how they relate to HSPs.  There is also a chapter focused on strategies to keep from being over-stimulated and overwhelmed.  Some of these are fairly obvious, such as focusing on the breath and spending time in nature, while others are less mainstream, such as emotional freedom technique (also known as tapping), progesterone skin cream for females, and various vitamin, mineral, and herbal supplements.

There is a significant amount of non-mainstream alternative material in the book.  My biggest concern was statements that were presented as scientific fact without anything to back them up.  A few examples of things that struck me as dubious:

  • HSPs can be more sensitive to the effects of electromagnetic fields.
  • For HSPs working in stressful environments, “it has been scientifically proven that the challenges are amplified on so many levels due to increased brain activity in the areas that react to such stimuli.”
  • In the chapter devoted to the Law of Attraction, thoughts are likened to magnets that “give off a vibrational frequency and will draw to us that of the same frequency”.

The book recommends walking barefoot for the purpose of “earthing”, which “allows electrons to flow between your body and the Earth and infuses the body with negatively charged ions, which the body needs.  Grounding or earthing in this way also discharges electromagnetic fields…  This was named the ‘umbrella effect’ by Nobel prizewinner, Richard Feynman in his lectures on electromagnetism.”  Being the skeptical person that I am, I felt compelled to look this up, and it turns out no one except proponents of grounding seem to be talking about this umbrella effect attributed to a Nobel physicist.

I’ll pause here for a brief detour.  Pseudo-science talk about “ions” annoys me, because I suspect that these people have never taken a chemistry class or looked at a periodic table of the elements.  We’ve all heard of electrolytes, and another term for electrolytes is ions.  Chloride (Cl) and bicarbonate (HCO3) are negatively charged ions and sodium (Na+) and potassium (K+) are positively charged ions.  Both types are necessary, and normally our kidneys are rockstars at helping us keep them in balance.

The third section of the book is devoted to spiritual healing, which the author does acknowledge that not everyone will connect with.  It includes topics such as reincarnation of the souls, spirit guides and guardian angels, and the creation of blueprints for our next lifetime.  The author writes that “HSPs are often more aware of their spiritual helpers [guardian angels and spirit guides] than non-HSPs, mostly because they are sensitive to feeling subtle energies due to their high sensory processing sensitivity, but also because they are gifted with natural healing or psychic abilities.”

The author writes about past life regression, and common unresolved past life issues for HSPs, including abandonment and guilt.  She also touches on “earthbound spirits”, spirits of the dead that remained on earth and attached themselves to the living.  She suggests that HSPs can be vulnerable to having these earthbound souls attach to them, and recommends “energy protection” strategies and aura and chakra cleansing to avoid attracting these spirits.

The biggest positive about this book is that it encourages HSPs to recognize their strengths rather than look at themselves as flawed.  However, it isn’t as broadly suitable as the title (The Handbook For Highly Sensitive People) would suggest.  The cover gives no indication of the heavy focus on alternative concepts, which is unfortunate because this can be potentially misleading to some readers but also fail to attract some of the potential readers who might be most interested in these topics.  For science-minded me this book wasn’t a good fit, but I think it could be an interesting read for people who are interested in some of these non-mainstream ideas.

 

I received a reviewer copy of this book from the publisher via www.netgalley.com.

You can find my other book review here.

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Book review: My Bipolar Mind

Book cover: My bipolar mind

My Bipolar Mind by Samantha Steiner is written as a series of blog posts that capture her recovery from addiction while living with the effects of bipolar disorder.  The story begins in April 2017 she hit her personal rock bottom, and from there began her slow journey towards recovery.  Of course, the full story began long before that.

Along the way, she describes her experience of rapid cycling mood episodes and multiple mixed mood episodes.  After she stopped drinking, she was also diagnosed with PTSD.  She explains that she began self-harming at age 12 to try to cope with the domestic violence that was going on at home.

Samantha openly shares the excuses she made for her drinking, and her thoughts that she could quit on her own without help, despite the fact that she’d experienced alcohol  poisoning multiple times and needed to be resuscitated after an opioid overdose.  She also shares her struggles against the desire to drink again, and the important role her partner’s limit-setting played.

She provides an excellent example of how the “good” parts of mania are actually not good at all.  She wrote regularly both on her blog and in her job as a writer for a website, but during manic episodes she would often become hyper-fixated on writing, to the point of neglecting her most basic needs.  She explains that there were times she decided not to reach out for help because she didn’t want to be hospitalized, something I can certainly relate to.

