BOOK REVIEW: A Beginner’s Guide to Losing Your Mind by Emily Reynolds
Hodder & Stoughton
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo
Non-Fiction/Family & Health
English freelance journalist Emily Reynolds was a teenager when she first developed bipolar disorder. It proved a hard diagnosis because it took around a decade of visits to health-care professionals and a cocktail of different medications in order to settle on the right ones. While on this journey, Reynolds researched and read the books that were available about mental illness, but she was unable to find one that resonated with her own unique condition. A Beginners Guide to Losing Your Mind is a result of Reynolds filling this gap.
Reynolds’ voice is quite informal and conversational. The text is directed at a younger audience (UK charity, Young Minds states that mental illness in youths is on the rise), and it often relies on expletives in order to make a point. Reynolds has ultimately penned a book that is a hybrid between a memoir and a self-help guide to dealing with mental illness. This means that she does not romanticise the condition or look at things too clinically; instead she frames the information through a series of emotional anecdotes and stories from her life in order to help others.
The first step that Reynolds advocates is to be properly diagnosed. Her own path to diagnosis was a rocky one and in some instances her symptoms were dismissed by professionals as being a “normal” part of growing up and becoming a teenager.
It took ten years from the first signs of mental illness – ten years of appointments with psychiatrists and GPs and badly trained counsellors; ten years of misdiagnosis and medication that made me sick or fat or even more ill. I can reel off… the misdiagnoses too – major depression, borderline personality disorder and a good smattering of “You’ll probably feel better in a few weeks”. I’ve accepted, rejected, then finally accepted again my status as “someone with mental health problems”.
Reynolds says that part of the problem with diagnosis is that some of the symptoms can be prevalent in people without mental illness, hence the speedy dismissal.
The problem lay partly in the fact that many of the symptoms of depression, or bipolar, are similar to traits that are also considered to be ubiquitous in teenagers. The difference was the severity and duration, but that’s hard to communicate when you’re fourteen, terminally shy and haven’t got the language to express what you’re feeling.
This book contains some useful rules and advice, like self-care 101 in which she gives people 15 ideas to “get your shit together”, and laying out the things that are difficult to achieve when you are in the midst of your disease. These rules range from the simple yet crucial things like “have a shower” and “eat something” through to more important stuff like “open a window” and “talk to someone.”
This volume also offers advice to individuals who may know somebody with mental illness. People can be well-meaning in suggesting that an individual with mental illness should “go for a run” or “eat better” or some other arbitrary or useless sentiment, but Reynolds also argues that this kind of talk isn’t that helpful and a more useful way of supporting them is through gestures like offering a hug, doing the dishes, buying them a treat or some other such thing.
It is interesting to note that Reynolds’ own ideas of her mental illness changed over time. She says: “I flitted between two mindsets: the idea that I was making a rational, existential choice and the belief that I was a victim, someone who was being mown down by an unstoppable force that had as little to do with my sense of self as any other external energy.” Reynolds also offers advice in areas like dating, going to university/college and using the internet and social media and how these things can be affected or exacerbated by mental illness.
A Beginner’s Guide to Losing Your Mind is like having a cool and helpful aunt sitting on an armchair in your lounge room and offering brutally honest and practical advice about mental illness. It is obvious that Reynolds knows her stuff and she should be commended for writing such a revealing and informative book, especially when she is prepared to tackle such difficult subjects as: suicide, self-harm and more. A Beginner’s Guide is delivered in a warm and invitational way, meaning that those things that could have been bitter pills to swallow actually prove to be rather absorbing and digestible little treats for those impacted by mental illness.
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