How Reading Can Help Us “See” Hidden Disabilities. Let’s Discuss!

Posted August 20, 2016 by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction in Let's Discuss / 14 Comments


First off, I’m writing this to go along with It Starts at Midnight’s Shattering Stigmas event (which is also being featured on  The Fox’s Hideaway, Novel Ink, Six Impossible Things and Of Wonderland). The event is helping to raise awareness of mental illness and attempting to help destroy the isolation and stigma that often goes along with mental health issues. If you haven’t checked out the event yet, you really need to do so … there are tons of really insightful posts and even a giveaway!

How Reading Can Help Us “See” Hidden Disabilities

***NOTE: I use the term “disability” loosely to mean an issue that adversely affects your life in some way – the word itself has a negative connotation that I wanted to avoid, but I couldn’t come up with a better one.***

One of the best benefits of reading, in my opinion, is how it can broaden readers’ perspectives. When we read a fiction book, we experience the world through a character’s eyes – we experience their thoughts and feelings in ways that we can’t in real life. In real life, we’re always viewing everything from our own limited perspective and we often can’t truly imagine what others are experiencing, especially if their perspectives are wildly different from our own. Books give us a chance to walk in someone else’s shoes and experience their joys and pains. I think that this gives us empathy that we might not otherwise have and that this empathy can often be transferred to real life and help us to understand people who otherwise might puzzle (or even irritate) us.

Mental health issues can be devastating for the person experiencing them, but they can be very difficult for others to understand. When we encounter a person with a physical disability, we immediately see and can at least somewhat understand that person’s limitations. We typically sympathize with the person’s situation, even when we can’t fully imagine what it’s like to live life with the disability. And we’re generally happy to make allowances for that person. For instance, we don’t get frustrated with a person in a wheelchair because they can’t climb stairs – we don’t tell them just to “try harder” or wonder if maybe this next time they’ll “get over” their issue and manage to make it up that next flight. But we often do this to people with mental health issues.

For someone whose brain works “typically” it can be very hard to understand someone who experiences the world differently. We might know someone who suffers from depression and wonder why they don’t just cheer up or work harder to keep a positive attitude. We don’t see why the things that work for us wouldn’t work for that person, at least somewhat. Similarly, someone with OCD who has pervasive, often irrational, thoughts or urges might seem impossible for us to relate to. After all, logic tells us that those types of thoughts are “wrong,” and it’s hard  to understand why the person doesn’t see that – or why they can’t change their behavior even when they do see it. We can’t relate.

My Personal Story:

I have two kids with “issues”: not specifically mental health issues, but their brains work in ways that (sometimes) adversely affect their lives. My younger son has a cognitive disability due to the fact that he had encephalitis as an infant. He looks like an average kid, but he doesn’t understand conceptual ideas (like time) and he struggles academically.

My older son, on the other hand, is actually even somewhat harder to understand. He’s academically gifted, but he’s quirky (it would take me all day to define that, so let’s just take it at face value) – plus, he lacks social skills and he doesn’t read social cues well. While the rest of us use body language and facial expressions and tone of voice to take note of when someone is aggravated with us, he often simply doesn’t see those things. He misses things that seem very obvious to others (often to their frustration). This occasionally gets him into trouble because he thinks he’s being funny and others don’t see it that way. I’m not going to lie. I’ve lain in bed at night, wishing that he saw the world the way the rest of us do because it would be so much easier for all of us.

How a Book Helped Me Change My Perspective:

AlltheBrightPlacesbyJenniferNivenI’ll never forget when I read the book All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. Finch, one of the main characters in the book, suffers from manic depression, but he also has a quirky personality (remember that word I couldn’t easily define for you when it had to do with my son?). He sees the world differently from everyone else, and he’s perfectly fine with that. He likes himself and doesn’t care all that much if the rest of the world doesn’t see him the same way. When I read this book, I found myself drawn to Finch’s character – loving him and his quirkiness and drawing many parallels to my son.

You see, just like Finch, my son sees the world through a slightly different lens. He doesn’t want to fit any standard mold or accept the rest of the world’s boring perspective. He knows he’s a little bit different and he likes it that way. As a mom, that’s been hard for me to accept – we want our kids to thrive, to fit in, to make friends with lots of people, not just a few – we start to imagine all the difficulties that the future might hold for someone who doesn’t meet society’s expectations, and we worry. (Oh, how we worry – no one ever told me that worrying was a 24/7 job when you’re a parent.)

