Sickened

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Julie Gregory shares her heartbreaking story in Sickened. This memoir details the abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother, who subjected her to unnecessary medical testing. Known as Munchausen’s by Proxy, those who subject their children unneeded medical treatment gain a sense of importance and needed sympathy because of their roles as caretakers.

Sickened by Julie Gregory
Sickened by Julie Gregory

Julie was raised by her schizophrenic father and her abusive mother. Her mother started taking Julie to doctors for medical tests she did not need at a very young age. When they arrived at the doctor’s office, her mother would tell her to act sick. In elementary school, Julie began to realize that not all of the symptoms that her mother described were ones she really felt. Even so, she went along with her mother’s instructions. The medical tests became increasingly invasive as she got older. At one point, Julie’s mother even asked a doctor to do open heart surgery on her. When he refused, she became enraged.

The abuse extended outside of the doctor’s office. Julie’s mother would provoke her father into fits of rage. Blinded by his rage, he would beat his children. In one such incident, he nearly beat Julie to death. When Julie was in high school, her family’s home caught on fire while she was spending the night at a friend’s house. It was not until years later that she found out her parents set it on fire to claim the insurance money. This realization, among others, helped Julie to understand the extent to which her childhood was abusive. She sought counseling for her trauma and worked intentionally on her recovery.

The Failure of Adults in Julie’s Life

Besides her parents, many other adults failed Julie during her years of abuse. Most obvious were the doctors and nurses who treated her. While Munchausen’s by Proxy was relatively unknown at the time, the doctors should have noticed Julie’s lack of symptoms or positive medical results.

When Julie was thirteen and about to undergo some medical tests, she told a nurse that she didn’t need the tests because she wasn’t really sick. She told the nurse that her mom was forcing her to pretend. In response to this revelation, the nurse sedated her and continued with the test.

In high school, Julie went to talk to a counselor about emancipation. She told him about all of the abuse. When she arrived home, she found out that he had told her parents everything she had confided in him. She was beaten severely and then received counseling from the school counselor weekly for the rest of the year for her “overactive imagination.”

All of these failures by the adults in her life were heartbreaking to read about. Each time she tried to reach out and get help, her situation got worse in some way. It is my hope that if a child ever reaches out to me in my position in the church, I can get them help without making things worse for them.

Review Breakdown

Writing – Overall the writing was above average. At times it got very abstract, but I felt that it was a good glimpse into the mind of a very traumatized person.

Story – The story was very morbidly interesting. It had a good pace and kept my interest throughout the entire book. This is a story I will continue to think about for the weeks to come.

Mature Content – There is nearly too much mature content to list. The author uses abundant profanity and a slew of racial and derogatory slurs. While these are things that are coming out of her parents’ mouths, they are still contained in the pages of the book. There are also vivid descriptions of terrible abuse. This is certainly not a read for young readers or for the faint of heart.

Likability of Author – Reading this book, I wanted the author to win. I wanted her to get away from her parents. Although a reader from a healthier background may be frustrated by some of the decisions she made, I found her to be overall likable. It was inspiring to me that she was able to move past her abusive situation.

Other Books by Julie Gregory – My Father’s Keeper (2009)

Quick Review

Sickened was a very intense and interesting read. Once I picked it up, I did not want to put it down, despite its very mature content. I thought that its adult content offered a glimpse into the life of a severely abusive home. Although I have read books about other abusive situations, Julie Gregory’s book offers the unique perspective of a victim of Munchausen’s by Proxy. My main complaint is that the book finished on a cliffhanger that does not appear to be answered in her second book, My Father’s Keeper (according to reviews). I will likely be picking up her other book to read more of her story.

Rise

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Rise published under the deceptive premise that a woman fleeing an abusive relationship built a house with only the help of her four children and YouTube videos. While Cara Brookins put more work into building her house than most people do, this fascinating book is a better read about escaping an abusive relationship than it is about building your own house.