She described feeling emotionally overloaded: “I hate feeling like this; like I am drowning again, like I am getting pulled under the water and I can’t get out, and I can’t breathe. I feel like I can’t fight this or these feelings.”

Unsurprisingly, stigma makes an experience, as it so often does in stories of mental illness.  Someone she had known for years accused her of just making excuses, saying everyone is bipolar.  We all know that people say these kinds of things, but it still makes me heart hurt each time I hear about a specific instance.

Relationship challenges are hard to avoid with mental illness, and these make an appearance in Samantha’s story.  She shares her difficult breakup with her boyfriend and the subsequent reconciliation that prompted some of her family members to break off contact with her.

The book ends with two blog posts that convey a more hopeful tone.  In the final post, she observes “I really do feel like I am learning to love life for the first time.”  There’s no happy ending, but instead an acknowledgement that the work of recovery is ongoing.

This book offers a raw, uncensored look into the daily realities of living with concurrent mental illness and addictions.  Some bits aren’t pretty, and others are downright ugly, but that’s what makes it so real.

 

You can find Samantha on her blog My Bipolar Mind.

 

On a bit of a side note, transforming blog posts into book form isn’t something I’ve ever thought about; I don’t generally blog diary-style, so it wouldn’t really be a good fit for me.  It’s an interesting form, though, and I’m curious if it’s something that other people have contemplated.

 

You can find my other book review here.

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Book review: My Brother’s Journey

Book cover: My brother's journey

My Brother’s Journey: From Genius To Simpleton by Marie Abanga is a moving tribute to her younger brother Gabriel, whose life was taken away far too soon by mental illness.  It includes not only Marie’s words, but also the words of others who knew and loved her brother.

In the book she shares what a kind person he was with great personal and academic promise until illness entered his life and irreversibly changed him.  The “simpleton” reference in the title reflects the challenges he had with performing basic tasks towards the end of his life.  The book includes letters he had written, which showed a clear decline given that he had previously done very well in school.

He was diagnosed with epilepsy while he was still in school, and had multiple hospitalizations.  He was later diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder.  He moved to Germany to further his studies, but ended up being deported because his illness was uncontrolled.  Marie shares how difficult it was when he returned home to Cameroon; it was difficult to tell which parts of what he was saying were real and which were not, and she described him as resembling a ghost.

He later was able to get a visa to move to the United States.  At the time, it was thought that it would be the best thing for his health, and perhaps the “black magic” that affected him might not be able to cross the ocean.  However, his health further deteriorated there.    Marie describes the numerous challenges in trying to get adequate care for him, made even more difficult by the fact that his immediate family was back in Cameroon, and Marie was unable to get a visa to go to the U.S.

When the family were informed that Gabriel had died, the cause was unknown.  Marie is openly critical of the health care system that let him down.  In particular she condemns the institution where he was held after an altercation with police.  She shares a letter her mother had written to the institution asking that his medical needs be addressed, but this seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

Marie writes about the stigma around mental illness in Africa, where the subject is considered taboo.  Those who are ill may be shunned by their families and rejected by their communities, and may be talked of as being wicked, bewitched, or possessed.

What really stood out for me was the prevailing attitudes in Cameroon regarding mental illness.  I’ve heard that ideas such as black magic exist, but this book really brought it to life.  It’s also interesting that he seemed to do the best when he was in Cameroon, and worse when he was in countries with supposedly more advanced health care systems.  This is a sad story of a very promising young man who fell through the cracks – the very wide cracks – in the health care system.

 

You can find Marie on Marie Abanga’s Blog.

 

You can find my other book review here.

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Book review: The Inflamed Mind

book cover: The Inflamed Mind

The Inflamed Mind: A Radical New Approach to Depression is written by psychiatrist Edward Bullmore, and presents inflammation as a new frontier in tackling depression.  The author’s bio at the beginning of the book reveals that he works at pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline.  He doesn’t try to be subtle about disclosing this, and I didn’t pick up any sense of bias.  He explains that in 2010 GSK shut down its mental health research and development (R&D) programs, and this was what prompted him to start thinking seriously about neuro-immunology and the role of inflammation.

