Jul 14, 2012

In lieu of a memoir, the author reviews his own book

I’m really proud of my book Defying Mental Illness: Finding Recovery with Community Resources and Family Support. It embodies the techniques I used to rebuild my life and career, and is the first book I've seen that really communicates mental illness recovery in an accessible fashion. It allows people to be bad at details and still get to their recovery.

My book is not a memoir. I have read so many memoirs of mental illness. Authors talk about their struggles, or they talk about the lives of extraordinary people they have worked with. It's a little like reading the Lives of the Saints. Extraordinary people – Nobel Prize winners, concert musicians, famous actors, famous college professors. If I am not extraordinary, can recovery be possible for me?

The alternative book that people run into is a reference that focuses on brain science, with an emphasis on medication processes or therapy. We are dragged kicking and screaming through science class. These books are frankly inaccessible to typical readers. They are at the sweet spot for intellectuals.

Occasionally we get books aimed at family members of people overwhelmed by their illnesses. They usually focus on their family story, which is often heartbreaking. The best of these, like Randye Kaye's Ben Behind His Voices, avoid creating us/them situations. The person they write about rarely comes back to a meaningful recovery.

I got to my recovery because I had people to support me when I was suffering the most. My wife and family and doctors and therapists worked together. I had friends who connected me with meaningful work. Recovery involved figuring out what I was dealing with, considering my skills and capacities, and going after it no matter how bad I felt. I went after effectiveness instead of feeling good. I pushed through my wobbly moods. I hung out with do-gooders, and used my skills.

I tried to get a sense of all of those things into the book. And I am still trying to reckon with the reaction to it. My co-author Andrea Schroer was the first person to confront me with the quality of hope that is in the book. It took me quite a while to understand how our book has managed to get recovery right.

So here's why I think Defying Mental Illness works, and is the very first book to really support recovery.

The book mostly ignores the details of mental disorders and goes straight to delivering hope. Lowering the  amount of detail lets the real issues of recovery emerge more clearly. People begin addressing the real issues, which involve their talents and skills, their allies and the people they love -- instead of staying stuck in their symptoms.

Frankly speaking, mental illness is not that complicated. Mental illness is essentially about dealing with noise and distortion in thinking and feeling. Sometimes it's too much, and "we can't hear ourselves think," or we get overcome by emotion or anxiety. There is a relatively small catalog of things that people experience when they have one of these disorders. You can immerse yourself in additional details if you need that. You can also try to get a sense of the "meaning" of the things that you are going through.

But recovery is not in the details of where you are stuck. Recovery is in the path out.

Defying Mental Illness talks about recovery from mental illness as a struggle to regain capacity. It provides a very light explanation of symptoms and illness. It helps people plan their way out of their illness, starting with four questions. What helps you make the most of your talents? What helps you reduce the areas where you are vulnerable? What helps you improve your ability to cope with stress? How can you deal with the risk of something going wrong?

These are devastating illnesses, but we need to get better at saying that people recover.

Most people do recover. They do not need to be heroes to get there.

You do not need to be a hero to get to your recovery either.

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