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:
I’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!
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!