Dec 27

Mental Illness in the Family: Four Books

Mental illness in the family is the topic of several books worth reading.

However you define mental illness—or whatever substitute term you prefer—it’s often found within your own family, as it has been in mine. Below are four nonfiction books worth perusing.

Remnants of a Life on Paper: A Mother and Daughter’s Struggle with Borderline Personality Disorder (2013) by Bea Tusiani, Pamela Tusiani, and Paula Tusiani-Eng

The authors describe Pamela’s struggles with BPD. Pamela’s “remnants” in question are from her journals and visual art, culled posthumously.

At the age of 20 Pamela was diagnosed with severe depression. She wound up having multiple hospitalizations and 12 ECT treatments. According to Dr. Lloyd SedererThe Huffington Post, it was after this that Pamela finally received the more accurate diagnosis of BPD. She then proceeded to be admitted to other intensive programs.

Sederer: “Pamela was well into her journey of recovery when a series of treatment program and medical errors conspired to kill her. The awful irony was that she did not take her life, but irresponsible, stigmatizing and poor residential and medical care did.”

All the Things We Never Knew: Chasing the Chaos of Mental Illness (2015) by Sheila Hamilton

Hamilton’s husband was diagnosed with bipolar disorder only six weeks before he took his own life.

“Mental Illness often masks itself as selfish, anti-social behavior. It waxes and wanes, especially in higher functioning people,” Hamilton writes (Huffington Post). He’d gone deeply into debt, for example.

She has held herself partially responsible. “I’d propose one more stage of grief to Kubler-Ross’s list in the case of suicide; forgiveness…In accepting responsibility for my part in David’s death, I was able to understand his sense of futility, the level of his psychic pain, and his unwillingness to face his illness. I forgave him. I forgave myself. And in doing so, I’ve been better able to understand his decision.”

The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide (2017) by Gayle Brandeis

The book’s title takes its name from the documentary Brandeis’s 70-year-old mother Arlene was working on “about the rare illnesses she thought ravaged her family: porphyria and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.”

“Whether they were psychosomatically induced or not,” states Kirkus Reviews, “Arlene attested that the illnesses had been repeatedly dismissed or misdiagnosed by the medical community; even the author herself admits to suffering, as a teenager, from a combination of malingering and factitious disorder.”

Melissa WuskeForeword Reviews: “Brandeis’s mother committed suicide one week after Brandeis had a baby. Those deeply contrasting experiences set the scene for the opening of this memoir: a daughter going through her mother’s things, trying to make sense of her death.”

And this quest winds up involving a “compulsive, contagious need to know her mother and herself.”

The author’s two sons were both afflicted with schizophrenia. “For his son Kevin, that struggle ended in suicide, and the heartbreak of that experience (among others) permeates every impersonal date and statistic in the book with sorrow and rage” (Shelf Awareness).

A brief explanation for the title, per Publishers Weekly:

This resounding rebuke to scornful attitudes toward the mentally ill takes its title from a notably insensitive 2010 email exchange between high-level staffers of Scott Walker during his run for Wisconsin governor. Using that moment as a touchstone of indifference, Powers…weaves a dual tale of the personal and the political…

The people who do care are usually the loved ones, of course. Shelf Awareness: “For the families of the mentally ill…caring about ‘crazy people’ is a necessity. In roughly alternating chapters, Powers allows us to watch his sons grow up, dealing with the challenges of incipient schizophrenia as well as tragic events that shape their young minds. All the while, Powers movingly relates the joys of raising creatively gifted children.”

May 21

SMEDMERTS: Ellen Forney’s “Bipolar Life”

SMEDMERTS (“Sleep Meds Eat Doctor Mindfulness Exercise Routine Tools Support system”): Acronym created by author Ellen Forney, Rock Steady: Brilliant Advice from My Bipolar Life

The same author who wrote the memoir Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me (2012), cartoonist Ellen Forney, now follows up with Rock Steady: Brilliant Advice From My Bipolar Life. Publishers Weekly calls it “mental health literacy at its best, making it a must-read for those with mood disorders and their loved ones, health professionals, and anyone looking to gain a greater understanding of an often misunderstood but common condition.”

SMEDMERTS says it all in one word, er, acronym: the regimen she’s worked so hard to cultivate, the coping system she’s honed over the past couple decades since her diagnosis.

More about SMEDMERTS from Etelka Lehoczky, NPR: “…Forney puts it out there with nerdy aplomb, drawing an adorable, awkward little monster to serve as its mascot. Once you’ve seen snaggle-toothed Smedmerts pop up throughout the book, even appearing in the form of a Pez dispenser/pillbox, it’s easy to run through the litany of Sleep, Meds, Eat, Doctor, Mindfulness, Exercise, Routine, Tools, Support System. Well, easier, anyway.”

“Not that Forney’s all whimsy,” adds Lehoczky.

