I had read The Eden Express many years ago and realized that Mark Vonnegut was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia when he really had bipolar disorder. So it was interesting to see that in this book he relates his life after his bipolar disorder diagnosis. It was also interesting that even though he is now a physician he didn't take his prescribed medications and his bipolar psychosis came back.
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95 of 96 people found the following review helpful
"None of us are entirely well, and none of us are irrevocably sick."...Oct. 9 2010
- Published on Amazon.com
Mark Vonnegut, son of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., first wrote about his struggle with mental illness in The Eden Express. His newest book has an updated focus, written from a seasoned perspective, with doses of humor which make the book very engaging. To get a fuller perspective about how the newer volume fits into Mark's life, I'd strongly suggest reading The Eden Express first. No, it isn't necessary, but does add perspective and a historical comparison between views about mental health in the 70s and now. It also makes it easier to grasp Vonnegut's changed views of mental health diagnosis and treatment.
By Mark Vonnegut's own admission, "craziness" ran in his family and manic depression affected at least four generations of the Vonneguts - and maybe even more. Alcoholism also seemed to be a common theme, with his great-grandfather drinking when he needed to escape from the voices he heard in his head. His maternal grandmother went through periods of psychiatric hospitalization.
When he wrote The Eden Express, Mark believed he had schizophrenia and was even formally diagnosed as schizophrenic. But he later decided that he actually had a form of bipolar illness, characterized by periods of mania as well as depression. Perhaps that is the prime reason his new book has more of an emphasis on bipolar illness. Vonnegut now questions the vitamin therapy which he credited in The Eden Express for much of his recovery. He has revisited that treatment option, noting it didn't work for many others.
Having read The Eden Express, I was eager to find out what had happened to Mark Vonnegut in the years since its publication. As it turns out, he'd not only gone to Harvard Medical School but became a practicing physician, all described in detail in his latest work. He also had to deal with the loss of his famous father and other blows. He eventually had a relapse (his fourth), complete with hallucinations, hearing voices and delusions that led to potentially lethal acts.
For those who are familiar with some of the biographical information about the Vonnegut family, it is relevant to keep in mind how the family history of depression may have made Mark particularly vulnerable. Mark's father (Kurt Vonnegut,Jr) had spells of depression so severe that he couldn't write for long periods of time. Mark's grandmother (Kurt's mother) committed suicide. So there is a case to be made that a tendency towards depression, bipolar illness, and alcoholism was inherited and may have played no small part in Mark Vonnegut's psychotic breaks.
Adding to the complexities, Vonnegut came of age in the 70s, a time when there was some support for the belief that there was no such thing as "mental illness" and that it was society which was "crazy" or out of whack. This was the time period and social construct when The Eden Express was written - but not the same time frame for his newest book. Finally, like so many in the late 60s and early to mid 70s, Mark took drugs and this complicated things even further. He joined a commune and was seen as a mystical figure, helping to obscure his increasingly disjointed thinking and delusions.
When Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness..etc...was written, drugs were still a factor but consisted primarily of Xanax and alcohol (never a good combination, potentially fatal). After Mark recovered from his first breakdown, the one chronicled in The Eden Express, and became a physician he also became a fairly heavy drinker, although he was careful not to drink at work. He'd sometimes add a bit of Xanax to the mix. Then he stopped drinking, quit the Xanax and everything went haywire again. He started to hear voices, something which hadn't happened to him in 14 years. Then he spiraled downward, began listening to the voices and ended up leaping through a glass window as an act of faith. In short order, he was back in a mental hospital and put on a daily dose of Xanax which seemed to be the bright spot in his day. At one point, he was also put on Haldol. All of this is chronicled very well by Vonnegut.
Maybe all this seems too grim for the average reader. But this isn't just a memoir about very bad periods in Vonnegut's life but also serves as an inspiring and truthful look at getting on with life, in spite of the possibility of regression. It took some bumpy years for Vonnegut to find some sort of equilibrium. After taking a close look at his past, Vonnegut began going to AA meetings and worked hard on his marriage. Although he was out of the psychiatric unit of a hospital, he still had to face a wealth of continuing problems - that turbulent marriage, a dying mother, uncertain funds, and more. And yet he persevered and became a practicing physician again. His success came in bits and pieces and this book chronicles his journey, from the lowest moments to the decisions he made to find some normalcy again.
