the center cannot hold – elyn saks

When you have cancer, people send flowers; when you lose your mind, they don’t.

Wow, Elyn Saks is one seriously brave and tenacious woman and The Center Cannot Hold is a brave book. I hadn’t heard of her until I saw the panel discussion with KRJ, which prompted me to read further. She says she has schizophrenia, OCD and is a hypochondriac. She’s also a fighter. She’d make Mike Tyson look silly.

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Who was I, at my core? Was I primarily a schizophrenic? Did that illness define me? Or was it an “accident” of being—and only peripheral to me rather than the “essence” of me? It’s been my observation that mentally ill people struggle with these questions perhaps even more than those with serious physical illnesses, because mental illness involves your mind and your core self as well. A woman with cancer isn’t Cancer Woman; a man with heart disease isn’t Diseased Heart Guy; a teenager with a broken leg isn’t The Broken Leg Kid. But if, as our society seemed to suggest, good health was partly mind over matter, what hope did someone with a broken mind have?

With really severe delusional psychosis interrupting her almost every step of the way, she managed to forge herself a brilliant academic career, get married, write a book, be an activist  … etc.

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I’m not so much reviewing the book as pasting quotes here and going zomg how dafuq did she manage all that?! Though she’s not snotty about it. Near the end of the book, she says that only one in five schizophrenics manage to live and work independently.

Her husband sounds lovely:

A serious question had been troubling me for hours, and finally I just had to ask it. “Will aliens be attending the reception?”

“No,” he said calmly, and he reached out to hold my hand. “There won’t be any aliens there, Elyn. Don’t worry about that.”

I needed to hear that reassurance from him, and having heard it, I happily went on with the day. It was as beautiful as I ever could have imagined, and it left me feeling quite fragile, as though a sudden noise or movement would blow the dream wide open. It was true, then: I was married, to the man I loved.

Another very educational aspect of the book is transcriptions of things she said while delusional, clang associations and all.

The book (her life) is an impressive journey, I have no hesitation in recommending it. Take it away Prof. Saks …

Recently, however, a friend posed a question: If there were a pill that would instantly cure me, would I take it? The poet Rainer Maria Rilke was offered psychoanalysis. He declined, saying, “Don’t take my devils away because my angels may flee too.” I can understand that. Mania in manic depression has been described as a sometimes pleasurable high that brings with it feelings of omnipotence. But that’s not the experience of schizophrenia, at least not for me. My psychosis is a waking nightmare, in which my demons are so terrifying that all my angels have already fled. So would I take the pill? In a heartbeat.

That said, I don’t wish to be seen as regretting that I missed the life I could have had if I’d not been ill. Nor am I asking anyone for pity. What I rather wash to say is that the humanity we all share is more important than the mental illness we may not.

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