Dec 27

Mental Illness in the Family: Several 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.”

This chapter on therapy is worth perusing as a representative sample of her style of writing/drawing.

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:

May 11

“Lost Marbles”: Living with “Depression & Bipolar”

This is the book that medical students should read, not the DSM. Jim Phelps, MD, reviewing Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar

Part memoir, part self-help, Natasha Tracy‘s Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar, is a collection of articles she’s written that have previously been posted at Bipolar Burble and Breaking Bipolar over the course of several years.

Quotes excerpted from an interview Leslie Lindsay conducted with the author:

One of my strengths, I feel, is to write about mental illness in a way that is real, honest, gritty and not sugar-coated. I say the things that people with mental illness think but don’t have the words to express. This is why people identify with my work so strongly.

I don’t believe in the concept of “stigma” per se. What I believe in fighting is prejudice and the inevitable discrimination that follows it. I believe that by making people with mental illness three-dimensional people with real emotions and real struggles, we actually start to sound just like everyone else – just amplified.

[If diagnosed with bipolar disorder]…(I)t’s important to know that the world is not ending, there will be a tomorrow and there is an innate you that will not disappear. That said, the world, the tomorrows and even you, will change in response to the illness. Again, this is normal and natural. Most people never get back to a pre-bipolar state.

There are many things a newly-diagnosed person can do. Firstly, it’s important to get the best bipolar specialist psychiatrist and therapist one can find and create a treatment plan that makes sense for the individual. Then the treatment plan must be followed. It’s also important to lean on loved ones during this time as they will connect a person to who he or she really is.

It’s an unfortunate truth that for many in the United States the cost of medication is very high. That said, the drugs, while laden with issues like side effects, save lives every day. Many people would have taken their lives without these medications. Yes, there is no doubt that they are expensive and have other associated issues, but when it comes down to life or death, a functional life or a life spent in psychosis, there is no doubt that they are still worth it.

Some helpful resources suggested by Tracy in the interview:

If you want a sampling of Tracy’s writing before getting Lost Marbles, here are just a few good choices:

Jan 09

Bipolar Disorder: Public Faces Reduce Stigma

Among the notables who died this past year are two talented women, Carrie Fisher and Patty Duke, who’d made public their experiences of bipolar disorder, thus serving to decrease mental health stigma.

CARRIE FISHER (1956-2016)

One of my own best memories of Carrie Fisher involves having seen her live one-person show called “Wishful Drinking,” which also was filmed for HBO (2010) and which earlier had been published as a book as well. Fisher, who’d struggled with alcohol and drug addiction in the past—common for those with as-yet-unidentified bipolar disorder—was open about both this and her mental health in Wishful Drinking.

Below, a few of the best quotes from the book version:

If my life wasn’t funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.

One of the things that baffles me (and there are quite a few) is how there can be so much lingering stigma with regards to mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder. In my opinion, living with manic depression takes a tremendous amount of balls. Not unlike a tour of Afghanistan (though the bombs and bullets, in this case, come from the inside). At times, being bipolar can be an all-consuming challenge, requiring a lot of stamina and even more courage, so if you’re living with this illness and functioning at all, it’s something to be proud of, not ashamed of.

Oh! This’ll impress you – I’m actually in the Abnormal Psychology textbook. Obviously my family is so proud. Keep in mind though, I’m a PEZ dispenser and I’m in the abnormal Psychology textbook. Who says you can’t have it all?

Having waited my entire life to get an award for something, anything…I now get awards all the time for being mentally ill. It’s better than being bad at being insane, right? How tragic would it be to be runner-up for Bipolar Woman of the Year?

Happy is one of the many things I’m likely to be over the course of a day and certainly over the course of a lifetime. But I think if you have the expectation that you’re going to be happy throughout your life–more to the point, if you have a need to be comfortable all the time–well, among other things, you have the makings of a classic drug addict or alcoholic.

In 2011 Fisher published Shockaholic, which is partly about her love of electro-convulsive shock treatment. Washington Post: “…[This] follow-up to her successful autobiography and one-woman show, Wishful Drinking, is similarly witty, ramshackle, and outrageous.”

PATTY DUKE (1946-2016)

Rex Reed’s (New York Observer) recent description of Patty Duke: “an abused child star with a sunny all-American image who enchanted critics and audiences while masking manic depression…[that] she kept private for years until, as an adult, she became an outspoken advocate for mental health issues.”

Following her death, son Sean Astin started a Crowdrise fundraiser for the Patty Duke Mental Health Initiative. “She became a voice for the voiceless,” said Astin, “a reassuring presence for the scared, the intimidated and the lost. She was a healer of many souls and a champion for so many in need…Her greatest achievement was confronting her mental illness and making her story public…My mom took her place as a mental health advocate in the greatest tradition of noble leadership.”

Her books were Call Me Anna, a 1987 autobiography, and Brilliant Madness: Living with Manic Depressive Illness (1992). (Now more commonly known as bipolar disorder.)