Whether potential readers of Vonnegut's book have experienced mental illness or known someone who has, this memoir is worth reading. I hope it dispels some of the stigma about bipolar illness and other forms of mental illness. It is a courageous and open account. Vonnegut's memoir also lends credence to the fact that mental illness is a condition which can affect anyone, including those who are highly creative and famous as well as the poor and homeless. Vonnegut is proof that even a respected physician, someone named a leading physician by Boston Magazine, could be seriously impacted by bipolar illness. Vonnegut also doesn't take the stance that there is such a thing as complete mental wellness.
But he does find a way to schedule his life in hopes of staying well enough to be happy, function in the world and (hopefully) avoid any recurrence of severe episodes. He attends AA meetings and adds creative activities, including remodeling homes, to his life. All of this seems to help. I found the tone of the book to be best described as one of cautious optimism, of learning to be "comfortable with being uncomfortable" (as Vonnegut puts it). In his own way, he seems to have come to terms with his family's history of psychiatric problems and found his unique methods for maintaining some balance.
Perhaps Vonnegut expresses it best when he writes: "None of us are entirely well, and none of us are irrevocably sick. At my best I have islands of being sick entirely. At my worst I had islands of being well. Except for a reluctance to give up on myself there isn't anything I can claim credit for that helped me recover from my breaks. Even that doesn't count. You either have or don't have a reluctance to give up on yourself. It helps a lot if others don't give up on you."
39 of 40 people found the following review helpful
A Small, Good ThingOct. 5 2010
- Published on Amazon.com
JUST LIKE SOMEONE WITHOUT MENTAL ILLNESS ONLY MORE SO is Mark Vonnegut's follow-up to The Eden Express, his 1975 memoir of a series of psychotic breakdowns in his early 20s.
This is memoir also, of perseverance, told through a collection of thoughts, vignettes, and longer pieces. Vonnegut writes about attending Harvard Medical School (of twenty programs he applied to, his only acceptance); a passage describing his first patient death, alongside a staff nurse, reminded me how often nurses guide doctors-to-be through that experience. He writes about his practice as a pediatrician, including criticism of contemporary healthcare and the health-insurance industry. He includes passages about his own childhood -- his weirdly prescient (and mentally ill) mother; his plainly weird (and genius) father (before he was successful and famous); the orphaned cousins his parents took in and raised as his siblings. He describes a medical mission to Honduras. He examines marriage, fatherhood, being alcoholic ... and a fourth psychotic episode, wherein he takes us inside his mind as it breaks down.
Each chapter opens with a personal photo or sample of his own artwork, and he includes bits of advice about sanity and sobriety throughout, for example: "It's possible within any given moment of any given day to choose between self and sickness. Rarely are there big heroic choices that will settle matters once and for all. The smallest positive step is probably the right one."
Vonnegut is curious, optimistic, fun, philosophical ... and this gentle memoir is highly recommended.
30 of 31 people found the following review helpful
The Vonnegut tradition of humor carried on - hi-ho, so it goesNov. 9 2010
Timothy J. Bazzett
- Published on Amazon.com
This book will make you smile, smirk, chuckle and laugh out loud. It will also make you wince, perhaps in recognition, but certainly in sympathy. Because Mark Vonnegut's road to finding some measure of peace in his sixty-three years of life has been filled with bumps, collisions and countless stretches of "under construction." One would think that being the son of a famous author like Kurt Vonnegut would have made for an easy and charmed life. Nope. As it turns out mental illness ran in Vonnegut's family on both sides probably back three or four generations. With a family history like that, it's not surprising that Mark Vonnegut cracked up in his early twenties, the first of at least four major episodes in his life which each time left him hospitalized and scrambling to find purchase on a sudden downward slide. The last time it happened, Vonnegut had reconstructed his life well enough to have gotten into Harvard Med School and had successfully completed an internship and residency and was already well established as one of the top pediatricians in the Boston area. Alcohol and prescription drugs (Xanax) played a part, and denial played perhaps an even bigger role.
