Bipolar disorder is an isolating disease that is difficult to describe and almost impossible to understand from the outside. Its relentless ups and downs create a crushing defeat in the lives of both sufferers and caregivers. Suzy Johnston and her mother and caregiver, Jean Johnston, have authored books that bring the reality of the experience of mental illness to the public in easy-to-read stories: The Naked Bird Watcher, The Snow Globe Journals, and To Walk on Eggshells.
Suzy Johnston began to experience symptoms of depression in her mid-teens after a life-changing physical illness left her bedridden for months. As a very active teenager, being confined for so long caused her an understandable amount of grief. By the time she went to college she was becoming more nervous and withdrawn. Convinced it was only the stress of college life taking its toll, she dropped out of school for a year to take it easy. The rest helped but it didn’t last long. Soon she was back at school but taking medication, which she avoided talking about with both friends and family. It wasn’t until she had logged several stays at a new, smoothly run local psychiatric hospital that Suzy came to terms with the fact that the illness would be with her for the rest of her life. She switched gears to focus on structuring her life around the illness and living despite her difficulties rather than within them.
In The Naked Bird Watcher and The Snow Globe Journals Suzy Johnston spends a lot of time describing how she lives her life to keep herself relaxed and happy:
My routine isn’t very exciting and maybe that’s why I like it. I take pleasure in the small things … I enjoy my life and most of all I enjoy being well so it makes sense that I adopt a lifestyle that places few stressful demands on me.
She plays guitar in a local band, participates in sports when she can, and talks to her cat. She often laughs at herself thinking that people see her as a “crazy cat lady” but if it makes her feel better, who cares? She promotes proactive prevention and insists that her entire circle of support knows not only her illness but also its warning signs, questions to ask to evaluate her mood, her medications, contact information for her doctors, and what to do if she is becoming more symptomatic. Prevention and self-awareness can mean the difference between hitting bottom and being pulled back up.
The Snow Globe Journals is a very personal book full of Suzy’s thoughts and reflections on being ill and going through the long process of recovery written in a flowing prose that can range from ranting to song. It gives readers a more intimate view of her experiences with touchy subjects including medication, self injury, psychosis, and suicidal thoughts. But it also has lighthearted moments and celebrates recovery, music, and her relationship with with a wonderful man who also happens to be bipolar.
Suzy’s mother, Jean Johnston, wrote To Walk on Eggshells, a short and concise book for caregivers and family members. Her book describes what it’s like to stand beside someone with a mental illness and be the emotional rock by telling her side of the same story Suzy tells in The Naked Bird Watcher. In addition to relating how she responded to her own ordeal, Jean offers tips and encouragement in times of stress and confusion with a practical “labor of love” outlook:
I have had people say that they could not have coped if one of their children had an episode of mental illness. Really? I dispute that for I think that most people would at least try. For those who say they couldn’t I hope they will give the subject some thought and try joining the real world.
Not only do all three books relate personal stories of illness and recovery, they also paint a very positive picture of the mental health system including doctors, nurses, and inpatient facilities. Showing the positive side of treatment was very important for both Suzy and Jean because they both believe strongly in the importance of seeking medical professionals and trusting them when you need to. They, along with Suzy’s younger brother, work to spread knowledge and acceptance of bipolar disorder, depression, and mental illness in general to help erase stigma and encourage people to talk to someone and get help instead of being ashamed and frightened of peoples’ opinions.
I found Suzy and Jean Johnston’s collection of books to be both engaging and helpful. Suzy has a gift for writing as if she were telling you her story over tea. All three books are casually presented in such a way that anyone could pick them up and almost immediately understand all sorts of vague mental health issues as simply as a game of Go Fish. The only thing that detracts from the books’ readability is the occasional formatting error or typo — no doubt a result of being published by the Johnstons’ own small publishing house.
To Walk on Eggshells is possibly one of the best books for parents who, having recently discovered their child is mentally ill, are looking for something that they can read now. Jean packed a lifetime of encouragement into fewer than 100 pages, making it as nonthreatening as it is helpful. But when it comes to nonthreatening books The Snow Globe Journals takes the top spot. It is easy to read and something you can go back to each time you need some reassurance.
What the Johnstons’ book trilogy leaves out is almost as important as what it contains. It is not a technical manual or a case study. You will not learn the mechanics of bipolar disorder or the names of medications; although you may learn some triggers of depression and expected side effects of medication. They are entirely practical books geared toward the patient and his or her family, making them perfect for being passed around rather than stuck on a shelf.
The Naked Bird Watcher (paperback, 248 pages, 2004, $18) and The Snow Globe Journals (paperback, 92 pages, 2009, $14) by Suzy Johnston; To Walk on Eggshells (paperback, 84 pages, 2005, $18) by Jean Johnston