Demons in the Age of Light by Whitney Robinson

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Demons in the Age of Light: A Memoir of Psychosis and Recovery

Author: Whitney Robinson

Type of Book: Non-fiction, memoir, mental illness, psychiatry

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: In a way it is not odd because psychiatric memoirs are thick on the ground these days. But in a sense this book is very odd because being given an invitation to look into the mind of a person actively suffering from schizophrenia is in and of itself a strange, unsettling experience.

Availability: Published by Process Media in 2011, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Just warning you now, dear reader, that this discussion is going to be one of my trademarked Very Long Discussions with Lots of Quotes from the Book, coupled with a very personal reactions to the text. For those who find a 8000 word or so discussion excessive, here is the tl;dr version: This is a very good book written by a very good writer and you should buy it and read it.

I read a lot of mental health and mental illness memoirs and this was the first one I ever considered odd enough to discuss here. I very nearly missed reading it. I had run into a spate of memoirs that left me cold, and had the online acquaintance who recommended the book to me and then sent me a copy offered it two weeks earlier than she did, I would have declined. But just before she discussed the book with me, I had finished a very good, very honest mental illness memoir, Stacy Pershall’s Loud in the House of Myself: Memoir of a Strange Girl. The offer to read the book came at the right time after the right book.

It would have been a shame to have turned down this book because of the often sorry shelf-company it is forced to share. And I don’t mean to demean the genre because people gets all kinds of help in all kinds of ways that I may find less than helpful. It’s just that lately some of the books I have read wore very thin for me. It seemed like the authors, mostly women, had romanticized their illness. To paraphrase Elizabeth Wurtzel, patron saint of fucked up women of a certain age, they had fallen in love with their illness. The devastation the disease wreaked on their bodies, their education, their relationships – it all was a back story to a fabulous disaster narrative.

Also there is a current theme in mental health studies that posits that mental illnesses, or neurodiversity, are a form of genetic selection for arts, letters and speculative science and therefore celebrate the conditions. I can see the logic. Not only is there a long record of acclaimed people who created great art and propelled science, but as a person with mental illness, I like to think that there is a purpose behind my at times terrible brain chemistry. But I am made uneasy by some of it because even though Van Gogh left behind astonishing paintings and Virginia Woolf left behind masterful prose and John Nash was a great boon to speculative physics, would any of us really want to live their lives? It’s all well and good to see the up side of having appalling brain chemistry, but I often fear that people who are suffering will read such examinations and decide that their affliction should not be treated, should not be seen as a disease that needs to be addressed in order for them to live the best life they can live. As much as I adore Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry, and I have no real way of knowing how much his deep depression truly affected his writing, thinking about the sorry end of his life makes it just a little harder to enjoy the beauty and truth of his words. Art that comes from a truly suffering person will always have a pall cast over it.

This book does not engage in the sort of celebration and art uber alles justifications for mental illness that I have encountered as of late. Whitney Robinson’s memoir gets everything right. She shows the wreckage. She shows how mental illness swooped down into her life and changed everything. A natural writer with a near-intimidating intelligence, Robinson tells the story of her illness, the demon that came into her brain, and how she came back out the other side. It is an erudite, honest, and at times darkly humorous look at what it feels like to have your brain behave in ways you have no control over. Schizophrenia is one of the hardest mental illnesses for people to truly understand, and Robinson writes a fascinating book that is never once a freak show. It is never an attempt to glorify conditions that can ransack a person’s life. This book is never a voyeuristic peephole into the at times salacious subject matter of mental illness.

It is a rare invitation to understand.

A Hell of Mercy by Tim Farrington

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Books: A Hell of Mercy: A Meditation on Depression and the Dark Night of the Soul

Author: Tim Farrington

Type of Book: Memoir, psychology, mental health, spiritual

Why Did I Read This Book: Not long ago, I reached a place of acceptance wherein I will no longer battle my darkness. It’s a choice that is so intensely personal and specific that no one who suffers from depression should look to my decision as any sort of guidance or advocacy. But because I have decided to simply be a person who is isolated, weird and dark rather than fight it with therapy or medication any longer, I find other people’s mental health voyages fascinating.

Availability: Published by Harper Collins in 2009, you can get a copy here:

Comments: This was an erudite, elegant book and I am glad I read it. As I read it, I found myself questioning decisions I have made about my own brain chemistry, and after reevaluation, I decided my impulse to simply leave my brain alone and let it be, treatable illness though I may have, was the correct decision. Reading Farrington’s journey, his spiritual outlook on life and the chemicals in his brain, served for me, a decidedly non-spiritual person, as a fresh and very nearly inspiring look into how it is all people with depressive tendencies can interpret their disease and their lives without recrimination or guilt. Farrington recounted his life with phrases that all but hit me in the head with meaning, and I had “aha!” moments constantly in this book. There is very little in common between Farrington in me aside from wonky chemical reactions that affect our minds, so the ability of his words to affect me and touch me seem almost miraculous.

