Many different types of people, for many different reasons, read memoirs about mental illness. Some may be suffering from an illness themselves and are looking for guidance or inspiration. Some may have questions as a result of their friend’s or family member’s suffering. Others may be professionals in the mental health field. Then there are those who simply find such stories interesting. Donna Kakonge’s How to Talk to Crazy People is a memoir that will appeal to all such readers.
Kakonge says that the book contains her “own babble through sixteen breakdowns over a five and a half year period.” The memoir is broken into small chapters, each offering a brief glimpse into the author’s life.
Through these diary-like musings, we witness the daily struggles of a young woman who experiences a variety of symptoms of mental illness. Kakonge discusses her numerous trips to psychiatric wards and the multitude of diagnoses bestowed upon her during these visits. In addition, she discusses the continuing struggle that she has had with whether or not to take psychotropic medication.
Memoirs may seem like they are a dime a dozen nowadays. What is worthwhile about this one is that the author does not allow her mental illness to prevent her from chasing her dream of becoming a journalist, even traveling from Canada to Africa in pursuit of a fulfilling career. All the while, the symptoms of mental illness continue to interfere. Yet Kakonge’s enduring will to succeed keeps the reader rooting for her success.
Kakonge also does an excellent job of drawing the reader into her reality during periods of psychosis. She does not sensationalize her situation; rather she describes her at times bizarre thoughts with a refreshing amount of frankness. For example, in the book’s opening she states:
“The security guard outside the door keeps looking at me strangely…Doesn’t he understand? This is a national emergency. I have to get out of this room because the women are coming to get me. Princess Diana, Oprah Winfrey, Princess Toro…are coming to get me to join their group.”
Kakonge does not attempt to psychoanalyze herself and figure out why she had such beliefs at that point in her life. Nor does she pass any type of judgment on herself. She simply lays her truth bare and allows the reader to come to his or her own conclusions.
In my own work as a counselor, I have facilitated writing groups for individuals with a variety of psychiatric diagnoses. Through this work I have seen the difficulties that can arise when one attempts to write about periods of mental distress. Oftentimes, writers are either hesitant to recall such memories, or unable to accurately remember the details of particularly stressful situations.
Knowing this makes Kakonge’s work even more impressive. I do not know whether she wrote this account strictly from memory or if she kept a journal during the time period she writes about. Either way, the detailed narrative of How to Talk to Crazy People offers an exceptional depiction of an individual’s struggle with mental illness.
The biggest fault I found in this work is its brevity: The book seems to just scratch the surface of Kakonge’s experience. It would be interesting to learn more about the author’s current thoughts as she recalls these tumultuous periods in her life, as well as to hear more about how she was able to overcome her mental health issues and find her voice as a writer.
Anybody who is looking to read an inspiring memoir about mental illness should check out How to Talk to Crazy People. This slim volume provides the reader with an honest portrayal of what it is like to live with psychiatric symptoms. Kakonge is refreshingly open. The reader comes away with not only a better understanding of mental illness, but also with a sense of encouragement from the author’s remarkable journey.
How to Talk to Crazy People
Life Rattle Press, 2012
Kindle edition, 88 pages