By Emmy Nordstrom Higdon
2020 has been a particularly tumultuous year, and many readers have experienced challenges to their mental health, some for the first time. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 50% of people will experience some kind of mental illness by the time they reach age 40. Mental illness may be an unexpected turn of events that is a struggle to navigate, but for other people, mental illness or psychiatric disability is just a regular part of everyday life. Even though mental illness is very common, it can still be very difficult to talk about, let alone learn to manage. Luckily, there are some brilliant Canadian authors who have written directly on this theme, and their work offers diverse perspectives on experiences of mental health that can make the idea less scary or offer a way to learn something new.
What does it mean to “overcome” a diagnosis? As debut author Sarah Kurchak’s lighthearted memoir highlights, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Growing up in small town Ontario in the 80’s and 90’s with limited access to mental health resources, Kurchak got by through becoming a master of what autistic people know as “masking”. She learned to expertly imitate neurotypical behaviour, and she got so good at it that it almost ruined her life. Now, navigating the resulting anxiety and depression, Kurchak writes about the complexity of this experience, tackling everything from parenting, love, sex, and alcohol, to professional pillow fighting. Kurchak’s memoir seeks to respond to the intensely relatable question: is pretending to be someone else really worth it?
Jillian Christmas is a queer, Afro-Caribbean writer and former Artistic Director of Versəs Festival of Words. She has won numerous Grand Poetry-Slam Championship titles and was the first Canadian to perform on the final stage of the Women of the World Poetry Slam. She was one of the contributors to Power Poems for Small Humans from Flamingo Rampant Press, one of the books featured in this year’s FOLD Kids Program. In her collection The Gospel of Breaking, Christmas draws on family history, queer lineage, and the political landscape of a racialized life, and beautifully addresses a number of timely issues, mental health among them. This book was described by the Vancouver Sun as “incandescent”.
Julie S. Lalonde is a franco-ontarienne originally from a rural Northern community, and an internationally recognized women’s rights advocate and public educator. In her recent personal memoir, she has crafted a chilling and relatable portrait of her experiences of intimate partner violence and stalking, how she coped (or didn’t), and the mental health challenges that walk hand in hand with the realities of mundane violence. For more than a decade of activist work in the public eye, Lalonde kept her experiences a secret, until one day, her abuser died unexpectedly. Free from the threat of violence, this memoir contends with the balancing act that Lalonde lived every day, and the aftermath she was left to process. Lalonde has won numerous awards for her work including “Best Volunteer in a Leading Role” by Volunteer Ottawa, two Femmy Awards, and she is a recipient of the Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case. Her book is accessible, blunt, and impactful.
In this collection of essays, activist, performance artist, poet, and Lambda Award winning author Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha offers a call to action for those resisting ableism. This is a celebration of the work of queer and trans people of colour within the disability justice movement, that frames access as radical love. In the time of COVID-19, we have great opportunities to mobilize this knowledge in innovative ways to move toward a more accessible future for everyone. Short-listed for the Judy Grahn Award for Lesbian Nonfiction in 2019, Care Work digs into the economics of emotional labour, issues of suicide in queer and trans communities, and the author’s lived experience as a touring artist to offer a toolkit for radical community development.