Self-help is not my thing whatsoever. When I started this blog, it was with the intention to show how much nonfiction actually encompasses beyond areas like self-help. When telling people I only read nonfiction for years, I often got that response: that I must read a lot of self-help. Um, no. I’m perfect. But seriously, it’s a genre I feel very wary of. I think it can be useful but I also think it can be manipulative, oversimplified, and even damaging when outside help — like medical or therapeutic — is what a reader might really need. Among other complaints. I have many! (I also have a pathological need to not be told what to do so all of this might say more about me than anything else.)
But I wanted to challenge myself for the 2021 Nonfiction Reader Challenge by reconsidering what I would classify as self-help. Certainly there have been a lot of books that have helped me immensely, including when I couldn’t afford medical care or therapy (sad I know, but also: America).
Just in the last month or so, I’ve read these three which have all been massively helpful, in their own way.
If you’re not a diet book reader either, stay with me.
I feel it’s worth mentioning that I’m not obese, which isn’t to brag about it but just to say that I probably approach this with a different level of emotional investment or medical need than others might. Although I would never, ever read a diet book, I was intrigued by The Obesity Code because I’d heard that it explains the science behind weight loss and how hormones affect body weight very well. And did it ever! This was so illuminating and well written, I could follow all of nephrologist Jason Fung’s scientific explanations — and retain them enough to explain to others, which feels like information well learned.
Through his work with diabetic patients and those with kidney disease, Fung concludes that we have to challenge the accepted rule of calories in, calories out as the key to weight loss. He insists that we must know this is true by now — saying clinicians themselves know it, anyone who’s plateaued on a weight loss regimen knows it, even Oprah knows it.
His walkthroughs of the medical and scientific workings behind weight gain and loss and its difficulty are clear, evidence-backed, and framed with examples from clinical practice and his research in the practice of intermittent fasting. He looks at what fasting is and isn’t, its historical usages, and its processes and effects in the body. He also medically debunks so many long-held myths, like that breakfast is the most important meal of the day — or that you need to eat it at all — and points out things like how, as with all animals, we don’t eat when we’re sick, and it’s important to apply the biological and evolutionary reasonings behind facts and feelings like these to how we approach weight loss and management.
It comes down to our bodies having a set point weight, and anything beyond it is going to be very challenging to achieve, with hormones like insulin and cortisol playing the major roles. The good news is that managing these can reverse or avoid a lot of problems that they cause, so I think it’s helpful reading for anyone — it’s compelling and accessible pop science, and totally fascinating regardless of if you’re trying to lose weight.
And, at least from my own anecdotal perspective, I can say that the times I’ve lost the most weight without effort and felt the best while doing so were when I inadvertently did intermittent fasting because of busy work periods. Well worth a read for anyone curious about how intermittent fasting works and its benefits, weight-related or otherwise, and the importance of proper insulin regulation for anyone’s health, whether or not you suffer from diabetes or kidney ailments.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott
I went through a weird phase during a weird life period where I read a bunch of Salon.com articles – like every day – and Anne Lamott seemed to always have essays there and I felt pretty lukewarm at best about them. She also struck me as being a bit churchy, which is another thing I tend to avoid. HARD.
But truly, her collection of writing and life advice is as delightful as its reputation holds. It’s funny and practical and applicable, and she practices what she preaches so beautifully on every single page.
I loved her message to tell all your weird awful painful stories because if you felt it and tell it authentically, someone else will have felt the same. It wasn’t saccharine like I was expecting, either. The way she addresses topics like jealousy, failure, setbacks and generally feeling like shit are brilliant. She makes it somehow reassuring in a realistic, not relentlessly sunny way, which is how I prefer it.
And you know what? As much as I was like “ugh, yes, I KNOW you’re supposed to write a little bit every day, my god I AM after all the owner of a Creative Writing BA it took me five years to get”, that task has still seemed insurmountable and when I did manage to put something down it seemed so awful or cringey I couldn’t look at it again. Try again next year! Or don’t. Ever. That’s also fine. But she hammers that message home so often that I thought, ok fine, let’s try it her way instead. And can you guess who was right?
I did flinch a bit every time she mentioned praying over a problem, or discussing something at church, but that’s my own issues and I’m sure she’d tell me to write about why they exist. I get it now, Anne. And honestly, those moments weren’t even as bad as I was bracing for. She makes everything so amusing and upbeat and just somehow imbued with a sense that it’ll all be fine.
So, deeply worthwhile lessons on writing and life and although I also cried and sometimes felt desperate and sad and scared, I also felt hopeful and that it showed me better where to go and how to get there and what’s worth your worry and what’s not. And I’ve even been writing, so long story-review short, after more than 25 years this book is still wonderful and helpful and I wish I’d read it sooner. But maybe you read it when you need it.
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel van der Kolk
Working with trauma is as much about remembering how we survived as it is about what is broken.
Van der Kolk is a psychiatrist and trauma researcher who became especially interested in the lingering effects of trauma in his work with Vietnam veterans. This book is the culmination of a career in that heavy but very necessary field of mental health. My library copy was falling apart so badly that the librarian re-taped it while I checked out. We agreed that at least its worn-out state meant that this book was reaching a lot of people who needed it.
It’s a bit clinical so I could see it not being everyone’s cup of tea but I do hold a minor in psychology (thank you, hold your applause) and we had some awfully dry clinical stuff to read back then and I still mostly loved it. If you don’t though, this might not always be so gripping. It’s a mix of clinical research, neuroscience, personal insights, and case studies from his work with people suffering trauma in various forms and at various levels. He examines different techniques for treating trauma, like EMDR — an intriguing method of which he was initially skeptical but that’s had outstanding results, biofeedback, talk therapy, physical options, different kinds of group work, and pretty much any other method applied today.
One of the most disturbing elements, for me, was how much babies and very young children can be affected by parental neglect or even just anger and anything that diverts from steady, security-enforcing care and nurture. I knew this, of course (see above re: my educational qualifications) but van der Kolk’s case studies and examples were sobering.
The most illuminating — if terrifying — is how trauma and holding it affects the body. We know now that mental health isn’t some separate entity from physical health, but rather that systems are deeply interconnected. The implications of how long-held trauma can affect bodies are alarming, simply put.
It felt very positive overall though – as horrible and complicated and life-altering as trauma is, there are a lot of options for healing, depending on the person and the specific trauma. And you’ve got to do it – it’s affecting all parts of brain and body, badly. This was really what I wanted to learn here: exactly how held trauma trickles into physical areas, and it didn’t feel there was quite as much as I wanted to know but what’s there is still very helpful to understand. Maybe because the research here is relatively new, maybe because on some level it’s just all affected.
It did put me in a weird state all week while reading because inevitably you’ll be thinking a lot about childhood, and your parents, and bad relationships, among other potential dark cloud summoners, so make sure you read it at a time when you feel up to handling these.
Have any of these helped you? What’s your favorite helpful but not-self help read?
Entered for the Self-Help category of the 2021 Nonfiction Reader Challenge.