Fourteen More Insightful Memoirs/Non-Fiction Books about Mental Illness and Addiction

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month-

I first shared Fourteen Incredible Memoirs about Mental Illness and Addiction more than a year ago. The collection of true stories had been so helpful as I set out to research and begin to write a family memoir about inherited generational trauma. The books helped me better understand my own family’s history of mental illness, namely four suicides, bipolar, depression, anxiety, ADHD, and subsequent substance abuse and marital affairs. I came to understand, besides how difficult it is to write a book, mental illness affects the entire family and is often shrouded in secrecy because of shame. I also came to understand substance abuse is closely tied to mental health conditions.

After publishing my first list, nine months later, I published another list- Fourteen MORE Incredible Memoirs about Mental Illness and Addiction because there were more eye-opening and moving books I wanted to share. I’d just launched a podcast called Dear Family, to share inspirational people’s personal stories about overcoming obstacles and achieving mental wellness. Just like all the eye-opening works of non-fiction had done for me, I wanted to remind my listeners to never write themselves or their complicated families off, and instead replace the shame and stigma with compassion and understanding.

At their best, personal narratives help connect us and allow us to see new perspectives while entertaining. There is nothing like a well-told true story that rivets and transports us. Whether told from the point of view of a survivor, a parent, or a child of someone fighting the stigma and battle of mental illness or addiction, or from a seasoned researcher and writer, the reality is often more insane or colorful than fiction.

The following list of 14 More Insightful Memoirs and Non-Fiction Works helps us sympathize with the intensity of being on the inside of Mental Illness and Addiction:

  1. Hidden Valley Road, by Robert Kolker

Don and Mimi Galvin seemed to be living the American dream. But behind the scenes was a different story: psychological breakdown, sudden shocking violence, hidden abuse. By the mid-1970s, six of the ten Galvin boys, one after another, were diagnosed as schizophrenic. What took place inside the house on Hidden Valley Road was so extraordinary that the Galvins became one of the first families to be studied by the National Institute of Mental Health. Their story offers a shadow history of the science of schizophrenia, from the era of institutionalization, lobotomy, and the schizophrenogenic mother to the search for genetic markers for the disease, always amid profound disagreements about the nature of the illness itself. And unbeknownst to the Galvins, samples of their DNA informed decades of genetic research that continues today, offering paths to treatment, prediction, and even eradication of the disease for future generations.

2. The Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of Madness, by Susannah Cahalan

The author of the #1 New York Times bestselling memoir Brain on Fire investigates the shocking mystery behind the dramatic experiment that revolutionized modern medicine. Doctors have struggled for centuries on how to define, diagnose, and treat insanity. In search of an answer, in the 1970s a Stanford psychologist named David Rosenhan and seven other sane, healthy, well-adjusted members of society went undercover into asylums around America to test the legitimacy of psychiatry’s labels. Forced to remain inside until they’d “proven” themselves sane, all eight emerged with alarming diagnoses and even more troubling stories of their treatment. Rosenhan’s watershed study broke open the field of psychiatry, closing down institutions and changing mental health diagnosis forever.

3. Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

A deliciously funny, delectably shocking banquet of wild-but-true tales of life in the culinary trade. Chef Anthony Bourdain lays out his more than a quarter-century of drugs, sex, and haute cuisine. The latest edition includes never-before-published material. The New York chef gives away secrets of the trade in his inspiring memoir/expose. Knowing the future No Reservations star battled mental demons and would eventually take his life at the height of his fame makes the story of his highs and lows and his phenomenal life’s work feel even more poignant.

4. Troublemaker, by Leah Remini

Leah Remini, outspoken actress, talk show host, and reality tv star offers up a no-holds-barred, eye-opening insider account of her tumultuous and heart-wrenching 30-year-plus association with the Church of Scientology where the drug rehab is an open-door to brainwashing. Indoctrinated into the church as a child while living with her mother and sister in New York, Remini eventually moved to Los Angeles, where her dreams of becoming an actress and advancing Scientology’s causes grew increasingly intertwined. When she began to raise questions about some of the church’s actions, she found herself a target, declared to be a threat to their organization, and therefore a “Suppressive Person.” All of her fellow parishioners, including members of her own family, were told to disconnect from her forever.

5. The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls grew up with parents whose nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation. Rex and Rose Mary Walls had four children. In the beginning, they lived like nomads, moving among Southwest desert towns, camping in the mountains. Rex was a charismatic, brilliant man who, when sober, captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and above all, how to embrace life fearlessly. Rose Mary, who painted and wrote, couldn’t stand the responsibility of providing for her family, calling herself an “excitement addict”. Later, when the money ran out, or the romance of the wandering life faded, the Walls retreated to the dismal West Virginia mining town. Rex drank and stole the grocery money and disappeared for days. As the dysfunction of the family escalated, Jeannette and her brother and sisters had to fend for themselves, supporting one another as they weathered their parents’ betrayals and, finally, found the resources and will to leave home.

6. The Rules Do Not Apply, by Ariel Levy

All her life, Ariel Levy was told she was too much. As a young woman, she decided to become a writer to channel her strength and desire. Levy moved to Manhattan to pursue her dream, and spent years of adventure, traveling all over the world writing stories about unconventional heroines, following their fearless examples in her own life. She experiences unthinkable heartbreak from her alcoholic ex-wife and when she was 19 weeks pregnant and her son was born alive. Levy is forced to surrender her illusion of control and face how to begin again.

7. The Color of Water, by James McBride

Ruth McBride Jordan is a self-declared “light-skinned” woman evasive about her ethnicity, yet steadfast in her love for her 12 black children. James McBride, journalist, musician, and son, explores his mother’s past. The son of a black minister and a woman who would not admit she was white, James McBride grew up in “orchestrated chaos” with his 11 siblings in the poor, all-black projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn. Interspersed throughout his mother’s compelling narrative, McBride shares candid recollections of his own experiences as a mixed-race child of poverty, his flirtations with drugs and violence, and his eventual self-realization and professional success.