But as I was reading from Finch’s POV, I found myself loving some of his perspectives on the world (even for all his flaws) – and seeing all of these parallels to my son made me realize that maybe I needed to let go of some of that worry and just let my son be who he is. Strangely, reading from the perspective of this fictional character made me understand my own son more. Yes, the son who I live with every day in real life. How could this be? How was this possible? It came down to this: my son couldn’t put me in his own head. He couldn’t make me see the world through his eyes so I could fully understand why and how he responds to things the way he does (especially when he was younger – he’s actually gotten a bit better about expressing these sorts of things in recent circumstances).

But Niven was able to put me into Finch’s head and experience his joys and his pains. The book wrecked me because I not only sympathized. I empathized.

Now, those of you who have read the book are probably very concerned for my son right now, knowing what you know about Finch’s character and how his manic depression destroyed him. I should probably clarify that my son doesn’t share Finch’s illness – just his quirkiness. BUT reading from Finch’s POV also helped me understand what a person who suffers from depression experiences. I’m fairly certain that this book helped many people see the world through a different set of eyes – from a perspective that we otherwise couldn’t possibly understand.

Books do this. (Well, good books do.) They put us in someone else’s heart and head and help us see what we otherwise might have easily missed. This is especially useful for hidden disabilities – the types of illnesses or differences that can’t be seen with the eye. The kinds that we’re least likely to understand because we can’t figure out why someone might see the world in this different way. (Books can also be a great guide to understanding cultural differences, by the way.)

Books expand our horizons and help us empathize with the people around us – people whose perspectives we might not have been able to understand on our own.

Books to Read

Here are just a few of the books that have helped me expand my horizons and helped me to understand the perspective of a person with mental illness or mental “differences.” I hope you’ll check these out!

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
Damsel Distressed by Kelsey Macke

Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone
Don’t Touch by Rachel M. Wilson

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

Solipsism syndrome: (Bet you haven’t even heard of this one. I hadn’t.)
Truest by Jackie Lee Sommers

Viral Nation by Shaunta Grimes


Has reading a book ever helped you understand someone in real life? What are your favorite books about mental health (or someone who just thinks differently)? I want to know!




14 responses to “How Reading Can Help Us “See” Hidden Disabilities. Let’s Discuss!

  1. Fantastic post. I do think books are great when it comes to empathizing with people. I truly believe that my reading all sorts of books growing up helped me to better understand people. It’s definitely helpful as you grow up and encounter different people with different quirks and life experiences. I think it also helped me be more self-aware, which meant that when my anxiety and eventual depression got really bad, I could understand what was happening and ask for help. I’m glad that a book was able to put you in your son’s head a bit too – that’s great it was a resource for you to understand him a bit more.

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  2. Yes! All the possible ways to say yes to this post, Nicole! I think that a good book that is well written really does help us walk a few miles in someone else’s shoes, and that’s so important. It makes us more emphatic, too.
    I just finished reading ‘Remember to Forget’ by Ashley Royer, and the main character suffers from depression, too. It was quite fascinating to see the world through his eyes for sure.
    I’m always amazed at what we can learn from reading, and I’m so happy for you that you now understand your son a bit better, and may manage to worry about him a little bit less.

    Lexxie @ (un)Conventional Bookviews recently posted: Bought Bagged and Wrapping it Up #147
  3. Great post! I have become much more understanding of various conditions from my books. Of course you never know what it feels like but you do gain some insight. One of my favourite reads is Am I Normal Yet by Holly Bourne, as it’s a really honest read about OCD and anxiety. After I read it, I had a list of things to never, ever say again.

  4. Awesome post. I need to share it with everybody. It’s hard for people to understand what’s going on with a mentally ill person, but it’s also hard for a mentally ill person to understand what’s going on with themselves. A lot of times they know that their thoughts/behaviors are irrational, but they don’t know how to change it. It’s frustrating.

    Aj @ Read All The Things! recently posted: The Sunday Post #61
  5. Beautiful post. There’s so much we can learn from characters in books about the people around us. There’s a lot we don’t know and can’t see, like you said, a lot of “issues” are on the inside and we don’t know. Letting great books open our minds and give us tolerance as a society is wonderful.

  6. Such a great post! Have you ever read The Curious Case of the Dog in the Nighttime? Because that book definitely helped me understand autism and gave me a whole lot more sympathy and empathy for what autistic people deal with. I thought it was really well done. It sounds like this book helped you a lot too!

  7. First of all, I too hate that “disability” has such a negative connotation, but there’s no other word. I know that many people don’t see their struggle as a “disability,” but when we’re trying to use a word to encompass everything, what else are my supposed to use? :-/ And I keep running into this problem too because I’ve been asking for book recs about characters with disabilities and I include tags on my blog and GR, etc. But anyway…

    “One of the best benefits of reading, in my opinion, is how it can broaden readers’ perspectives.” This is what I’m always saying! My favorite thing about reading is getting to experience other people’s perspectives and getting to understand the way other people think, the way they feel, why they do the things they do. I love when it’s completely different from my own and something that I know I never would’ve understood had I not been inside their head. Books definitely teach empathy, and I think that’s the most important thing that fiction books do. That’s why it bothers me when people think fiction is unnecessary and unimportant compared to nonfiction.

