Health issues are on everyone’s mind these days. As we slowly transition, at long last, away from our recent culture of utmost caution and consideration as far as our health is concerned and into one of jubilation as we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, it’s crucial not to forget the lessons we’ve learned as we’ve walked this rocky road. Covid is still affecting the lives of countless people; let’s not forget the suffering of others even if we’re coming to the home stretch (and maybe finally getting out of our homes in doing so!). Meanwhile, Covid is only one of the ways that sickness can impact, and completely unhinge, our perception of “normal.”

Since that one particular illness has hogged the spotlight, others have been pushed to the sidelines. So below we’ve chosen six books that cover health crises that aren’t Covid because these, too, need increased visibility and further conversation. Many beleaguered individuals have gone through the wringer enduring horrible diseases, some of which are easily apparent from the outside and others more insidious. 

A stroke may start with a dramatic collapse, but the aftermath is a long, wrenching internal healing process. There’s cancer, which may silently eat away at someone without flashy indications. Speaking of eating, there are disorders centered on food, which may cruelly manifest as praiseworthy weight loss while actually destroying a life.  And so on.

Have I bummed you out too much? Well, the good news is that not all change is for the worse. Sometimes, intense pain and difficult periods of life lead to something great; increased self-awareness, for one thing, and maybe on the flip side, increased selflessness manifesting as activism, advocacy and a determination to bring about truly positive change. These life-altering medical crises pave the way forward into the future.

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness
by Susannah Cahalan

In this eye-opening book, a young woman literally opens her eyes and finds herself hospitalized with no clue of how she got there. Also disturbing is the fact that she’s bound to the bed and can’t speak. Apparently, she’d previously been on the brink of what seems like success, but medically, she was on the brink of something horrific. Now she’s behaving violently and has been deemed mentally imbalanced. There’s a reason this has happened to her, but it’s not an easy one. 

This book was an instant New York Times bestseller and award winner, received the motion-picture treatment, reads as a truly riveting account and has even acted as a catalyst in diagnosing Autoimmune Encephalitis in others. Says NPR, “on every level, it’s remarkable … Cahalan is nothing if not tenacious, and she perfectly tempers her brutal honesty with compassion and something like vulnerability.” On the other end of the spectrum, an Amazon reviewer professes that it “should be required reading for everyone in the healthcare profession — especially neurologists.” After all these testaments, it’s safe to label this as an important book.

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Clear! Living the Life You Didn’t Dream Of
by Herman J. Williams

Herman J. Williams was a man with a plan. He was expecting success as an orthopedic surgeon to professional athletes until, during an everyday pickup basketball game, everything wonderful he’d planned falls to pieces when his heart gives out: literally and, at least for a while, metaphorically. His life is altered externally and intrinsically; this event opening the door for some serious self-reflection.

The subtitle for the book, “Living the Life You Didn’t Dream Of,” hints at the direction this narrative takes as Williams recalibrates his present and future. The author has to fight the demons that threaten to plunge him into depression and dejection and instead rely on faith in God to move forward into the great unknown. The results are hopeful and inspiring. (Read our full review here.)

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Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat: A Story of Bulimia
by Stephanie Covington Armstrong

Eating disorders trauma activist and motivational speaker Stephanie Covington is not what popular media has driven you to immediately conjure up when thinking about an individual struggling with an eating disorder. Stephanie is Black, and guess what? Black women get eating disorders too, and this one has a story to tell that’s devastating, yes, but also comes with a message of empowerment and encouragement. 

A playwright and screenwriter who has written for Essence, Mademoiselle, Sassy and Venice magazines, Covington assures us that the road to these accolades wasn’t an easy one. Her website confesses that “Looking back, it’s a miracle that I made it from there to here because I had no coping mechanisms or place to put my feelings. Today, as an eating disorder and trauma activist I have tools to help me cope and access my feelings without bingeing.” After finally reaching out for help Covington turned things around. Actress Hill Harper attests, “Hurrah for a woman bold enough to throw open the closet door and tell the truth about her relationship with food.”

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The Living Room: A Lung Cancer Community of Courage
by Bonnie J. Addario

A determined activist on behalf of patients suffering from the disease, Addario, along with her family, worked tirelessly to build the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation in 2006 (now part of the GO2 Foundation) along with the Addario Lung Cancer Medical Institute in 2008, which is devoted to research. She has developed an extraordinary global network of fellow activists, patients, doctors, oncologists, researchers and caregivers, altogether comprising a thriving and ever-growing community. This support network is steadfastly dedicated to advocating on behalf of the patients and families affected by lung cancer. 

Her book offers stories of fear, hope, courage and determination: in Addario’s mind, contracting cancer isn’t about dying, it’s about living. These stories can’t help but inspire and provide hope, and, most importantly, break down the stigmas associated with lung cancer. The best part is that Addario assures us that lung cancer cures are moving in a very positive direction, and the disease is on its way to being far less grim. (Read our full review here.)

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Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember: The Stroke That Changed My Life
by Christine Hyung-Oak Lee

Over the course of one fateful day, Christine Hyung-Oak Lee gradually noticed more and more symptoms that culminated in her seeing everything upside down and struggling to speak properly. Later, after rounds of testing, she found out that she’d suffered a stroke that left her memory severely impaired. To try to piece things back together, she took out a journal and began to write; this journal later became this book. 

The narrative is poignant and piercing, a memoir of so much more than just a stroke. It investigates her distant past in order to determine just what happened during the event, then it delves into the ways her medical crisis influenced her future and how she deals with it all in every current day. In doing this serious work, Lee comes fully into her own and paves the way for brilliant self-awareness. Called “beautiful,” “stunning,” “brave,” “lyrical,” and all other kinds of shining adjectives, this one’s worth a read for its literary value alone. 

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Sick: A Memoir
by Porochista Khakpour

I’d bore you if I listed the number of awards this book has garnered. In her deeply personal memoir of chronic illness, misdiagnosis, addiction, and the myth of full recovery, Porochista Khakpour painstakingly details the confusing and tortuous years before receiving a diagnosis that explained why she was always sick. As it turns out, she had a serious case of Lyme disease, an affliction that causes long-term damage that hugely impacts daily life and the ability to handle the things that most would call mundane. 

Honesty is this book’s backbone. Khakpour didn’t paddle through calm waters from beginning to end, and her final diagnosis doesn’t exactly provide a simple happy ending. Mental illness, drug addiction, objectively questionable choices along the way, and frequent moves all complicate her life and directly impact her tumultuous journey to knowledge and acceptance. In taking the reader along with her every step of the way, the author sheds light on not only her personal story but the myriad of holes in a health system that couldn’t give her what she needed. 

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