The Ghost Garden: Inside the Lives of Schizophrenia's Feared and Forgottenby Published 14 May 2019
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|Publisher||Random House Canada|
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A rare work of narrative non-fiction that illuminates a world most of us try not to see: the daily lives of the severely mentally ill, who are medicated, marginalized, locked away and shunned.
Susan Doherty's groundbreaking book brings us a population of lost souls, ill-served by society, feared, shunted from locked wards to rooming houses to the streets to jail and back again. For the past ten years, some of the people who cycle in and out of the severely ill wards of the Douglas Institute in Montreal, have found a friend in Susan, who volunteers on the ward, and then follows her friends out into the world as they struggle to get through their days.
With their full cooperation, she brings us their stories, which challenge the ways we think about people with mental illness on every page. The spine of the book is the life of Caroline Evans (not her real name), a woman in her early sixties whom Susan has known since she was a bright and sunny school girl. Caroline has given Susan complete access to her medical files and her court records; through her, we experience what living with schizophrenia over time is really like. She has been through it all, including the way the justice system treats the severely mentally ill: at one point, she believed that she could save her roommate from the devil by pouring boiling water into her ear...
Susan interleaves Caroline's story with vignettes about her other friends, human stories that reveal their hopes, their circumstances, their personalities, their humanity. She's found that if she can hang in through the first ten to fifteen minutes of every coffee date with someone in the grip of psychosis, then true communication results. Their "madness" is not otherworldly: instead it tells us something about how they're surviving their lives and what they've been through. The Ghost Garden is not only touching, but carries a cargo of compassion and empathy.
The Ghost Garden: Inside the Lives of Schizophrenia's Feared and Forgotten Reviews
Susan Doherty's recently released book, The Ghost Garden, is hands down one of the best non-fiction books I've read. And it is one of my favourite reads of 2019.
I work in the public sector, often waiting on those who have some form of mental illness, some more visible than others. The Ghost Garden has given me a different perspective - more understanding of those living with mental illness as well as those who love and care for them. And a renewed sense of empathy and awareness for carers, families and sufferers.
Susan Doherty has volunteered at the Douglas Institute in Montreal, Canada for over ten years. The Douglas houses those with severe mental illness - psychosis and schizophrenia. She has come to know many of the patients well and has continued those relationships outside the hospital. A childhood friend asked Doherty if she could write the life story of her sister, a woman who has struggled for decades with severe mental illness.
The family gave Doherty full access to their family history, dynamics and struggle to help their sister. And the result is a fascinating, gut-wrenching book that is hard to read, but hard to put down. Interspersed between chapters of Caroline's life are short vignettes of other patients Doherty has come to know. Their stories were all told with their or their family's permission.
"My hope is that this book will help family members and others pinpoint warning signs and thereby, perhaps, be in a position to identify incipient mental illness - thus preventing the harrowing lives experienced by the people I have written about.....And if that lofty goal proves hard to reach, at least I can tear down some of the fences that prevent us from seeing those with schizophrenia as intelligent, productive, engaged, hilarious, beautiful, poetic, insightful, maternal, responsible human beings - and above all, worth of love."
The Ghost Garden is so well written and the subject matter is handled with honesty and compassion. A must read book for everyone in my opinion.
Susan Doherty's The Ghost Garden offers wonderful insights into the lives of people suffering from mental illness and does so in a way that does not demean them or devalue their humanity. If anything, Doherty elevates the people, whose journeys she follows, to a level where the average person can begin to understand them. For a group that it is far too often shunned even by their families, this is a blessing. Thank you, Susan Doherty, for having the courage and the compassion to place yourself in the midst of those so marginalized by society and to tell their stories with such eloquence and resounding honesty.
Life-changing, heart-breaking, important.
The mentally ill are so often seen by the society as walking diagnoses. Doherty's book, the stories of real people behind the diagnosis of schizophrenia, is extremely unusual in its approach: she talks about those diagnoses as if they were human. It doesn't sound like a lot...but it is.
Doherty tells a story of Caroline, a schizophrenic woman, Caroline's family, children, life. The dirty, the raw, the beautiful, the heart-breaking parts are all there, as Doherty does her utmost best to avoid judging those who were, let's say, less kind towards Caroline than others. But that's not all. The author has been volunteering working with the mentally ill since 2009. She met a lot of people, each of whom had – has – a story. All of those lives share one characteristic: loneliness.
Andrea: "Being heard was usually all it took to bring her back to safety." Aleks: "Somerset Maugham once wrote that tolerance is nothing but indifference. Aleks has been tolerated for far too long." Thomas: "I realised every person in that room just wanted to be seen as a human being, that their hearts were no different than any human heart." Sounds so simple. Why isn't it, then?
It's so difficult for me to avoid the phrase "those people", which so neatly divides Us from Them, Normals from Schizos. But most mentally ill people know that they are ill. They, too, have dreams, urges, needs, the biggest of which is the same one that we all share: to love and be loved. "It's a bitter pill to swallow," writes Doherty, "especially for those who had lofty dreams: the pre-med students and engineers, the writers and musicians and athletes who left adolescence with aspirations." Some of us want to look really good, to become a pop star or Instagram influencer, some dream of being able to eat a warm meal every day. The illness robs people of all of those dreams. A lot of people with schizophrenia have nobody to take care of them and nothing left, ending up homeless. Alcohol and drugs are their only escape from their own mind, the gulag in which they are permanently locked, where the "guards" – their own thoughts – are sometimes polite and distant, only to attack violently for no reason the next day.
