By Sudip Bhattacharya, NAMI Communications Intern
Oh what I wouldn’t give
to have it all back again
the way we lived
and how the city lights
drowned out the sin
Those are lines from one of Mark Baker’s poems, who after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, had to start rebuilding his life. This Fragile Life by Charlotte Pierce-Baker, who is Mark’s mother, details Mark’s struggles with bipolar disorder and his life before and after his diagnosis. The book begins with the promise and potential of Mark Baker.
By Charlotte Pierce-Baker
Charlotte writes about how her son was popular at school, how he was friendly with others and aspired to become a filmmaker someday. The author and her husband are a middle-class African American couple who are intellectualsóboth are professors and authorsóand who absolutely love and cherish their son. Starting off with the wonderful picture of them as a family prior to Mark’s diagnosis does make the eventual fall so much greater and much more heartbreaking.
At first, Charlotte is as clueless and as naive as anyone else would be when they first ignore the symptoms in a loved one. But as many will attest it is a natural and common response to pretend everything is alright and Charlotte is honest when admitting to her and her husband’s mistakes in not knowing how to deal with Mark’s initial outbursts. They would always find excuses; an outburst would simply be a tantrum when in fact he was actually experiencing an episode triggered by his illness.
Finally, when they admit to themselves that their son needs professional help, the journey of picking up the pieces feels impossible to travel. Charlotte navigates the frustrations of living with someone who has bipolar disorder and who is also coping with his new limits. For instance, Mark can’t work any job that requires him to work long hours. Rest and a calm environment are keys to keeping his bipolar under control.
Aside from expressing Mark’s and Charlotte’s frustrations, the book’s strengths lie in its ability to keep the reader on edge.
Like Charlotte, I was constantly nervous about when the next episode would occur and if Mark would lose his job and lose himself once more.
Like Charlotte, I was begging for Mark to listen to his doctors and for him to trust those who really cared about him.
Like Charlotte, I was hopeful and heartbroken, betrayed and braving the next page, the next day.
“With our mentally ill son, we had no other choice except to respect each other in our individual strategies,” writes Charlotte, “I held on fiercely to the hope that somehow Mark would come back to us as the person we had always known.”
Eventually, Charlotte realizes that things have changed forever. There is no cure for mental illness. It doesn’t suddenly all go away. You don’t become the person prior to your diagnosis, although you can work towards regaining some facets of that life.
Ultimately, This Fragile Life is not only about a son dealing with his bipolar or about a family struggling with his condition, but rather, the ability to carve out happiness amid hardship. The only complaint I had with This Fragile Life was the abruptness of the end. Then again, in life, not all loose ends get tied up.