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The Tattered Tapestry: A Family's Search for Peace with Bipolar Disorder.

The Tattered Tapestry: A Family's Search for Peace with Bipolar Disorder

Tom Smith with Kevin & Karla Smith


2021 Pine Lake Road, Ste 100, Lincoln, NE 68512

ISBN: 0595361374, $18.95, 224 pp.

This book is a memoir written by: Tom Smith--the father of Karla Smith who took her own life on January 13, 2003 after six years of dealing with bipolar disorder, Kevin Smith--her twin brother who kept a chronological log of her manic behavior and activities, and Karla Smith herself as she tries to tell us about her illness. As you can imagine, the six years of illness and the loss of Karla have been very difficult, trying, heartbreaking years for this family, and The Karla Smith Foundation has been created to provide hope to families and friends of anyone with a mental illness or who has lost a loved one to suicide.

About the book itself, it is one of the better-written books I have read on the subject of bipolar disorder. Many such books are written by the care givers and deal with their problems, frustrations and pain. What I found of particular interest was Karla's writing and I quote from Chapter 4--Karla Speaks For Herself:

"In all the memoirs of mental illness that I've read, each author at some point laments that it is impossible to really describe acute depression (or mania, or schizophrenia); the experience itself defies words. This is discouraging. But I want this problem to be a theme of my book, directly addressed and worked through: the very impossibility of writing what I am trying to write. Similar to the experience of an acute episode itself, the causes of the illness are equally elusive. I have to remember the truth that William Styron, in his book Darkness Visible, so plainly declares: "I shall never learn what 'caused' my depression, as no one will ever learn about their own. To be able to do so will likely forever prove to be an impossibility, so complex are the intermingled factors of abnormal chemistry, behavior and genetics." There is no accounting for why mental illness strikes some and not others. As Styron says, "Bloody and bowed by the outrages of life, most human beings still stagger on down the road, unscathed by real depression. To discover why some people plunge into the downward spiral of depression, one must search beyond the manifest crisis--and then still fail to come up with anything beyond wise conjecture."

I am so captivated by Styron's book because it combines the details of his own story with more generl discussions of important questions surrounding mental illness. If this book were widely read in the '90's, as I have heard it was, then he has contributed crucial understandings to those who have never suffered from severe depression; for example, he argues that the stigma and shame commonly attached to suicide, the frequent assumption that the person must have been weak, is just ridiculous and must be replaced by a more sympathetic awareness that a person commits suicide because the psychic torment is simply too much to endure.

Like Styron, I want to include some critical comments about the larger world, using examples from my own life as starting points. For example, I want to question the capacity of any institution to administer carefully and correctly to the patient suffering from mental illness, and instead of proposing mere reform, I'd like to envision a completely radical method of treatment (still working out the details of this in my head). I also want to situate my story within a larger sociological framework: growing up in an American, upper-middle class, religious family, with pressure to succeed, and I want to express the "depression-inducing" elements of those circumstances (while still refusing to name a singular cause of my illness). But my story also visits the impoverished underside of society and I especially want to point out the vast difference between hospitals for the rich and for the poor. Along similar lines, I want to look at gender: I want to show how it does, at least partially, make sense that my brother did not suffer depression but I did; how it works in adolescence that so much of a girl's self esteem is derived from her looks and attention from boys, and how hard it is to out-grow this; and drawing largely on Showalter's amazing book The Female Malady, how frailty, dependence, and even madness have been linked with the Western conception of woman since Aristole."

Karla Smith was a beautiful, intelligent, gifted, well-read young woman, and the above quote is just a small sample of her writing, insight, and plans to write about her illness. In another piece which she titled 'To Whom It May Concern' and in which she tries to encourage others with similar problems to find gratitude and to "rise from the ashes" I quote:

"So perhaps you spend most of your time alone, thinking endlessly, and trapping yourself in those thoughts. Most likely there are people who are concerned for you, and stand by helplessly as you grow more and more isolated. You are tired of their trite pick-me-ups, and hollow suggestions, and sugary anecdotes. They ask what they can do to help, and they offer words that do not penetrate your thick cloud. Tell one of these friends that you do not really want to talk, but that it would help you to be with him or her, perhaps to read in the same room, or do some cooking, or watch a movie. Maybe you need to get out of your usual environment, so ask if you could come over and spend some time doing your own thing as their home. The end of the day will be different than the end of most days. You can say to yourself that you did something today; you shared something sacred with a friend."

Besides the personal insights shared by Karla, her father Tom and her brother Kevin, this book will also inform you about suicide which is the leading cause of violent deaths worldwide, outnumbering homicide and war-related deaths. If you want further information about bipolar disorder and mental illness, I suggest that you visit The Karla Smith Foundation website.
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Author:Trout, Kaye
Publication:Reviewer's Bookwatch
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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