Depression can be a tricky subject. I don’t like to use the word lightly, because, in my opinion, it is overused. Much like we use words and stories to understand the world, so does our brain, and when we use words with a certain meaning or emotional load, our brain modifies our physical, emotional and hormonal response to fit that load. The words we choose to describe things happening in our inner world matter. In Dutch, I prefer the word “somberheid”, which translates loosely to gloominess.
Of course, there are cases where the word “depression” is appropriate and can even be helpful, but I find in most cases it’s not.

It’s kind of a funny story – Ned Vizzini (Fiction)

“One thing I’ve learnt recently: how to think nothing. Here’s the trick: don’t have any interest in the world around you, don’t have any hope for the future, and be warm.”

“A working brain is probably a lot like a map, where anybody can get from one place to another on the freeways. It’s the nonworking brains that get blocked, that have dead ends, that are under construction like mine.”

I really enjoyed this book, because of its open and no-nonsense talk about feeling suicidal and depressed. The story is aimed at young adults, the protagonist, Craig, is fifteen years old and highly ambitious. When the pressure he puts on himself becomes unbearable, he tries to kill himself. He gets checked into a mental hospital, where he finds a way to deal with his own brain. When you are feeling very down, this is one of the first books I would recommend. It addresses the thoughts and feelings of depression in a light and open way. Talking about depression, but not in the least bit depressing.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman (Fiction)

“If someone asks you how you are, you are meant to say FINE. You are not meant to say that you cried yourself to sleep last night because you hadn’t spoken to another person for two consecutive days. FINE is what you say.”

“I have been waiting for death all my life. I do not mean that I actively wish to die, just that I do not really want to be alive.”

I think this story captures the feeling of loneliness and sadness very well. Eleanor spends her days working and her weekends in the company of frozen pizza, vodka and a potted plant. Throughout the book we see her break open, make connections and blossom (if only a little). It is never specified, but I think Eleanor may be on the autistic spectrum, something that may have contributed to her solitary lifestyle.
I found this book an easy read, even though it deals with complicated feelings. It nicely highlights the importance of social connections and fresh “input” into life, and it offers a peek into the thoughts of someone struggling with depression.

How to think like a Roman Emperor: The stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius – Donald Robertson (Non-Fiction)

“What matters, in other words, isn’t what we feel but how we respond to those feelings.”

“According to Stoic philosophy, when we assign intrinsic values like “good” or “bad” to external events, we’re behaving irrationally and even exhibiting a form of self-deception. When we call something a “catastrophe,” for instance, we go beyond the bare facts and start distorting events and deceiving ourselves.”

Written by a cognitive psychotherapist, the central ideas of stoicism are interwoven with anecdotes from Marcus Aurelius’ life and modern psychology practice. Stoicism is a combination of personal ethics, logic and an acceptance of the moment/experience as it is – that is, without getting overwhelmed by the emotional experience of a moment. The trick is to accept both pleasant and unpleasant sensations in the body, without judging them as good or bad. An example from the book: When your boat is sinking, experiencing anxiety is quite natural. Catastrophic thoughts like “I might die a terrible death” however aren’t helpful. You might still make it to shore, and either way, panicking isn’t going to get you anywhere. The stoic practice would be to recognize the initial anxiety, without getting swept away by judgements and thoughts. Instead, calmly evaluate a course of action (hand in hand with, perhaps, the sensations of anxiety).
I liked this book because it gives an alternative way of dealing with difficult situations. It provides examples (from way-back-when, but also modern examples), interesting and light backstories but also very thorough advice and practice material. This book is by no means a fix-your-sadness kind of book, but it is very much a learn-to-look-differently way of thinking, which is often what dealing with negative emotions turns out to be.

Nausea – Jean-Paul Sartre (Fiction)

“My thought is me: that’s why I can’t stop. I exist because I think… and I can’t stop myself from thinking. At this very moment – it’s frightful – if I exist, it is because I am horrified at existing. I am the one who pulls myself from the nothingness to which I aspire.”

“And there it is, the Nausea, spread at the bottom of the viscous puddle, at the bottom of our time, the time of purple suspenders and broken chair seats; it is made of wide, soft instants, spreading at the edge, like an oil stain.”

This is a great book to experience an overthinking brain (or for most of us, experience a different overthinking brain) and a really good insight into existentialism and the pit of anxiety that way of thinking opens for some of us. This is NOT a good book to read if you are already feeling down. Sartre was an existentialist, and he wasn’t the happiest. This work is about the realisation he is an entirely free agent in a world devoid of meaning, and the feelings of angst this can produce. A lot of it takes place in the protagonist’s inner world, his thoughts, observations and contemplations. The story in Nausea isn’t too important or interesting, it is sometimes described as a “novel of ideas”, which implies the characters are mouthpieces for different ways of thinking, discussing on the paper.
I like this book for giving shape to any existential angst you might experience, or for an insight into what existentialism entails.