Healing My Relationship With Self-Help Books
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Five years ago, my feed of recently read books was a bit more diverse in terms of genres. I read anything from contemporary adult fiction, to thrillers, to YA, to essay collections and memoirs and, every now and then, a self-help book that I was secretly convinced would solve all my problems.
The year was 2018, and life was very different: I had just stumbled through my first year of university, doing completely fine in retrospect but feeling like I had no idea which way was up throughout pretty much all of it. By the next year, I’d realized that I didn’t have to hold onto anxious rituals I’d kept since childhood in order to ensure my success both academic and otherwise — the universe was going to do what it was going to do, and I could only control myself. As Cady famously put it in Mean Girls, “All you can do in life is try to solve the problem in front of you.”
Of course, this sounds all well and good on paper, but my life, at least inwardly, was still not hunky dory. I was still anxious all the time, and I coped with those emotions in ways both healthy and otherwise, one of which being compelling myself to finish piles of books from the library as fast as possible just to feel something. This was when I first started reading books about mental health, thinking that if I could better understand my anxiety, then I would know how to better control it. Then I stumbled onto self-help books.
There’s a certain blending of genres that’s occurred in the digital age whereby a memoir or essay collection can overlap with that of a book of advice or a self-help book, and this was precisely the sub-genre I started reading so fervently. I read Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking and Lily Bailey’s Because We Are Bad: OCD and a Girl Lost in Thought thinking they would help me make sense of myself and therefore clear the road to healing. But they didn’t.
I clung to the concept of “you are what you read” in the worst possible way, having foolishly fallen for the capitalistic belief that if only I could find the perfect book, the perfect movie, or the perfect TV show that would perfectly explain everything I was feeling and going through, then I could finally feel and move past them. But this was several years before I’d received a chronic anxiety disorder diagnosis, so I still believed that all mental health issues big or small could be solved by throwing yourself into what you love at full speed, even if it starts contributing to your breakdown. It’s why I’m weary of people who boast about how many books they read online.
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Cut to the beginning of 2020, when I felt that I had done everything in my power to control my life, my narrative, and my emotions, so therefore I should have no reason to still be feeling ugly feelings. I’d changed part-time jobs to something I thought was less stressful while juggling an almost full-time university course load. I’d started a podcast with my best friend as a passion project while also juggling multiple freelance writing jobs in order to fuel another passion and hopefully career. Laid out in plain black-and-white English, it’s no wonder I was always burning out. But still I believed this was all in my power and therefore my fault. Then the pandemic arrived.
One of the last “self-help” book of essays that I read before the onset of COVID-19 was Buy Yourself the F*cking Lilies: And Other Rituals to Fix Your Life, From Someone Who’s Been There by Tara Schuster. I know what you’re thinking: another trendy self-help collection with a censored expletive in the title. There are many of them. But this one was genuine and is still something I recommend to people struggling or being weighed down by the absurdities of everyday life, because so much of Schuster’s advice is helpful and applicable to the maladjusted millennial. It sucks that a raging global pandemic prevented me from applying its principles beyond my bedroom walls, though.
I stopped pursuing self-help options throughout the pandemic’s first year. If anything, I avoided them almost as much as the plague we were living through, because no book of advice was going to have tips on how to implement said advice during some of human history’s most unprecedented times. In their book One Sunny Afternoon: A Memoir of Trauma and Healing, forthcoming this August, Amanda Jetté Knox notes that terms like “emotional breakdown” or “mental health breakdown” have been used to “sum up a state of distress so severe as to make everyday life impossible. The ability to function breaks down as the person becomes psychologically overloaded.”
Suffice to say that, by the fall of 2021, this description adequately illustrated yours truly. I was barely functioning. Despite bi-monthly psychotherapy that continued throughout, the pandemic had taken toll after toll after toll until I couldn’t bear the everyday trauma of it all anymore. It was at this time that I was started on antidepressants for the first time, and every ugly emotion I’d been struggling with for the six years before then finally started coming into focus as something I simply couldn’t manage or control on my own anymore, as if it ever was.
Interestingly enough, I avoided self-help books or any title that even suggested bettering oneself away from mental health struggles with just a few simple steps even more than I did during the pandemic’s earlier waves. Since going on mental health medication, I found it impossible to return to a previous version of myself who secretly believed that the key to curing or overcoming the anxiety that wouldn’t go away was finding the right book with the right tools or knowledge to finally understand and beat it. I finally better understood myself and my mental illness as beings that are entwined for life. Even seeing new self-help books on display at bookstores felt toxic.
But if the pandemic reminded or taught us anything, it’s that life or the universe is going to toss us around as much as they like without our consent. Going on medication for my mental health didn’t mean it was as simple as popping a pill and sitting down to wait to feel better; you have to work with it. There needs to be dialogue with both yourself and a professional. There needs to be a general understanding that circumstances will change, and we have to change and adapt along with them.
As life began changing again for me this year, I suddenly felt myself drawn again to books like Do I Feel Better Yet?: Questionable Attempts at Self-Care and Existing in General by Madeleine Trebenski or Microjoys: Finding Hope (Especially) When Life is Not Okay by Cyndie Spiegel. And it didn’t necessarily feel toxic anymore to be adding such titles to my TBR, but rather a sign that perhaps I had fully progressed past a previous stage of healing and was now onto the next one, where books like these that affirm what I’m feeling or going through can genuinely help. I no longer believe they will solve all my problems: only I can do that. But if there’s anything we can all agree on, it’s that it’s nice to have a bookish companion along the way.