Hurry Down Sunshine by Michael Greenberg

That this particular book would come to me was fascinating because recently I have been giving a lot of thought to some close friends and their experiences with mental illness. Getting this book in the mail at this particular time definitely made me sit up and pay attention. Earlier this month I read An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison, and while I appreciated her experience, her focus was mainly on broadly outlining the major episodes of her life, and using medication and monitoring to try to anticipate and manage bipolar disorder. Her book left me with only a vague idea of her actual experiences during her psychotic episodes. I was very interested to read an additional perspective.

Against the backdrop of alarming newspaper articles and reports, which he sees everywhere (Joel Steinberg’s arrest in the beating death of his daughter, Margaux Hemingway’s suicide, a pipe bomb at the Summer Olympics, and the doomed presidential candidacy of Bob Dole), Michael Greenberg relates the events of the summer that his 15 year old daughter, Sally, experiences a full psychotic episode due to an early manifestation of bipolar disorder, which usually occurs in early adulthood. Over a period of roughly two and a half months he relates the details of Sally’s first “crackup”, stay on a psychiatric ward and subsequent reintroduction to society- just in time to begin 10th grade. Along the way we are introduced to several family members (including Greenberg’s mother- with whom his relationship is strained, his intensely artistic wife, his older brother Steve for whom he is responsible and is also mentally ill, and Sally’s mother, a Native New Yorker who has fled the city to enjoy the calmer environs of Vermont with her second husband), who must work through their differences in order to support Sally through her crisis.

In crisp and engaging prose, Michael Greenberg presents an unflinching account of way he and his family struggled to cope with the sudden onset of mental illness and how it affects his family. He “goes there”, as my mother is fond of saying, and asks tough questions of himself about his culpability in not recognizing the depths of the trouble brewing in his daughter. He is unafraid to portray himself in a truthful if sometimes unflattering light as he struggles to deal with financial and marital problems, along with the mental health conditions of his daughter and of his middle-aged brother Steve. Strong characterizations of his family, especially his mother, daughter, wife and brother had me riveted and turning the pages until I finished.

I was fascinated by this moving and honest account of how people deal with the sudden crisis and illness in their lives. I also really enjoyed the way he explained the details of the illness and drug treatments in a way which was accessible and easy to understand. Bonus points for incorporating the stories of poet Robert Lowell and author, James Joyce. Passages That Got My Attention: Describing his mother ~ “Her bright careful veneer calms us. Everyday she arrives in a fresh outfit, stretching her wardrobe to the limit, not a hair out of place or a hint of summer wilt about her. She enters the ward as if she’s stepping onto a stage, but it seems less a display of vanity than a tribute to order, to effort, to the way we must will things to be in the times of disaster.” Describing his second wife, who is a vegetarian, and at this point not yet his second wife ~ “One night, I caught her sliding her fingers through the drippings of a leg of lamb I had prepared. Bending forward so as not to stain her clothes, she sucked the crumbs of meat from her hand, blushing when she saw me, then withdrawing any hint of embarrassment as she grabbed her chopsticks and returned to her rooms in the back of the apartment, her chin shiny with pan grease.”

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