7 Non-Fiction Mental Health Reads for 2020: A Nightmare of a Year!

My greatest fear last year was being on the receiving end of a deadly bite from a Tsetse fly in the wilderness of Tanzania. It can transmit sleeping sickness (!) which causes swelling in the brain and is fatal if left untreated. I spent weeks agonizing over the what-ifs, my mind all too eager to offer worst-case scenarios on a platter. And now, 9 months into 2020, that particular episode feels like a walk in the park.

I have an anxious disposition and I cope by reading books about anxiety in particular and mental health in general. In the words of Eleanor Morgan, giving the beast a name means you can tame it. Shared experiences, coping mechanisms and biological explanations help me (somewhat) tame the anxiety beast.

2020 has been relentless. Life without a pandemic was no piece of cake. Life with a pandemic feels surreal and doubly (sometimes triply) challenging. In no particular order, here are 7 books to help you cope with this nightmare of a year:

  1. Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh: This is one of the first mental health books I read (way back in 2014). It’s a memoir featuring cute and quirky drawings (first published on Allie’s blog). It’s funny AF and relatable.

I’ve always wanted not to give a fuck. While crying helplessly into my pillow for no good reason, I would often fantasize that maybe someday I could be one of those stoic badasses whose emotions are mostly comprised of rock music and not being afraid of things.

Allie Brosh – Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened

2. On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety by Andrea Petersen: The author talks about her experience with anxiety as well as the biology of anxiety. This book was more technical and scientific (which is expected since Andrea is a science and health reporter) and has a lot of inputs from top neuroscientists.

Anxiety is related to fear but is distinct. Whereas fear is concrete and imminenet, anxiety is, “sustained uncertainty”. It’s a chronic sense of uneasiness about a vague future, a gnawing worry about what may or many not happen.

Andrea Petersen – On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety

3. Anxiety: Overcome It and Live Without Fear by Sonali Gupta: I read this one in June of this year while dealing with a particularly strong bout of anxiety. The author is one of India’s leading clinical psychologists. It’s a well written book that sheds light on anxiety from an Indian perspective. There’s still a lot of stigma attached to mental health in India. Hopefully, this book and others like it will normalize mental health conversations. The author also talks about the pandemic and the isolation & overwhelming feelings associated with it. I would recommend this book for newbies who are curious about anxiety, mental health, coping mechanisms and therapy.

People who are constantly catastrophizing find themselves hyperalert, hypercautious and, at the same time, continually ‘wired’ to small micro-cues which results in a sense of exhaustion.

Sonali Gupta – Anxiety: Overcome It and Live Without Fear

4. How to Survive the End of the World (When it’s in Your Own Head) by Aaron Gillies: A humorous anxiety guide which is relatable AF. I like the fact that the author calls (some aspects of) evolution stupid.

In evolutionary terms our amygdala was vital to our survival. It’s the reason we evolved from cavemen into the Netflix-obsessed, skinny-jeans-wearing monsters we are today.

Aaron Gillies – How to Survive the End of the World (When it’s in Your Own Head)

5. Anxiety for Beginners by Eleanor Morgan: I LOVED the cover of this book. It’s what drew me to it. I saw it in one of the bookstore windows in Bangalore and I had to have it. I have underlined (yes, I’m a monster) and stuck post-it notes all over this handy little book that validates me and my anxious little brain. This books is about Eleanor’s own experience with anxiety as well as an investigation into what might be contributing to all our collective anxieties.

Let me tell you about intrusive thoughts. It’s like having schools of those feet-exfoliating fish darting through your cerebrum, nibbling away at your sanity.

Eleanor Morgan – Anxiety for Beginners

6. Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig (TW suicide): The first chapter in the book talks about how Matt was severely depressed and how he came close to killing himself. This is by no means an easy or light read but there’s something uplifting in the way this book is written. Matt asked people with mental health struggles what keeps them going and collected their responses via the hashtag #reasonstostayalive. He included some of these responses in the book and honestly it’s quite moving.

The price for being intelligent enough to be the first species to be fully aware of the cosmos might just be a capacity to feel a whole universe’s worth of darkness.

Matt Haig – Reasons to Stay Alive

7. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb: A therapist’s memoir about therapy with her therapist. You read that right! It’s theraception, y’all. Kudos to Lori for being so vulnerable and open about her own therapy sessions and struggles. Lori also talks about her different clients and the particular challenges (some of which are truly heartbreaking) they face. Reading this makes you realize being human is a messy affair and we are (mostly) all in this together.

It’s common for people with traumatic histories to expect disasters just around the corner. Instead of leaning into the goodness that comes their way, they become hypervigilant, always waiting for something to go wrong.

