Do you have any books that you enjoy, but you just find really difficult to read? I don’t mean books that just aren’t the genres or topics you like reading about, but books that are hard precisely because they’re important topics for you? Because they’re emotionally taxing, or traumatic, or force you to sit with your discomfort?

Books like these are difficult for me in the same way that going to the gym is difficult. I know going to the gym is good for me. Once I start a workout, I often enjoy it. After I finish at the gym, I’m glad I went. But for whatever reason, getting there is like pulling teeth. I put it off, telling myself I’m too tired, or I had a long day, or getting more sleep is just as important. On the days I try to go, sometimes I tell myself on the drive that nobody would know if I just turned around and went home, or took a nap in the car, or got a coffee and a pastry instead. Even though I am sure I’ll be glad I did it, getting over the hump to start can be incredibly difficult.

Personally difficult books are the same. I put off reading them because I don’t have quite enough energy to process them, or the time to sit with my discomfort. When I get around to checking them out, I have the thought that nobody but me would know if I turned the book back in without reading it. But when I do finally start reading these books, I thoroughly enjoy them. After I finish a difficult book, I’m glad I read it, and I almost always feel like I gained something positive out of the process. But because going into it I know I’m going to be reading something upsetting, it’s hard to start.

For me, difficult books take the form of fiction that examines mental illness and to a lesser extent, neurodivergence. Characters with major depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, or anxiety, or even things like OCD and ADHD, can sometimes hit a little too close to home. The personal connection makes them exhausting and unbearable in a very different way than a book I think is badly written or not of interest, as it brings the struggles in my own life to the surface.

Take Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram for example. Like me, the main character struggles with depression and anxiety, which run in his family. Also like me, his struggles affect his sense of motivation, belonging, and self-worth. But what really felt so uncomfortably familiar about Darius’s story was how his depression was never described as an obvious dark cloud over him, but instead as a collection of small, almost unnoticed moments that build until they become unbearable. Reading the tiny fears, obsessions, and ways that Darius would sabotage himself made me feel like I was looking in the mirror. That being said, Darius’s story also brought me a lot of hope. The very honest discussion of depression gave me insight into new coping mechanisms, and even more so it gave me the joy of finding solidarity, of knowing I’m a little less alone.

And I know I’m not the only one that feels books like these give hope and a sense of solidarity. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five people have a lifelong mental illness such as depression or anxiety, and almost half of us will have a mental illness at some point in our lives (and these numbers nearly double for many marginalized communities), which means, realistically, we all at least have someone close to us who experiences mental illness, even if we don’t ourselves. These books give people the chance to see themselves or their loved ones, and find hope and understanding in the pages.

Some books may be difficult to read, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something to gain from reading them. Consider one of the books on this list, whether you’re looking to understand a loved one better or find some solidarity of your own.