Saturday, November 13, 2010

Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So

I'll cut to the chase: I loved this book.
Five stars. Two thumbs up.

When I read books, especially psychiatry books that I write about on Shrink Rap, I often read more carefully and sometimes more critically. I was so immersed in reading
Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So that I didn't stop to think, I just went on the journey.

Mark Vonnegut is a pediatrician and he is also the son of my favorite author from when I was in junior high school. His memoir is a poignant and candid account of his struggles with...well... life in general, and life with a psychotic illness in particular. Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder---who knows (I'll vote for bipolar disorder)? Some illness where he had three episodes in his twenties, then another episode 14 years later. Thorazine and lithium and megavitamins and psych wards. Xanax and alcohol and how humiliating it is to be psychotic on a stretcher in the ER hallway of the hospital where he works. Divorce and remarriage. First and second families. Childhood as the son of a financially struggling, not-yet-famous, eccentric writer, and adulthood as the son of an icon. Vonnegut is a hippy, a mainstream doctor, a middle-aged softball player, then finally a guy who accidentally poisons himself with wild mushrooms.

Dr. Vonnegut's struggles are those of vulnerability, fragility, hope, and resilience. He comes back from these life-altering episodes of psychosis and applies to 20 medical schools. He gets in to Harvard, and only Harvard. If you're going to apply to med school with a 1.8 science GPA from college, then I imagine it's helpful to have a very famous dad who teaches at Harvard. Vonnegut does well enough that he stays for residency and teaches there after. His illness and the possibility of its return hang on him--once you've heard voices, he says, you're never like someone who hasn't. As serious as the topic is, the author is able to make light of himself and the writing is funny and tragic all at once. It's a quick and engrossing read.

In case I didn't like this memoir
enough, Vonnegut makes intermittent jabs about the tedious things that weigh down life as a doctor-- paperwork (my favorite rant), the influence of big pharma, and insurance companies.

So would I like Mark Vonnegut in real life? I liked him in his book. And so it goes.


Sunny CA said...

Great review. I can't wait to read it.

Unknown said...

Thanks! I read Mark Vonnegut's first book, The Eden Express, in medical school and found it very moving.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Dinah. I read this on your mention (you said something on the blog back in October) and I also loved it. My husband even said he may be interested in reading it, which is some kind of progess in our house. Dr. Vonnegut lives in the town where I work and he grew up on the Cape--also near me. And how awful it must have been to be told you have schizophrenia, only to have it "reclassified" dozens of years later as a mood disorder.

LOved how he wrote about his relationship with his dad.

PSKL said...

I’ve written a first-person, semi-autob iographica l account of a young man’s descent into madness and psychosis, and it loosely follows my own path to being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and the proper treatment thereof. It’s important to realize that many inventors, public servants, and artists who changed the world suffered from mental illness.

My story can be found at I hope someone reads it and gains a little insight into what it’s like to have a mental illness.