In the Existence of Mental Illness

Book Review

The Existence of Amy by Lana Grace Riva

Amy is existing. She goes to work, makes excuses to avoid happy hours, and moves through life while knowing that simple existence is not right. She has something, a voice, a compulsion, a suffocating threat to any semblance of the life she used to have. Her friends continue to be there for her, but her secrecy, excuses, and separation keep her from accepting their kindness.

Lana Grace Riva has delivered a book that encapsulates mental illness, giving voice to every bit of Amy’s struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder and depression. Reading Amy’s first-person account of her mental illness was true and gave a voice to what it’s like in the thick of it, not after years of medicine, therapy, and improvement. It’s a rare book that truly does this.

Thank you to Ms. Riva for gifting me with a copy of this book to review and provide my own thoughts about this valuable mental health novel.

Overthinking About You: A Read-Along

Mental health is a passion for me. I struggle with severe mental illness (SMI), as I’ve shared on here before. But mental illness doesn’t just impact the diagnosed; it impacts their loved ones and anyone close to them.

Mental health and relationships come with their own sets of challenges. I am so grateful for my husband who supports my mental health journey and who is my unbending advocate.

That’s why I was excited to participate in The Tandem Collective Global’s real-along for the book Overthinking About You: Navigating Romantic Relationships When You Have Anxiety, OCD, and/or Depression by Allison Raskin (Workman Publishing). This read-along was a great way to immersive myself in the book and answer questions about my contributions to my marriage while dealing with SMI.

What I Liked about Overthinking About You

I loved the thoughtfulness of this book. Ms. Raskin writes with a warmth and honest approach about anxiety, OCD, and depression, and how to navigate relationships while you have a mental illness. Another quote that hit me hard: “I might not feel this way or see the world this way, but I acknowledge and respect that you do” (p. 90).

This book is practical advice, research from experts, and nuggets of wisdom. While Overthinking About You is written from the standpoint of new and relatively new relationships, I found the discussions about anxiety and conversations about mental health applicable to my marriage. My husband is incredible, but I know my mental health puts challenges on our relationship. And that’s on me.

Activities in the Read-Along

As I completed the read-along, I highlighted passages and filled my notebook pages with resonating words. Here are three statements that rang incredibly true for me:

  • A useful acronym to respond to anxiety – “STOP: Stop, Take a breath, Observe, Proceed” (p. 40).
  • “It’s a lot more reasonable to ask someone to weather a storm with you when you already have a strong foundation” (p. 59).

And my absolute favorite:

“None of us are Superman, and that’s a good thing.”

Allison Raskin, Overthinking About You (p. 78)

Another activity asked about your healing rituals. Here are some of mine:

  • Sit outside with my husband.
  • Go for a long walk, ideally while listening to an audiobook.
  • Take a hot shower.
  • Pet my dog.
  • Let myself have a good cry.

Also, I liked the read-along activity that asked us to think about our senses and what awakens them. I came up with these:

  • Seeing the bright colors of tulips and the Northern Lights
  • Tasting a delicious dessert
  • Smelling a great perfume, coffee beans, and fresh-cut grass

Final Thoughts

Ms. Raskin understands the importance of mental health, and she writes from a place of honesty and realism. This book isn’t full of broad-stroke advice that you’d see on a motivational Pinterest board. Instead, it’s a thoughtful look at how you can manage your mental health, specifically anxiety, OCD, and/or depression, and be in a positive romantic relationship.

I’m happily married to a wonderful man who supports me and my mental health. While some of Ms. Raskin’s messages were solely for people in the dating stage, I still took away some great points about how I must communicate what I need when I’m struggling and how I can take hold of my own mental health in relation to my marriage.

Overall, this is a 5-star book for me, and I highly recommend if you struggle with mental health and are/want to be/have been in a relationship. It’s a great read with a long-lasting message!

Two quotes I’ll end with:

  • “There is power in knowing you are not going to change your morals in reaction to pain” (p. 193).
  • “No matter what happens, my life is in good hands. They just happen to be my own” (p. 196).

What’s the Cover Story?

Cover Story by Susan Rigetti

A 4⭐️ Review

Cover Story by Susan Rigetti is described as a “Netflix’s ‘Inventing Anna’ and Hulu’s ‘The Dropout’ meets Catch Me If You Can,” and I think that comparison was spot-on for me. I listened to this book and definitely enjoyed it. The characters are well-crafted, the story is interesting, and the format is unique. It’s a story about a con-artist Cat Wolff and naïve college student Lora Ricci, and I was fully engaged in the fast-paced story as I learned about Cat’s antics and Lora’s desperate desire to be part of the New York City literature and fashion magazine scene.