Lori Gottlieb – Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed

I hope, dear reader, that you find these mental heath book recommendations helpful. Let’s fight this beast together.

Photo Essay: Slow Living in Zanzibar

We found ourselves in Zanzibar, an unassuming island off the coast of Tanzania in December 2019. We landed there after our wild safari adventure to usher in the new year. Our first stop was Stone Town, a cultural melting pot in the old part of the city.

stone town in zanzibar
On our way to the street food market at Forodhani Gardens to sample some local delicacies.
christmas tree in stone town, zanzibar
Christmas vibes at a fancy hotel in Stone Town.
Stumbled upon this little Goan restaurant in one of Stone Town’s maze-like alleys. We were lost and a good (but drunk) Samaritan took us to our hotel.
St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Stone Town, Zanzibar.
Rode in a dala dala (local bus) along with our bikes to get to a spice farm. Suffice to say, we didn’t know our spices very well, much to the disappointment our tour guide who expected better from us spice-loving Indians.
Former slave market site in Stone Town. Zanzibar has a a dark and turbulent history.
Changuu Island (also known as Prison Island) is a 30 minute (bumpy) boat ride away from Stone Town. A prison was built on the island to incarcerate rebellious slaves but no prisoners were ever housed here.
Changuu island is famous for its giant Aldabra tortoises. They live for more than 180 years (!!!) We did catch two of them in the throes of passion (there was a lot of grunting)
There is something incredibly soothing about turquoise waters.

After Stone Town, we headed to Nungwi. Our days were for the beach and our nights were for partying. We were mostly successful. The heat and humidity made stepping out during the day almost impossible so we ventured out only after 4 pm. We lost our sunglasses but made many lasting memories.

Nungwi beach in all its glory. This little paradise was only a 2 minute walk from our hotel.
This slice of heaven will make all your troubles seem so far away.
The sun sets on a decade in Nungwi beach, Zanzibar.
Ringing in the new year at Kendwa Rocks hotel in Zanzibar. 2020, the start of a new decade. This was pre-pandemic so hope was in abundance.

Happy Tunes ♫

Photo by Stas Knop on Pexels.com

Is there a song that turns your grey skies blue? A track that puts a spring in your step? A song that makes you dance like nobody’s watching? I’m glad we live in a world where there’s no dearth of serotonin-boosting music. Shakira’s Hips Don’t Lie is my happy tune. Peppy and upbeat, just the way I like my music (at least 70% of the time). It transports me to a different time, back when I had hopes & dreams *cue ROFL emoji*

This song conjures up happy memories. Summer holidays in Kuwait, watching VH1, eating homemade food (a welcome break from inedible hostel food), gorging on burgers, sleeping in and playing the sims. ‘Nostalgia is a seductive liar’ says George Ball but dystopian times call for desperate measures. I’ll take nostalgia with a side of fries.

My happy tune from a decade ago

I wanted to put something happy out into the world since we’re being relentlessly bombarded with bad news. Ew, 2020! We need all the chill pills we can get. So take a break from your doomscrolling and doomsurfing and listen to something happy. It will keep the dementors away for a while.

Getting Back Into the Real World: Life After Lockdown

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We are almost 5 months into the lockdown and have just entered phase 3. Our partial curfew is still very much in place, thank Dumbledore for that. I’ve been mentally preparing myself to get back into the big, bad pandemic-ridden world and it got me thinking about life post lockdown. For starters, we’ve been summoned to the office starting next week and weirdly, I’m looking forward to it.

For the 5 past months, my world has shrunk to the size of my apartment. The farthest I’ve been from home during the lockdown is to the grocery store half a kilometre away. My introverted self didn’t mind the social isolation too much but after weeks of unabating cases and people flouting social distancing rules, I’ve run out of steam. I’ve been taking 10-minute walks twice a week around my neighbourhood to build my tolerance for the outside world, only to discover that the outside world ain’t wearing masks even though they are mandatory.

How does one go from social isolation to an open plan office? How do you leave the safety and comfort of your home and venture out into a still dangerous world? 1.5 months ago this scenario used to give me nightmares. Today, I’m curious to see how it all plays out. It will make for good writing material, I tell myself. Focusing on something other than looming uncertainty sounds like a treat.

Will I see my friends? Will I order that pizza I’ve been craving for? Will I still panic when the doorbell rings? Will I got to the mall and get that fitness mat I so desperately need? Only time will tell. Until then, we wait with bated breath for this nightmare to end. Not that it will anytime soon but a girl can dream.