So this is an intensely personal reaction to a book, less a review than a discussion of how the book affected me. It would help to bear that in mind as you read, because I really did find myself overwhelmed at times at how eloquently Farrington put into sharp focus all the words I have bouncing in my skull but have been unable to express. This is one of those books I read and think, “I could have written this,” but that is untrue. I could not have written this. I’m not enlightened enough yet and my heart will never be this spiritual. Nevertheless, it was the right book for me to read at the right time.

Farrington conveyed very well not only how it is that we can never truly see mental illness coming, but that being smart enough even to have known it was coming for us would not have been enough and perhaps that is a good thing.

My cluelessness, I see in retrospect, conferred a certain advantage on me. If we were smart, we might never become wise.

And god help me, how many times did I justify myself, sanctify the worst of my tirades as if having brain chemistry problems excused it.

…I came to see depression as my shadow on the path; like the “black dog” of Churchill’s recurrent blues, it was an inescapable presence. My lows could be debilitating, but they also seemed intimately related to my creativity itself and so were slightly glamorous, like Hemingway’s alcoholism and Dostoyevsky’s epilepsy. But my art at this time was self-indulgent stuff at best, and I invoked it much too readily to justify failures of character.

I can’t even begin to explain how many times I have excused my poor behavior because I have an “artistic” temperament and how many times my husband clung to that mental raft every time my rages sent him out to sea. This, more than any other, is the area wherein I feel guilt about being a depressive, and it helps that Farrington explained my own foibles to me so well. Interestingly, about the time I began to reject such thinking is the time I stopped being able to write fiction. I lack the will to investigate this cause-effect very carefully but it does make it very hard to understand the link between what I perceive about myself and who I truly am. Surely my fiction cannot have just dried up because I rejected brain chemistry as a reason to continue acting poorly but you never know. All I know is that when I no longer saw magic in being as wretched as Baudelaire, my words dried up and I started writing about books instead of trying to write books.

But then again, what I had to write back then may not have been worth much. My first novel was a disaster, and Farrington seems to have had similar problems, because the seduction of being mad does not always imply genius, no matter what we try to tell ourselves.

…I ended up writing an incredibly pretentious novel, a sort of first-person anti-Gospel: “My name is Jesus. I am an old man now,” it began. Yikes.

The book was bad, but it was good in the sense of being better than suicide, and after a while the voices faded to a dim roar and I began to write merely puerile bad novels in a more standard fashion…

His description of a time in which he submerged himself into the darkness, searching for answers, will ring utterly true to those who have observed my own depressive antics.

I was living on cornflakes and macaroni and cheese, and I was pretty whacked-out. I didn’t talk to anyone for months and slept on my own eccentric schedule – approximately a twenty-five-hour day, cycling gradually through all manner of weird wake-up times. I had a half-serious theory that I was actually from another planet that had a longer day and that therefore my diurnal clock was unfitted to the Earth’s twenty-four-hour rotation..

Medications never blunted my creativity like they did with Farrington, probably because I am largely unsuited to psycho-pharmacology. That which calms most minds will leave me hearing voices. If it makes a person drowsy, I will be climbing the walls. But his experience is a common one, I think.

Still, one cannot stray far from what passes for normal consciousness in our culture without encountering the guardian deities of medication. At that point in the late seventies, lithium was the state-of-the-art antidepressant, and the perverse simplicity of the notion that a minuscule failure of electrolytic salt lay at the root of my intricate suffering was almost dizzying. I tried it briefly and found what every artist fears from psychiatry to be true: the drug interfered with my writing. I felt blunted and dim on lithium, displaced about three feet from the center of myself, a gray bystander to my essential life.

And have I ever felt that disembodied feeling, a numbness that permits observation but no immersion. A chemical meant to save your life but leaves you separated from all that makes life worth living. My chemical alienation lay mainly in benzos and pams, but I sense the feelings are often similar – not a new self but a novel, wooden ability not to care about the old self.

But much of what Farrington has to say does apply to those with a creative spirit.

Some people go back to school at that point, get their MFA, and eventually teach; some go into business and promise themselves they will write someday when they are financially secure. But I felt my own bridges back to such reassuring normality had burned long since, and, being the melodramatic mystical sort that I am, I went into a monastery instead.

This passage meant a lot to me, grad school dropout that I am. And I am definitely a person for whom bridges to normality have been burned. Some depressives sleep all day. My early depression manifested itself in insomnia that I would dose myself endlessly with pills and booze to try to counteract. My life became centered on a lack of sleep and the side-effects that endlessly chasing sleep causes. This sort of thing does not lend itself well to a 9-5 life and when you fail at job, after job, after job, eventually you just know better than to try any more. I luckily have a partner who takes up the financial slack and I make our domestic lives as easy as I can, a life that makes my sleep issues less of an issue, so to speak. I know there are lots of others out there like me, but they have kids a and firm financial obligations and they cope somehow, but in my case, not even the pressure of needing money overcame the haze of ten Tylenol PMs washed down with some gin. That’s a method of suicide to most people but for me it was just self-medication burning my bridges to reassuring normality. And sadly, there are no convents for atheist girls like me.

