by Jerry Waxler
One night, when my dad came home from work, Mom told him in hushed tones that a neighbor had suffered a nervous breakdown. I couldn’t understand what that meant. Decades later, after I had achieved my master’s degree in counseling psychology, I still wasn’t able to form a clear mental image of a “nervous breakdown.”
The condition came into focus only after I began reading memoirs. In Darkness Visible, the famous author William Styron describes his psychotic break during severe depression. And in Unquiet Mind, psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison describes her experiences during bipolar disorder.
As the Memoir Revolution continues to mature, increasing numbers of us are stepping forward to share the extraordinary experiences that impact our ordinary lives. In a recent memoir Tara Meissner takes advantage of this new freedom. Her memoir Stress Fracture provides a deeply introspective, well researched, and carefully explained account of her breakdown and recovery.
Stress Fracture begins with Tara Meissner growing up and like anyone else, striving toward a satisfying happy life, when, for some reason, her mind trips into freefall. Her strange thoughts lead to even stranger conclusions. Flooded with false reasoning that makes it impossible to function, she is confined in a hospital for her own protection. From inside the chaotic bubble, she wrestles with her thoughts, attempting to get them back into line with reality. The betrayal by her mind brings her pursuit of happiness to a screeching halt. And then, gradually, due to relentless effort to return to normalcy, she recovers and finds the words with which to describe her horrifying experience.
There are many things I love about the book: I love the extraordinary support offered by her husband, making it a love story. I am fascinated by the wrestling she needs to do in order to tease apart visionary experience from religious teachings. I feel her shame as she tries to talk about her break with others who would rather avoid the whole subject. And I love her journalistic investigation, obtaining hospital records and interviewing other people to help her fill in blanks. Above all I love the author’s courage.
Her first act of courage occurs during recovery, when she attempts to push back against horrifying messages about murdering loved ones in order to save the world. To return to normalcy, she must martial her own rational thoughts and consider the contradiction between the two apparent realities attempting to dominate her mind..
Her second act of courage occurs when she tries to make sense of all that has taken place. After returning home, instead of pushing the humiliating disaster into the background, she moves toward it, attempting to organize it and shape it on the page. Aided by her experience as a writer, she reviews her own hospital records and interviews relatives, despite their horror at her irrational behavior during the breakdown.
Thanks to her willingness to gather all this information, and turn it into a narrative, she gradually transforms a nightmare into the socially acceptable currency of a good story. But then, to let others in on the secret of the “nervous breakdown” she must make the ultimate leap of faith.
Her third act of courage is going public, allowing us into the distorted workings of her inner world, and providing insight we would have no other way of knowing, without going through those experiences ourselves.
Through the sequence of courageous acts, she provides a model of that peak experience known as the hero’s journey. According to Joseph Campbell’s famous scholarly work, every culture in history has praised situations similar to Tara Meissner’s. In this universally revered model, an ordinary person is forced to leave the ordinary world, face the trials and disturbances in the “world of the adventure” and then return to ordinary culture to share what she learned. Tara Meissner has done exactly that, and in the process exemplified not only her own hero’s journey, but also the heroic journey of every memoir writer who shares their “adventure” in order to expand our shared understanding of the frontiers of experience.
To visit Tara Meissner’s home page and for links to her book, click here.
Tara Meissner’s first person account is an excellent contribution to the literature of mental health and mental breakdown. For another important account of psychosis, see Sharon Gerdes’ Back in Six Weeks, a novel based on her experience of postpartum psychosis.
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