Rise by Cara Brookins
Rise by Cara Brookins

Cara Brookins found herself in two abusive marriages after her first marriage to her high school sweetheart failed. Even after ending her third marriage, her second husband Adam continued to stalk her and her children, leaving them terrified. Although diagnosed with schizophrenia, Adam refused to take his medication. His delusions caused him to terrorize Cara and her children. Eventually she got a gun for her own safety since he threatened to kill her.

After living through the terror of both of her abusive marriages, Cara wanted a better life for her children. While she could afford a small house on her income, it would not be as spacious as she would like for her and her four children. To have a house big enough for all five of them, Cara decided to get a loan and build the house herself, with the help of her children. With all four children on board, they secure a loan and begin construction.

A Deceptive Premise

In the description of the book on Amazon (and every news article I’ve seen), Rise describes Cara’s journey as follows:

“Equipped only with YouTube instructional videos, a small bank loan and a mile-wide stubborn streak, Cara built her own house from the foundation up with a work crew made up of her four children.”

However, I find that to be terribly deceptive. Here is a list of some of the things that Cara and her children did not do themselves:

  • Pour the foundation
  • Build the roof
  • Build and install the kitchen cabinets
  • Install the kitchen fixtures
  • All of the electrical work

Whenever Cara ran into a problem in the construction of the house, she hired a young man who worked at the local hardware store to help. Additionally, she hired contractors for all of the electrical and the majority of the kitchen work. For a portion of the project, she had her father helping. Although he was aging and struggling with illness, his experience in building was valuable to her.

I still believe that Cara and her children did an amazing thing. They just did not do what the media and marketing for her book say they did. They still did most of the work, which is more than I’ll ever do. But they did not build the house on their own with only the help of YouTube videos. They had a lot of help along the way.

Adam’s Illness

I think this was a better book about loving and suffering at the hand of someone with mental illness. Although the premise of building your own house is interesting, I found Rise to be somewhat lacking in that area. Cara’s story of abuse, however, gave an interesting perspective on loving someone with a mental illness.

When Cara first married Adam, he was a brilliant man with no sign of mental illness. However, as he began to descend into madness, he also began to be physically and psychologically abusive.

Although Adam could not help himself in many ways, his actions were still illegal. He was still terrorizing and harming his family. Despite the fact he had at one point been a brilliant man, he could not be excused for the terror he was causing for Cara and her children.

In Rise, Cara raised valid questions about how to love and manage a person with a mental illness like Adam’s, especially when personal safety is concerned. She shares her personal struggle of whether his being abusive because of mental illness was reason enough to leave, or whether she should stay and help him.

Her story is both terrifying and important. To those who know someone suffering from severe mental illness, especially with delusions, I recommend Rise. It will ring heartbreaking and familiar.

Quick Review

Although I feel that Rise was published under a deceptive premise, it’s still an interesting read. I feel like Cara did not live up to the claims of building her own house with only YouTube tutorials and her own children to help, but she still did amazing things. Other things within the book left me skeptical to Cara’s honesty, such as the advanced language she assigned to her toddler and the vivid recollections of meditations. However, I found it to be well-written and engaging. Her story and experience is unique and worth experiencing yourself. Whether or not you agree with how she handled the situations in her life, it’s a good read.

How Starting a Blog Made Me a Healthier Person

The entire time I was reading How to Murder Your Life by Cat Marnell, I was struck by the impact that creativity had on her health journey. It especially resonated with me because her creative outlet was writing and I have loved writing for as long as I can remember.

Although I have never done drugs, Cat’s story reminded me about how creating this blog and taking the time to intentionally write have turned me into a healthier person. I know that drawing parallel’s between Cat’s drug addiction and my mental illness may be strange, but the only intended parallel is that doing something creative helped both of us in our very different situations.

My Bipolar Disorder

When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, the diagnosing psychiatrist thought my condition was mild enough that I could go with or without medication. I tried a medication for about two months, but without insurance it was too expensive for me to maintain without asking my family for money (and confessing to them that I was diagnosed at a time I wasn’t ready to do that). I stopped taking the medication, and for about a year and a half did not have any major problems.