Writer’s Block and Other Afflictions

blank page signifying writer's block
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I’ve been experiencing a writer’s block for the past 2 weeks (which magically unblocked y’day) and my good friend A recommended that I write about it. I’ve been brimming with ideas for the blog, jotting them down digitally on my trusty notes app but while inspiration is in abundance, execution is in short supply. A blank page can be equally daunting and thrilling to a writer but I’ve come to accept writer’s block as part of the process. On a related note, did you know that Hypergraphia is the opposite of writer’s block? Wikipedia tells me it’s a neurological condition – a symptom associated with temporal lobe changes in epilepsy. An overwhelming compulsion to write – a blessing or a curse?

While Hypergraphia is not in one’s control, it reminds me of yet another compulsion, one that’s all too common in this digital age – the unbridled need to document everything on social media. We chronicle every morsel of food and stray thought, political affiliations, calories burned, parties attended, countries visited etc. I’m guilty of this compulsion myself and yes, to each her own. One of the many upsides is that we’re leaving a digital time capsule for future generations. The downside, however, is that we’re missing out on life by forgetting to be present and mindful. This particular affliction deserves a dedicated blog post and I’ll get on that soon-ish.

For now, my writer’s block is on hiatus as I’m back to executing my ideas. I’ve got a couple of posts lined up for the next few days for your reading pleasure. Thanks to all 10 of my followers for keeping me motivated 😀 Quality over quantity, y’all. Ciao

Bombay Balchão ~ Book Review

Pao was, in fact, an unpopular sobriquet the Goans had earned for themselves among the locals because of their obsession with the soft, chewy buns they ate each morning for breakfast, with everything from butter to marinated curries from the night before—kal chi kodi, as they called them.

Jane Borges – Bombay Balchão

Curious about Goan and Mangalorean catholic settlements in Bombay? How did East Indians get their name? Why are Goans and Mangaloreans always at loggerheads? Bombay Balchão by Jane Borges answers all these questions and more, taking us on an intergenerational journey with the residents of Cavel, a tiny catholic neighbourhood in Bombay’s D’Lima Street.

I stumbled upon this book of interconnected short stories on The Book Satchel blog. As half-Goan, half-Mangalorean, I’ve been very curious about my heritage. Bombay Balchão* helped answer some of my questions and what a delight it’s been to learn more about my people. I love that the novel is peppered with Konkani words and the Goan lingo.

Long story short:

  • Set in a housing society, this is a great read featuring a motley crew of quirky, endearing and insufferable characters
  • The author does a good job of highlighting the often hilarious animosity between Goan and Mangalorean Catholics
  • The book also sheds light on the native East Indian catholic community and how it dealt with the influx of other Catholics from neighbouring states
  • The stories do a wonderful job of capturing the essence of the community – the drinks, the food, the Sunday morning mass scenes, domestic disputes and other everyday life moments
  • The author has expertly weaved the city’s history into the lives of her fictional characters making this a solid book for history buffs

My rating:

5 glorious stars for this epic debut novel ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

*Balchão is a delicious pickle made with either fish or prawns. I’ve had my fair share of it. It’s a Goan side dish, introduced by the Portuguese during the colonization.

Six-Word Stories: Death, Dementors and Desperation

typewriter
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This is my first time writing a six-word story. The perfectionist in me is hesitant to publish this since I haven’t fretted over it enough but it is time. Without further ado, here are 3 six-word stories I’ve penned down:

Nosy neighbors. Accidental Fire. Dead neighbors.

Anxious thoughts, cold breath, dementor’s kiss.

Exhausted mum crying over spilled milk.

Things Fall Apart: Living in a Dystopian World

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The world is going to hell in a handbasket. The year is 2020 and we are very much in the throes of a nightmare virus. Some countries have successfully contained it, giving the rest of us a glimmer of hope. Others are crumbling under the pressure of mounting cases. This pandemic has exposed major flaws in our health care systems.

We are in the same sea but in wildly different boats. Some of us are on fancy yachts and cruise ships, while some others are drifting along on fishing boats. Thanks to inequality and mismanagement, some folks don’t even have a boat. I don’t know if this metaphor works but let’s pretend that it does.

It’s not just the pandemic that has the world on its knees. Racism & climate change are also at the forefront of this dystopian life. It’s 2020 and human beings are still losing their lives to senseless violence perpetuated by racist pricks. My heart is heavy but it feels like the world is coming together to fight this ill. Climate change is causing some hellish weather around the world. We’ve got cyclones, forest fires, tornadoes and floods wrecking havoc.

I oscillate between ‘everything will be okay’ and ‘the end is near’. We don’t deserve this earth – it’s the one recurring thought that keeps playing in my head. We’ve turned our green planet into a hellscape. Our greed did this but all is not lost. The way I see it, 2020 can be our Jesus year. The year we abandon our old, greedy ways and embrace a sustainable way of living. Where the only wealth we aspire to accumulate is kindness. I’m hoping this is the positive spin you were looking for in these dark times. Keep on keeping on, muggle!