It’s not actually such a stretch to consider depression as an involuntary form of postmodern mortification, a salutary humiliation akin to a hair shirt… What if some degree of pained and penitential consciousness, of realized inadequacy in the light of the sacred, is in fact necessary to the full human life? Our depressions, which we labor so to cure before they disrupt our self-enclosed routines, may be nefarious blessings, gestures by our stymied souls toward the conscious embrace of helplessness and suffering.

This, for me, is a key passage, because I know full well to the bottom of my blackened heart, hermit that this disease has made me, that if I do have a soul, depression has softened it. Depression has, beyond a doubt, made me a kinder person. I see a man who probably drinks, asking for money and I give it because I know. I know that but for two strikes of luck in my life – my husband and my capacity to detox and make it stick – I could be standing there because addiction and depression hold each others hands. They switch back and forth, one leading to the other. It is a nefarious blessing, to know that you really are able to say, “There but for the grace of god go I,” and mean it, without any bitterness or arrogance towards those for whom the battle has led them down a far more bridge-burning road.

There are things you simply cannot prepare for. This is not something anyone really wants to hear. We spend our lives preparing; we stake our pride on mastering the troublesome aspects of our world. We study, we practice, we polish and adjust; even our earnest efforts to “go with the flow” and humbly surrender to the processes of a life force larger than ourselves are invariably suffused with a hidden agenda. If we are good, bad things will not happen; if we are good enough, our suffering will end.

When I was in high school, I knew depression intimately but no one really called it that back then. I knew it even if I didn’t have a name for it, the sinking sense that if I did not fight and flail I would sink down into the mud and no one would ever be able to save me. I joined every extracurricular activity I could. I was an honors student. I had a part-time job. I matched my shoes to my outfits and ironed my underwear. I internalized good as “middle class and going places” and I worked so hard to be good. To look good in my own way. To disavow the blackness around my lungs where I sensed my soul should be but wasn’t. I burned myself out being good, and it began to show in college. It really began to show in my 30s. There is no good enough for depression. There is no closet large enough, no shoes that gleam enough, no resume that wows enough. There is no way to prepare. Even as I gave up and went with the flow, the tiny goodnesses I managed to achieve – saving a cat or two, helping a neighbor’s child – were not enough to hold the badness at bay. This, I think, is the hardest lesson depression taught me: there is no way to prepare well enough to prevent the dark days from coming.

My life had always been peppered with black days, days in which taking a shower seemed far beyond my means, days in which I just hunkered down like a wounded beast and endured; I’d had black weeks and even the occasional black month. During a particularly trying time in the early nineties, I’d spent an entire summer staring at the blank cursor on my computer screen, as if at a receding satellite; unable to write a word.

My equivalent of this is spending all day long in bed reading Encyclopedia Dramatica. This is more or less how I spent the summer of 2009. And that is a measuring stick to me. When showering begins to seem like it is too much, too hard and too pointless, I know the depression is wrapping its hands around my neck.

“It is one of the paradoxes of transformation that the closer we get to new possibility, the worse things seem to seem,” Richard Moss writes in The Black Butterfly. In another of the paradoxes of transformation, however, I found no comfort at all in this notion. I was haunting the bookstores, looking desperately for some help, but the spiritual books all seemed like chatter now. The universe had simplified itself into a desert of meaningless suffering, and the wisest words were just marks on the bleached expanse. Joy, compassion, peace and the divine: yadda-yadda-yadda.

I think this sort of depressive nihilism is why I read so precisely the details of the saints, the ones who suffered and starved and found enlightenment through pain because I still am a nihilist myself. I cannot meditate. I know no god. This is not entirely depression’s fault. I never believed in the fantastic, the mystical. Santa Claus was always a man in a beard to me though I put on a good act as a child. I am not entirely sure I have a soul, though I know my dead cat did, and that my dead grandparents did. If nothing else, depression has separated me from any comfort or sense of salvation. But being a person shaped by depression, this bothers me a lot less than it probably should.

Nothing will screw you up more than a team of professionals determined to help you.

Except, perhaps, believing that therapy and medicine can offer us no help at all. The fact that you’re depressed doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not going through a dark night, but it is just as true, and as crucial to know, that seeking therapy, or taking medication for a biochemical affliction, doesn’t necessarily mean you have subverted your spiritual process or numbed your reality sense with muffling anesthetics.

I sometimes wonder if I will ever return to psychotropics for cures. I let myself have a tiny dose of a relatively inoffensive substance (well, it is inoffensive to me) daily to keep the worst of the anxiety that the darkness causes me tamped down. But it is good to know that I am not the only person left who embraces an approach wherein we manage to keep ourselves whole however we can. Too many shun medications as weak and too many embrace them as all-encompassing panaceas. I hit a point wherein I believed continuing to seek medical answers to my brain problems would probably kill me as I am not that well suited to the trials and physical misery that comes from getting the biochemical solutions right. But even at the worst of it, I think my disappointment stemmed from knowing so many people find the right drug and that after years of experimenting with my brain, it was time to stop. There would be no cure, at least not then or now.