The author refers multiple times to an anecdote of his experience of social withdrawal and morbid rumination immediately following root canal surgery.  It was gone by the next day, but he wrote “you could say I had been a bit depressed”, and attributed this to inflammation related to the surgery.  While I understand the point he was trying to make, as a person living with depression myself I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.

Cartoon drawings are used effectively to capture neuro-immunology concepts.  Explanations are given in simple terms, without making the mistake of sacrificing accuracy for metaphor.  Scientific terms are used, such as the immune cells known as macrophages, and the signalling molecules they release, called cytokines.  While it’s somewhat difficult for me to judge, as I was familiar with many of these concepts before reading the book, I think it was pitched to a level that a reasonably intelligent person could understand without having a science background.

A patient referred to as Mrs. P. makes frequent appearances throughout the book.  The author encountered Mrs. P. during his medical training.  She had rheumatoid arthritis as well as depressive symptoms, but her treating physician insisted that the depression was a normal psychological reaction to her physical disease.  It was a relevant example, but it struck me as a bit over-used.

There was what initially felt like a bit of a detour to philosopher René Descartes to explain the persistent idea of separation between mind and body.  However, Descartes ended up appearing even more often than Mrs. P. did, to the point that it got to be a bit much.  The author writes “I can fondly imagine that Descartes himself might have agreed with me, but I can’t be sure.”  Oh my.  He did make the interesting point, though, that the mind/body divide is a sort of “medical apartheid”, and I very much agree that a more holistic approach will better serve patients.

Bullmore argues that placing depression solely within the mental domain actually serves to increase shame and the likelihood that people will think the illness is their fault, which is in many ways what the idea of a “chemical imbalance” tries to counteract.  He goes on to explain the shortcomings of the serotonin hypothesis, which was used as the  basis for the development of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants.  He also explained that approaching depression with a focus on serotonin and related neurotransmitters has stalled out, and there have been no major advances in the treatment of depression since around 1990.  He writes: “To this day, in 2018, I could still safely and acceptably treat most patients with mental health disorders based solely on what was written in those those textbooks” that he used when he started his specialty training in 1989.  While I understand the underlying point that there haven’t been any revolutionary advances in psychiatry, the notion of seeing a psychiatrist whose knowledge base is rooted in 1989 is unpalatable, to say the least.

The book explains that according to the DSM: “According to the official diagnostic criteria of the American Psychiatric Association, depressed patients can only have a diagnosis of [major depressive disorder] if they do not also have a bodily disease.”  Based on this, he concluded that Mrs. P. who had rheumatoid arthritis couldn’t have a depression diagnosis.  To me this interpretation seemed a bit odd.  The exact wording in the DSM-5 is: “The episode is not attributable to the physiological effects of a substance or another medical condition.”

The possible relationship between depression and evolution is discussed.  The author explained that back in the caveman days social withdrawal could have been a form of quarantine to prevent infectious disease, adding that: “One might even wonder if the stigmatization of depression in 2018 is somehow related to the isolation of ancestral tribe members who were behaving as if they were inflamed.”  That seems like a bit of a leap, and is followed by yet another leap: “Could the common feeling that ‘we don’t know what to say’ to our depressed friend conceal an ancient inherited instinct to recoil from close contact with people who are behaving as if they are inflamed and infectious?”  By that argument, though, why is there not such a social recoil from people with type I diabetes or Crohn’s disease?  Or the oft-referred-to Mrs. P. with rheumatoid arthritis?

While there is a strong argument that inflammation is a factor in depression and an important target for research, there isn’t much yet in practical terms.  The book describes the “Remicade high” that some clinicians have seen in patients who rapidly cheered up while getting an infusion of that anti-inflammatory medication.  There have been some small studies with anti-inflammatories that have had positive results, but there isn’t a clear indicator of something particularly effective that’s available right now.

Vagal nerve stimulation is also mentioned as a possible intervention  to target inflammation.  Cytokine receptors on the vagus nerve respond to high levels of inflammation by signalling to the spleen to deactivate macrophages in order to maintain homeostasis.

I started this book quite prepared to buy what the author was selling, given my prior knowledge of some of the research in this area.  I was a bit surprised by the book’s presentation of the idea as though it’s something that everyone is denying, because it’s sufficiently accepted to have made its way into the mainstream continuing medical education activities that I’ve viewed.  Bullmore writes that “we could be on the cusp of a revolution”, and I know personally I’m hoping that advances in anti-inflammatory treatment approaches will end up being able to help with my own depression.

