National Alliance on Mental Illness
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NAMI Bookshelf: November 2010
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Where are the Cocoa Puffs?: A Family’s Journey Through Bipolar Disorder
Where are the Cocoa Puffs? illustrates how a well-crafted piece of fiction can be effective at explaining the experience of mental illness. The story unfolds like the chronology of an earthquake, with 18-year-old Amanda at the epicenter and those close to her being shaken to varying degrees by the development of her illness. Just like in documentary photographs of a quake or a storm, what communicates the hugeness of the event are snapshots of the details: a troubling conversation in which Amanda plans to cure blindness and deafness; a trip with the extended family; the breakdown on the cereal aisle because there are no Cocoa Puffs; mother Carol’s tears in a restaurant that reminds her of happier times or Amanda’s younger sister acting out with the wrong guy. Bipolar disorder shows itself to be a storm that peaks and levels and rages again, but that is best communicated by daily events like meals or a mundane activity cut short by a phone call signaling the beginning of a new stage of crisis.
One of the most gripping themes in Cocoa Puffs is watching Amanda’s father, a psychiatrist, slowly recognize and come to terms with his daughter’s illness. The reader sees events such as the first suicidal conversation and the first hospitalization through the eyes of someone who has experienced them many times before—but not like this. In one moving scene, Jerry receives a prescription from his daughter’s psychiatrist and finds himself lingering, knowing that this is all the doctor can give him, but wishing the other man could just give him some reassurance about his daughter’s illness.
Another interesting element in the book is Amanda’s relationship with her boyfriend, Ryan. Older, long-haired, not currently in school, he is not what her parents ideally want for her in a partner. But over time, he becomes a powerful support to both Amanda and the rest of the family. Like the NAMI Family-to-Family class that helps Carol, Ryan shows how sometimes families find healing outside the family. When the reader is inside Ryan’s head, it’s like a moment of calm. All the worries, anger and projections from the minds of the rest of the family stop, and we can just appreciate what he loves about Amanda, even as we see his own struggle to understand her illness.
Unlike its title, the book is not always sweet—sex, strong language and drugs are all part of this slice of life. In keeping with the naturalistic tone, the book’s resolution is a glimmer of normalcy. After many months of painful ups and downs, mother and daughter finally meet in the middle for a regular conversation. “Wow,” the family says together. Readers with all degrees of familiarity with mental illness may very well find themselves saying the same at the end of the book.
Reviewed by Kim Puchir
The Trauma Treatment Handbook: Protocols Across the Spectrum
In the foreword to The Trauma Treatment Handbook, psychiatrist Daniel Siegel says that, at first glance, his initial reaction to the book was a guarded one. “I thought that the lack of scientific studies supporting many of the various individual approaches would lead me to call the author and say I could not write this foreword,” he admits. Dr. Siegel reconsidered because he understands that treating trauma always requires a unique approach that pulls from a variety of perspectives—just like this book.
Both clinicians and laypeople will be won over for the same reasons as Dr. Siegel—because of author Robin Shapiro’s sincere and unflinching perspective on people who have been marked by traumatic experiences. Some may find the book, with its reliance on an extensive list of acronyms, to be rather technical. The Trauma Treatment Handbook would benefit from some illustrations or charts that explain some of the finer points of dissociation or help differentiate the therapeutic approaches.
Those who have lived through trauma, or are close to someone who has, may be impressed that so many practitioners are trying to close in on how trauma works. It gives the impression that trauma—that overwhelming, disempowering sensation—is not the monolithic beast it seems to be. At least it has a head and a tail, or contours and habits one can get to know through the book’s sections on dissociation, the mind-body connection and various therapeutic techniques. Some of the exercises, like drawing a genogram or family tree of trauma, are appropriate to do on one’s own, but the majority are examples of conversations that take place with a professional therapist.
Moving through the chapters takes the reader farther “out there” into the less-proven realms of energy therapy and the spiritual and “in there” into the experience of people deeply touched by multiple traumas. For anyone who has ever doubted that they had a right to be affected by what they’ve experienced, descriptions of the unique marks trauma has left on others’ lives may be instructive.
Those readers who have no experience with trauma at all will find the book interesting in the way that they can enjoy a cookbook even if they don’t cook—to learn more about the possibilities that are out there, to celebrate food (or in this case, the mind) in itself, quite apart from any utilitarian motive.
Reviewed by Kim Puchir
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