This is an epistolary novel, composed with emails, texts, and diary entries. I haven’t read many novels like this, and it was a refreshing format to listen to on audiobook. Particularly, I think that the epistolary format added to the story, and it wasn’t a trope that an author would use to make a book stand out.

Do you consider yourself people-savvy, even if they’re lying? I’m admittedly not. I think people are inherently good and have been duped because of it a few times.

P.S. If you haven’t watched Inventing Anna, you definitely should! Now The Dropout is on my want-to-watch list.

Spending a Day with Dava Shastri

Dava Shastri’s Last Day by Kirthana Ramisetti

A five-star book review

If you could find out what people say about you after you die, would you want to do so?

Confession: I did lot know if I was going to rate Dava Shastri’s Last Day as a five-star read until the last few chapters. This debut novel by Kirthana Ramisetti is a character study of a determined, complicated woman who has taken her fate into her own hands, determined to enact her own decisions before cancer does it for her. But, she discovers that prematurely announcing her death has lasting effects on her children. That is the premise for this book, but its pages are filled with so much more.

What I Liked about Dava Shastri’s Last Day

  • The premise – I think it’s natural to want to know what people say about you when you’re not there. Unless you’re one of those completely self-assured individuals who can genuinely say, “Screw them,” that question is always at the back of your mind. But, hearing your eulogy or legacy amps up that experience. Dava read, listened to, and witnessed others’ responses to her death, and some of it surprised her, not in a positive way.
  • Dava – The protagonist of this novel isn’t necessarily a likable character. She’s deeply driven, a bit egotistical, and extremely controlling. But, as her last day unfolds and we learn more about her past and how those events influenced her life, I started to empathize with her. Revealing more of her experience would give away spoilers, so I’ll just say that her story is complex and full of emotion.
  • The children – Much like their mother, the Shastri-Persson children aren’t lovable characters at first encounter. They run the spectrum of deeply committed to Dava’s foundations and work (daughter Sita) to wandering through life courtesy of their trust funds (son Rev). The children attribute their lives and their own decisions to Dava’s influence, and they’re not wrong. Their mother is a force in their lives, but as I made my way through this book, I found myself rooting for their growth and own decision-making.
  • The philanthropy: Dava made her billions in music, first as a producer and then as an investor in an iPod-like device. But her real impact comes from her foundations. Likable or not, Dava is a philanthropist who wants to support artists, especially women. She wants to make an impact with her money, and I admire that.

Dava Shastri’s Last Day was a surprising read for me. The more I read, the more I became invested in the stories of Dava and her children. A complex novel about family, secrets, and ambition, it’s a book that left me thinking about my own legacy, and that makes it a five-star read.

The Importance of Moxie

Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu
A 5⭐️ Book

I heard about Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu when the Netflix movie with Amy Poehler released and eagerly bought the novel, but like so many books on my TBR, it got pushed down in the stack.

I added Moxie to my 22 in 2022 challenge list and definitely knew I wanted to read it soon. So, searching for an audiobook to keep me motivated for my workouts last week, I decided to listen to this one and check it off my list.

Friends, I was wrong to have waited so long. This book is fantastic! A YA novel about high school girls taking back their agency and using their voices to stand up against sexual harassment and violence? Yes, please!

What I Loved about Moxie

  • The Message: I couldn’t help but think about my high school experiences while listening to this book. I was the target of several instances of sexual harassment. One moment in the library continues to haunt me. I didn’t stand up for myself out of embarrassment, but I wish I had. This book gives inspiration to young girls, and I want my daughters to read it so they know that they are empowered to stand up for themselves, if they ever experience sexual harassment, and that I will stand and fight with them.
  • The Characters: I loved the protagonist Vivian and how she gained inspiration to show moxie from her mom’s ‘90s Riot Grrrl past. I loved Lucy and Claudia. I loved Vic’s mom and grandparents. But most of all, I loved the message of this book: that girls can do anything.
  • The Setting: Moxie is set in a small town in Texas, and being a girl from Nebraska farm country, I could relate to the small-town politics and experiences.

Now that I’ve finished the book, I definitely want to watch the Netflix version of Moxie. I hope that it stays true to the novel!

What Anxiety Looks Like

I’ve been fighting back crippling anxiety for a week now. I’ve tried to explain what my anxiety feels like before, but my words don’t seem to accurately define it. I am going to keep trying, though.