The book makes a strong argument that further research into inflammation is going to open new doors in depression treatment.  However, the fact that we don’t have keys to those doors yet limits its practical usefulness.  Still, this book is worth reading if you’re interested in finding out more about a new way of looking at the biology of depression.

 

I received a reviewer copy of this book from the publisher via www.netgalley.com.

 

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Book reviews: Poetry from Maranda Russell

Book cover: Not Afraid to be real          book cover: From Both Sides

This week I’m doing a 2-in-1 book review of two poetry collections from Maranda Russell.

From Both Sides: A Look Into the World of Foster Care from Those Who Know It Best is a short book of prose poems that’s written both from the perspective a foster child and that of a foster parent.  Maranda herself has been a foster parent.  She explains that her aim is to clarify the challenges faced by foster kids and parents, and bring encouragement and inspiration.

Themes in the poems about being a foster kid include feeling like damaged goods,  being shuffled around and lacking permanence, and self-hatred.  One poem that I found particularly moving is False Hope, which is about being led to believe that a return home will be happening soon.  One of my favourite lines in the book: “I’m like fruitcake, the gift that no one really wants.”

The parents section talks about things being stolen, the ongoing effects from the child’s previous abuse, powerlessness, and a flurry of other challenging emotions.  The poems provide insight into both the rewards and the difficulties that go along with foster parenting.


In Not Afraid To Be Real: A Poetry Collection, Maranda writes that she prefers “gritty, down-to-earth poems that speak to the heart and make us see life in a way that we might not have before.”  The themes in the book move from love to struggle and darkness and then on to hope, concluding with some quirky fun.

I really liked the ending of the poem Accept Me As I Am:

“Hurt me –
then heal me.

And most importantly,
keep loving me
even when I
refuse to love myself.”

The Living Dead looks at expectations that we let go of  dreams that are no longer considered acceptable.  Other themes running through the darker sections of the book include feeling dismissed, unwanted, and unaccepted.  Everybody Loves You ponders the rose-coloured glasses through which we tend to see those who have passed on, and whether its worth being remembered in such a way.

And, fitting for this time of year, does flatulence belong in Christmas?  Absolutely, and it makes an appearance in Bad Christmas Poem!

I very much enjoyed both of these collections, and they’re written in a way that’s very accessible and real even for people who don’t typically read poetry.  Maranda definitely delivers on her preference for a gritty, down-to-earth style of poetry.

 

You can find my other book review here.

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Book review: Reasons to Stay Alive

Reasons to stay alive

Reasons to Stay Alive is by Matt Haig, a popular author with a whopping 243K followers on Twitter (including me).  I believe this was his first book that delved into his own mental health, and he has since followed up with Notes on a Nervous Planet.  He explains that one of his aims with this book is to show people struggling with depression that the depths of the illness never provide the greatest perspective.

There are some excellent descriptions of depression.  Haig writes that as far as other people can tell, depression “sometimes seems like nothing at all.  You are walking around with your head on fire and no one can see the flames.”  He likens depression to being ejected from a protective shell: “It was total exposure.  A red-raw, naked mind.”  He also writes about the moment he realized life was available to him again, which I thought was an excellent way to capture the transition into recovery.

The author discusses his personal conclusion that medication was not right for him.  He explains that experiencing the agony of depression without medication made him more in tune with himself, and allowed for “an alertness I know from myself and others can be lost via pills, eventually helped me build myself up from scratch.”  He’s clear that medication is a useful option for some people, but I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of concern.  It’s interesting how with mental illness, probably more than any other kind of illness, there is a fine line to walk when it comes to talk about opinions on medication.  Meds certainly aren’t the right choice for everybody, but since there is so much stigma around psychiatric medication wording choices become extremely important to avoid scaring off people who might be greatly helped by medication.  This didn’t at all seem to be Haig’s intent, but I worry that this could potentially be misinterpreted by people sitting on the fence about medication.

There were a few statements in the book that made me raise a figurative eyebrow.  The author writes “Things aren’t going to get worse.  You want to kill yourself.  That is as low as it gets. There is only upwards from here.”  I don’t know that it’s quite that simple.  While having thoughts of suicide is pretty darn low, there can still be a ways down to go before rock bottom.  Haig also writes that everyone would have a mental illness label “if they asked the right professional”.  While labels may get tossed around a bit haphazardly, that doesn’t mean it’s accurate, and it also doesn’t mean that everyone has a diagnosable mental illness.  I understand what Haig is trying to say about labelling being arbitrary; I’m just not sure that was the right way to say it.

