Are you tired of identifying as “tortured?” Do you want to start treating yourself with the self-love you deserve? Do you have trouble humanizing yourself? If you haven’t read The Elephant in the Room Holding a Paintbrush Needs a Therapist, you might want to for the context of this post.
It’s okay, I can wait!
But anyway, I wanted to make this list because:
A. I need a break from long-form.
B. I can’t get it out of my head.
C. I want to help you feel less alone.
So it’s really a win-win here.
Growing up, I was an avid reader. I think I could say I read at least one book a week. Among them were lots of books about those who struggled with a mental illness or disorder of some sort. I had not been diagnosed when I read them, nor do I even think I was fully aware of how much I related to these books at the time. Even some of the things I read about I would not experience until much later in life, but I still knew.
It was so easy to read about these fictional characters going through these experiences back then. I think about how I so loved Esther from The Bell Jar when I read the book back in 2014. I believed she got me. While I do need to reread the book, I remember knowing the hopelessness in Esther’s words. I had the same feelings of isolation, like my head wasn’t quite screwed on right. I thought about how thinking about death wasn’t foreign to me. When I was going through a bad bout of depression in 2016, I clung to Sylvia Plath’s poetry, thinking it a balloon but it being an anchor.
Now I realize that the way I sobbed or zoned out while reading books was because I was probably feeling triggered. Just maybe got an inkling here. I romanticized how much I was more “empathic” than others and prided myself in being able to relate to everything a character was feeling, but I realize now that I felt the deepest and darkest parts because I knew exactly what it was like. I don’t wish the things I’ve experienced on other people.
I know some part of me knew how much I was struggling, as much as a 14 to 17-year-old could understand, living in a household that stigmatized mental health and consuming media that matched. I know I was aware of my depression because I wrote about it often, but I don’t think I understood its depth until I went to college. What I think has changed now is how much I have learned after reading all of these books and going through it—the experience of mental illness is different for everyone, and the healing process will depend on the person.
Throughout it all, it’s just important to remember that it’s okay to heal. It’s okay to accept help. You are not a bad person if you believe that your trauma makes you a better artist, but I implore you to understand what that means.
I’m running on almost empty here, but basically what I’m trying to say is that you’re not a bad person if you believed the fiction that being traumatized or tortured makes you special. It’s what we’ve been taught. But I do believe in a more human approach where your art is something you make and it is good because it is yours and you’re working hard on it. It’s great if your art is happy. It’s great if it’s really sad. You are not defined by one dark facet of your life and neither should your art.
So here are the books that have made me feel more human, even when they shined light on the darkest parts of my experience. I do believe that when we’re ready, we can read to heal.
Books That Made Me Feel Like Empathy Is Real:
“Mr. Freeman: You are getting better at this, but it's not good enough. This looks like a tree, but it is an average, ordinary, everyday, boring tree. Breathe life into it. Make it bend - trees are flexible, so they don't snap. Scar it, give it a twisted branch - perfect trees don't exist. Nothing is perfect. Flaws are interesting. Be the tree.”
Review: One of my all-time favorite books and it made me feel empowered as hell.
Possible Triggers: mute, rape/sexual assault (theme), depression, self-harm
“We accept the love we think we deserve.”
Review: Don’t spoil it for yourself.
Possible Triggers: abuse, self-harm, rape/sexual assault
“There is no magic cure, no making it all go away forever. There are only small steps upward; an easier day, an unexpected laugh, a mirror that doesn't matter anymore.”
Review: I wish I hadn’t lost my copy after moving because I would have read it again by now. It sugarcoats nothing, but I find that the best part.
Possible triggers: eating disorders (theme), specifically anorexia & bulimia, depression, schizophrenia & hallucinations suicide, attempted suicide, and self-harm (cutting), death of a friend
"Your now is not your forever.”
Review: It’s very obviously fiction until you see yourself in it. For me, it was the skin picking and anxiety attacks. I felt seen. It also helps that it’s funny and existential in that classic John Green style.
Possible Triggers: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (theme), self-harm & skin picking, anxiety, intrusive thoughts, car accident, death of a parent
“I’ve been writing a lot. It’s cathartic, you know? It makes me feel…” I search for the right word, something Sue will like, and settle on, “Healthy.”
Review: I saw myself in the first chapter and I both hated and loved that. Heartwarming and a perfect depiction that healing is not linear.
Possible Triggers: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (theme), depression, self-harm, anxiety, suicide (referenced)
“When adults say, "Teenagers think they are invincible" with that sly, stupid smile on their faces, they don't know how right they are. We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken. We think that we are invincible because we are. We cannot be born, and we cannot die. Like all energy, we can only change shapes and sizes and manifestations. They forget that when they get old. They get scared of losing and failing. But that part of us greater than the sum of our parts cannot begin and cannot end, and so it cannot fail.”