My Picture of Anxiety

  • Checking my email inbox obsessively to see if my boss’s boss approved of my work.
  • Feeling like a did 30 minutes of cardio when I’m just sitting in my chair. Heart pounding, shallow breathing, body aching.
  • Knowing I need to complete my to-do list, but not being able to focus, and then feeling ashamed that I can’t check off my priorities.
  • Counting calories and steps with a fear I won’t meet my goals.
  • Snapping at my husband because he asked how I am feeling.
  • Panicking when I realized I booked a non-refundable trip.
  • Clicking Buy Now on Amazon because a book or a dress might make me feel better.
  • Being proud that I was able to leave the house for 20 minutes.
  • Spending an hour talking myself up so I can leave the house for 20 minutes.
  • Sleeping because I’m exhausted, but having to take Klonopin to help me sleep.
  • Dreaming about trauma and failure.
  • Withdrawing from my family.
  • Cancelling a trip to the city to see friends because I can’t imagine getting on a train.
  • Wishing I could spend the day in bed, but feeling obligated to close my Apple Watch rings so that nothing bad happens.
  • Saying the same prayer every night so nothing bad happens.
  • Feeling like I’m walking in a razor-covered high wire.

Unbound: The Story of #MeToo

Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement by Tarana Burke

A Five-Star Book

Tarana Burke is an activist and the founder of the Me Too Movement that opened the door for thousands of women to finally raise their voices and share their stories of sexual abuse, violence, and harassment. Ms. Burke is a powerhouse, a woman who stands for so many BIPOC, for so many women and girls who do not have the words or the voices to speak up. She empowers us all to speak up and calls for the end of the horrors of sexual assault.

Ms. Burke begins her memoir by sharing the morning when her words, Me Too, became a viral hashtag that finally gave a voice to the silent suffering. But her memoir is much more than a recounting of how Me Too began. It is a vulnerable, painfully real story of truth that began when she was sexually assaulted as a child. With her truth, Ms. Burke shines a light on the meaning of #metoo, demonstrating that it’s not just a hashtag but a highly nuanced movement to hold others accountable for sexual violence.

As a Black woman, Ms. Burke explains how Black culture addresses sexual violence under a lens of not just taking care of others but with caution because of the countless Black men who have been violently accused and condemned and murdered by whites. This feels so wrong yet so relevant to what has happened in the U.S. for centuries. Her explanation was both vivid and heartbreaking.

Much of Unbound is about Ms. Burke’s realization that others have experienced the same type of pain and suffering. Their stories helped her to find her voice, and she returns that gift to others. This book is raw, honest, and brutal. But it is hopeful as well, as she encourages us to speak out and give others our voices.

I am thankful for Ms. Burke’s activism, her voice, and her courage to share her story. I do not yet have all the words for what violence and scars I carry in my past, but one day I will share my #metoo story. I hope it gives others’ strength to do the same.

Loving Lessons in Chemistry

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

A Five-Star Book Review

I’m calling it. Lessons in Chemistry is officially one of my favorite reads for 2022! Bonnie Garmus exceeded all expectations with this book, introducing unique characters, exploring multi-layered plot lines, and delighting us with fantastic writing.

Elizabeth Zott is a chemist, one of the rare females in her field in the 1950s. Because she’s a woman, her professors, bosses, and colleagues assume that she’s more suited for fetching coffee than trying to solve abiogenesis. She faces sexual harassment in every part of her work, but her strong will and intelligence keep her going.

Upon her first encounters with Calvin Evans, the golden boy of the laboratory that employs them both, Elizabeth is wary of befriending him. But soon, a sweet love – full of chemistry – blossoms. Yet, life doesn’t work out as a love story for Elizabeth, and by the 1960s she finds herself not working as a chemist in a lab, but hosting her own cooking TV show, Supper at Six. Her opinion that cooking is chemistry, her straightforward manner, and her rightful belief that women can be more than housewives.

The result? A story of growth, wit, and perseverance for Elizabeth and the cast of supporting characters, from her highly intelligent daughter Mad to her dedicated neighbor Mrs. Harriet Sloane to her TV producer Walter Pine.

