The Simple Healing Power of a “Mental Health Shelf”

books shelf home decor

Blame it on Blair Waldorf watching an Audrey Hepburn movie every time she was sad, but all I’ve ever wanted to be when I grow up is a woman with a go-to bad day routine. I’ve tried everything from baths and wine (the combination of stewing and drinking alcohol, it turns out, burdens me more than a bad day) to spending 200 dollars at Zara (we can agree this is not a good idea), before I finally found a winner: the Mental Health Shelf.

Your Mental Health Shelf is a place—physical or imaginary—filled with books, movies and music you return to over and over, for comfort, knowledge or pleasure. They sit at the intersection of nostalgia and wisdom. They’re the things that make your heart sing, or remind you of lying on your childhood bedroom floor when everything was simple, or make you feel how “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten was engineered to make you feel.

Typically I am not one for re-reading, re-watching, redoing anything; just the idea of re-reading a book can throw me into panic-calculating how many more books I’ll get to read before I die. But I’ve come to realize there’s a distinct pleasure in re-visiting things, especially in the age of churning content. You’re freeing yourself, just for a little while, from trying to keep up with the newest and best, and welcoming in the familiar. You get to slip into a world where taste doesn’t matter and be entertained by something without caring if it’s cutting edge or makes a profound cultural statement. I knew a girl who loved a movie so much that she watched it every night of her senior year of college. The repetition, while a little extreme, comforted her through a stressful year and prepared her for a looming transition. That’s the kind of freedom granted by a good Solace Shelf.

Things on your shelf can fall into a few categories: pure sweet nostalgia (novels you loved as a kid, movies you watched on Disney Channel), power (music that makes you feel unstoppable, memoirs or poetry that make you strong), or personality (books, movies, music or tv that you feel really gets you, or helped you understand yourself better at one time, and makes you feel less alone).

My shelf is mostly books by female authors who explain the world and my place in it in a way I understand, but yours could be a shelf a rom-coms, the complete set of Harry Potter books or The Fast and the Furious movies (I can see the unique pleasure in that).

Below is a peek into my Mental Health Shelf. What’s on yours?

Heartburn by Nora Ephron

I remember finding this book at the public library my sophomore year of college. I had never heard of Nora Ephron, and reading her for the first time was like watching my life change. This is the perfect comfort read because if she can make her divorce funny, I can get through whatever’s bringing me down, and there’s a recipe for mashed potatoes for one if I need a more visceral comfort.

Reborn by Susan Sontag

There is something soothing about reading journals, especially journals of brilliant people who, somehow, were once just as confused and insecure as I am now. A 16-year-old Sontag’s list of books she’d read and had yet to read can be the kick out of a slump I need. And if someone asks how I’m doing, I can just send them her perfect description of a bad day: “All this pulls and pushes—years and strains (I feel it now) until I must clench my fists—I rise—who can keep still—every muscle is on a rack—striving to build itself into an immensity—I want to scream—my stomach feels compressed—my legs, feet, toes stretching until they hurt.”

Teaching my Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire

Warsan Shire captures humanity in a way I’ve never read anywhere else, and so perfectly it’s often hard to read. Her poems suck me up entirely when I’m feeling scattered. One of my favorite of her poems, “Bone,” begins like this: “I find a girl the height of a small wail / living in our spare room. She looks the way I did when I was fifteen / full of pulp and pepper. / She spends all day up in the room / measuring her thighs.”

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis by Lydia Davis

The first page of this book is so familiar it lowers my heart rate at a speed normally only achieved by talking to my mom: “When he calls me either he will come to me, or he will not and I will be angry, and so I will have either him or my own anger, and this might be all right, since anger is always a great comfort, as I found with my husband.”

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

At my first bad job I spent a lot (too much) time on the internet scouring desperately for comfort. Eventually, on The Paris Review’s website, I found it, delivered via Ocean Vuong’s poetry. In “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong,” he writes “Ocean. Ocean — / get up. The most beautiful part of your body / is where it’s headed. & remember, / loneliness is still time spent / with the world.”

Gossip Girl

In college, any time I was feeling down or overwhelmed, I would watch an episode of Gossip Girl. Despite the characters being drop-dead beautiful, frighteningly rich and generally unrelatable, their lives seemed uniquely challenging in a way I didn’t recognize. It always made me feel better about my small-scale real-person problems.

How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti

This is one of those books that makes me feel less alone. And it has this quote, the best in all of literature, if you ask me: “If I want to be a hero, it will not be to the jocks, whose Interiors have an Integrity that Springs up from the very center of the Earth itself. It will be to the utter Liars I find myself sitting with here, in the white-walled room that is the typing school’s second floor Studio.”

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin

These stories echo through my brain the same way Lydia Davis’s do. I think of them often, and it’s always comforting to come back and see them again. It was the first book that made me realize writing could sound in your chest, not just run through your head. “Once he told me he loved me because I was like San Pablo Avenue. He was like the Berkeley dump.”

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

I think I revisit this so often because I don’t think I’ll ever truly understand it, but that’s part of the draw. There’s always something new and spectacular I haven’t noticed, no matter how many times I read it. “He really had been through death, but he had returned because he could not bear the solitude.”

The Princess Diaries

Some things in life are simple and those things are mostly watching young Anne Hathaway become a princess. Bonus points for being on Netflix right now.

Photo by Heidi’s Bridge of Piera Gelardi’s apartment

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