What does it mean to be in the throes of a manic episode? To succumb to paranoia and delusion?
For those of us outside of that experience, it can be difficult to understand the lives of those dealing with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. In Icarus Redeemed, G.H. Francis seeks to relate his encounters with what he calls “madness.” Diagnosed with bipolar disorder and in reality confronting a schizoaffective disorder combining aspects of schizophrenia and bipolar, Francis offers a unique insight not only into his own experiences of those disorders but into the mental health system and its institutional limitations.
Icarus Redeemed is a peculiar sort of text, combining memoir, technical references, and excerpts from the author’s fiction and poetry to create a raw, unapologetic whole. If, as a reader, you are looking for a straightforward tell-all, this is not the book for you. Rather, Francis attempts to engage our empathy in different ways and gives us an illustration of his experiences with his disorder through this piecemeal approach.
He includes his creative writing and emails from his three different manic episodes, I believe, to show the reader how his thinking operated during those times. How successful this device is depends somewhat on the audience’s willingness to engage with those texts. Overall, Icarus Redeemed invites us to contemplate an appropriately disorderly view of schizoaffective and bipolar disorders.
As the back copy notes, however, it is not a text without hope. In fact, despite the unsettling details of Francis’s experience, he writes a decidedly hopeful meditation with several years of mental health between him and his last episode.
Icarus Redeemed consists mostly of short, titled chapters including such offerings as “The Gates of Madness,” “Institutionalization,” “The Green Light,” “Whisky River,” and “Back in the World, Again.” These direct Francis’s discussion and contemplations, e.g., “The Green Light” is a reference to The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and serves as point of comparison for Francis’s relationship with a woman he loved named Kate, who features prominently in the book. The first six chapters of Icarus Redeemed deal with Francis’s first manic episode and institutionalization. The build up to and experiences of his second and third episodes — which happened in rapid succession — make up the bulk of the remaining text. In Chapter 27, “The Story of Icarus,” Francis discusses his life since then, emphasizing his commitment to treatment and the fact that his disorder can in fact be managed, which is ultimately the driving message of the text.
In the book’s first chapters, Francis discusses the early symptoms of his disorder, which he believes may have been affected by his alcohol and drug use as a young man. He relates his growing obsession with the Theory of Relativity, Nostradamus, and Dante’s Divine Comedy. In the wake of 9/11, which obliquely fit one of Nostradamus’s quatrains, his preoccupation increases, inspiring delusions about his relationship to the prophecies. These passages are among the most challenging to read, in part because the descent into paranoia and delusion happens so rapidly. However, Francis does an admirable job of reproducing his thoughts and logic from that time in such a way that we might sympathize with, if not completely comprehend, his thinking.
Overcome in this first episode, Francis experiences his first institutionalization and is diagnosed for the first time — however, it is an incomplete diagnosis of bipolar disorder. He relates the drudgery of the mental hospital, noting that: “In many ways, mental hospitals are the worst place to be when you are sick. In them, you are surrounded by other sick people whose mad thoughts can only enflame your own….”
Following his release, Francis explains that many of his obsessions did not diminish following this first treatment. Rather, he continued his studies of time and only took his prescribed medication intermittently. In the middle chapters of Icarus Redeemed, Francis relates an episode during which he drove 21 hours straight to see a psychic in Wichita, Kansas; the details of his failed relationship with a woman named Kelly and his continue obsession with Kate; and the hiking trip during which he planned to commit suicide. His frank discussion of suicide is among the most powerful passages in the book. He reflects: “If, in your darkest hour, you imagine the pain that your death will cause…then you can talk yourself out of it.”
Although this moment seems to present something of a turning point for Francis, his struggle with his disorder continues, resulting in a brief incarceration and two subsequent hospitalizations. It is only after his third episode that he manages to gain control over his life and commits fully to his treatment. This point seems especially pertinent to readers hoping to gain a better understanding of bipolar and schizoaffective disorders. Treatment is not often a linear process. And only the individual can gain the skills necessary to maintain resilience.
As noted, Francis emphasizes the possibility for hope at the end of Icarus Redeemed: “I now live a healthy and sane life, free from alcohol and drugs. I visit my psychiatrist regularly, and I keep a schedule. I believe these simple things are the key to living with any mental disorder.” The journey in this text is not an easy one to read and yet it ends in a place of profound optimism and self-empowerment. It rightly asks questions of our approach to mental health treatment, especially for those in poverty or without support systems. It takes a frank look at the experience of individuals with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, presenting an un-sanitized account which may unsettle some readers. However, above all else, it imparts hope.
Icarus Redeemed: A Schizoaffective Story
Lone Dragonfly Books, February 2016
262 pages, Paperback