Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Center Cannot Hold - Elyn Saks

My friend Daniel, author of The Piano Tuner and A Far Country, is working on his third novel which features a charater with schizophrenia. In researching mental illness, Daniel came across this book, which he highly recommended to me. This is the memoir of Elyn Saks, a tenured USC law professor who graduated from Yale Law School, was the valedictorian of her undergraduate class at Vanderbilt and a Marshall Scholar. She also happens to be schizophrenic. Saks's first-hand account of her battle with the disease is absolutely incredible. Beginning in her early adolescence, Saks recounts the constant voices in her head, her hallucinations, and her paranoia that people are out to kill her or that she should kill herself. She ignores her personal hygiene and denies herself food under her belief that she should not nourish a being as evil and undeserving as herself. At nearly six feet tall, she is barely an emaciated 100 pounds. When she admits using marijuana on a couple occasions (in an obvious effort to self-medicate), her well-intentioned, but misguided parents send her to rehab, where she learns that only the weak resort to pills and medication. This brainwashing proves detrimental in her later years, when involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital, doctors attempt to medicate Saks with psychotropic drugs and she believes she should be able to overcome her problems by "just being a stronger person." Despite my sympathy for anyone suffering from mental illness, I did find myself increasingly agitated and annoyed by Saks's inability to stick with a treatment program, to stay on her medication, and to maintain appropriate boundaries with her therapist. But, obviously, her inability to do these things is a direct function of her schizophrenia. Saks's story - and her honest portrayal of her own actions demonstrated how difficult it is for people suffering from mental illness to get help. Not just because they are repeatedly misdiagnosed, or because they mask their symptoms in an attempt to appear normal, but because the very behavior that indicates their mental illness is so off-putting that they often alienate themselves from anyone who would ever be in a position to help them. Saks's success in the midst of this debilitating disease is beyond impressive - and that she has found the courage and strength to tell her story will, hopefully, educate people to recognize the symptoms of mental illness - in themselves (to the extent that is ever possible), and in others.

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