What I Loved About Lessons in Chemistry

  • Elizabeth – She is hands-down one of the strongest female protagonists I’ve encountered in a long time. Her story is tragic but also triumphant, and that’s because of the depth of her character.
  • Mad – This little girl is just as blunt as her mom, and she’s equally bright, too. She’s young and innocent, but she understands that her mom has been through so much.
  • Six-Thirty – This former military dog is the loyalist, most loving dog. I loved when Ms. Garmus added Six-Thirty’s perspective to the chapters. From fetching Mad at school every day to learning 891-plus words, Six-Thirty has my heart.
  • The Resolution- I won’t give away anything to spoil the ending, but I will say that I was so satisfied with how Ms. Garmus completed this story.
  • The Message – Reading about the harassment, the bigotry, and the injustice that Elizabeth and other female characters faced in this book was difficult, and it made me question how much has really changed. as Elizabeth said many times: gender, race, religion, or creed makes no difference in a person’s abilities or what opportunities they should be given.

I hope you will read Lessons in Chemistry! I loved every bit of it.

Trigger Warnings: Harassment, assault

Owning My Title

I have a doctorate, but I rarely use the title “Dr.” I’ve had bosses who told me to ‘own that title’ and bosses who said my education level doesn’t matter. I’ve been told to add my title to presentations and told to remove it, mostly when others may be “Dr” as well, and there’s a fear of missing them. I’ve been embarrassed in groups when bosses highlight my degree, and I’ve felt left out when they’ve forgotten.

But you know what? I worked for that title. I started my EdD when I was at a loss for my future. A job was ending. I was a divorced, single mom with an 18-month-old. I was virtually alone in a town that I didn’t choose to inhabit but was tied to because of my ex-husband. I chose to go back to school with no real plan because I knew school was what I was good at, what I could control, what I could succeed in.

Five and a half years later, I successfully defended my dissertation. I’d wept over my studies, pushed them aside when life got too hard, given up family time on the weekend so that I could add those letters to my name. So now, why should I diminish that part of myself?

I could name a lot of reasons: I’m not good enough; I’m an impostor because I got my degree online; I didn’t conducted two years’ of rigorous quantitative research. But you know what I did? I worked hard; I pushed my boundaries when I was afraid. I made a huge financial investment in myself. I proved that I am capable.

So, I’m going to own that “Dr.” It’s part of my identity. I don’t need to make myself smaller to compensate for others’ insecurities about their own academic backgrounds. I am still the same person: deeply empathetic, deeply introverted, deeply ambitious.

But I am a Dr. I will own that sh*t. I will not make myself smaller.

The Surprises of Honey Girl

Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers

A five-star book review – Includes spoilers

I ordered Honey Girl as one of my Book of the Month picks a few months ago, and oh how I wish I’d read it sooner.

This debut novel by Morgan Rogers was such a surprise for me. I thought it would be a sweet romantic comedy like many others, but Honey Girl stands out. It has heart. It tackles serious mental health issues. It is life-affirming.

What I Loved About Honey Girl

The representation in Honey Girl is amazing. Morgan Rogers is a Black Queer author who incorporates diversity into every page of her novel. The protagonist, Grace Porter, is a lesbian born to a strict, military father who is Black and a white mother who travels the world in search of herself. In a drunken frenzy after receiving her PhD in astronomy, Grace marries Yuki Yamamoto, an Asian radio host and waitress, in Las Vegas. That’s where the story begins, but Grace goes on a much more nuanced journey than only trying to get to know her wife. Grace’s friends are just as diverse as she and Yuki are, making this book a refreshing read.

This book is a romance, but it’s also described as a coming-of-age novel. Grace is struggling to find her home in academia. She is determined to be the best, and that means achieving the top position. She has been following the plan laid out by her father, Colonel, for eleven years, with her only rebellion being that she chose astronomy over medicine. Her job interviews sour Grace from the field as interview panels imply that her sexuality and race are “unsuitable” for a researcher. Despite being the favored student by her professor and mentor, Grace is distraught because her dream career has stalled.

This lost feeling really resonated with me. I could relate to Grace because of my own experience after my Master’s program. You work so hard in school and do everything right, but then when you graduate, you lose that student identity. I felt lost for a few years after I got my Master’s and eventually started my doctorate program to get back some of that identity and ultimately prove something to others. That is a disheartening sentence, but it’s the truth. I still question whether I’m living up to my potential and my worth as dictated by those two degrees.

But back to Grace. Her mental health is hurting, and I cheered for her when she came to that revelation. Ms. Rogers described mental illness in the most realistic way I have read in a very long time. From anxiety and depression to a damaged self-esteem to the struggle of finding a proper mental health therapist, Grace’s story felt real in every aspect.

Those are just a few of the reasons I loved this book. I especially loved Grace’s found family of roommates Ximena and Agnes, as well as her coworkers Raj and Meera. Honey Girl is a love story between two lonely creatures who find themselves bound by marriage. It is a beautifully written debut from an author I will be following closely. It is a book that I highly recommend!