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Hurry Down Sunshine

This is an excellent memoir—written by the father of a 15-year old daughter about her descent into psychosis, diagnosis with bipolar disorder, and the impact on their extended, blended family.

Michael Greenberg is a literary columnist whose community is one of writers and artists in New York’s Greenwich Village. The setting may seem atypical to some readers, but the family’s experiences are not. The book’s strength is in the ordinary—the search for a “center of balance” that can be called recovery.

One summer, Sally, the daughter, is “struck mad” and hospitalized for several weeks. Upon discharge, she sets a goal of starting school in the fall, which she fulfills. But at no point is the achievement pre-ordained. Greenberg succeeds in conveying the step-by-step uncertainty that marked her treatment and recovery—a process that will recur throughout her life.

Coming together to support Sally are her grandmother, mother, step-brother and of course, her father. Her illness becomes a prism through which their relationships are examined, exposing strengths, tensions, and fears.

In some instances, fear is accompanied by a sense of guilt—no matter how unwarranted or offset by modern scientific knowledge. Greenberg’s brother, Steve, lives with schizophrenia, isolated and often estranged. Their mother blames it on her parenting, and possibly, post-partum depression.

During Sally’s admission to the hospital, Greenberg notes, a doctor seemed to “exonerate” the family on “biomedical grounds,” but nurses considered them “vectors of instability” that were part of the problem.

Greenberg’s description of life on a psychiatric ward is exceptional: marked by critical insight and occasionally dark humor. For example, he notes the inherent contradiction that exists around “quiet rooms,” in which people are “separated even from those who have been locked away from the world.”

Families visiting loved ones on the ward are like passengers in train compartments, traveling the same route, but getting off at different destinations, and rarely exchanging addresses. Among the others on the ward are a Classics professor and an Orthodox Jewish man, whose brother insists that in his psychotic state represents a higher, spiritual “communion with God.”  He rails against their rabbi for having advised him to take his brother to a psychiatrist, because of the alternative cultural explanation in which mental illness is identified with evil.

When Sally leaves the psych ward, the nurses tell her: “You made it, girl” and “We don’t to see you here again a girl”—an encouragement that also signals stigma for those who may be left behind.  Her brother is more explicit: drawing a line of distinction between her and “those people” and warning against the risk of becoming an “eternal mental patient.” He argues for keeping her experience a secret.

Sally herself wonders what to say when she returns to school and people ask her what she did for the summer. The vulnerability of “getting out” and “getting better,” is nicely described. It is a process that requires a higher level of self-awareness and self scrutiny and in some respects, self-definition.

Places from “before” are “like visiting myself in a museum.” Ultimately there is “the lunch counter test,” in which she can sit in a public place, without worrying that people will “detect” her mental illness.

Sally goes back to school. In the epilogue, we learn that she graduated with honors from high school three years later, but withdrew from college after a relapse her freshman year. She later married, but separated after her third major relapse. She then works as a baker in Vermont.

“She is wry about herself and courageous even during her periods of retreat and loss,” Greenberg writes. “She is determined to learn to anticipate her worst bouts of psychosis and head them off before they overwhelm her.” When Sally learned that father was writing a book about her, she also told him: “I want you to use my real name.” 

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