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The Lessons I learned from The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness

As we grapple with our problems and illnesses on a day-to-day basis, we often question whether or not we are alone in the world. Do other people have the same problems as me? Who can I tell my story to?  Will anybody listen? Does anyone really understand?

As I have found through experience, books can be the best of friends and the most patient of listeners. They enable us to enter new worlds, and most importantly, teach us valuable lessons that we wouldn’t have learned on our own. If you are grappling with a mental illness and are in need of solace, there are plenty of fantastic, enlightening reads that can soothe your mind.

After stumbling upon a TED Talk given by Elyn Saks on NPR one Sunday afternoon, I was awestruck by her extraordinary life. She had graduated from Vanderbilt University, Oxford University, and Yale Law School, and is currently a highly esteemed professor at the University of Southern California. On top of those already tremendous accomplishments, she has been selected as a MacArthur Foundation fellow, is a member of the American Law Institute, and is a best-selling author. Oh, and did I mention that she has schizophrenia?  

That is right; this remarkable and highly accomplished woman suffers from a serious mental illness. Typically, people with schizophrenia suffer from severe hallucinations, delusions, and cognitive and movement impairments. And believe it or not, she has experienced all positive symptoms of this disease. However, one would never be able to tell by watching her give her speech. She is eloquent, confident, and fearless. I was soon determined to learn more about her life and her story.

I bought a copy of Saks’ autobiography The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness and was yet again dumbfounded by her incredible story. She had been hospitalized on multiple occasions in both America and England, was physically restrained by doctors in the Yale psychiatric ward, attempted suicide in college, and was once told that she would never be able to live a healthy life and function as a “normal” member of society. On top of her illness, she battled and beat breast cancer, and experienced a traumatic brain hemorrhage. However, she never gave up or lost sight of her goals.

Through compassion, diligence, medication, and hours of therapy, Saks beat the odds and proved everyone wrong. She could be a scholar, an activist, a wife, a friend, and an inspiration to everybody. She notes how she was once afraid to admit that she has a mental illness. Through the course of her novel, she teaches her readers that peace comes through the power of acceptance and that mental illness is not a weakness or something to be ashamed of.  Saks will always be one of my heroes and has taught me to be kind and patient with myself. In her talk, she quotes Sigmund Freud: “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” If we continue to love ourselves and work hard to be positive and succeed, the world’s possibilities are endless.

As I stated earlier, books are life changing and lifesaving. The connections we can form with an author and his or her story are beautiful and noteworthy. We should all learn from Ms. Saks and her journey, and if you can, rent or buy her book; you will not be disappointed.

The title The Center Cannot Hold comes from a poem called “The Second Coming,” by William Butler Yeats. It states,

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;”

Ultimately, we are not perfect, and not everything can go as planned. Life often gets in the way, and we lose sight of who we are. Treat all with compassion and listen to the stories of those who have walked in your shoes. Do not allow your illness to control your life and prevent you from being who you are.

            If you or someone you know is struggling with schizophrenia or another mental illness and needs help, please call 1 (800) 950-NAMI (6264) or (800) 273-TALK (8255).

 

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