Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories that Make Us
by Rachel AvivPublished 2022 288 pages
Over the course of six stories about people with different mental illnesses—Rachel Aviv explores what it means to be mentally ill and how people contend with the altered ways that they view the world. Along the way, we're invited into these people's private lives, through the diaries and conversations that they've left behind them.
The book is deeply sceptical of psychiatry and cautious around medication, but I think the main thesis is that mental illness is deeply personal and defies easy categorisation. Labelling an illness as depression or anorexia only illuminates a tiny facet of the rich and complicated inner life within. The solution doesn't always come in a pill or a care home admission—though these things can be a part of a person's ongoing relationship with their mind.
The book is also intensely personal, as a result of the deep self-awareness of its subjects. Most of them keep a journal that Aviv mines for moments of self-introspection. Sometimes this self-introspection feeds back into the subject's mental illness: expectations of who they're meant to be hindering their ability to cope with themselves. Over-thinking things.
I suppose that's where the title comes from; more than historical or genetic markers, the way that we feel is a product of the way that we see ourselves in the world. I'm not sure how I feel about that: it feels somehow like it meanders near suggesting that we're, in some way, in control of our mental illnesses—when feelings of helplessness are almost always present to some degree. Although maybe that's just the story we tell ourselves.