In 2014, I had a pretty bad concussion. One of the doctors I saw thought that it was possible that the concussion was making both my migraine condition and my bipolar disorder worse (although I didn’t really need a doctor to tell me that). In the years that followed, I started to actually feel like I had bipolar disorder.

Choosing to Medicate

In August of 2016, I was at one of the lowest points in my life. I had just finished my classes for my first Master’s Degree a few months before. Since January or so, my bipolar disorder had been fairly turbulent. Despite all of that, I still did not feel like I needed medication yet. I was still getting things done, even if I was not getting things done well.

However, in August I hit a low. There were problems with my family. When I completely overreacted to something because I was manic, I began to realize that I was not managing my symptoms as well as I had in the past. The situations I was dealing with that were causing me stress would have been more manageable if my mind were sound. As I watched my sister get good treatment for her bipolar disorder and become stable, I began to really desire that. I could act stable, but inside I wasn’t actually stable.

After swallowing my pride (and trust me there was a lot of it), I went to my doctor. I sat in the office and cried, telling her that I didn’t feel right. She immediately put me on a dose of medication that changed my life. Within a couple of weeks I found that I was able to focus on things for more than a couple of minutes. Best of all, the racing thoughts and crippling depression were gone. I was finally beginning to be stable.

Choosing to Write

So you might be asking yourself what this has to do with writing. It was around the same time that I chose to go to the doctor and start taking medication that I also realized that I needed a creative outlet. My jobs were feeling especially unfulfilling (even if that feeling was only temporary) and I wanted to have something that I could build and create that was my own.

I had been reading a book or two a week at that point, and thought that a book review blog would be really fun. Because I was especially enjoying biographies and memoirs, I thought it would be great to keep the focus on those books.

Growing as a Writer

When I first started this blog, I didn’t know anything about blogging. I knew how to write, and knew how to use Blogger. I got a free site there and began to write posts weekly (on a pretty ugly site). While I worked at my cleaning job, I began to listen to podcasts about blogging and writing. They gave me a focus and an energy I hadn’t had for a long time.

Since August, I’ve learned a lot about writing and blogging. I bought a domain and moved my blog to WordPress. I’ve started adding more content and asking friends to write guest posts for the blog. And as the blog has grown, so have I.

While the medication has been a big part of getting healthier, medication does not give me self-confidence. Medication does not force me to have self-discipline. Blogging has forced me to build time into my schedule for creating and editing my content.

While there are still Mondays when I don’t post (sorry!), those days are fewer and fewer. I have gotten better at sticking to my schedule, and have gained so much confidence through my writing. That confidence has carried over into other parts of my life. I feel like blogging has brought me to a very healthy place and turned me into a better person.

 

Nobody’s Son

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Nobody’s Son by Mark Slouka was an interesting story written in an uninteresting way. Slouka’s writing style felt forced and awkward, but the compelling nature of his story may have redeemed his style.

Nobody's Son by Mark Slouka
Nobody's Son by Mark Slouka

Mark Slouka was a novelist. After the loss of his father and the impending death of his mother, he decided to reflect upon his upbringing and his mother’s decent into mental illness and addiction. Despite some problems between his parents and his mother’s depression, Slouka’s childhood was otherwise happy. As he grew into a teenager, his mother’s illness grew more pronounced. He argued with her about her delusions that he was trying to hurt her. On stormy day during their trip across Europe, they spent hours pulled over on the side of the road arguing. Slouka’s mother, as she often did, insisted that he was trying to harm her and that he was evil.

After college, Slouka married. His mother’s mental illness worsened. He discovered that she had an addiction to prescription medication. His parents separated, and after years apart his father died. Slouka went on to be a novelist. In his writing, he modeled characters after his mother and the pain he felt because of her illness. They had periods of estrangement, but he made a point to visit her shortly before she died. During the writing of Nobody’s Son, Slouka’s mother passed away.

Slouka’s writing style left a lot to be desired.