Stigma is a major theme in the book.  Haig offers a list of things that have garnered him more sympathy depression has, including living in Hull in January and working in a cabbage-packing warehouse.  This will probably sound quite familiar to readers with mental illness, but eye-opening to those who have not lived through i\t.

One thing that I found interesting was that he used the term “depressive” to describe people, along the lines of “I am a depressive”.  It’s not a term that you see often these days; certainly far less than phrasing like “I am bipolar”.  It doesn’t bother me that he used the term; I was just a bit surprised there wasn’t more of an explanation around that choice of language.

Although I do think this is a good book, somehow I just didn’t feel like I connected all that much with it.  Maybe that has something to do with differences in our illness journeys, or quite possibly it’s related to where I was at in my own head while I was reading the book.  Regardless, I see it as a disconnect on my end rather than a shortcoming of the book.  I suspect the conversational tone would probably appeal to a lot of readers, and I think it would be quite useful to help those who don’t know a lot about mental illness to better understand what it’s like.

 

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Book review: How to Stop Feeling so Damn Depressed

Book cover: How to stop feeling so damn depressed

How to Stop Feeling so Damn Deporessed: The No BS Guide for Men by psychologist Jonas A. Horwitz is a how-to guide that aims to tell men how to take on depression and win.

The author explains that this book is for men with severe depression.  I found the use of the term “severe” a bit unclear as it did not seem to be used to specify a severe major depressive episode; rather, it was used to refer to a major depressive episode of any severity.  It may well be that much of the audience of this book isn’t going to be aware of this distinction, but to me it still felt a bit sloppy.

The central metaphor used throughout the book is of depression as a “Beast”, an entity that is separate from you as a person and lies to you in order to feed itself.  It can be starved by not engaging in the behaviours that it pushes you to do.  This metaphor is leaned on heavily.  Some of the ideas incorporated into it are not exactly true in a literal sense, but the book does not make this clear, which could potentially result in readers making some inaccurate assumptions.

In some parts of the book information seems to be either oversimplified or exaggerated to the point that it pushes the boundaries of accuracy.  The author writes: “One of the most basic ways your Beast gets more energy is to trick you into flooding your brain with chemicals that directly cause depression.  Let’s start with the most common: alcohol.”  Yes, alcohol can have a negative impact on depression, but it is a central nervous system depressant, which is not the same thing as a direct mood depressant as the book implies.  The author also warns that every time you drink it will make you feel “much, much worse”.  While the aim here is a good one, realistically a single drink is not going to have that significant an effect, and presenting the message in this way may actually serve to weaken what is a very valid underlying argument.

There were a few things in the book that struck me as a bit gimmicky.  I can be fussy about the written word, and arbitrary capitalization (e.g. Beast) is a pet peeve of mine.  When talking about sleep hygiene, he referred not to one’s bedroom but one’s “cave”.  In the section on alcohol, the author cautions that alcohol can decrease testosterone levels and lead to “man boobs”, i.e. gynecomastia.  It seems a bit like offering up decreased breast size to warn about the dangers of anorexia nervosa.

The author focuses heavily on the importance of physical activity.  He recommends that for severe depression, the most important treatment strategy is exercise, ideally 30-60 minutes per day 4-5 times per week.  While exercise matters, it’s also important to be realistic and recognize the substantial limitations that depression can create.  Those experiencing severe depressive episodes may feel exhausted by previously easy tasks like getting out of bed and showering.  Having been in that place myself where taking a shower feels like climbing Mt. Everest, this blanket suggestion about exercise seems woefully out of touch.

While I do have a number of concerns about this book, there were certainly positives as well.  The book gives a useful explanation of cognitive behavioural therapy, and gives good examples of some of the common cognitive distortions.  Various other treatment options are covered, and there is a helpful section explaining what to expect from psychotherapy.  The author touches on the important point that we need to address social expectations that men shouldn’t talk about their feelings.

In terms of organization, there are concise point-form summaries provided at the end of sections.  My preference would have been to see the book broken down into smaller chapters, particularly given the adverse effects depression so commonly has on concentration.