“At the first-order of experiential description,” Denys Turner notes in The Darkness of God, “John of the Cross’s accounts of the sufferings of the ‘dark nights of the soul’ are uncannily similar to what a person will give from the inside of depression.”

As alienated as I am from any spiritual leanings, I still hope that this darkness is but a journey toward salvation but at the same time, I don’t think it is. It has gone on too long, though St. Paul’s dark night of the soul lasted 45 years. Rather, I think that instead of preparing to stave it off, I simply know that it comes and that I need to understand it will come and go when it wants. I don’t think, as much as narratives like this stoke my heart, that this suffering of mine will lead me to god. And this lack of faith is why I read books like this.

It sounds bizarre, but I think the key point in the dark night is basically everything but this death being hell. I was still, silent, perfectly accepting at last, inwardly, only because it hurt so much to move. It didn’t feel good or holy or anything much, but it didn’t hurt. It was not peace, in any positive sense, at least not for a very long time, but it was quiet and painless, and for me at that point, after years of every spiritual effort causing only pain, frustration, dryness and inner noise, that quiet–not Quiet, just quiet–would do just fine.

And that is where I am now. In a place of quiet. I don’t go out of the house much. People set my teeth on edge, which is not a good thing since I have given myself a TMJ disorder grinding my teeth at night. I never talk much, even on the phone, and recently discovered I had gone so long between uses on my pay-as-you-go phone that I lost my number due to inactivity. I am shut off from the world and for the first time in a long while I don’t mind. This quiet for me is not Quiet, but it is peace and I will take what I can get.

It’s been a while since a book spoke to me this profoundly, wherein I could not analyze it in terms of information or literary quality but could only sit and read with awe and understanding. This is an excellent book, through and through.

Prozac Diary by Lauren Slater

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Prozac Diary

Author: Lauren Slater

Type of book: Memoir, psychology, psychiatry, non-fiction

Why Did I Read This Book: I love tales of psychiatry and mental illness. I was one of those who was prescribed Prozac in the first wave of the drug’s popularity and like reading about how others responded or did not respond to the drug.

Availability: Published in 1998 by Penguin Books, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I think this book was probably more interesting 12 years ago. I am a pharmacological refugee and on a personal level find tales like Slater’s interesting, but I can also tell you that unless you have tinkered with the chemicals in your brain, unless you have walked down this road, this mild, ethereal and at times random memoir may not have any resonance. As interested as I am in memoirs of people who struggle with mental illness and the drugs used to treat mental illness, there were times I found this book less than gripping.

That is a problem with memoirs. A person’s life is of infinite interest to them but sometimes their life stories do not translate into an absorbing story for others. Couple that with the fact that psychopharmacology has changed dramatically not only since Slater was prescribed Prozac in the late 1980s, but also dramatically since this book was published in 1998, and you can see why this book may lack relevance now. This book almost seems quaint when one considers the intensity of the sorts of drugs available these days.

Slater suffered from a variety of mental illness symptoms when prescribed Prozac and her reaction to the drug was miraculous. She felt like an entirely new person yet felt like she was finally feeling like the person she was meant to be, which brings up all kinds of questions about identity and mental illness. If you have been mentally ill or depressed all your life and you suddenly feel like yourself after taking a medication, who is the real you? That is a question that those for whom medications work ask themselves routinely and it takes a strong writer to ensure this question does not sound like a cliche. Slater just isn’t that strong a writer.

Moreover, there are at times in this book when Slater shows a tendency towards the mystical, and while I understand the sort of miraculous nature of brain meds when they work properly, this book was often too airy for me. And god help me for saying this (or condemn me as the case may be), but the things that made Lauren Slater a mad woman and the things that distinguished her when well simply are not as interesting as some other similar memoirs out there. Marya Hornbacher, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Susanna Kaysen and even Sylvia Plath did it better. With better offerings out there, it is hard to recommend this book. I don’t want to perpetuate the idea that mental illness needs to be entertaining to be valid but it needs to be entertaining in order to make a good book. While what happened to Slater before she was medicated and after were of great interest to her, those experiences are not consistently interesting to the reader.

That having been said, Slater does make some interesting points that resonated with me. I have always been intensely annoyed by the story of Mary and Martha from the Bible and Slater has an intriguing take on how Prozac ended her endless Mary-like navel contemplation and turned her into a Martha who got things done.

According to conventional Christianity then, and probably Judaism too, Prozac is a conduit to sin because it makes you more attentive to the tasks, the tiny things, altogether less transcendent. But perhaps, as Merton might say, the truth is in the tiny things, which is why I have for so long used illness to avoid them. Daily tasks–washing, laundering, banking, baking–they force me to my flesh, to the feel of fingers in repetitive movement, to the sloughings and tickings, the burst of soap bubble, the death of a cell.

