Walks on the Margins: A Story of Bipolar Illness

Walks on the Margins: A Story of Bipolar Illness, by Kathy Brandt and Max Maddox

Review (by Rossa Forbes)

When I review memoirs of mental illness, I feel that I should say first where I am coming from and why I like to read these kinds of memoirs. (There really should be a name for this genre.) I am the mother of a son, a little younger than Max Maddox, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and who is following his own artist’s path, with his mother in tow. Like Kathy Brandt and other mothers, I’ve been working on a memoir, too. The focus of mine is finding out how best to help my son, learning about what constitutes good recovery and how to get there. How to get there often involves finding out what others are doing, and how this works out for them or their relative. I bang my personal drum against the purely medical model, which until recently, has been the dominant model propped up by the pharmaceutical industry aided by an unquestioning public. My writing style tends to be rather conventional, and factual, although I’m struggling to make my memoir worthy of the journey my son and I have taken.

With this preamble out of the way, I am flat out awestruck by the mother and son writing team, and frankly envious. Walks on the Margins takes serious literature turns, outstanding in a memoir. I’m thinking road trip writing –authors like Jack Kerouac, J.D. Salinger, Hunter S. Thompson. Not to forget Mark Vonnegut.

This is the painter’s version of 21st century Chicago, as told by Max.

“In the still electric air, the sun slid beneath a satin graphite carpet, dark gray hooks dipped toward the horizon. Arms bent, shoes off, I sent doves up to the sky in a swirl as the sun broke once more, splashing the icon on a Baptist black velvet canvas, falling to my knees I grasped for this dream coming to me so slow, leaving me to doubt.

“Are you okay?” Four teenagers wondered why I was bawling and curled up in the dirt among discarded drug paraphernalia.

“I need an ORANGE,” as in vitamin C and citrus fruit, lifted from Cezanne’s bowl, the shape of release from the great weight of my role. But of course this misadventure had not befallen us all, which may have been all that ever mattered, and off they went with something to consider between them.

“They would call me crazy,assuredly they had done so already. The difference I guess was that something within them remembered that God does not like to offer proof precisely when it’s asked of Him. Or then again perhaps they simply knew the master plan better than I, which I couldn’t now distinguish from my own.”

The mother Kathy’s voice is just as good in its own way, tempered of course by practicalities of immediate focus of struggling to keep the wild, paint-the-town excesses of her son in check.”

Where I find the book slightly disappointing is toward the end. I was really enjoying the trip and then felt like I was dumped on the curb without explanation, because, unbeknownst to me, the end of the journey was in site. We’re rolling along the road, picking up speed to some destination or resolution or thoughtful self-reflection, and suddenly Max graduates from college, seems to transition fairly effortlessly to graduate school and they’re back home in the driveway. Kathy speaks about recovery, but I wish she had said more about how she thought she and Max arrived at that point. She has taken National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Family-to-Family program , which gives her the institutional view of how recovery is possible:

“By the end of our twelve week class, many had let their anger go and quit blaming their loved-ones. And we’d stopped blaming ourselves. We’d accepted the “new normal” of life with mental illness. We left that last night with two-inch thick binders filled with information about mental illness, about what to do in a crisis, and how to communicate, problem solve, and take care of ourselves. We’d become educated and empowered. We’d learned that recovery was possible, and that we weren’t as alone as we’d once thought.”

That’s what’s being taught? Accept that Max is mentally ill, don’t blame him, and learn to navigate bureaucracy? After the intense, searing experience that somehow worked out reasonably well for Kathy and Max, but with few clues as to why or how. There is so much more to the mechanics and the joy of “recovery” (or whatever we want to call it) that involve daily exercises in patient, faith, hope, empathy that radiate outward to embrace the whole family. These can be taught, but we first have to come from a believing place that our relative is not sick or diseased. While it is true that everyone has to tell their story in their own way –and this is a great story– it is exceptionally great because of the art and the passion. Am I being romantic about mental illness if I prefer to focus on what’s right about an individual rather than what’s wrong with him? Is it better to focus our efforts on nurturing the artist rather than getting bogged down by the constant background noise? (Dubious science, harmful diagnoses, and money, always money issues.)

This book was obviously several years in the making, and a lot has changed. To gain a better understanding of recovery we need to start by rejecting the diseased brain, chemical imbalance, genetic pre-disposition to mental illness theories in favour of what many would say is the romantic idea that our problems/our humanity/our greatness are more home-grown. I say this simply because in recent years the science behind the “evidence” has been exposed as tenuous, flat out wrong, or simply wishful thinking.

Here’s an American Psychiatric Association news release from May 2013.

“The promise of the science of mental disorders is great. In the future, we hope to be able to identify disorders using biological and genetic markers that provide precise diagnoses that can be delivered with complete reliability and validity. Yet this promise, which we have anticipated since the 1970s, remains disappointingly distant. We’ve been telling patients for several decades that we are waiting for biomarkers. We’re still waiting.”

That’s enough drum banging on my part for now. I highly recommend this book. The writing is a delight. 

You can order this book at Amazon.

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