Clearly I’m not the intended audience of this book.  While the book states it’s for men with severe depression, I actually think it would be much more appropriate for people experiencing mild depressive episodes.  Even though the beast metaphor didn’t work for me, it may resonate with some people and make it easier for them to conceptualize their depressive illness.  But if you’ve ever been so weighed down by depression that dragging yourself into the shower felt like an insurmountable obstacle, this book is not for you.

 

I received a reviewer copy of this book from the publisher via www.netgalley.com.

 

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Book review: My Wellness Toolbox

Book cover: My Wellness Toolbox by Alison Swift

My Wellness Toolbox by Alison Swift is a collection the strategies that she gradually accumulated through her recovery journey after hitting her own rock bottom.  Rather than preaching what does work, she shares what has worked for her so others struggling with their mental health can get some ideas to try out for themselves.  The book feels like the author is talking with rather than at the reader.

The book is short at only 49 pages, and provides bite-sized chapters for each individual tool, making it very easy to read.  Each tool is given effectiveness and ease ratings out of ten, and an approximate cost is provided.  The author also describes how different tools can be used together, and gives practical examples of how the tools can be implemented.  Inspirational quotes are used to support several of the tools.

The tools include a broad range of different activities.  Some take very little effort, like using essential oils.  Other tools take more work but have a big potential payoff, such as cognitive behavioural therapy and working on acceptance.  There are tools that can be used solo, as well as some that can be used interpersonally.  Most of the tools can be used by anybody, with the notable exception of hypnobirthing.

Not all of the tools are things that work for me, but that didn’t detract from my appreciation of the book overall, and I think there’s enough of a range that there is something for everyone in this book.

While this book would probably be the most useful for people in the earlier part in their recovery journey, it still includes good ideas for anyone, as well as good reminders of the tools we may already be using.  We all need to have a wellness toolbox, and the more tools that we can find that work for us the better.

 

I received a reviewer copy of this book from the publisher via www.netgalley.com.

 

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Book review: Suicidal: Why We Kill Ourselves

book cover: Suicidal by Jesse Bering

Suicidal: Why We Kill Ourselves by psychologist Jesse Bering is an attempt to make sense of the complex phenomenon of suicide from a variety of different angles including psychological, biological, spiritual, and evolutionary.  The author admits that he takes an intellectualized, scientific perspective to try to gain a broader understanding, and he does a good job of examining both the strengths and weaknesses of various ideas on the subject.  He encourages the reader to set preconceptions aside and consider the array of different experiences of those who struggle with suicidality.  He also brings to the table his own “recurring compulsion to end my life, which flares up like a sore tooth at the whims of bad fortune”.

The book covers a broad range of biopsychosocial contributors to suicide risk.  Some information may be familiar to the reader, such as the genetic component to suicide risk, while other information may be new, including anthropological evidence that indicates that suicide occurs across many different cultural groups.  The risk of suicide contagion is also discussed, and the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why is considered in this context.

Certain phrases in the book resonated very strongly with me and my own experience with suicidality.  Bering writes: “For the truly suicidal, consciousness is incapacitating.”  He also writes about the agonizing slowness of time when one feels suicidal, part of a process called cognitive deconstruction: “When each new dawn welcomes what feels like an eternity of mental anguish, the yawning expanse between youth and old age might as well be interminable Hell itself.”

This is not a book that sidesteps around the grim reality of suicidality.  The author points out the while suicide may appear to come out of nowhere, this is because of the tendency to stay silent about our own unravelling.  He also acknowledges the reality that sometimes people will find themselves in “very tricky situations where, frankly, it’s hard not to see suicide as a rational decision”.  He expressed his view that over-emphasis on the semantics of suicide does nothing to actually combat the problem of suicide, and may potentially restrict discourse.  While this may be controversial, I’m actually inclined to agree with him.

The book includes some controversial and even distasteful ideas, but they are presented in a way that seems geared to inform and examine rather than persuade.  Bering cites one researcher who suggested that from a purely ecological perspective, suicide could be considered adaptive, as it may not ultimately affect the likelihood of that person’s genes propagating.  He also mentions the view (although he disagrees with it) that depression results from social problems, and “should abate when a problem is perceived to be truly unsolvable”.  The two researchers that put forward this idea described suicide attempts as a sort of trading card to be played to motivate those close to them to help, something one anthropologist referred to this as the “social bargaining hypothesis”.

