I am the parent of three daughters, two of whom have mood disorders. Our family has lived with mental illness for 12 years. I am also a social worker and advocate working in the field of mental illness. In this capacity I have had the opportunity to read many personal stories ranging from self-published, yet to be published, never to be published as well as critically acclaimed best sellers. My personal belief is that many of these `our story' books serve an important purpose for the author, but not for the public. The process of writing provides a journey of introspection, catharsis and healing. But for a story to make the leap to touching, teaching and impacting a broader audience, a book needs several key qualities. And I believe that 'Perfect Chaos' has these qualities.
First, the story must be well written - compelling, capturing and SUSTAINING the readers' attention. Second, because every story is as unique as each of us, there need to be underlying threads which allow the reader to identify with aspects of the story, the circumstances, the characters, the feelings. The goal is not to try to be all things to all people, but rather to help the reader to find the similarities through our innermost hopes, fears and emotions. Third, we need a take away from the book. A sense of hope or empowerment, or a new found clarity and insight into a topic that may have been foreign to us.
So, how did `Perfect Chaos' measure up to these qualities for me? As you can tell by my rating, very well. But let me explain why. `Perfect Chaos' is not a perfect book, but that is as much strength as a weakness. It's a real story, with real people in an all too real situation.
The first few chapters move a bit slowly, as the stage is set with the background that paints a picture of a family that seems to have it all. But that background creates a stark contrast to what lies ahead, reminding us that mental illness does not discriminate. It can happen to anyone. We can't `vaccinate' our loved ones against it with love, education, intact households, middle class suburbia, or a good health insurance plan. And this is where the `well written' takes over. Linea's journal gives us a window into her emotional roller coaster as all the intangibles that she and her parents wanted so badly slip away. We hang onto the edge of our seats, hoping against hope that things really are getting better as we are taunted and teased with glimpses of stability intermingled with devastating crashes. Cinda's doubts, fears and struggle for when to step in and when to let go echo that inner turmoil that so many mothers (and fathers) feel as their children launch into adulthood. Sure, hindsight is 20/20 and we can think of a dozen ways we'd handle these situations differently. But we also see how in the heat of the moment, this family is doing the best they can with what they have, navigating a terrain that is both foreign and frightening at every turn.
While `Perfect Chaos' is uniquely one family's story, it touches the readers' heart and emotions because the authors capture the essence of what it's like when mental illness descends. Substitute the bipolar diagnosis with any other chronic illness - cancer, diabetes, autism, autoimmune disease . . . the pain, the anguish, the frustration, the anger at the system, the risk/benefits of each treatment option, the inequities, the inability to `fix' everything, the risks, the letting go while wanting desperately to scoop up our child and keep them safe . . . it's all the same. As is celebrating the simple joys and the small and big successes yet having that nagging feeling in the back of your mind that this could all change in a heartbeat.
Lastly, whether you are reading `Perfect Chaos' because you know mental illness intimately, or because it is foreign and you want a better understanding, you will come away feeling enriched and empowered. There is hope because Linea's illness didn't destroy her or her family. It forever changed them, but they chose to take adversity and turn it into the opportunity to help others. There is knowledge because we are given an intimate look at one family's story. We get to say `oh, I'm not sure that I'd have handled things THAT way' and `Wow, I can't believe they got through that horrible nightmare' and `I wonder what I would do if I'd been Charlie or Cinda or that nurse in the psych unit'.
The point is that as we go along and life continues to happen, we will bring a new perspective that will affect the way we assess, react, intervene, or sit on our hands and try desperately not to micromanage. When we are in a conversation about mental illness and someone makes a comment out of ignorance or misinformation, we will have the opportunity to lend a voice for those who can't. Or when we see a situation that in the past made us uncomfortable or judgmental, perhaps we will instead reflect a face of empathy and compassion when it is needed the most.