The biggest complaint I had with Slouka’s writing style was that it felt like he was trying too hard to be great. He spent an excessive amount of time saying things along the lines of, “I’m writing a memoir, and when you write memoirs, you feel things.” I generally do not mind some reflecting on the process of writing the memoir itself, but there was so much writing about the process of writing the memoir that it almost felt like it was a memoir about the time he wrote a memoir.

In addition to his excessive musing, I felt like his lack of chronology and the way he formatted his book made the plot less clear. He wrote in a way that was vague, and he often jumped between different periods of time. While jumping between timelines can often be done well, I felt like it was done in a very confusing way in Slouka’s memoir.

Slouka writes honestly about the struggles of having a mentally ill parent.

Having a parent with a serious mental illness is difficult. Despite my dislike for a lot of things in his writing, I found myself crying throughout the second half of the book. While his mother’s mental illness is different in many ways from my father’s bipolar disorder, being the child of a parent with a mental illness is a unique experience. The usual “parent-child” relationship does not apply.

He writes about his frustration and his anger.

When Slouka’s mother started having delusions, he did not understand what was happening. His father chose to ignore and support her delusions, rather than argue about them. Frustrated that his parents were denying that events that happened minutes before had actually happened, Slouka would argue with them. His mother would make him feel crazy, then call him evil when he did not support her version of reality. So frustrated and angry about his relationship with his mother, he had written about her death in novels and short stories.

“I need to acknowledge that you don’t imagine your mother’s death, even in a novel, without there maybe, just maybe, being some issues to think about.”

Mark Slouka

I’ve spent plenty of time frustrated and angry with my father. I have been frustrated with his antics when he’s been off of his medication and having manic delusions. Instead of just being frustrated, I’ve spent years angry at him when he’s turned to drugs to self-medicate his bipolar disorder. It’s so easy to be angry at a mentally ill parent when their actions so directly impact you. It is also easy to be angry when you know that they are doing things that are hurting themselves.

He writes about his guilt.

Slouka carried guilt over his mother’s illness. He felt responsible for some parts of if, primarily because he sometimes felt like he should have done more to help her. She often called him evil when she was having her delusions. I can imagine that this only added to the guilt he felt over being unable to help her.

“I want to know why I couldn’t save us, thought what I really want, I think, is absolution, the beginning of this sentence with the word “why” removed like a long thorn: I want to know I couldn’t save us.

Mark Slouka

What child doesn’t want to save his or her parents from what is wrong with them, regardless of what they have done? Before my dad got really sick, he used to drink a lot. I thought that alcoholism was the worst thing in the world (and it’s pretty darn bad). Some nights he would get mad at me and yell, “You drive me to drinking!” and get a beer. For the longest time, I thought it was true. Then I figured out that he was drinking whether or not he was angry with me. When he began using drugs and having problems with his mental health, I carried a lot of guilt. Even thought I knew (logically) that I didn’t “drive” him to do anything, there was always that part of me that wondered if there was anything I could have done.

He writes about loving his mother despite it all.

Slouka loved his mother. He knew that she couldn’t help her mental illness. And even though she had an addiction to prescription medication because of her mental illness, he still loved her. He loved her smile and her laugh. He loved the way she told him stories when he was young. She taught him so many things. And despite the damage she did later on, he loved the woman she was beyond her illness.

“I don’t know that she had a choice. And all I can be is sorry for it. And let her go.”

Mark Slouka

When my father is in his right mind, he is the most generous person I know. He’s funny. If he’s around a group of people, he’s the center of attention and will do anything to make everyone laugh. So many of my good qualities came from him. Whether or not he comes to terms with his illness and his addictions, I love him. He’s my dad. And I know there’s so much good in him. His illnesses just make it hard for some people to see that.

Quick Review:

Nobody’s Son had a powerful story. Slouka’s expression of what it is like to be the child of a mentally ill parent was what made this book worth reading. However, his writing style and the lack of chronology left a lot to be desired. He spent a lot of the book musing about how it felt to be writing his memoir, which felt unneeded and obnoxious. In a way, it felt as if he was trying to sound like a better and more philosophical writer than he was. It is unfortunate that such a great and powerful story may be obscured by these quirks in his writing.