Anyone who has ever been so depressed that even taking a shower was difficult for them understands this. But it is still interesting nonetheless to see this struggle, this giving-up in life assigned a higher meaning than simply being so ill one cannot do anything but passively contemplate one’s misery.

I also found interesting Slater’s sense of how Prozac altered her creativity. “I will lose my ability to write/sculpt/paint!” We have all heard that old argument from every person who has ever been so in love with their mental illness that they assign it a specialness that becomes an excuse to keep themselves from getting better. I’ve used it myself.

It’s been almost a year now since I’ve composed a short story or a poem, I who always thought of myself as a writer, all tortured and intense… Basically good writing is intensity, pitch, sex. Raymond Carver used to say that sometimes, when he was deep into a poem, he would look down to find his hand cupping his balls. I’ve read that Prozac reduces the sex drive, so it would stand to reason that it might diminish the by-products of that drive as well…

Though I am no longer a person who uses drugs to pave the potholes in my brain (prescribed, recreational or liquid, as self-medication is so alluring to those with misfiring brains), I also no longer write fiction. I’ve tried and tried and tried but the active steps to being strong mentally have removed fiction from the table for me. I began my book review sites when it became clear that my stories would likely not come back and I needed to find a way to control words in some manner. I think this is an intriguing topic, the idea that all great genius comes from more than a small dose of madness, but Slater doesn’t spend as much time on this as I wanted to read. And in a way discussing the sex element of Prozac shows the age of this book. Since this book was published, we now have Wellbutrin to cut back the sexual side effects of antidepressants. Not that it works for everyone, to be sure, but in 1998 when this was published, SRIs were almost certain death to the libido.

I also appreciated how Slater addressed the idea of diminishing returns on Prozac. No one ever told me either that Prozac could one day stop working, which is a very real problem with the drug. Rather, the failure of Prozac to be a continual cure for my depression was used as prima facie evidence that I am bipolar (believe me, I am unipolar as all hell). That even today the potential that Prozac could stop working, which Slater experienced herself and shared plainly, is not understood or subject to misinterpretation by doctors, which is several different kinds of frightening.

But even though there were some elements of the book I could relate to, the fact is there were too many passages clogged with the mystical, like when Slater found some sort of otherworldly relevance to a street magician singling her out. Then there were just bizarre passages that added nothing to my understanding of Slater’s mental illness or how Prozac helped her. Take this passage, for instance (she is at a spring bath with women who see themselves as eunuchs):

And just for a moment she stood before us, shed of the fabric of water, utterly visible, so I could have maybe have seen the space between her thighs, a cold crotch or a pit of possibility. She faced me, mammoth, the sagging shelf of her breasts, and it was only there I dared to look, at the wizened nipples with dark hairs around them, black-lashed and bloodshot. Ugly.

Pardon me, but what the hell am I supposed to do with this passage and similar passages wherein Slater reveals a horror so unique to her and yet meaningless to me and possibly anyone else? Nice prose, but this is why I think you should read Marya Hornbacher and not this book. Hornbacher makes the unrelatable interesting in a way Slater cannot manage. Passages wherein Slater is made sad by a person’s double chin have nothing to do with her awakening or even point to the inner workings of her mental illness but rather read as jabs against those who were not slim, young and fit, no matter how sound or peaceful their minds may have been. There are far too many passages like this, uninteresting and at times ridiculous looks into Slater’s mind that ultimately made this book tiresome to read and seemed to have no purpose.

And this is just me reacting negatively to the attempted poetry of Slater’s writing, but I cringed when I read passages like this:

And to Susan I also want to say, “See. See me. This isn’t just Prozac. Or all Prozac. I am the girl whose hands are stained with purple juice, who spins over ponds, who is hock and horse as she jumps. I am lather.”

Some may find a lot of poetry and beauty in the above quote. I find it forced and precious and quite a bit of the book is written in this manner. This may be a journal in print but not every journal entry is worthy of publication.

So I guess what I am saying is that this book is not the worst book but not the best ever on the topic of mental illness and psychopharmacology. If you read it, you likely will not find it complete waste of time, but you may not find it wholly interesting and you likely will not experience any greater epiphany than that Prozac worked for some people. You may shake your head at some parts and wonder what the hell Slater was getting at and those may outnumber the times when you feel she completely nails an idea. I don’t think that is a large enough of a return for reading this book, especially when there are so many better books that explore mental illness and its treatment out there.

(When I was looking for a link to Slater, I found this article in which Slater is accused of making up quotes in a book she had published in 2004. I find this interesting, though I take it with a grain of salt.)

