Some people have good days. Some people have lots of good days in a row. Some people find life easy and carefree. Most of us can’t stand those people. Then, there are people who have bad days. Some people have lots of bad days in a row. Some people deal with physical and mental illness, addiction, and fear, and every one of those days is a struggle to survive. Some people fall to their demons. Others figure out a way to cope and come out the other side, not cured, but able to live with what life has thrown their way. In this week’s book club, we take a look at memoirs of three women who have bent but not broken; each of them explores her journey toward that elusive inner peace.
1. I’m Just Happy to Be Here: A Memoir of Recklessness, Rehab, and Renegade Mothering by Janelle Hanchett ($26): “The first thing I did when I found out I was pregnant with my first child was head out to the balcony of our one-bedroom apartment and smoke a cigarette.” Janelle Hanchett, who runs a popular blog called “Renegade Mothering,” counters the popular idea that children are the solution to all of life’s problems and that motherhood is picture-perfect all the time. She counters it rather strongly, in fact. Hanchett was 21 and a senior in college when her three-month relationship with 19-year-old Mac resulted in pregnancy. She felt that she had no choice; if she had fallen into a cliché of disappointment, she would marry Mac, have the baby, and be the best mother she could be.
Hanchett temporarily quit smoking and drinking after her balcony cigarette, but she didn’t count on undiagnosed postpartum depression or her feelings of loneliness and frustrated ambition. When they reared up, she backslid, as she didn’t feel like anything could beat her original coping mechanisms. However, the copious alcohol and, later, drugs to dispel the boredom and anger were her undoing. She left Mac, who was also dealing with codependent alcoholism, then had another baby with him after coming back. Eventually, she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. She found that rehab wasn’t helping her outside of rehab. She had to do something, and it had to be better than platitudes.
Hanchett eventually came out of her downward spiral with the help of another recovering alcoholic who was refreshingly honest with her. She strove to find that same honestly both through her blog and this new book. It’s filled with candid, self-deprecating statements and questions like, “Who the hell gets pregnant accidentally more than once?” Through writing and honesty came connection and the ability to cope.
2. Beauty in the Broken Places: A Memoir of Love, Faith, and Resilience by Allison Pataki ($26): Pataki, a bestselling author of historical fiction, and her husband David Levy seemed to have a perfect life. The two met at Yale in 2003, fell in love, married eight years later. and were poised to ride into the sunset together as a successful writer and doctor, respectively. She was in her second trimester of pregnancy when they got on a plane to Hawaii for a pre-birth “babymoon” and tragedy struck. It had nothing to do with the pregnancy; instead, David, who had shown no symptoms of ill health, had a near-fatal stroke at the age of 30. The plane made an emergency landing in North Dakota, and Allison waited in the hospital, worrying that her child would never meet its father.
David survived the stroke, if seemingly barely. When he woke, things were different. Pataki had joined, as foreword author Lee Woodruff (whose husband, ABC News anchor Bob Woodruff, was hit by a roadside bomb and developed a TBI) calls it, “The Club of the Bad Thing.” All of a sudden, her husband “could no longer make new memories. Or remember the old ones we had made together…he could not carry memories from hour to hour, much less from one day to the next. As his eyes blinked open, those green eyes that had first pulled me in, he stared at me with this terrifying and alien expression: utter blankness. Those were not Dave’s eyes – those were not the eyes I knew, the conduit into the mind I knew, the mind stocked with deep feelings and well-worn love and fast-paced thoughts and so many memories, so many hopes in the present and plans for the future.”
Though Allison’s friends and family supported her, she couldn’t really lean on the person she needed most. Simultaneously caring for an infant and a husband, she began writing him “Dear Dave” letters in order to cope with her current loss, and in the hope that, if he ever came back, he would read them, “And we could, hopefully, heal together.” Their lives would never be the same, but don’t worry; this story has a tragic beginning, but a hopeful, healing end.
3. First, We Make the Best Beautiful: A New Journey Through Anxiety by Sarah Wilson ($26): Wilson, a TV journalist in Australia, has always been an anxious person, which led to numerous other health-related conditions: “I was diagnosed with childhood anxiety and insomnia at twelve, then bulimia in my late teens, then obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) shortly thereafter, then depression and hypomania and then, in my early twenties, manic depression, or bipolar disorder as it’s now called.” She realized later on that it was all just different shades of anxiety.
Wilson tried all sorts of things to cope with the mental illness hell-bent on destroying her life: “I’ve seen about three dozen psychiatrists and psychotherapists and spiritual healers, generally twice a week for years at a time. I was medicated from seventeen until I was twenty-eight with anti-epileptic, anti-anxiety and anti-psychotic drugs. I’ve waded through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), hypnotherapy, Freudian analysis, spiritual coaching and sand play.” But when she turned 27, she decided to try something different; she allowed herself to voice her opinions in a weekly column, explored sex, and tried to actually embrace playfulness.
This was not the end of Wilson’s struggles; she has, of course, had occasional flare-ups, and she knows she’ll never be truly free. She’s gone back to psychiatrists and medication and recognizes the value of both. However, it’s now a journey she embraces. She writes the book, she says, because she was sick of feeling alone, and she wanted us all to know that nobody really gets this mythical guidebook to life; we’re all struggling, and as the Dalai Lama once told her, that’s kind of okay.
What books help you cope? Tag us in your next helpful read @BritandCo.
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