    I think it makes perfect sense that a book helped you understand your son better because, as you said, you couldn’t be in your son’s head, but you could be in the character’s head.

    Not to diminish anything you said, but I just wanted to point out that not every physical disability or illness is visible. And in those cases, there is just as much of a “get over it” attitude as there is with mental illness. I know this post was about mental illness, but the fact that people still think others should/can just get over any type of disability is why we should just have more diversity for health in general! (Just to be clear, I’m not saying YOU think that. My wording just sounds kind of clunky in that sentence lol.)

    Kristen @ Metaphors and Moonlight recently posted: The Weekly Update: 8-21-16
    • You’re absolutely right – I was trying to make a comparison to visible physical disabilities, but many physical issues or illnesses have hidden consequences as well. One that immediately comes to mind is pain. It’s easy to write off someone else’s pain – or at least not be as sympathetic as we should be – because we can’t see it (and sometimes can’t even see a cause). I wish I could say that I’ve never fallen prey to any of these selfish thoughts or feelings myself and that I always show empathy, but I can’t. But I Do think books have definitely helped me see other people’s perspectives more clearly and made me a better person because of it. I agree that people who claim only non-fiction has value aren’t looking at the full picture. Some people might be able to read a non-fiction book about a certain disability and translate that understanding into empathy, but for me, fiction does that in a way that non-fiction has never been capable of!

  8. Nicole, I LOVE this post so much! It is just so, so true, too. I mean, yes I know what it is like to be in the mind of a depressed/anxious person, but other things? Books have been just incredible. Books like Challenger Deep, Don’t Touch, Made You Up, Truest… and those are just the tip of the iceberg of course. I agree with you about ATBP too, in SO many ways. I think that book helped a ton of people (remind me to tell you more about this in relation to the event later!)

    I am sorry that you have this worry for your sons on this level. It’s hard- so hard. My daughter is also… quirky. She’s younger than your kids of course, but she’s always been a worry for me. I know she has a lot of the same anxiety issues I have, and a lot of panic, but unlike me, she is very unable to vocalize them. She seems to process things differently, and I don’t know what to do with that, so I guess in some ways, I understand what you are feeling. You know, it’s interesting that you should mention the person in the wheelchair analogy, because I don’t worry for Sammy and his physical complications nearly as much as I do with Lena and her mental ones. I suppose it’s because we can “fix” his physical ones, or maybe because people are more empathetic when they can SEE what the problem is? But it’s scary to think that your kids won’t be able to navigate the world the way we’d hope they will be able to.

    Such an amazing post, Nicole, thank you SO much for sharing it with us!! ♥♥♥

    Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight recently posted: #ShatteringStigmas: Windows and Mirrors
  9. This is such a wonderful post! Some of my friends have learning disabilities/mental health issuse and I have definitely found that books help me understand them and what they are dealing with better. My favorite mental health-related book is Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman, it helped me empathize with a friend who had severe bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. I’m glad you were able to understand your son better!

  10. Jen

    This is such a fabulous post Nicole and I’m going to have to add a lot of the books you have listed! The only book that I’ve picked up that has resonated deeply with me was in-regards to PTSD. It made me relive what I witnessed with my old best-friend/ex-boyfriend’s father. While reading I felt as though I was literally being gutted since it made me rehash years of witnessing events, feelings or situations that I saw unfold because of his tie in Vietnam. The book was I’ll Meet You There by Heather Demetrios and I’ll always have a love/hate relationship with it because of how it made me feel.

  11. Great post! Yes I definitely think that books can help us give a perspective we normally don’t see and therefore being able to empathize with those people better.

    The thing you mention about physical versus mental illnesses is something that always bothered me. While it can be nice that you can keep your mental illness hidden, it also means lots of people can’t understand and things like try harder or be happier can be damaging to someone who can’t and just makes them feel worse.
    And on the other hand I think it really is difficult for people who don’t suffer from that specific thing to fully understand how it is to live with a mental or even physical illness. So I definitely think it’s a good thing there are books that address those issues and give us a chance to see the world from another perspective.

    That’s amazing how that book gave you a better understanding of what your son goes through. It’s really neat to hear about your experience reading this book and how you could draw parallels with son on some of the main character his quirky behavior. Great post 🙂

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