A Shared Journey

May 16, 2013

Walks on the Margins: A Story of Bipolar Illness

By Kathy Brandt and Max Maddox


Walks on the Margins: A Story of Bipolar Illness is a tale told in tandem by a mother and son fighting the devastation of bipolar disorder together. In alternating chapters, Kathy Brandt describes the heartbreak of becoming both her son’s drillmaster and his most passionate advocate, while Max Maddox offers the lyrical narrative of what his descent into the disorder looked like from the inside. The honest combination of their two perspectives is a refreshing and meaningful contribution to the landscape of mental health memoirs.

Kathy Brandt, a writer, professor and most recently mystery novelist, presents the family background and early events of her son’s diagnosis—multiple arrests, recognition of symptoms and diagnosis, sojourns in various hospitals sometimes mediocre, sometimes dreadful—with an eloquent clarity without which it would be difficult to piece together her son’s more abstract chapters. “Max’s sister, Jessi…was the first to put a name to it—manic depression,” she writes. “She stared out the window on a sweet fall afternoon as she told the story of a girl in her biochemistry class last year.”

Max Maddox’s chapters, on the other hand, are both an expression of artistry and a glimpse into the confusing realities of psychosis and mania. Here’s an example of Max’s prose: “Perched in the windowsill of the ward, I watched the sun rise over Lake Michigan. When it was light enough, I would find a plastic palette of watercolors.” And later:  “Buffalo, stark-naked in a motel on a king mattress with no blankets, confounding the sparkles in the ceiling for star maps in hold chips. Simply unable to break the boundary of waking life.”

There’s no question he is a gifted artist, and has retained his talents throughout his tangled path from illness to recovery. Kathy’s and Max’s accounts both leave undiscussed the question of how connected his creativity is to his illness, though enough research has been done on this topic that the reader will probably wonder. Kathy does, however, suggest that Max’s art was something of a salvation during his darkest years, giving him something to hold onto, though Max’s chapters present his artwork more as a constant habit than a saving grace.

Taken together, Kathy and Max’s narrative is an optimistic one. In this realm of literature, we’re used to reading about how a mother or father re-calibrated expectations for a child with a new psychiatric diagnosis. These expectations usually began with achievements like a graduate degree, or starting a business, and have been painfully down-graded to getting out of the bed each morning, or taking a shower.

I kept waiting for the same process with Kathy and Max. However, in one of her early chapters, while describing her experiences seeking consolation from other parents of children with bipolar disorder, Kathy admits, “I was incapable of lowering my expectations or imagining Max should lower his.” Perhaps it helped that she “never had those kinds of ambitions for my kids”—i.e., that they become “doctors, lawyers, millionaires, … great artists and poets”; she “just wanted Max to be happy and successful in his own right.” But Max eventually comes to realize success in his field by anybody’s standards: following his diagnosis, he achieves a B.A. in philosophy from Grinnell College, an M.F.A. from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, a prestigious fellowship, gallery exhibitions, and multiple curatorial positions. He continues to create inspired artwork; his passages in this very book are a prime example of his impressive artistic capabilities.

While it may not be realistic for every individual diagnosed with mental illness to maintain his or her pre-diagnosis expectations, we are uncovering more evidence that abandoning those expectations completely can sometimes do more harm than good to an individual’s chances of recovery. Kathy and Max’s story is a valuable testament that even the very darkest moments—psychosis; depression; failed medications; arrest—don’t last forever.

Kathy Brandt shared part of her and her son's story as a part of You Are Not Alone.

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