Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Hurry Down Sunshine

I just finished reading a memoir by Michael Greenberg, Hurry Down Sunshine. His 15 year old daughter, in the summer before her sophomore year in high school, literally loses her mind, tumbling down a manic rabbit hole and ending up in the psychiatric ward.

The book is an examination of mental illness, particularly how it changes not only the patient but her entire family, unraveling the links between each member, making each question who he or she is, what reality means, or normal, and who's responsible for the unbearable state of affairs they all find themselves in. The writing is eloquent, searching, and bald (where it needs to be). Greenberg doesn't make any apologies for his blindness, for the cruelty that is--briefly--unleashed in him as the grieving father. After all, he's lost the daughter he thought he knew, and she's been replaced with an unstable model. Again and again, he describes the girl looking back at him in the hospital, and then at home afterward, as an alien.

The book both fascinates and horrifies me. More than anything, it scares the shit out of me. As soon as I closed the book, I had to come here and write this, as if to vomit it all out of me. Otherwise, I'm afraid I won't be able to go to sleep tonight. I'll lie in bed and my thoughts will swirl around the inside of my skull.

I'm frightened because I've got an aunt who's schizophrenic--and her grandmother was, it turns out, not dead as everyone in the family thought but, instead, institutionalized for decades with unspecified "psychosis." I'm frightened because Dave's mother is bipolar. I'm frightened because my grandfather killed himself. I'm out of the woods, and so is Dave. We've made it this far with nothing more than the usual seasonal blues, the dips in the road of middle age, the grinding depressions of daily life as adults in the social machine. But what about our darling girl?

She's never been a phlegmatic child. She's always been a bit dramatic, a girl given to swings of enthusiasm and flights of fancy about herself. Her visions of her own prowess are not grandiose but I wouldn't call them realistic, either. "My goal is to do gymnastics in the Olympics," she announced, after a few years of lackluster YWCA courses on the balance beam, the shabby horse. Later, "Maybe I'll be President," she said. "Or a veterinarian. I can't decide." Is this the normal range of motion for a somewhat precocious only child with indulgent academic parents?

Her room is an ungodly mess. When I bothered to clean it, she'd come home and go ballistic, screaming under her breath, muttering, and flinging things. She refused to throw a single thing away. "I need that," she'd say, piling on top of another piece of flotsam: wrappers from Halloween candies, pieces of paper with a few scribbles, bits of broken plastic.

"This is not normal," I said, one day. "I worry about you."

And that brought her up short. She was about six, I think, and her cheeks flushed as she looked back at me. "What do you mean?" she wondered.

"I mean that it's not normal to want to keep everything," I said, "or to get so upset about throwing anything away. There are people who are sick, who can't throw a single thing away. And I guess that I worry that you might be sick like that."

"I'm not sick," she said, hands on her hips. "I just know what I like. And I like my room the way it is."

After reading Greenberg's book, I'm a little heartened. Lizzie, if anything, is a neurotic like her parents, more intent on keeping control of her domain (and keeping us out of it) than attached to the flotsam of her rambunctious experience or her rough and tumble imagination. She's no longer attached to the idea of the Olympics. Her dreams seem more realistic and manageable. She's not convinced that children are natural geniuses or that she's got the divine news we all need to hear--news we'll lock her up to deny.

What I did learn from Greenberg is pretty simple--as parents, we have to endure whatever our children (and life) throw us, day to day. And we have to be kind to them, to love them as they are, in each moment. Further, we have to love ourselves in the same way.

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