The Lives They Left Behind by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic

Authors: Darby Penney and Peter Stastny

Type of Book: Non-fiction, biography, history, photography, psychiatry

Availability: Published by Bellevue Literary Press in 2008, you can get a copy here:

Comments: This book was an unexpected comfort for me. I walked an interesting road in psychiatric medicine (I can call it interesting now with some distance – at the time it was an unrelenting nightmare from which I feared I would never wake) and the stories of the patients in this book, the psychiatric fads that doomed many of them to inappropriate care, showed me that in many ways the more things change, the more they stay the same, which may sound horrible in a sense, but really it put my own experience into perspective. And despite some similarities between my own care and the care of one of the patients in the book, I feel incredibly lucky to live in the present age, current deficiencies in mental health care notwithstanding.

This book discusses the lives of 10 people whose suitcases were left behind at Willard Psychiatric Center in upstate New York. Painstakingly researched, the identities of the people whose belongings were found in the hospital attic long after their deaths are explored not only in terms of their lives in the hospital, but also in terms of who they were before they ended up at Willard. Though we in our modern ways may see old psychiatric homes as barbaric – and they were in some respects – they were society’s attempt to deal with people who may have had profound problems, most of whom had no where else to go. Many who were considered “incurably mad” found themselves in poor houses, where their behaviors made them subject to terrible abuses. In 1869, Willard took in patients who had been deemed unsuitable for poorhouses and workhouses (and a pox on every person who thinks a return to either is a good idea).

… Willard received only patients from across the state who had already exhausted the public resources of their counties. Even paupers did not want to witness people kept in tiny cells and iron locks, being fed through openings in their doors, never let out until their limbs were crippled. Women were regularly abused by all comers, and the whole business had turned into a matter of public disgrace.

But even as the mentally ill were shipped to the countryside, it bears mentioning that the hospital’s goal was to be self-sustaining, meaning that the patients were required to work in fields or in workshops in order to fund Willard. Moreover, the institution had the perspective that they needed to provide a “morally” correct place for the mentally ill, giving them certain stigma while attempting to help them. Masturbation was cause for alarm and at times confirmation that the patient was in fact quite mentally ill. A sex life was completely off limits to the mentally ill at Willard.

Because of the psychiatric fads of the time, most of the people in this book and likely many at Willard were diagnosed with schizophrenia or various forms of hallucinatory dementia when the fact is few actually had the condition. In a similar parallel to a lack of early understanding of how some psychiatric drugs affect blood sugar and cause diabetes, many patients were put on drugs that caused them permanent neurological damage. Some neuroleptic drugs caused tardive dyskinesia and some doctors did not understand the causation between the drugs they prescribed and the uncontrollable fidgeting they saw in patients.

The psychiatrists who first introduced neuroleptics noticed rather quickly that the drugs caused symptoms not unlike Parkinson’s disease, but saw this as evidence that the medication was working effectively, rather than as an indication that it caused neurological damage… Nevertheless, decades later, when the full extent of the problem had become quite obvious, psychiatrists continued to prescribe these drugs for most patients in institutions, despite their limited effectiveness and the disfiguring and disabling side effects.

If this sounds primitive, we needn’t pat ourselves on the backs too soon for our improved medications.

Second generation neuroleptics, also called “atypicals,” were considered more effective and less likely to cause side effects than the older drugs, which are significantly less expensive. The NIMH study showed that these highly praised medications were no more effective than the cheaper drugs they replaced, while causing a new slew of side effects, including diabetes and heart disease. A 2006 British study had similar results…

People who know well those who are mentally ill, especially those with bipolar disease, often remark that they just don’t understand why sufferers don’t take their medications. Well, you see, the meds often don’t work as well as one would hope, they make you gain untold amounts of weight, can give you permanent neurological problems, diabetes, as well as creating addiction to the drug that makes withdrawal a dicey prospect. The behavioral problems these drugs are supposed to address often are dwarved by the health and further mental problems they cause. Some benefit from atypical antipsychotics, to be sure, but many walk into taking such drugs without a full picture of what the drugs may do in the long run.

Of the ten stories, several were heartbreaking. For example, the Russian emigre who escaped from a WWII internment camp with his wife to New York, where he began creating an excellent life, only for his wife to suffer and die from a catastrophic miscarriage. He broke down and became psychotic after her death, and ended up at Willard, where he spent the bulk of the rest of his life. A folk artist of no small talent, he painted scenes from his native Ukraine. In his suitcase, he kept the flowers his wife had carried during their wedding ceremony in Austria in 1945.

But the person in this book whose story most affected me was that of Margaret Dunleavy, an orphan who left Scotland and was an accomplished nurse in the United States until the intrusion and a complete lack of understanding in the medical and psychiatric world left her confined to Willard for the rest of her life. Margaret had contracted tuberculosis and worked in a tuberculosis hospital, but she suffered several setbacks in her life, setbacks that cost her the job and the lodging that came with it. She was placed at Willard for what was supposed to be a temporary stay that became permanent. She entered Willard with 18 trunks, the contents of which she was seldom allowed access to, her car was repossessed, she was seldom able to see her companion and perhaps boyfriend of many years, and all the accomplishments in her life were dragged from her as her life became that of an institutionalized patient. She described being sent to Willard as being “like a fly in a spider’s web” and she was right. She was ensnared in psychiatric faddery and a tendency by some doctors to dismiss a patient’s pain and to diminish the addictive properties of the drugs they prescribe.

