As mental illness becomes less stigmatized, many individuals are coming out and sharing their experiences with a variety of disorders. The majority of books published on the topic are personal accounts of their struggles. Susan Inman’s After Her Brain Broke: Helping My Daughter Recover Her Sanity takes a less common but equally important approach by presenting the view of a family member on the outside looking in as a loved one spirals down through mental illness. Inman’s engaging story provides parents and family members of individuals with severe mental disorders with hope and ideas for coping with the strain that comes with helping their loved ones recover.
After Her Brain Broke chronicles the descent of Inman’s daughter, Molly, into severe mental illness. Molly suffers from schizoaffective disorder, which is characterized by a combination of psychotic symptoms, such as hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia, and mood disorder symptoms, like depression and mania. Schizoaffective disorder affects less than one percent of the population and tends to have comorbid conditions such as anxiety and bipolar disorders, substance abuse problems, and social difficulties. Though schizoaffective disorder is relatively rare, the obstacles faced by loved ones with the disorder ring true for the family and friends of those with a wide variety of mental illnesses.
Inman’s story begins with the initial presentation of Molly’s mania and paranoia. Molly has recently begun taking Paxil after a diagnosis of depression. Paxil, an antidepressant in the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) class, is known to activate manic symptoms in patients with a history of or predisposition for mania or bipolar disorder. Molly’s latent manic tendencies surface as her dose of Paxil increases, and Inman expresses a feeling so familiar to those close to individuals with mental illness: “Trying to walk with Molly into [Dr. A’s] office is almost impossible. She careens away, heading off in random directions, only gradually arriving at the waiting room door from where we watch her. The connection between us, always so solid, is vanishing.”
As Molly’s journey through the extreme ups and downs of severe mental illness continues, Inman offers a very insightful view of the Canadian mental health system. She recounts a flawed, limited, and often infuriating system with too many patients competing for too few resources. Molly’s treatment is often undermined by those who have been recruited to help her, including a therapist who informs her that “[…] psychiatrists like to play mind games. […] You have to be very careful not to get caught up in their stuff.” Those who have navigated the mental health system will identify with Inman’s struggle to find adequate help and treatment for her daughter.
In helping Molly overcome her schizoaffective disorder, Inman finds her purpose as an advocate for the parents and family members of individuals with mental illnesses. She first encounters these parents at the British Columbia Children’s Hospital’s Child & Adolescent Psychiatric Emergency (CAPE) unit:
When I walk by the CAPE unit, with its weekly arrival of newly psychotic children, I glimpse the strained faces of other parents. […] I wonder how other families, who’ve already been through this, have adjusted to the chaos of these unforeseen situations. Where are these families? Where are their stories which could help me get my bearings? Why can’t I find them?
Inman does eventually find these families, and her dedication to helping other parents cope with the same difficulties she has experienced is nothing short of inspirational. She reaches out to universities and hospitals to set up support groups, speaking engagements, and educational opportunities, and even collaborates with the Playwrights Theatre Centre in Vancouver to create the This Is a Spoon one-act play writing contest for scripts accurately and sensitively portraying schizophrenia. Inman has proven that the parents and family members of mentally ill individuals have the ability to make positive changes to the mental health system.
The greatest strengths of Inman’s story are her unflagging dedication to Molly’s cause and her unwillingness to give up hope. For others with loved ones fighting mental illness, this message of optimism and perseverance is a crucial one. While Inman is constantly plagued by the shortcomings of the mental health system, she refuses to stop pushing until she can ensure a success story for her daughter. Inman’s story is a quick and captivating read, and her obvious knowledge and commitment add impact to her words.
At times, unfortunately, Inman’s important message gets buried in what reads like a rant against those who have wronged her. The book has provided her with a unique opportunity to call out Canada’s mental health system and expose its flaws and shortcomings. A more tactful approach would have heightened Inman’s credibility and kept the message at the forefront of the narrative. The story also would have been better served by a more thorough conclusion. Molly goes from severely mentally ill to almost fully recovered in a space of less than ten pages, making the ending feel rushed and somewhat incomplete.
In addition, some readers will take issue with Inman’s narrow treatment approach, which focuses on medication and insists that family history has no bearing on mental illness. Those who are not comfortable with the perceived overuse and loose prescribing of psychiatric medications may have a difficult time accepting the course of treatment praised by Inman. Overall, however, it does not detract from the objective of the book.
Those who have loved ones afflicted by a mental disorder have a very challenging and often thankless role, and the difficulties they face tend to be overshadowed by the demanding and volatile nature of the illness itself. Inman has provided these caretakers with a rare and valuable first-person account of how to navigate the mental health system and handle the stress, frustration, guilt, and anxiety inherent in the situation. After Her Brain Broke is a very helpful resource for parents and family members of individuals coping with schizoaffective disorder as well as myriad other mental illnesses. Inman’s overarching goal is to keep the light at the end of a very dark tunnel shining, and she has succeeding in maintaining its glow.
After Her Brain Broke: Helping My Daughter Recover Her Sanity
By Susan Inman
Bridgecross Communications: February 2010
Paperback, 168 pages