Mental Illness on the Page

It used to be that mental illness was largely absent – or, at the very least, repackaged and glossed over – on the pages of fiction. Oh, women (and yes, it was usually women) had the blues or were hysterical, but stories rarely took us past those labels and the stereotypes that went with them. In recent years, though, novelists have begun to deal much more explicitly with the experience of mental illness in all its complicated messiness. The three books considered here provide fascinating portraits of women (yes, it’s still mostly women!) who struggle with depression, anxiety, obsessions, compulsions, and combinations thereof in ways that are revealing, disturbing, and occasionally quite funny. All of them are worth a read, though they come with important content warnings including mental illness, suicide and suicide ideation, relational abuse, and animal death (depending on the book).

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

Martha, the narrator at the heart of Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss is a clever and sardonically funny woman who is also (far too often) achingly sad. Her bouts with depression begin as a teen and become an ever-present specter in her life, influencing her choices about marriage and career and motherhood. When the book opens, she is recently divorced from Patrick (the love of her life who she describes early on as “like the sofa that was in your house growing up”). The narration takes the reader through various periods of Martha’s life as she tries to make sense of what happened.

Sorrow and Bliss is about mental illness, to be sure, and also about how those surrounding someone suffering from mental illness can both be incredibly supportive but also often helpless about what can be done. I was especially touched by Martha’s relationship with her (also hilarious) sister, Ingrid and her aunt Winsome.

Mason made the choice in Sorrow and Bliss to not name the mental illness that afflicts Martha. Indeed, once a diagnosis occurs, it is identified in the book as ______, and the reader can fill in the blank (or not). Mason explains her reasoning after the book’s conclusion, noting that “the medical symptoms described in the novel are not consistent with a genuine mental illness.” For me, this choice had a powerful impact. By not naming, the reader is reminded that a great deal of mental illness doesn’t have an exact and clear diagnosis but is often a mixture—anxiety mixed with depression, perhaps, or obsessive-compulsive tendencies combined with a bit of mania. And while the nature of this mixture may be important to a doctor prescribing medication or an analyst helping with treatment, the exact label shouldn’t matter so much to those surrounding a loved one with empathy and needed support.

Everyone in this Room Will Someday be Dead by Emily Austin

Everyone in this Room Will Someday be Dead by Emily Austin is a thoroughly affecting book, one that takes you by surprise (“Am I really reading this?”) and then holds on. In the novel, the reader is transported to the world of (and inside the head of) Gilda, a young woman with severe (untreated) anxiety and depression. Gilda thinks a lot. She feels a lot. And then she accidentally gets a job as a secretary at a Catholic church. She’s an atheist and a lesbian, so the job is perhaps not the best for her, but she decides to stick with it. Then, between administrative tasks, she becomes obsessed with the elderly woman who previously held her job and recently died and the story really takes off.

This novel is written in a fragmentary and stream-of-consciousness style that lets the reader really experience everything alongside Gilda: her obsession with death, her intrusive thoughts, her pattern of feeling everything without being able to do anything. I found it both unbearably sad and (somehow) utterly hilarious – it’s a truly revealing picture of mental illness. I liked it a great deal and know it will really stick with me, but from other reviews I’ve read, I know it’s one of those “not for everyone” books. If you’re intrigued by this description, though, I highly recommend it.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

It’s the year 2000, and the unnamed narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation has pretty much had it with the world. Her parents are dead, her job gives her no satisfaction, and there’s no one she wants to have a sustained relationship with. She’s not suicidal, we’re told, but she’d just like to get away from it all in the way that feels most compelling to her: She wants to sleep.

She finds a psychiatrist with no ethical compass who is willing to prescribe and prescribe and prescribe. At first, our narrator intersperses long periods of sleep with worldly interactions (especially with one friend and the bodega workers downstairs), but then the sleepwalking gets out of hand and she decides a more solid plan is to use the most powerful of the drugs she’s been prescribed to sleep almost constantly, waking only for the barest of sustenance, exercise, and cleansing.

This is a strange book, its prose pointed and misanthropic. I found myself rooting, in a way, for our narrator’s project (these days, who doesn’t appreciate the allure of sleeping through current events?) but I also felt largely disconnected from her as a character. Perhaps it was my personal inability to get a good night’s sleep? Or perhaps it was because I’ve never experienced a depression so profound that all I want to do is escape into a deep and lasting slumber. From friends and family members, I understand that this is a very real thing, and Moshfegh’s novel made me understand this all the more. In the end, it was one of those books that I am glad to have read, though the reading wasn’t particularly enjoyable. But perhaps this is the point, for neither is mental illness.

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