The topic of medication is approached very carefully as Doherty struggles not to let her personal views affect her writing, which is both warm and impartial, filled with sympathy for the people on both sides of the hospital door. She cites an anecdote about a psychiatrist who used to prescribe antipsychotics until she, too, found herself in the middle of a psychotic episode, and her colleagues prescribed the very same drugs to her. For the first time, the doctor found out how the patients actually feel, both when medicated and not. Mental illness is not a simple cold or a broken leg. You can't see it, touch it, x-ray it. Psychiatrists do not know how or why the meds work (or even whether they do or not). That particular doctor's approach to drugs had changed radically once she had tried her own medicine (sorry). Experiencing a drug is a very different thing from reading about it.
It's not the doctor's fault. It's not even Big Pharma's fault, although the author does remark that Eli Lilly produces both a medication the side effect of which is diabetes AND the insulin that diabetics need, cashing in twice. Psychiatry is in its Bronze Age, and I am being extremely polite here. We don't understand why the right level of antidepressants in the brain is reached within hours, yet they take weeks to work (or not). Antipsychotics, to a large degree, are simply sedatives that allow both the sufferer and their family to wait out the episode in relative safety. But hugs, phone calls, text messages, visits are not only invented, tested, available, even popular among "normal people". The need to be seen and loved unconditionally applies to those with schizophrenia and other mental illnesses as well. Them. Me. You. Us.
The author emphasises many times how difficult it is to be on both sides of this equation. Both those who need care and who provide it often suffer terribly, if in different ways. Caroline's sisters are in terrible pain when they see how their sister's life has unfolded and how much she is forced to rely on kindness of strangers. (Her brothers decide Caroline is not their problem.) Sometimes her mind tells her that she has been sexually abused by more or less everyone she had ever met. Sometimes it just reminds her about her horrible weight gain – side effect of medication; the fact that she is almost always alone; that the voices she hears will go away, but they will always return. Her sisters can clean up the apartment, wash her clothes, but at the end of the day they go home. Caroline remains locked inside her brain. Whether she's physically located in a hospital or in a hotel, her feelings, dreams, needs have no "home" to go to, to escape the broken mind that torments her.
I firmly believe that people with mental illness are the toughest of warriors, because their battle never ends. You can escape an abusive partner, mobbing, etc., no matter how difficult it sometimes is. People whose own mind is their own enemy have nowhere to go. Even if physically they are being taken care of, at the end of the day they will always have to deal with the thoughts, voices, inabilities that so many of us take for granted. It's easy to despise or laugh at someone who believes FBI are watching them through the TV, treat those beliefs as a funny anecdote. It's harder to imagine ourselves in the shoes of Caroline, Aleks, Andrea, and so many others Doherty writes about.
One of the acts of kindness that Doherty provides to people she is writing about is simply her presence and a listening ear. It's not easy, especially when there are twenty or thirty people relying on her, calling at the strangest times of day or night. If there were more people like her, the world would be a better place. But the world is what it is, and people are who they are, both those whose biggest problem is what to wear tomorrow and those who are being watched by FBI through their television sets. We are all human. We share similar struggles and needs. Unfortunately, unconditional love, hugs, kindness, even basic politeness are not available from pharmacies.
(Note: I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review) I read this book primarily as a way to do research for my own book, a science fiction novel with a main character sent to a state mental hospital where he meets and spends a lot of time with a character who has schizophrenia. Ghost Garden provided what my in-person, on-foot research had not, details about what it's actually like to live with the illness and what the inside of a mental hospital might look like. More than that, though, it provided an amazingly deep view into the lives of people who suffer from schizophrenia and other severe mental illnesses. It did so with compassion for the sufferers and lack of judgement of the family members.
Having had a brother-in-law who succumbed to severe mental illness, loving several people with moderate mental illness, and having depression myself, I know that no matter the type of illness and the severity, it can be an incredibly complicated journey just to get to diagnosis. And that journey often becomes even more so after. It's miserable for the sufferer, but it's also unspeakably difficult for the family members tasked with trying to help their loved one. It's heartbreaking to think that Ghost Garden, depicting not only Caroline and her family's journey but also several others', is but a fraction of the whole bramble of lives distorted, trapped, and siderailed by mental illness; governmental and societal mental health treatment infrastructures rendered inadequate by insufficient funding and understanding; pharmaceutical approaches that have made a huge difference but still have a long way to go; and family support systems that can be difficult to discover.
Hopefully, though, Doherty's fluid and compassionate writing will become a springboard upon which to build awareness and encourage discussion about an issue that affects so many so deeply.
I loved this book. I normally prefer reading fiction as I normally find non-fiction dry - The Ghost Garden was anything but. The story was gripping and very well written, filled with metaphors and perfectly chosen words. I learned much about the terrible disease of schizophrenia but never felt I was being lectured to. I became engrossed in the story of everyday people that were placed in terrible circumstances and couldn't put the book down because I cared so much about them. The vingettes that interspersed the main story provided welcome relief to a very intense narrative, and helped demonstrate the fact that this disease is not an obscure phenomenon that affects individuals with poor genetic background or upbringing, but can and does strike people from many different circumstances. And that like every human, individuals with schizophrenia crave relationships and life with meaning. As I turned the last page I wanted to read this book again because I knew that the people that Susan Doherty wrote about had lots to teach me and I wanted to make sure I hadn't missed out on any important lessons.