hurry down sunshine – a father’s story of mental illness

hurry down sunshine is the supremely well-told, literally mind-boggling tale of a father, michael greenberg, who suffers through and survives the experience of watching his teenage daughter go through her first extreme manic episode. it is an iridescent story, shimmering with many facets in the hot new york summer that provides the backdrop of this memoir.

let me shed some light on one aspect, the family’s wrangling with stigma of mental illness.

here, greenberg suffers through a visit by eric, his landlord and acquaintance, shortly after “the crack-up”:

i feel as if i’m impersonating the person i was before sally’s crack-up. if sally had been in an accident or come down with some overtly physical disease, i would not hesitate to tell him about it, confident that his sympathies would flow in my direction as a matter of course. but psychosis defies empathy; few people who have not experienced it up close buy the idea of a behavioural disease. it has the ring of an excuse, a license for self-absorption on the most extreme scale. it suggests that one chooses madness and not the other way round.

sally and her family tumble into her madness head-on, seemingly from one moment to the next. it is a family that knows of mental illness – greenberg’s brother, in a strangely parallel reality, has struggled with it since childhood – but, like so many others, had not yet found the courage to look it straight in the eye. perhaps an illness-that-dares-not-know-its-name, its precursory blush and rumble could not be seen or heard; and then it breaks in on them like a tidal wave. sally suddenly sees and lives in a different world, a world from which she transmits communication – demanding, disdainfully regal and bitingly sarcastic – but with which she does not engage.  her father is a helpless bystander, looking at her as if through thick, opaque glass. in the beginning, he can only connect with her in short bursts.

she demands control because, in some interstice of her psyche, she knows she is hurtling out of control. this realization brings me closer to her. i can’t witness her disintegrations without somehow taking part in them, and, closing my eyes, i feel myself racing, too, as if her flutter has lodged inside me.

once the reality has set in that sally will spend some time at a psychiatric ward, the wrestling with the stigma begins:

about eric:

“i don’t want him to know about her. it’s not that i’m ashamed of what’s happened. but he wouldn’t understand.”

“no one understands. we don’t understand.”

“he’d tell our friends. it would make life more difficult for her. people would start thinking of her as weird. stained.”

later, when sally leaves the ward:

i’m glad she’s getting out of that place. she doesn’t belong with those people.

and her brother’s concern and fear:

sally is a mental patient, pops. there are people who if they find this out will see her as an eternal mental patient and nothing more. they’ll trust her less. i know how they talk, especially about girls. there’s no mercy. they’ll snicker about her and crack jokes. we have to keep this from getting out.

thus is the strength of stigma. greenberg and his family are well-educated, open-minded, loving, artistic people. they are no rednecks filled with superstition, afraid of mental monsters and supernatural demons of the soul. and yet they tremble before the opinion of those-who-don’t-know. which may be exactly those who do know and who may be just as afraid of greenberg and his family, who THEY in turn may suspect of being uncomprehending of THEIR secrets.

sally does not stay manic forever. one day,

something about her tone has caught my attention: the modulation of her voice, its unpressured directness – measured, and with a warmth that i have not heard in her in months. her eyes have softened. i caution myself not to be fooled. yet the change in her is unmistakable.

i am grateful for michael greenberg’s courage to finally write about this experience and thus beat the stigma.  he comes out, tells his story, uses his own name, even his daughter’s real name (with her permission). today, many years later, sally is still faced with the difficulties of mental illness; and it looks like she has found a bit of a place for herself.

this is an extraordinary book, important particularly because quite a bit has been written about mental illness from the point of view of the person afflicted by it (greenberg mentions a few, such as girl interrupted and robert lowell’s work) but little is recorded about how life-changing such events are for parents. and yet, it is parents and family who, more often than not, are deeply affected by a person’s severe mental illness.

please read this book. it is heart-breaking, beautiful and unforgettable.

(go here for a short, touching video of michael greenberg talking about the book).

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