I am often drawn to books that depict mental illness, and this year I have read two books that address very different illness in very different ways, but each succeeds at telling an emotional, raw, and honest story about what life with mental illness can be like. My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossel* mixes science with memoir, while Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman* is a young adult novel with an unexpected twist. Both are absolutely worth reading.
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Anxiety is definitely something I can relate to, and as somebody in graduate school for biology I also have a definite interest in science, so My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossel easily caught my attention. This fairly large book (over 400 pages, but that includes a lot of footnotes in really tiny text) delves not just into Stossel’s own personal experience with anxiety–and there’s plenty of that–but also into his family history, and in fact the history in general of anxiety and its treatment.
My Age of Anxiety is an intensely researched book, and I thought Stossel did an amazing job capturing how our perception, diagnosis, and treatment of anxiety has changed over time. That said, it is kinda impossible to not be somewhat triggered by this book if you do have anxiety, so that’s something to keep in mind when reading (I still think it was worth it). The second issue is that the footnotes are absolutely relevant and interesting to the book, so I wish Stossel had just incorporated them, because they were hard to read, sometimes took up most of the page, and made the book slightly more difficult to follow.
“To some people, I may seem calm. But if you could peer beneath the surface, you would see that I’m like a duck–paddling, paddling, paddling.”
I think the strongest aspect of My Age of Anxiety is the science and history side. There are many references to different people in history who have had anxiety, and I found that quite interesting (there was a lot on Darwin!) However, Stossel is also very honest and open with the reader when discussing his own experiences and treatments although I wish that portion of the book had been slightly more balanced, although he says absolutely nothing has helped his anxiety, that is less helpful as a reader. Still, not only did I learn a lot by reading My Age of Anxiety, I came away with several more books on my reading list, including the often-referenced The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon.
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Before picking up Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman I had read the first book in his dystopian series, Unwind, and been very impressed by it. However, this book is absolutely nothing like that, except that it is also a very creative and unique story. I’m actually shocked that I finished Challenger Deep at all, because I had such a hard time getting into it and spent so long confused by the story.
Challenger Deep is the story of Caden Bosch, which is to say it is two simultaneous stories, one of a high school student with some odd behaviour, and one of a boy aboard a ship headed for the deepest place on Earth. I don’t want to spoil the book, because the confusion I felt is quite apt given the content of the book, but it does make it difficult to read. However, by the end there is quite an emotional journey, and I really felt like Shusterman–who worked with his own son who struggled with mental illness and who did the drawings for the book–had brought me into a secret and complicated world. It’s about life as a constant struggle, and Shusterman’s writing perfectly captures that conflict and turmoil.
More than anything I want to be out of here… but sometimes home is harder than here. It’s like jumping into a cold ocean on a hot summer day. You want to do it more than anything, but you don’t want to feel the shock of the cold water.
Even though the beginning is such a struggle, I do think that Challenger Deep is worth reading and I appreciate what Shusterman does by creating parallel universes. It’s a powerful look into mental illness, it’s just not an easy one.
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Mental illness is such a complicated and personal issue, I think that books are a really important way to help us begin to understand it so I appreciate the approaches take by both My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossel and Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman. Do you have any recommendations on the topic?