A psychotic episode often has the qualities of a slowly gathering thunderstorm, whose buildup is only apparent in hindsight, in the midst of the storm’s full force of lightening and torrential rain.

So much of what Michael Greenberg describes in his fine memoir about his teenage daughter Sally’s bout with bipolar mania, Hurry Down Sunshine, is familiar to those who have watched a family member slide into madness. When Greenberg’s wife receives the terse advice from a friend to take Sally “to the nearest emergency room”, it is a familiar moment for anyone who has had to make the decision to commit a loved one to psychiatric ward— the tipping point between the belief that things will work out and the realization that a family is completely ill-equipped to handle the situation on their own, even for one more hour. Forbearance gives way to urgency.

The events of the book are typical, but Greenberg is exceptional is the way he recounts them. He is an “inner journalist,” relating in unflinching terms the confusing and sometimes lonely journey he personally undergoes over the course of three months. Although surrounded by family and professional caregivers, his role in things is unique. He, in hospital admission parlance is Sally’s “primary caretaker”, the only person in the narrative who does not come and go into the situation, dispensing advice and retreating to safe ground.

This theme of alienation is appropriate, because it is a significant part of the experience of people with mental illness and those who share their space. Psychosis is many things, including the creation of a unique and impenetrable world that serves to separate the afflicted from those around him/her. A loved one’s descent into madness has the inevitable effect of “changing everything” as the thunderstorm’s waves emanate outward in gross and subtle ways. Greenberg deftly relates these dynamics in his own family, skillfully avoiding other writers’ tendency to analyze, praise or condemn.

Indeed, one of Greenberg’s most admirable achievements is to remain honest in the face of groundless uncertainty – the moments of acute terror, the helplessness and almost desperate faith Greenberg must contend with as he experiences his own daughter as a frightening stranger, as he contends the dearth of information from Sally’s caregivers, as his younger brother’s own mental illness flares up concurrent with Sally’s. At one point Greenberg likens Sally’s state to the Buddhist “bardo” between one existence and the next. But it is not just Sally who is in a bardo, it is Greenberg who contends with the confusion or where he’s been and where is going.

The selfless choice not to solidify the uncertainty of his experience makes Greenberg’s book an important and compassionate addition to the literature on mental illness, particularly for those who are not afflicted but nonetheless affected. The difficult news, delivered through a simple yet articulate recounting of “what happened” is that there are no “easy” answers. This book should be compulsory for anyone who has faced a situation like Greenberg’s. This is not to say his message is pessimistic, just realistic. This pragmatic and honest approach requires courage and compassion, two of the most important offerings anyone can give in the face of a loved one’s loss of sanity.

 

Written by Bob Sutherland
Saturday, 13 December 2008