Review: Ow. Good, but ow. Also stupid funny. But still ow.
Possible Triggers: smoking, alcohol, fireworks, death, cheating, suicide (referenced)
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
Review: I don’t think I’ve read a book that quite explained depression as well as this one. It’s so close to my heart and one of the reasons why I have a confessional style. Please read it.
Possible Triggers: suicide, attempted suicide referenced, depression, death of a father
But if those are way too deep and triggering, that’s okay!
Here are my ✨lighter✨ recommendations:
“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”
Review: This book was given to me by a very dear friend and fellow writer, Jason Chun, and it has been one of my favorites for years. Our writing is the expression of every step taken in our lives and Rilke reminds me that even the darkest parts of our path deserve our love.
Possible Triggers: I honestly couldn’t find any. It’s more philosophical than anything.
“Looking back now, I can see that my anxiety stemmed from my desire to sabotage myself, to punish myself. My stage presence was getting better, my jokes were becoming more polished, and I was building a community of people who soon became friends. But I couldn’t help but find a way to undermine myself. A part of my brain would whisper to me: “You don’t deserve this. It’s not fair that you’re happy while Kristina’s ashes sit in your parents’ living room.” I wasn’t yet able to talk about Kristina’s death or my pain. I wasn’t able to find any light in all that darkness and it paralyzed me completely.
But that’s when I found a wonderful savior, a solution for my stage fright: the Internet. Specifically, YouTube.”
Review: Okay I know the triggers can be scary but I swear this book is hilarious and fun and so worth the read, but you know yourself best. I love Anna Akana, and former blog writer Shane McIntire, who shares my obsession, gave me my copy for which I am eternally grateful. If you are also an older sibling, please read it. But yeah, also check out her YouTube if you can; I’ve been watching her videos since I was 13!
Possible Triggers: death of a sister, mental health, depression, suicide, abusive relationship
“Pausing to take a good look at yourself can be intimidating. What if you aren’t the great person you think you are?
Sometimes self-care is hard because it means facing things you’d rather pretend aren’t there. Self-examination is uncomfortable. It requires a level of honesty that you may not feel prepared to handle. You may fear admitting that you have been the one sabotaging yourself, knowingly or unknowingly, or you may be terrified of acknowledging that you need to crack down on your self-discipline in order to be your best self. Self-care means recognizing that you’re weak in some areas. It means you have more agency and control over your life than you may be comfortable accepting.”
Review: Truthfully, I have not gone through the whole book because this is nitty-gritty self-care and I am at the beginning stages, but this is very beginner content so it’s perfect for me! I have loved its simplicity so far as someone who has found it really hard to rewire my brain into a healthier place.
Possible Triggers: witchcraft ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
“Our most basic emotional need is not to fall in love but to be genuinely loved by another, to know a love that grows out of reason and choice, not instinct. I need to be loved by someone who chooses to love me, who sees in me something worth loving. That kind of love requires effort and discipline. It is the choice to expend energy in an effort to benefit the other person, knowing that if his or her life is enriched by your effort, you too will find a sense of satisfaction—the satisfaction of having genuinely”
Review: I know you’re thinking, “Mei, what is this doing in a tortured artist book list??” Hear me out. I keep this book in my bedside pocket and I don’t think it’s meant to make you cry, but it has done so for me because learning how to love another person is helping me understand what kind of love I want. It has made me realize how much I’ve normalized instability as an artist and as a person. So if you want to heal as an artist, you have to see the person first and love them.
Possible Triggers: counseling
“But part of getting to know yourself is to unknow yourself—to let go of the limiting stories you’ve told yourself about who you are so that you aren’t trapped by them, so you can live your life and not the story you’ve been telling yourself about your life.”
Review: I haven’t read this book yet. My friend recommended it and I couldn’t help but add it to this list because what better exercise to humanize yourself than seeing a therapist do it.
Possible Triggers: mental health, therapy
I hope you like them! Let me know what you think in the comments. I love talking about books!
Remember. As Holly Butcher said, “Be ruthless for your own well-being.” You don’t have to live the same fiction forever.
About the Author
Mei-Mei has worn many hats since joining LYF. Executive Assistant, Event Manager, Editor-in-Chief, but before anything, she is a human who loves to write and make art. She graduated from UC, Santa Barbara with a B.A. in English and a minor in German. She was the President of UCSB Poets' Club. She has traveled to 12 countries and counting, feeling lucky and cursed as an Army brat. In 2019, she moved for the 9th time from Santa Barbara to Las Vegas, where she put her love for writing, performing, advocating for mental health, and building communities into the Love Yourself Foundation.