Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Quiet Room

I just finished The Quiet Room: A Journey Out of the Torment of Madness by Lori Schiller and Amanda Bennett, a multifacted examination on how Schiller's seemingly untreatable schizoaffective disorder impacted her life and the lives of those who cared about her the most. The views of her parents, siblings and doctors differentiate this book from other memoirs about the experience of mental illness and provide additional insight into the impact such illness has on an entire family.

Schiller started hearing voices when she was about 17 but her illness did not become truly debilitating until just after she graduated college and attempted suicide for the first time in a desperate effort to silence the cacophony in her mind. Thus began a series of hospitalizations that only ended with the creation of a new medication that finally eliminated Schiller's psychotic symptoms to a point where she was able to reestablish a connection with the world around her and regain her independence. The casualties of her illness included 10 years of her life.

After her initial hospitalization, Schiller's parents had to confront the idea that their overachieving daughter was seriously ill. Her father, a psychologist, had earned his degree in the 1950s when the vogue model of explaining mental illness blamed it not on biological quirks in the brain, but nearly entirely on an individual's upbringing. As one might expect, that model caused Schiller's parents a great deal of personal grief as they both tried to figure out what they did to make their daughter so desperately ill. Schiller's mother confessed that Lori's illness put a strain on her parents' marriage as each blamed the other for their daughter's condition. Eventually, Schiller's mom realized that her own mother, Lori's grandmother, had also exhibited signs of schizophrenia, as had one of her cousins.

Her brothers alternated between thinking that Lori's hospitalizations were some brilliant stunt for attention to being frightened that they would end up like their sister, a virtual prisoner unable to function in society. One of her brothers said something along the lines of "when I used to think about my future, I would think about Lori. But I didn't want to do that anymore."

Schiller's own recalling of her illness reflects the confusion of her mind and reflects the fact that she spents years of her life without any true insight into what was happening to her. In that regard--as a recollection of the experience of being personally mentally ill--this book is not as good as some of the others that I've read. The value of this work is in its ability to reflect the impact of a crippling illness on a family and how painful it can be to acknowledge that the person Lori was prior to being incapacitated by mental illness will never return.

Even as Schiller's world was overrun with malicious voices and delusional beliefs, she understood and was frustrated by the fact that her illness was preventing her from living up to the potential that her intelligence offered her. She was frustrated because while she was sitting in a mental hospital making macaroni necklaces, her friends were advancing in the corporate world, getting married and having children. The reality of being schizophrenic meant that Lori's entire life had to be put on hold while she dealt with her illness and the progression of this book makes it painfully clear that there is no effective way to deal with delusions and hallucinations. There is no coping with disordered thoughts and altered perceptions of reality. There's only hospitalization, a complete removal from society.

Schiller was only able to reenter society when she found a new medication that eliminated her hallucinations, silencing the voices that had been tormenting her and easing the paranoia that had been isolating her. Perhaps one of the most compelling aspects of this memoir in terms of Schiller's account of her illness is her explanation of the process by which she discovered that the voices were not really there. How could she trust her doctors when they told her the voices weren't real when she heard them as clearly as she heard the doctor's own voice? When your own thoughts and senses betray you, why should you trust anything?

Above all else, this memoir made me so sad for Schiller and for everyone who suffers from being so desperately ill without a medication capable of allieviating their symptoms. This woman lost ten years of her life, her 20s, because psychiatry failed her. How many other people has psychiatry failed because the field wallowed in pseudoscience for so long? And while psychiatry has made huge improvements in the past 20 years, it's still a whole lot of guess work. And frankly, is it that much to ask for a definitive diagnosis before someone fiddles with my brain chemistry?


Next up in my book queue is Ronald Fieve's Bipolar II.