Thursday, October 09, 2008

Globe Review of Mike Barnes's The Lily Pond

The Globe & Mail included Mike Barnes's The Lily Pond in its Three For Thoughts column this past Saturday as a prelude to Mental Illness Awareness Week. Robyn Sarah compares three memoirs of madness by Mike Barnes, Mark Vonnegut, and Kay Redfield Jamison. The article is posted below, and the temporary link is

When madness rules your life

As Mental Illness Awareness Week begins, Robyn Sarah examines what we can learn from those who have written about coping when they are betrayed by their own minds

'Are you out of your mind?" We've all said it, to people who aren't. We don't ask those we truly suspect: When we encounter them in the street or on the bus, we give them wide berth or quietly change seats. But what if they are our own loved ones?

What is it like to lose one's mind? Statistics tell us one in five people will suffer an episode of mental illness in his or her lifetime. That's a staggering number for a problem that is still so hushed up. While not all will experience the incapacitating breaks with reality that we call psychosis, all will experience disruptions in how they think, distortions in how they perceive the world and a sense that their minds have betrayed them. We are fortunate that some sufferers have braved stigma to go public in memoirs: In so doing, they offer a glimpse of what mental illness is like from the inside and provide insight into a societal problem that could, for any of us, at any time, directly or indirectly, become a personal problem.

Discussed here are three such memoirs, coming from very different places, but all stunningly articulate. As it happens, all three writers suffered the same disorder, manic-depressive illness, later renamed bipolar affective disorder. (Significantly, two were first misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, a reminder that psychiatric diagnoses are not hard science.) All three experienced psychoses, survived suicide attempts or gestures, and struggled with the downsides of medication. And all have recovered, to live rewarding and productive lives as a pediatrician, a psychiatrist and a writer-teacher, respectively.

Mark Vonnegut's The Eden Express: A Memoir of Insanity (Praeger, 1975) was reissued in 2002 by Seven Stories Press with a new preface by the author and a foreword by his famous father, Kurt Vonnegut. An account of his psychotic breakdown on a commune in rural B.C. in the early 1970s, it shares a seriousness about its subject with the other two books, but is also almost rollicking - not only because Vonnegut shares his father's sense of humour, but because his book is as much a study of the 1960s mentality, the wild utopianism of his generation, as it is of psychosis from the inside.

Kay Redfield Jamison's An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness (Knopf, 1995) is not only a personal account of madness, but one written by a psychiatrist who herself suffers from the mood disorder in which she specializes (Jamison co-wrote the standard medical text on manic-depressive illness, as well as writing Touched with Fire, a study of manic-depression and the artistic temperament.)

Jamison had just signed on as assistant professor of psychiatry at UCLA when she experienced psychotic mania and began a "long, costly personal war against a medication [lithium] that I would, in a few years' time, be strongly encouraging others to take." Just as Vonnegut's fellow homesteaders loom large in his account of his descent into madness, so Jamison's colleagues in the psychiatry department figure in hers, recognizing what is happening before she does, rallying protectively around her to get swift help and minimize damages the illness could wreak on her career.

And just as Vonnegut's account of madness is woven inextricably into the saga of the farm, so Jamison's is woven into the story of her personal loves and professional life - a reminder that mental illness is not an isolated phenomenon but something that happens to people in the midst of living their lives, whatever those lives may be.

Vonnegut and Jamison had the luck to "go mad" in supportive environments that allowed them to bypass some of the usual stations. Mike Barnes tells a murkier story in The Lily Pond: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, Myth and Metamorphosis (just published by Biblioasis). Barnes was hospitalized in Ontario in his early twenties following a bizarre self-mutilation. What came next (misdiagnosis, two years of failed drug trials, electroshock treatments, a staff meeting that nearly saw him transferred to a long-term-care facility; then months of near-coma resulting from a prescription dosage error) is the stuff of nightmare, yet related - remarkably - without bitterness.

In four interlocking essays that track the 30-year journey of his recovery (and the parallel journey of his evolution as a writer, author of six earlier books of fiction and poetry), Barnes mixes autobiography with reflections on paintings, literary works and scientific lore, exploring metaphors and myths that have haunted and helped him, and probing the psyche's resources for healing.

Deeply thoughtful, his book includes a moving account of psychotherapy and gives a sense of mental illness as an ongoing, lived reality. In an unexpected twist, the final essay sees him assume the role of caregiver to the woman he loves, diagnosed - after years of their living together - with the same illness he suffers.

These books make it clear that people with mental illnesses are not so terribly unlike those of us spared them: They struggle with the same existential issues, have the same needs, loves and hopes, respond to the same positive and negative experiences, and cope best when they can count on the respect and comprehension of those around them.

Robyn Sarah is a Montreal poet and writer with an interest in mental health issues. She is the niece of the late Mac Lipson, news anchor on Ottawa's CKOY during the 1960s, whose career in radio was derailed by manic-depressive illness.

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