Choosing to SEE

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Choosing to SEE made me both laugh and cry more than any book I’ve read in months. Mary Beth Chapman shares her story of life as the wife of famous Christian singer Steven Curtis Chapman. She writes about the accident that took her daughter’s life and the grief that followed. Her exploration of life’s ups and downs is both hilarious and heart-wrenching.

Choosing to SEE by Mary Beth Chapman
Choosing to SEE by Mary Beth Chapman

Mary Beth met and married Steven in college, before his music career took off. Choosing to focus on his music, they moved to Nashville. There, they had their first child. It was after they began having children and Steven’s music career began taking off that Mary Beth saw a psychiatrist for her crippling depression. She was diagnosed with clinical depression and put on Prozac. Despite its stigma in Christian circles, treatment for her depression allowed her to be a better wife and mother. Their family grew to six children: three naturally born and three adopted from China.

On May 21, 2008, Mary Beth’s 17-year-old son Will pulled into the driveway of their home and accidentally hit their five-year-old daughter Maria. Despite efforts to save her life, she passed away. Throughout the pages of the book, Mary Beth paints a picture of grief in its rawest form. She writes about the shock, the pleading with God, and the anger. Her story also shows the amazing work of God in the lives of the Chapman family, despite the tragedy of May 21.

Mary Beth gives voice to mental illness and faith.

When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, fellow Christians said some very damaging things to me. One friend said, “If you had more faith, you wouldn’t have bipolar disorder. And it’s funny, because your name is Faith and you don’t have any.” The stigma around my illness and my own denial about its severity led me to go years without treatment.

Yet it has been as I’ve grown in my faith that I’ve realized the difference between actual sin in my life and an illness I cannot control. Medication has been the best decision I have made for both my mental and my spiritual health. Now that the medication has put to rest many of my bipolar symptoms, I can clearly see areas of my life that I need to work on. I get angry too easily. I complain more than I should. Without being deafened by the ups and downs of the illness, I can hear God’s voice in my life a lot more clearly.

Mary Beth’s reflections on clinical depression as an illness reminded me a lot of my own experience with bipolar disorder. She wrote about how it’s an illness like any other physical illness. While she would love to be healed of it someday, Prozac helps her to live a healthy and happy life. She also is able to use her position as a prominent Christian figure to bring light to the issue of mental illness. Perhaps someday the stigma surrounding mental illness, especially in the church, will be gone.

Mary Beth grieved honestly and gracefully, all while in the spotlight.

Mary Beth did not have the luxury of grieving in private. While a lot of her grief could be done privately, her family’s spotlight meant that she had the public’s eye on her. Throughout her grief, she worried about the impact the accident had on her other children, especially Will, who had been driving the car that hit Maria. She experienced the full range of emotions during her grief, but did not linger in extreme depression or anger.

“I still trust in the One who gave us Maria to love for such a short time, but I am also a person who trusts while doubting at the same time. I am just being honest. I pray to God that He would build my trust and that my doubting would turn to rejoicing in time.

Mary Beth Chapman

The Chapman family used the spotlight put on them to glorify God. Although their grief was deep, they used every opportunity they could to bring good out of the situation. They went on to build and dedicate an orphanage in China, named after their Maria. The orphanage cared for disabled children and provided hospice care to those who were dying. Mary Beth used her writing to encourage those around her, despite her continued striving to live with the “new normal.” Through it all, the Chapman family did what they thought was right, despite their grief.

Quick Review:

Choosing to SEE was a fantastic book. Mary Beth’s humor was evident throughout, although she tackled many difficult topics. She shared embarrassing stories that had me laughing out loud. Then within minutes, I found myself crying with her as she shared the grief her family experienced. I can honestly say a book has never made me cry so hard. While it may be because I remember hearing about the accident on the radio in 2008, I also think it is because of Mary Beth’s excellent writing. Outside of a few minor formatting issues in the Kindle version (several words did not have spaces between them), I struggle to find anything I did not like about this book. It was an excellent read that will bring you a full range of emotions.

