I have mixed feelings about this book – on one hand, it deals with the important issue of mental illness and helps readers gain a better understanding of the struggles people with mental illness endure. On the other hand, it shows a lot of what goes wrong with the treatment of mental illness, but little of what is right about helping someone with mental illness. This is evident in John’s (the father) life and in Michael’s (the son’s) life.
The book first takes us through John’s mental illness. John struggles with a debilitating illness where he is fine and then everything gets to be too much and he completely shuts down. During those times, he has to be institutionalized and undergoes shock treatments. John’s mom is in denial and doesn’t visit him in the institution, lest she is forced to admit that her son is less than perfect. Because of this, readers can infer that John received no help outside of when he was institutionalized for his mental illness. John goes through a long period of functioning after getting married and having children – so long that his children do not even know that he has a mental illness – but inevitably and tragically, his mental illness resurfaces. At these times, his wife, Margaret, does her best to be supportive, but the book is brutally honest. While Margaret never abandons John, her impatience eventually shows. She is able to understand that John isn’t capable of functioning when his mental illness takes over, but is unable to understand the illness or how to help John during these times. John’s story shows readers what happens when there is little to no help for those with mental illness.
Michael, their son, also has a mental illness. Unlike his father’s illness, Michael’s mental illness deals with anxiety. He talks himself into a frenzy and there is little anyone can do to talk him out of it, as evidenced by the conversations he has with his sister, Celia. Celia, being a psychologist, has a better understanding of how to deal with Michael than their other sibling, Alec. For most of the novel, Alec lives his life and more or less ignores Michael. Margaret does her best to help her Michael, mostly through financial aid. Michael seeks help professionally for his mental illness, but unfortunately, the first therapist that he sees uses medication as his primary treatment instead of therapy or other alternatives. The anti-anxiety medications work for a limited time, but the effects eventually wear off and Michael has to seek a higher dose or a different type of medication. He goes from one therapist to the next, looking for someone willing to prescribe him medication. The novel doesn’t say that medications to treat mental illness are bad, but it does say that they are not the panacea and can have dire consequences when overused. Alec, while he cares for his brother, is concerned that Margaret is spending her limited income to support Michael. Alec’s life comes together – he becomes involved in a committed relationship – and starts to feel guilty that his brother doesn’t have this. He decides to commit to helping Michael kick the medication habit by staying with Michael in a cabin they used to visit as children. At first, things seem to be going according to Alec’s plan – Michael is weaned off most of the medication and his memories start to come back. He is talking the way Alec remembered his brother being when they were younger. However, there is a limit to Michael’s progress. He develops insomnia and begs Alec to give him some of his pills back, but Alec chooses to ignore Michael’s pleas for medication. Alec’s well-intentioned actions show how little people, even ones who care about those with mental illness, understand the nature of the illness. Alec’s extreme withdrawal of medications implies that Michael can overcome his mental illness with sheer will – he doesn’t need any medication. This is not a solution any more than the over subscribing of medications is a solution.
This book is well written and thought provoking. Again, my only criticism is that I wish it had somehow introduced some successful coping mechanisms for people with mental illness and their families.
Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this ebook through NetGalley.