8. Just Kids, by Patti Smith

It was the summer of love and riots, and the summer when a chance encounter in Brooklyn led two young people on a path of art, devotion, and initiation. Patti Smith would evolve as a poet and performer and Robert Mapplethorpe would direct his highly provocative style toward photography. Bound in innocence and enthusiasm, they traversed the city from Coney Island to 42nd Street, and eventually to the celebrated round table of Max’s Kansas City, where the Andy Warhol contingent held court. In 1969, the pair set up camp at the Hotel Chelsea and soon entered a community of influential artists of the day and the colorful fringe. It was a time of heightened awareness when the worlds of poetry, rock and roll, art, and sexual politics were colliding and exploding and when two kids made a pact to take care of each other. Scrappy, romantic, committed to create, and fueled by their mutual dreams and drives, they would prod and provide for one another during the hungry years. Patti watched her rock compadres die of drink and drugs and her best friend Mapplethorpe of AIDS.

9. Beer Money: A Memoir of Privilege and Loss, by Frances Stroh

This is a memoir of a city, an industry, and a dynasty in decline, a story of a young artist’s struggle to find her way out of the ruins. Frances Stroh’s earliest memories are of great privilege. Established in Detroit in 1850, by 1984 the Stroh Brewing Company had become the largest private beer fortune in America and a brand emblematic of the American dream itself; while Stroh was coming of age, the Stroh family fortune was estimated to be worth $700 million. But behind the beautiful façade lay a crumbling foundation. Detroit’s economy collapsed with the retreat of the automotive industry to the suburbs and abroad, and the Stroh family found their wealth and legacy disappearing. As their fortune dissolved in a little over a decade, the family was torn apart internally by divorce and one family member’s drug bust; disagreements over the management of the business; and disputes over the remaining money they possessed. Even as they turned against one another, looking for a scapegoat on whom to blame the unraveling of their family, they could not anticipate that even far greater tragedy lay in store.

10. My Story, by Elizabeth Smart

On June 5, 2002, 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart, the daughter of a close-knit Mormon family, was taken from her Salt Lake home in the middle of the night by religious fanatic Brian David Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee. Smart was kept chained, dressed in disguise, repeatedly raped, and told she and her family would be killed if she tried to escape. She was forced to drink alcohol and take drugs to lower her resistance. She was starved or fed garbage. Smart tells of the constant fear she endured every hour under a mentally deranged couple. Her courageous determination to maintain hope helped her devise a plan to manipulate her captors and convince them to return to Utah, where she was rescued minutes after arriving. Her faith helped her stay sane in the midst of a nightmare and how she found the strength to confront her captors at their trial and see that justice was served.

11. Wild, by Cheryl Strayed

At 22, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death and her family scattered, she began using heroin. Her marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life- to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State. And she’d do it alone. She had no experience as a long-distance hiker and faced down rattlesnakes and black bears, intense heat and record snowfalls, and both the beauty and loneliness of the trail. Told with great suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild vividly captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.

12. Where the Peacocks Sing, by Alison Singh Gee

Alison Singh Gee's bipolar father was forever one earthquake away from losing his own home. Singh Gee became a glamorous magazine writer with a serious Jimmy Choo habit, a weakness for five-star Balinese resorts, and a reputation for dating highborn British men. Then she met Ajay, a charming and unassuming Indian journalist, and her world turned upside down. Traveling from her shiny, rapid-fire life in Hong Kong to Ajay’s native village, Alison learns that not all is as it seems. Turns out Ajay is a landed prince (of sorts), but his family palace is falling to pieces. Mokimpur is a broken-down relic in desperate need of a makeover. This modern-day fairytale takes readers on a cross-cultural journey from the manicured gardens of Beverly Hills, to the bustling streets of Hong Kong and finally to the rural Indian countryside as she comes to terms with her complicated new family, leaves the modern world behind, and learns the true meaning of home can be found in the most unexpected places.

13. Rabbit, by Patricia Williams

Comedian Patricia Williams went by her street-name “Rabbit” for years. She was born and raised in Atlanta’s most troubled neighborhood at the height of the crack epidemic. One of five children, Pat watched as her alcoholic mother struggled to get by on charity, cons, and petty crimes. At seven Pat was taught to roll drunks for money. At 12, she was targeted for sex by a man eight years her senior; by 13 she was pregnant. By 15 Pat was a mother of two. Alone at 16, Pat was determined to make a better life for her children. But with no job skills and an eighth-grade education, her options were limited. She learned quickly that hustling and humor were the only tools she had to survive.

14. Inside Out, by Demi Moore

Demi Moore has been synonymous with celebrity for decades. From iconic film roles to high-profile relationships, Moore has never been far from the spotlight or the headlines. Even as Demi was becoming the highest-paid actress in Hollywood, she was always outrunning her past, just one step ahead of the doubts and insecurities that defined her childhood. Throughout her rise to fame and during some of the most pivotal moments of her life, Demi battled addiction, body image issues, and childhood trauma that would follow her for years, all while juggling a skyrocketing career and at times negative public perception. As her success grew, Demi found herself questioning if she belonged in Hollywood, if she was a good mother, a good actress, and, always, if she was simply good enough. Moore lays bare her tumultuous relationship with her mother, her marriages, her struggles balancing stardom with raising a family, and her journey toward openheartedness.

Wishing you insightful reading, inspirational writing, love, happiness, and good mental health.

Host of “Dear Family,” the Podcast, Writer, Educator, and Mental Health Advocate

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