One chapter that disturbed me examined the diary left behind on the laptop of a 17-year-old girl who killed herself, which the parents had shared with the author.  It is considered in terms of a theoretical perspective of the stages of suicidality.  To me this felt like a profound invasion of privacy, and I would be horrified at the idea of my journal being shared with the world if I were to die by suicide.  It was not the content of the diary that I found distressing, but the fact that these were her most private, vulnerable thoughts not intended to be shared.

A chapter I found fascinating looked at suicide in the context of religion.  The author explains that the Christian bible actually does not explicitly mention suicide, and takes a matter of fact tone with regards to the suicide of such biblical figures as Judas, King Saul, and Samson.  The Catholic church took a strong stance in the fifth century when St. Augustine deemed suicide to be a sin; later in 1485 Saint Thomas Aquinas declared suicide to be one of the worst mortal sins.  The Islamic hadith (sayings of the prophet Mohammed) denounce suicide, and in several Muslim countries attempting suicide is a criminal offense.  Hindu scriptures are ambiguous regarding suicide, but for centuries there was an expectation that widows should self-immolate on their husband’s funeral pyre.  The chapter covered a range of other religious traditions, and presented facts rather than making religious arguments.

In the acknowledgements at the end of the book, the author admits he was having thoughts of suicide when he began the book, but found the writing of it cathartic.  I was actually experiencing suicidal thoughts as I read the book, but perhaps surprisingly I didn’t find it overly triggering.  I freely admit to being very much a geek, and the intellectual aspect of this book certainly connected to that inner geek.  It was highly informative without having any of the dryness and impersonality an an academic work.  I would definitely recommend this book for anyone who’s interested in finding out more about the phenomenon of suicidality from a broad perspective.

 

I received a reviewer copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.com.

 

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Book review: I Walk With a Limp

Book cover: I walk with a limp

I Walk With a Limp: My Personal Journey as a Trauma Survivor by Barbara A. Lawrence describes the impact of the physical, sexual, verbal, and psychological abuse she first experienced as a child at the hands of her family.  She writes about the PTSD she developed as a result, along with a myriad of other issues including alcoholism and bulimia.

The book is divided into four sections: backstory, living with PTSD, breaking the silence, and a journey of healing.  It’s a mixture of narrative and poetry, and also contains pictures from her childhood.  Warnings are given at the beginning of chapters in which material may be triggering to readers.

The author sets the scene well, including small details that help the reader to create a strong visual image.  While the psychological impact of the horrific physical and sexual abuse she describes might be the most obvious, she also writes about how difficult it was to tackle negative thought patterns that developed from the psychological and emotional abuse, like the intense competitive pressure from her mother.  She bravely writes: “One of the challenges I’ve set for myself is to pursue my dreams knowing that I might fail.”

In the book Barbara talks about the various ways that she tried to numb the effects of the trauma she was experiencing, including alcohol and binge eating.  Masks projected a false confidence, and she shared how difficult it was to learn to set those masks aside.  She also writes about the more adaptive coping strategies that she later learned as she went through therapy, including mindfulness, grounding, gratitude, and forgiveness.

She shares how, after years of silence, she was finally able to begin to open up and share her story by writing poetry and connecting with other survivors, and the benefits that came along with that.  Mental illness is hard enough to speak up about, but childhood sexual abuse, particularly incest, often carry even more taboo, so I think it’s so important that people like Barbara are willing to speak up and empower not only themselves but readers as well.

Barbara also tackles the taboo subject of physiological arousal during sexual assault.  The body is made to respond automatically to sexual stimulation, and I can only imagine the depths of the shame that victims must experience when that occurs.  Particularly being a nurse, I think it is crucial that we understand how the human body works and don’t create false expectations that aren’t consistent with anatomy and physiology.

The book challenges social misconceptions that those of us with mental illness are able to work but choose not to.  The author describes the uncertainty of being on disability and never knowing when cuts to Medicare might prevent her from being able to afford necessary treatment.  This is definitely an area where more dialogue needs to happen, and where more action is required on the part of government leaders to support people living with chronic illness.

As always, I feel honoured to be able to read a book like this and be allowed so close into the heart and mind of a fellow blogger.  Barbara has done an excellent job of capturing her journey, and I would definitely recommend this book.

 

You can find Barbara on her blog I Walk With a Limp.

 

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