Mark Vonnegut has written only one other book, a memoir 35 years ago. The Eden Express, an insider's tale of mental illness, was a smashing success, enough to finance the author's med school and buy him a house. I must have read the book, probably soon after it came out, because my brother said I lent it to him years ago. But I can't remember it at all, so I'll have to find a copy and read it again. Since I'm a few years older than Mark Vonnegut, I guess I'll just chalk my forgetfulness up to age. Because I love this new book. While mental illness is not exactly a happy subject, Vonnegut's wit, wisdom and wry and dry slightly off-center sense of humor make the journey an extremely entertaining one. I found myself nodding in agreement to many of the things he had to say, smiling and chuckling at much of it. A confirmed introvert myself, I had to laugh at what he had to say about people like me and also about extroverts -
"Introverts almost never cause me trouble and are usually much better at what they do than extroverts. Extroverts are too busy slapping one another on the back, team building, and making fun of introverts to get much done ... I can pass for normal most of the time, but I understand perfectly why some of my autistic patients scream and flap their arms - it's to frighten off extroverts."
There's more, but you get the idea. This perhaps gene-propagated Vonnegut sense of humor is very much in evidence throughout the book. Here's another sample from pediatrician/would-be handyman Vonnegut - "Since I took up carpentry I measure children much more carefully, sometimes to 1/32 of an inch." Hmm ... I wonder if, like most good carpenters, he measures twice, so he'll only have to cut once.
Vonnegut has many points he wants to make and is pretty successful in making all of them I think. He is quite disenchanted, for example, with insurance and pharmaceutical companies and the general state of the health care business today, and pretty much everything he has to say on these things rings true and makes sense. He has numerous comments to make about his famous father, usually making allowances for his crankiness and ungraciousness, calling him "more like an unpredictable younger brother than a father ... [who] fiercely defended and exercised his right to be a pain in the ass on a regular basis." But he obviously loved Kurt, as evidenced in the chapter entitled, "There Is Nothing Quite as Final as a Dead Father," when he comments sadly, "I was no longer on deck."
The final chapter in this slim volume is called "Mushrooms," and is quite hilarious as he describes his late-in-life discovery and fascination with finding various fungi and cooking and eating them, which leads to what he calls the UNFORTUNATE INCIDENT. In a book describing a life filled with UNFORTUNATE INCIDENTs, Vonnegut somehow manages to end his story on a upbeat note, with "a wish to move forward. I love finding out what happens next."
I sincerely hope this guy is not finished telling his story, because he is an extremely talented and engaging writer. This apple didn't fall far. I want to know what happens next too. Take notes, Dr. Vonnegut, and please write it all down. Your daddy would be proud, but then again ... Well, he SHOULD be proud. - Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Compelling Description of Life With a Mental IllnessNov. 14 2010
Dinah Miller Md
- Published on Amazon.com
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.
This review was posted on Shrink Rap, a psychiatry blog, on November 13, 2010
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Disappointing if you are looking to find out how BiPolar effects his life. Hear about what it's like to live with BiPolar.June 7 2014
- Published on Amazon.com
I suffer from BiPolar and am always buying books to compare notes with how others have managed this illness. Perhaps 1/26 of this book discusses how Mark manages it. Mostly it's a tale of his ego. His need to become a doctor, what it's like to be a doctor, how important it was he be able to continue to be a doctor after his last psychotic break. There's very little, if any, soul searching of what it means to have a BiPolar illness. What it takes to live with it. Self reflection about this illness is shallow and passing at best. I was a little surprised at myself at almost wishing Mark had lost his doctor career, and then maybe would have really had to face what it means to have this illness. But, no, he was okay, and off the writing went about life as a doctor again. Sigh. There are a lot of good books out there about sharing the trials and tribulations and journey of living with BiPolar. This isn't one of them, unfortunately. If Mark wasn't the son of such a famous father, if he hadn't gotten the god degree from Harvard, if he didn't have MD after his famous last name, I very much doubt this book would have found it's way onto the market. All that makes it very marketable, and it's not painful to read. Just very disappointing if you are like me, trying to find out how a fellow traveller makes it through the ins and outs of being BiPolar. My wish for Mark is that someday he be able look at the deeper issues of what he has lived through.