Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Book Review: The Center Cannot Hold

If it weren't for my daughter Babs, I never would have read The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn R. Saks. This is the compelling story of a brilliant law professor who has battled her own diagnosis of chronic paronoid schitzophrenia since young adulthood.

The descriptions of what it was (and is) like for the author to experience periodic episodes of this devastating mental illness are just amazing. She is able to give the reader some understanding of how this affects her perceptions, thoughts and emotions. Saks makes it clear that her condition can only be stabilized with treatment but not cured. From time to time, the illness will re-assert itself.

The progression from the early emergence of the symptoms when she was an undergrad at Vanderbilt to full-blown psychosis as a graduate student at Oxford University and later at Yale Law School resulted in many forms of treatment--some quite brutal. Finally a combination of drug therapy and psychotherapy bring her life into a manageable but fragile balance.

I'm awed by this woman's intellectual brilliance and strength of character. Most people with this diagnosis are unable to live independent lives and are often institutionalized. She has fought an incredibly difficult battle and is honest about the limitations her illness forces on her everyday life. Although she has found happiness in marriage and success in her profession, she cannot have children and maintenance of mental stability requires a strict adherence to routine, schedule and medication.

One continuing theme of the book is the ongoing struggle that those with chronic mental illness have with the temptation to go off their medications. Professor Styn recounts many times in her own life when she tried to cut back with disastrous results.

Another major theme is the importance of the consistent loving support of friends and family in achieving and maintaing this fragile stability. Surely there is a special place in heaven for the author's friend Bill, whose patience and concern was undeterred by distance or time over the course of her life.

One of our best friends and his family have had to cope with the tragic impact of a similar illness. This book helped me to understand the situation better. I highly recommend it for anyone with a loved one who suffers serious chronic mental illness. Thank you, Babs, for giving it to me to read.


Gannet Girl said...

This sounds a lot like Kaye Jamison's An Unquiet Mind, another autobiograohy by a brilliant woman (a psychiatrist)suffering from, in her case, bipolar disorder.

If only there were not those people overwhelmed by the initial (?) symptoms of these devastating illnesses before they can muster the resources to fight back . . .

Presbyterian Gal said...

And then there are the tragedies where the sufferers of disorders like these refuse to admit their disorders...or admit them to the point of taking meds when they feel like taking meds and not doing anything else. Then blame their spouse every time life goes south...

like my estranged husband.

Quotidian Grace said...

PG-- And like the spouse of my friend.

Presbyterian Gal said...

QG - if your friend ever wants to talk... I am here.

Elaine said...

Downloaded to Kindle. Thanks. I think that mental illness is the new leprosy. It is a disease that we don't want to talk about or be around. We profess to love the poor, but most of the homeless have mental illness or addiction problems -- and we don't want to love that.

Norman, OKlahoma

Quotidian Grace said...

GG--I think this book is the first one about this type of mental illness from a first person perspective, although there have been a number about bipolar disorder like the Unquiet Mind.

Elaine--so true.

zorra said...

Kaye Redfield Jamison's book An Unquiet Mind is indeed a first person account, and most worthwhile.
Incidentally, I believe she's a clinical psychologist, not a psychiatrist. Matters to me.