Memoirs of Madness: The Therapist-in-Training Trilogy

There are three memoirs of mental illness that should be included, immediately, in all psychology related training programs. Besides the exploration of one’s own psyche in personal therapy — another must for training practitioners — the exploration of someone else’s psyche through his or her own personal account of illness is an unrivaled opportunity for learning.

Each author in this trilogy of memoirs of madness is extraordinarily intelligent and compelling. Not one can be written off as crazy and ignored. Indeed, the brilliance of these memoirs is that they are utterly identifiable and that through them, crazy becomes identifiable. Each one, in their honesty and humility, mirror ourselves back to ourselves. In their terrible pain, we see glimpses of our own insanity. Through them, we gain appreciation for the thin line between sanity and insanity, and the absurdity of disregarding those who have had the misfortune of falling too far over the other side.

The insights gained into the human experience of mental illness (and the specific experiences of each illness) cannot be taught. The appreciation that will power alone cannot heal an afflicted individual is learned unequivocally. For two of the individuals, it was only through proper medication (after a lot of failed attempts) and highly skilled psychotherapy combined that their lives were saved. That, and a lot of love and support from family, friends, and lovers. For the other author, love and companionship also got him through a lot, but it was only a long endured hospital stay that gave him what he finally needed to survive (in addition, I believe to medication, after very poor psychiatric therapy).

The authors of each memoir are people you want to know, and each book is thoroughly enjoyable (perhaps strangely); they are true page-turners, good Saturday-on-the-couch-with-a-cup-of-tea books.

In addition to a good Saturday excuse to stay in bed, however, this informal trilogy of memoirs should be read by anyone interested in understanding more fully his or her own psyche, and absolutely by anyone working with the psyches of others. In my own training as a counselor, I was assigned only one of these three memoirs. (I regret that not all of them were assigned in the first year.) I read the other two recently (finally) after receiving recommendations from friends. One of these books, in fact, was the key to a friend’s discovery of her own illness, the life-saving lynch-pin to help her explain herself to herself.

For your pleasure and edification, read (if you haven’t already):

The Center Cannot Hold, by Elyn Saks; the inner experience of schizophrenia.

Darkness Visible, by William Styron; the inner experience of major depressive disorder

An Unquiet Mind, by Kay Redfield Jamison; the inner experience of manic-depressive disorder (bipolar)

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