Beth McColl’s How to Come Alive Again is part recipe book, part tourist guide to living more positively with mental illness. It is the first non-fiction book which I have read which presents mental illness in a relatable and non-clinical way. Each section offers guidance on finding the right professional support, tips on how to manage your emotions and symptoms alongside McColl’s own anecdotes about surviving her most hopeless and vulnerable times. McColl states that to be a good ally you should “leave shame and disapproval and disappointment at the door.” Throughout the book, McColl encourages readers with mental illness to do the same for themselves, overall it feels more like a conversation with a well-informed friend than a self-help book.
The first section of the book “Lightlessness” kicks off with examples and definitions of common symptoms of different mental illnesses (depression, anxiety, disassociation). This initial section sets the honest, relatable, and funny tone which is carried on through the rest of the book. My own personal highlight “How to be Good Online” should be made into a pamphlet and given to everyone who owns a phone. Breaking down symptoms, therapeutic strategies, and terminology in an informative and applicable way normalises elements of life with mental illness and, by mixing it up with practical advice, avoids it feeling like a medical text.
My own personal highlight “How to be Good Online” should be made into a pamphlet and given to everyone who owns a phone.
Part four “Eclipse” was the most challenging section for me to read. The humour and relatability which accompanies the reader from the first page is still there but I found the discussions of safety precautions for self-harm and suicide hard to read. However, even when discussing these more complicated topics, McColl safely and honestly approaches the reality of mental illness, normalising the less pleasant aspects of mental illness and acknowledging the terrible outcomes it can have. Although I found it difficult, McColl’s consistent validation and compassion for these negative experiences is incredibly powerful. Trigger warnings are clearly marked on this section for readers who may want to avoid it but it carries an important message for those able to get through it. By positioning suicide and self-harm as symptoms of an illness, McColl does not minimise their emotional effects but shines a light on aspects of mental illness people often avoid. It is hard to explain how important it is for people with mental illnesses to see compassionate representations of themselves in literature, voices which are hopeful without ignoring just how frustrating and exhausting mental illness can be.
I wish I had had this book when I was fifteen, not because it would have stopped me feeling like a failure of a human, relapsing, or feeling depressed, but I might have felt less alone with it and more capable of recovering. While McColl is just one voice and her experiences greatly differ from mine and many other people’s, it is wonderful to read such an honest account, one which does not shy away from the truly shitty aspects of having a mental illness but manages to still be an enjoyable read.
The book doesn’t suggest decluttering will change your life or kale will cure your depression
The book doesn’t suggest decluttering will change your life or kale will cure your depression, it simply and honestly outlines what you might experience, ways to prepare for it, and lets it be ok that sometimes you just won’t. It encourages readers to celebrate small victories, huge leaps, and accept relapses and bad days as part of life with illnesses like this. I recommended this book to a lot of my friends, those with diagnosis and those without, as it sets up a way for readers to discuss mental health without the weight of social stigma or cultural taboo.
How to Come Alive Again: A Guide to Killing Your Monsters
By Beth McColl
320 pages. 2019.
Buy it here.