7 Illness Memoirs about Being Seriously Sick

  • By Jennifer Mulder
  • 4 November 2019
  • 3 minute read
7 Illness Memoirs about Being Seriously Sick | The Health Sessions

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A good book is like pocket-sized therapy. When someone puts your deepest thoughts, emotions and experiences into words, it makes you feel understood and less alone. Especially during your darkest hours, it’s nice to know you’re not the only one who has felt this way.

Getting an intimate insight into how someone navigates similar situations as yours, can also offer you a fresh perspective. You might even learn new information or discover different ways to deal with your problems.

If you’re looking for a relatable read about living with chronic migraine, ME/CFS or a rare auto-immune disease, check out the 7 illness memoirs below. 

‘Within These Four Walls’ by Mindfully Evie

7 Illness Memoirs about Being Seriously Sick | The Health Sessions

Within These Four Walls’ is a beautifully written testament of Evie’s years of being housebound with M.E. and Lyme disease. Written from the confines of her home, this book is the living, breathing proof that despite it all, she found happiness and peace during these tough times.

Evie’s story is made up of three parts: ‘The Storm’, containing the comforting words she needed to hear during bad moments; ‘The Aftermath’, about putting the broken – and still breaking – pieces back together again; and ‘The Calm’, with inspiring lessons learned.

What’s refreshing about ‘Within These Four Walls’ is Evie’s mindful perspective about her situation. Her writing shows a wisdom beyond her 22 years, accepting the harshness of her reality while still living a meaningful life. The memoir reads mostly like poetry, with journal entries and prose mixed in.

Full of easy-to-read essays, Within These Four Walls’ captures the complexity of living with chronic illness, whilst offering hope and encouragement.

’10: A Memoir of Migraine Survival’ by Danielle Newport Fancher

7 Illness Memoirs about Being Seriously Sick | The Health Sessions

In ’10: A Memoir of Migraine Survival’, Danielle openly shares what it’s really like to live with an invisible illness like chronic migraine. More than ‘just a headache’, this raw and real story makes it clear how a migraine brain affects every aspect of life. On the outside, Danielle looks like a confident, smart 30-year old. But inside, every day is a challenge to stay afloat with a 10/10 rating on the pain scale.

What began as a creative outlet to cope with the unrelenting pain slowly turned into a collection of migraine stories that she shared with family and friends to help them understand her daily reality. In chronological order, ’10: A Memoir of Migraine Survival’ recounts the early stages of migraine and how it takes control of her life. and how Danielle eventually finds purpose in pain.

Although it’s a very personal story, each part of the book is infused with advice that anyone can learn from. Educational, enlightening and heart-breaking all at the same time, ’10: A Memoir of Migraine Survival’ sheds a light on this neurological disease and spurs fellow sufferers to demand better treatment options.

‘Get Well Soon: Adventures in Alternative Healthcare’ by Nick Duerden

7 Illness Memoirs about Being Seriously Sick | The Health Sessions

“We live in a world where we mostly get well soon or else we very dramatically don’t. If you occupy the uncertain middle ground, then it all gets invariably confusing.”

When British journalist Nick Duerden came down with severe post-viral fatigue, he found himself in between the cracks of the healthcare system. Because western medicine couldn’t offer any treatment, Nick, skeptic of New Age gurus, felt forced to plunge into the world of alternative therapies in search for a cure.

‘Get Well Soon: Adventures in Alternative Healthcare’ chronicles his bewildering road to recovery, as Nick starts to follows strict diets with vitamin regimens and takes up yoga. In an amusing way, Nick describes how he’s willing to try anything – from mindfulness and massage therapy to Emotional Freedom Techniques – to escape the debilitating fatigue that keeps him mostly housebound.

Not meant as a self-help guide, ‘Get Well Soon: Adventures in Alternative Healthcare’ still is an informative and humorous read about a journey many seriously ill people go through – the one in pursuit of a cure.

‘Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness’ by Susannah Cahalan

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Can you imagine waking up and finding yourself strapped to a hospital bed because you’re psychotic, violent and a flight risk?

Twenty-four year old Susannah Calahan has a new boyfriend and promising career as a newspaper reporter when her life starts to unravel. All of a sudden, she’s showing a range of bizarre psychiatric symptoms, finally leading up to hospital admission. What happened? Has she gone crazy or is there something else going on?

‘Brain on Fire’ is the astounding true story about Susannah’s monthlong decent into madness. Her brain is on fire, slowly shutting off and erasing her memory and sense of self, but doctor’s can’t figure out what’s wrong… Like a medical mystery, the memoir puts the pieces together of the events leading up to her transformation into a paranoid, seizing patient – and the aftermath.

This award-winning book highlights the importance of fighting for a right diagnosis and the power of faith, family and identity.

‘When Breath Becomes Air’ by Paul Kalanithi

7 Illness Memoirs about Being Seriously Sick | The Health Sessions

What makes life worth living in the face of death? That’s the question that 36-year old neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi reflects upon in this moving medical memoir.

Just as he’s about to complete his neurosurgeon training, Paul gets diagnosed with stage IV Lung cancer. In a moment, he goes from being a doctor saving people’s lives to being a patient struggling to survive.

After more than a decade of working towards his dreams, Kalanithi now has to embrace an uncertain future. Because, as he put it, “Death may be a one-time event, but living with terminal illness is a process.”

In ‘When Breathe Becomes Air’, Paul gracefully reflects upon his lifelong quest for meaning and the philosophical questions that surface after his cancer diagnosis. His memoir is a poignant reminder of both the impermanence of life and the lastingness of memories.

‘Everything Happens for a Reason – and Other Lies I’ve Loved’ by Kate Bowler

7 Illness Memoirs about Being Seriously Sick | The Health Sessions

Thirty-five year old Kate Bowler just had a baby with her high school sweetheart when she’s diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. In ‘Everything Happens for a Reason’, she searches for answers to the question ‘why?’. Why me? Why do bad things happen to good people?

As a Divinity professor working on a dissertation on “the prosperity gospel”, Kate examines how commonly held beliefs influence how we look at health and illness. The idea that blessings will follow if only you work hard enough and think good thoughts (unintentionally) puts the blame on suffering people. But no amount of positivity will shrink Kate’s tumors. As she navigates the unthinkable, Bowler explores what we can do to support a loved one who’s struggling.

More a meditation about religious beliefs than a personal story about illness, Everything Happens for a Reason’ reflects on faith, family, the prospect of mortality and how to make sense of this thing called life.

‘When Bodies Break’ by Cameron B. Auxer 

7 Illness Memoirs about Being Seriously Sick | The Health Sessions

What happens after doctors tell you you have a chronic illness you may never fully recover from?

In ‘When Bodies Break’, Cameron B. Auxer has collected 32 real-life accounts of what it’s like to survive and thrive with chronic illness. Part memoir, part informational, chronically ill contributors from all backgrounds have literally poured their blood, sweat and tears into sharing their experiences and best advice.

Sharing the ins and outs of life with chronic illness, this book makes a valuable resource for anyone newly diagnosed looking for tips on how to deal with the rollercoaster of emotions and practical issues. Whether it’s navigating the healthcare system or finding a new purpose, When Bodies Break’ contains tried-and-tested tips for anyone struggling with chronic illness.

Which illness memoirs have moved or inspired you?

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