The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn Saks

saks.jpgThis is an astonishing and illuminating memoir of a woman with great gifts who also happens to be schizophrenic. Saks describes the sensations involved very well, and does an excellent job of making it clear that people with mental illness, while not always able to manage, should not be treated like dangerous freaks but with compassion and understanding. She provides a telling comparison of care of the mentally ill in the UK and US because she was first hospitalized when she was on a Mellon fellowship at Oxford. There the doors weren’t locked, medication wasn’t forced, and the patients were treated with some dignity; in the US, in contrast, while a law student at Yale, she was placed in restraints for days at a time, forcibly medicated, and essentially taught that the best thing to do was to avoid letting anyone know what was going on inside her head – not the best way to deal with scary feelings.

The sensitive work of several psychoanalysts, the care of friends, and medication, combined with her own inner strength and intelligence, pulled her through some very difficult times. She is particularly informative about the emotional cost of having to take medication for the rest of one’s life – her discussion of why that’s so difficult really helps explain why going off meds is so persistently tempting for so many people.

One in five families in the US is affected by major mental illness. This book could be enormously helpful in understanding the issues because Saks does such a good job of explaining what schizophrenia feels like – and how other people’s reactions can help or hurt. It’s an engrossing, wonderfully written memoir besides.  Highly recommended.

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