She covers the basics thoroughly. She describes a multitude of different therapies, from traditional and not-so-traditional ‘talk’ options (psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, interpersonal and social rhythm therapy) to less-common measures (electroconvulsive therapy, acupuncture, hospitalization). A long chapter on medications discusses making sure you take your pills on time (a surprisingly burdensome problem), coping with side effects and determining whether it’s safe to go off meds. Chapter 6, ‘The Danger Zone,’ tells how to recognize manic or depressive episodes and what to do when you have one. Forney knows that this illness doesn’t go away just because you’re popping the right pills.

A book excerpt on TheLily.com offers Forney’s guide to therapy, starting off with this line: “There are many approaches to mental health care. It’s tricky to find the right one(s) for you.”

Reviewing Rock Steady, Martyn Pedler, TCJ.com: “Psychological coping tools are presented as a kind of Batmanesque Utility Belt. A quote from ‘Fluffy’ Flaubert shows him as a cartoon rabbit. Yet Rock Steady is careful and precise, too. It knows no amount of fun diminishes the amount of work mental stability can take. Getting stable is really tough,’ writes Forney.’Maintaining stability over the long term is a whole other challenge. Ideally, it’s less dramatic, but it’s just as demanding.'”

Rob Salkowitz, Forbes: “Forney.. explains it with the patience of a wise older sister…Her guidance is sound, reasonable and non-judgmental. The openness and honesty of her approach also make it easier for neurotypical readers to identify with those suffering from mood disorders, demystifying the condition and clarifying how they can best help and support loved ones with bipolar disorder.”

May 19

“A Quiet Passion”: Emily Dickinson’s Influences

A new Terence Davies film starring Cynthia NixonA Quiet Passion, examines poet Emily Dickinson‘s life (1830-1886) as a “troubled, reclusive genius” (Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times).

What was at the root of Dickinson’s isolation? Among the mental health conditions that have been speculated are social anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. No one really knows for certain, however.

Does A Quiet Passion represent her true story? Some say no, some say kinda, some say it may not matter so much. William Nicholson, Guardian: “Davies’s film is not biographically accurate, nor does it present a purely subjective vision of Emily. He has made his own…The dramatist controls the selection of material, and therefore the story he or she tells…In this case, where the subject is a poet, the test for me is: does the work send the viewer, the reader, back to the poems? If it does, then bring it all on.”

In the film Dickinson is first seen in 1848, says Chang, when she (played by a younger actress) is “being expelled from Mount Holyoke College, where her refusal to submit herself to God in the expected manner has earned her the label of ‘no-hoper’. The relative good humor with which her Protestant family greets this news is telling, as is a terrifically funny later scene in which Emily, her parents (Keith Carradine and Joanna Bacon) and her siblings spar with a morally upright aunt (a delightful Annette Badland).”

Nixon then takes the lead role. According to Ella Taylor, NPR, “…No one would call Nixon’s Emily Dickinson a happy camper, but this is a riot grrl for her time, taking charge of her destiny and, in her tortured, compulsively honest way, her soul.”

Lindsey Bahr, Associated Press, summarizes what ensues in A Quiet Passion:

…Jennifer Ehle is her sister Vinnie and Duncan Duff is her brother Austin. There is still vigor and energy in all, but life has tempered that a bit. Emily finds a lively companion in Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), who is even more modern than Emily. But Vryling manages to delight in the silly constrictions of their society where Emily is deeply conflicted and tormented by pressures of piety, decorum and what she feels is right.

And the world only seems to disappoint Emily as time goes on. Some of her poems are published, but not enough. She falls madly in love with a married pastor, but he does not return her affections. Her married brother falls for another woman. Her health begins to fail. And then there’s death, which looms everywhere.

About death, that notable Dickinsonian thread, A.A. Dowd, AVClub: “Death haunted Dickinson’s thoughts, and especially her work; she found beautiful ways to convey a lifelong anxiety, instilled as early as childhood, when the passing of a second cousin struck her with an incurable case of melancholy…What’s surprising about A Quiet Passion, given the writer-director’s own incurable melancholy, is how lively, how flat-out funny, it frequently is.”

And another theme worth mentioning, autonomy: “Without sinking into total pop psychology, A Quiet Passion recognizes a desire for independence as a driving motivation. This applies not just to her rejection of organized religion’s demands…but also to her decision never to marry—though Davies, who’s been open about his own lifelong rejection of romance, doesn’t deny the resulting sting of loneliness…”

The trailer, which contains excerpts of praise from critics, follows below:

Oct 07

Patrick Kennedy Portrays “A Common Struggle” In Book

Former U.S. Congressman Patrick Kennedy (RI-DEM) is probably best known and appreciated professionally for what he’s done for mental health parity—as he says, making “the scope of mental health coverage the same as all the rest of physical health care coverage.”

And he hasn’t stopped there. Since leaving the House of Representatives in 2011, he founded the Kennedy Forum, an organization that supports various mental health initiatives, and co-founded One Mind for Research, which studies brain disorders. One common thread among his different pursuits is his desire to eliminate mental health stigma.

Patrick Kennedy is probably at least as well known both for being the son of Joan and Ted Kennedy and for having well-publicized though not necessarily publicly understood personal problems.