Shockaholic

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Confession: I did not expect to find myself relating to Carrie Fisher’s Shockaholic as much as I did. After reading and being somewhat critical of The Princess Diarist, I had low expectations for this book. However, after her death, I wanted to read more of her works to find out if I liked her other writings more than The Princess Diarist.

Shockaholic by Carrie Fisher
Shockaholic by Carrie Fisher

In this book, Carrie Fisher started off writing primarily about her mental health and her experiences with treatments. She reflected upon the way her mental illness made her relate to people, and the treatments that did not work for her. After self-treating her illness with drugs and alcohol for many years, Fisher turns in desperation to electroshock therapy. Although she saw it as a last-ditch effort to be stable, she found that it helped with the bipolar symptoms. Unfortunately it also caused her to have serious difficulties with her memory.

In much of the rest of the book, Fisher mused about those she has lost and death itself. Most significantly, she reflected upon the death of her father. Despite being distant from her most of her life, Fisher gained a closeness with her father during his final years. He moved into an apartment near hers when his health declined so that she would be able to see to his care. His death haunted her in a way that the deaths of her other friends did not.

I found several places of emotional connection with Fisher’s Shockaholic.

Although I did not connect very well with her other book, I found myself finding emotional connections with Shockaholic. I found The Princess Diarist difficult to relate to because of its scattered writing and subject matter. Not having ever had an affair, I had a hard time relating to Fisher in that particular piece. However, in Shockaholic the writing seemed to be a lot more put together. In addition to what seemed to me to be better writing, I found several areas that I could relate to.

I connected with her mental illness.

Just like Fisher, I have bipolar disorder. While the way our disorder presents itself is different, having the same disorder is an easy way to feel connected to a person. The main thing that I found myself relating to, was her treatment. No, I have never undergone electroshock therapy. However, the frustration of feeling forgetful because of the treatment for mental illness is one that I know all too well. Although the medication I am on has done wonders for me (making it so that I do not feel “ill” at all), I have quickly become the most forgetful person I know. I struggle to find things I had in my hand a minute ago (or might still be in my hand). My calendar is a necessary companion, since anything not written down will be quickly forgotten.

I connected with her dysfunctional relationship with her father.

Fisher reflected heavily in her book about her difficult and dysfunctional relationship with her father. She wrote that although it was a difficult relationship, she had a ton of love for him. I found myself reflecting throughout her book on my relationship with my own father. Although the epitome of dysfunctional at times, I cannot help but love him. He’s still my dad. As she described her father’s death and the grief she felt, I could not help but cry. I do not look forward to or want to think about my own dad’s death. No amount of heartache he may have caused makes me wish him dead.

I connected with her grief.

A friend of mine recently died, and I found Fisher’s book to be cathartic for working through my grief. Fisher reflected on the grief she felt at the loss of several friends. She wrote about how she had dreams about them. The world looked different after they were gone. Since my friend’s death, I have had several dreams about her. When I see things I think she’d like, it gives me a pause. Yesterday at the store, I saw a woman who looked so much like her from a distance that it stopped me in my tracks.

“I found myself looking two and three times, again and again, at these glories that I was continuously stumbling across, looking once for myself and once for the one who had gone missing.”

Carrie Fisher

Sadly, my friend is gone. I don’t see her at church like I did before. I try to give her sister-in-law and her niece extra hugs when I see them. An awkward smile for her other family members. Fisher’s book reflected on the memories she had of the friends she lost, and I found myself thinking of the memories I have of my friend’s kindness. I thought of her smile. Her laugh was so genuine. She really was one of the best people I knew, and she really is gone too soon.

Quick Review:

Despite having low expectations for this book, I found myself really enjoying it. Carrie Fisher’s writing was better in this book than in The Princess Diarist, and I connected with its subject matter better. She gave an interesting perspective on mental illness, its treatment, and the way it has impacted her relationships. I recommend it over The Princess Diarist if you’re looking for a Carrie Fisher memoir.