Her trunks were filled with her life’s possessions – linens, carefully wrapped china, diplomas, many pictures of the road trips she took with friends. Her immigration papers, her medical certifications and letters from friends and her male friend, embroidery, patterns, and most importantly, pictures of her with her car. An independent woman, Margaret never married and rare for the time, she owned her own car, traveling on vacations with female friends, her mobility giving her freedom. And unlike many at Willard, she had friends who stuck by her until the end. The depth of her friendships, the loyal bonds that those who are extremely mentally ill enough to be institutionalized for life often have a hard time forming, should have been a clue she was not schizophrenic, but the dogma of the time said she had the disease and she was treated for it until she was a shell of a person.

Margaret, who had tuberculosis and was diagnosed with gastric problems, had a doctor she preferred, driving far out of her way to see him. She was given belladonna and codeine, both of which were addictive to some extent and made any psychological problems the chronically ill woman had even worse. Her worsening health, the worsening health of her male companion, combined with worry about her family in Scotland at the outbreak of WWII, caused her to show signs of fray. Her employers at the tuberculosis hospital intervened in a way that now seems outrageous – they terminated her care, her personal relationship with her doctor and forced her to see a more local doctor. Losing contact with her trusted physician, combined with an abrupt termination of her drug regimen, caused Margaret to break down, landing her forcibly institutionalized for life on the following, extremely insubstantial grounds:

“Annoys people. Accuses people of persecuting her and talking about her. Says switchboard operator listens in on her conversations and that people on other floors can be heard talking about her.”

Once at Willard, her physical ailments were often dismissed as hypochondria, she was diagnosed in the face of all known reason with dementia praecox (an archaic term for schizophrenia) of long-standing, and was prescribed medication that ensured her frail health degenerated more and that if she was not mentally ill before entering Willard, she was certainly mentally unwell when she died there.

Her story is so resonant with me because in the summer of 2008, my mother almost died, I lost two beloved cats within weeks of each other, and I knew I was losing my job. I was in distress, sought help, and in the face of all that I know about myself, accepted a bipolar diagnosis and began to take atypical antipsychotics. What began as an emotionally difficult time morphed into physical misery that I hope I never face again. I was placed on Geodon, within days was shaking, felt snakes under my skin, stopped eating and started hallucinating. I asked the psychiatrist for help and he prescribed me enough Xanax to ensure a terrible addiction. It all culminated in a stay at a psych ward after the voices in my head told me to kill myself. The four day stay in the locked down ward did stabilize me until the voices stopped, but I also left the place on Prozac, Wellbutrin, Xanax, Valium, Trazedone and Ambien. I developed an addiction that almost cost me my marriage because the drugs made me so crazy I wanted to leave my spouse of 15 years. I have shared my experience and while it is certainly not the norm, too many have shared similar experiences of being shoe-horned into inappropriate diagnoses (most often bipolar, the 21st century answer to schizophrenia and dementia praecox), crippling addictions, and doctors who pile medication on top of medication with seemingly callous disregard as to what such drugs may do as they fine tune their patients’ brains.

(And though it goes without saying, I must say anyway that meds help a lot of people. I would never tell anyone not to take meds if they had a realistic diagnosis, understood all the ramifications of taking psychotropics and made an informed decision. My descent into hell had none of those elements involved, and that was the problem. My experience is not a testimony against psychological pharmacology, but rather an encouragement to approach one’s mental health care with information and caution.)

In the course of reading Margaret’s chapter, I was introduced to the idea of the chaos narrative, which helped me make sense of what happened to Margaret as well as what happened to me in the bowels of the psychiatric system.

The chaos narrative is essentially an anti-narrative, because the self in the midst of chaos has no time for reflection or the ordering of narrative in a way that makes meaning. As Frank [Arthur Frank, the creator of the idea of a chaos narrative] puts it, “A person who has recently started to experience pain speaks of ‘it’ hurting ‘me’ and can dissociate from ‘it.’. The chaos narrative is lived when ‘it’ has hammered ‘me’ out of self-recognition.” Chaos stories are hard to hear, both literally, because, in their lack of sequence and causality, they may not be apparent as stories to the listener, and figuratively, because they are anxiety-producing, even threatening, to the listener, a reminder that anyone of us may find herself in this painful state.

In this age when doctors barely have time to get your basic history, it is unlikely many know a chaos narrative for what it is. They hear a rambling patient, who may be fidgeting with nervousness and tension, who cannot sleep, who is plagued by a sense of doom and may be acting out, and the narrative seems indicative of the psychiatric disorder du jour. In the midst of most of these stories, chaos narratives were at play – illnesses, life upheavals, and misfortune – and doctors did not hear the stories they were told.