Believing in the 12-step program maxim “You’re only as sick as your secrets,” Kennedy has come out in recent years about the specific nature of his long-term battles with substance abuse and mental health issues. He has also finally, after repeated efforts throughout his lifetime, made his sobriety stick—four-plus years worth, he says.

In his new book A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addictionco-authored with journalist Stephen Fried, Patrick Kennedy expands not only on his own story but also on that of his famous family—thereby breaking what he calls “the Kennedy code of silence.”

This past Sunday, the evening before the book’s publication, Kennedy was interviewed by 60 Minutes anchor Lesley Stahl. He expressed his awareness that many of his family members will not be happy with his revelations and/or perspectives.

“It’s a conspiracy of silence,” he notes, “not only for the person who is suffering, but for everyone else who’s forced to interact with that person. That’s why they call this a family disease.”

Although he writes mainly about his own issues, Patrick Kennedy also addresses certain family secrets—examples include the extent of the alcohol problems of both parents, the probable PTSD of his father (related to the tragic assassinations of brothers JFK and RFK), and the effects of no one discussing or processing these incidents as well as others, e.g., Chappaquiddick.

Stahl: “You actually say that because nobody talked about these things in the family, you were all kind of like zombies…”

Kennedy: “Well, we were living in a limbo land where all of this chaos, this emotional turmoil, was happening. And we were expected just to live through it.”

Somehow he has lived through it, and now he’s also managed to turn himself around. Currently he does what he can to maintain his sobriety, which includes daily 12-step meetings, and to treat his bipolar disorder, which includes taking appropriate medication.

So far, notably, it seems that news about A Common Struggle has focused more on the family’s negative reactions to it and less on reporting or reviewing its actual contents. The Boston Globe, however, calls the book “strikingly raw and emotional,” while other readers have applauded this Kennedy’s courage and openness.

Jul 03

“Infinitely Polar Bear”: A Dad With Bipolar Disorder

The devastating effect of bipolar disorder on marriage and other personal relationships is not a new subject, but in most movies it is examined from a woman’s perspective. Infinitely Polar Bear, a terrible turn-off title for one of the best films of the year, views the affliction and its psychological repercussions through a different lens. Rex Reed, New York Observer

In the new 1970’s-set dramedy Infinitely Polar Bear, Mark Ruffalo‘s Cameron must leave his wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana) and daughters (Ashley Aufderheide and Imogene Wolodarsky) to live in a halfway house after suffering a mental breakdown.

Cam has known for a while that he has manic-depressive disorder (now called bipolar disorder). “His African-American girlfriend…married him regardless, partly because it was the ’60s and mental health was all relative anyway,” states Justin Chang, Variety.

The main event occurs when Maggie wants to leave the Boston area to attend business school in New York. Cam, working on his recovery, then becomes the primary live-in parent.

Why such a need for Maggie to leave town? Because she needs a better career, she reasons, in order to send her kids to private school. Some critics have wondered why Cam’s wealthy family doesn’t just help out. For that matter, can’t she attend school closer to home?

More understandable in terms of plot development, it turns out Cam neither likes being on his Lithium nor has a strong ability to be a single father. John DeFore, Hollywood Reporter:

Cam fails many tests in the early weeks of the arrangement: He leaves the house while the girls are asleep, going out for hours to get drunk; he abandons housekeeping; he’s so intent on trying to befriend neighbors in the family’s new apartment building that he alienates every resident. His love for the girls is never in doubt, but even after some seeming steps toward responsibility, he’s the kind of dad no child-welfare officer would tolerate.

Although fictional, the script is based on the childhood of writer/director Maya Forbes, whose father had once described his own illness as “infinitely polar bear.”

The trailer’s below:

Ruffalo’s Portrayal of Bipolar Disorder

Stephanie Zacharek, Village Voice: “…(H)e doesn’t reduce his character to a series of behavioral tics: He’s always a person first — with all the complexity and contradictions that implies — and not just a passive victim of his illness, a blank slate for it to scribble on. We ride his highs and lows with him just by looking into his eyes: We know where he’s at every minute by reading their glittering recklessness or their chamomile calm.”

Ella Taylor, NPR: “At its best, Infinitely Polar Bear is about a nice, unbalanced man trying and often failing to do right by his kids, and vice versa. And Ruffalo is the least histrionic of actors even when Cam is, as the social workers put it, ‘disinhibited,’ when he never shuts up and pulls stunts that bemuse or alienate every adult in his orbit. He’s a big kid himself — impulsive, charming, self-involved and mostly ill-attuned to the social signals of others.”

Selected Reviews

Manohla Dargis, New York Times: “…Forbes hasn’t made a movie about her father’s illness; she’s made one about her father, who, through hard and weird times, clearly helped give her what she needed so that one day she could tell this story.”

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: “The movie is a small miracle, lifted by Ruffalo and these two remarkable young actresses. Refusing to soften the edges when Cam is off his meds, Ruffalo is a powerhouse. He and Forbes craft an indelibly intimate portrait of what makes a family when the roles of parent and child are reversed.”