Modern psychiatric life is different now, to be certain. A heavier emphasis is placed on pharmacology than long-term therapeutic care and those whose mental illness is severe will not have their possessions discovered in disused attics because many are homeless now due to the drastic termination of funding mental facilities experienced in the Reagan administration. It is hard to say which is worse – being in an institution your entire life when you don’t need such care, or being on the streets, unable to get such care if you do need it.

I suspect most people will read this book and feel a kinship with one of the people described through the possessions they left in their trunks, possessions they were denied while they were at Willard because the people in this book, all quirks and bad behavior aside, are so very ordinary, very prosaic. Each trunk represents a life truly interrupted, and in their cases, generally never to be resumed again. Truly a heartbreaking work. I highly recommend it.

Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You by Sam Gosling, Ph.D.

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You

Author: Sam Gosling, Ph.D.

Why Did I Read This Book: Because the premise seemed interesting – what do my possessions say about me, and more interestingly, what do other people’s possessions say about them? So when I saw a signed copy of this book on clearance at BookPeople, I got it.

Availability: Published in 2008 by Basic Books, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I wanted this book to be something it isn’t and that is not the book’s fault. It is mine. I am… well, weak at applying science and this book uses a lot of methodology behind discussing the wheres and wherefores of why we have stuff in our homes and offices and how it reflects the images we want to project, the sense of self we want others to deduce. I found myself getting bogged down at times in the Snooping Field Guide, wondering how it is that the final decision was made on what traits people should actually use to denote factual information. Some of the ways we use to judge agreeableness, for example, are pleasant voice and extensive smiling when really we need to use soft facial lineaments and friendly expressions. This part of the book, and when Gosling analyzed two news anchors using pictures of their offices, are the sections I read in the sort of mental black out that I use when I am not interested.

However, other elements of the book did interest me greatly. The premise that a person sends very tangible social clues and cues by simple things, like the placement of art and personal photos in their office, intrigued me. That I never once did anything to any work space when I had a day job, like put up pictures of loved ones, bring plants, hang posters, etc. sent a very tangible message to my employers: I am not invested in this place enough to stamp my personality on my surroundings. And that was, in fact, the message I was sending, however subconsciously I sent it.

In fact, I still have not hung up anything in my office or bedroom, or bathroom or kitchen despite having lived in this house for over two years. I have ideas of how I want my office arranged, ideas that involve a red sofa bed that I have yet to find, that exists only in my head evidently. I have the side tables picked out, an area rug, lamps, but nothing will be finished until I get the couch and until then, why put up art work and pictures if I may need to rearrange them. Clearly, my environment is meant to suit me and no one else, but it also implies a level of perfectionism that is unpleasantly unyielding and suspicious of making do. I have few knick knacks or items that exude what I am about, aside from books, and I have so many books that I suspect that books are the objects by which I identify myself. That and my cats, who are not objects, but certainly social signifiers of a sort.

Reading this book ensures you will never look at a desk the same way. You will find yourself looking at a family photograph, the way it is angled, and realize that the picture exists to show you, perhaps, that the person behind the desk is family-oriented, likes hiking with loved ones, or enjoys nature. Or, if it is angled towards the person behind the desk, you realize the picture is likely there to bolster the person who sits there, an attempt to place close at hand visual memories of beloved people and good times to raise their spirits and ground them emotionally at work.

It’s a neat parlor trick that allows you to know, in a sense, a lot about a person before you ever even get to know them. From purses, to cars, to offices, to simply the contents of your refrigerator, we show ourselves clearly even if we don’t know how to interpret these signals ourselves. Gosling’s own remembrances of why he has a fridge stocked with beverages was touching and illuminating about some of my own behaviors – Mom, if you are reading this, my own pantry is always stuffed! My mother is a good cook in the Southern tradition, and shows love by food. When she was in better health, she cooked rich, hearty meals and her pantry was always full, sometimes overly full. Her mindfulness was centered on food delivery, not on the economy of cooking, and often she would needlessly duplicate items, but some of my fondest memories center around her cooking. My own pantry shows some duplication and I too exhibit love via food, as my pantry shows, as do my collection of cookie cutters and other cookie ephemera. My mother cooked hearty casseroles, I make cookies, and we both have too much of something in our pantries – tomato sauce was a common problem for her, and brown sugar is the item I seem to overbuy. Both overpurchases show very clearly what we are about, I think, if you look close enough into our pantries.

While I don’t suspect this is a book I will read again, it was quite interesting, the semiotics of personal possessions, what a stack of cluttered papers really means, how people interpret the symbols you put out there about yourself. While no one can be completely pigeon-holed, I think that this book raises and answers important questions about social identity and the conscious symbols we use to show who we are and the unconscious symbols that give us away. Like a tidy desk surface but tangles of unorganized cords underneath. Like a faceless work cubicle. Or like a house with empty walls but a wealth of brown sugar in the pantry.