on 2 May 2010
Poignant and brutally honest story telling. Her day-to-day account of HER OWN reality is told in a voice that is sincere, naked and true. Going through my own battle with bipolar disease, it is refreshing, educational and highly inspirational to read someone who can put in words such raw emotions, and with such amazing intelligence. Even though this book is about an incredibly difficult battle - hope, happiness, and humor transpires throughout the pages. Thank you Suzy.
Isabelle G Driscoll, Quebec
Review - When Do I Get My Shoelaces Back?.....
a diary of a psychotic breakdown
by Suzy Johnston
The Cairn, 2010
Review by Tony O'Brien
May 18th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 20)
While she was in hospital with an episode of viral hepatitis, Suzy Johnston, who has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, experienced an acute psychotic episode which saw her hospitalized for over six months. That's a long time in any western mental health system, where the emphasis is on community care and short hospital stays. When do I get my Shoelaces Back? is an unburnished first person account that takes the reader so close to the experience of madness that it feels almost voyeuristic to continue reading. The book takes the form of a diary of Johnston's day to day life on Christie Ward, in the poetically named Vale of Leven Hospital. Some days have several entries, some days none. Reading through Shoelaces the reader the reader gets to hang out for the relief of prn medication (tranquilizers dispensed at the nurses' discretion), cringe at the intrusive thoughts plaguing Johnston, worry about whether suicide is a good idea, and peer suspiciously at the staff who might have malevolent intent, or who just might be talking about what they did on the weekend. In the world of psychosis, nothing can be taken for granted.
Suzy Johnston described her experience of mental illness and mental health care in previous autobiographical accounts (The Naked Bird Watcher and The Snow Globe Journals). In addition, Johnston's mother Jean recounted her experience of the multiple roles of mother, caregiver and advocate in To Walk on Eggshells. Suzy Johnston was thirty five during her time in hospital last year. Compared to The Naked Bird Watcher her illness appears moderated by maturity although the six months described in this book was still a turbulent and tumultuous time. There's a relentlessness to the day by day detailing of paranoia, anxiety, social phobia and wildly labile mood.
Everything's FINE so why do I have a horrible feeling in my stomach that something BAD is about to happen?. I feel sick and nervous but most of all I seem to have lost that feeling of SELF that I had back this morning for a while.
On occasion Johnston's inner turmoil is relieved by walks to the village of Luss, or 'passes' - authorized leave taken from the ward to visit home. But leave is frequently cut short, and outside Christie Ward Johnston is compulsively driven to thoughts of suicide, even while arguing with herself that this is not what she wants. As Shoelaces progresses the intensity of paranoia and suicidal thoughts lessens as Johnston slowly regains her sense of self.
How do you get through something like that? You TRY REALLY HARD NOT TO QUIT but when you DO quit (and you do) you turn to those around you and place everything about yourself in their hands. You have to or it's game over.
At the end of the book Johnston recounts her marriage to Michel, one of her mainstays of her life. You hope for her that marriage offers a sanctuary from the voices that terrorized her during her time in hospital. You feel a vicarious relief from the constant destructive impulses that threatened to overwhelm her. And you feel admiration that Suzy and Jean Johnston can pick themselves up and offer educational and support services to others experiencing mental illness (See [...] Recovery has been a long journey for Suzy Johnston, and while there is no guarantee that it is now at an end, she and her family have built a considerable reserve of experiences that will stand them in good stead in any future crisis. Shoelaces is another illuminating contribution to the literature on madness.
© 2010 Tony O'Brien
Tony O'Brien RN, MPhil, Senior Lecturer, Mental Health Nursing, University of Auckland, New Zealand
on 6 April 2011
`This is a raw, immediate and highly literate
account of Suzy's psychotic episode, written `in real time'.
Suicidal impulses, paranoia, hallucinations and delusions are
described in acerbic and uncompromising language. The
title "When do I get my shoelaces back?" is a reference to
the time when her shoelaces, belts etc were taken away from
her for her own protection when she wanted to end her life.
As a mental health professional myself, I would certainly
advocate that other professionals read this account of her
innermost feelings and thoughts throughout her trauma.
I was highly inspired that through her account she was
focussed on her own recovery and displayed a willingness
to go beyond her pain barrier and confront the conflicting
thoughts that she was experiencing.
I reflected on my time as a nurse on an acute ward, and
the conflict I experienced with procedures that we had
to follow given the observations of distress that were
displayed in service users with similar symptoms. However,
in reading Suzy's account it made me very much aware of
how you truly cannot imagine or understand someone's
innermost thoughts and experiences.
I also feel that Suzy's account would be an inspiration to
other service users. Certainly it would assist them through
difficult times and help them through their recovery. In
the epilogue of her book she states that:
"I haven't mentioned many of the other patients in this
book, that's for privacy reasons but there is one story I would
like to recount. I was sitting curled up on a seat in reception
when one of the male patients came in through the main door
carrying two cups of coffee, some sugar and some portions
of milk... `You look like you could do with that more than
me...' Sometimes kindness takes you breath away."
Another significant point in this for me is the influence
and strength of carers. In this instance Suzy mentions
the gratitude she has for both her professional carers (i.e.
nurses, key worker etc) and her (now) husband, Michel, for
just being there and supporting her when needed. She has
continued conflict with her paranoia about the nurses and
staff whom she saw as her enemy.
Her love and dedication to Michel also shines through
again in conflict with her symptoms, and her difficulties
to struggle to support him when his mother became
terminally ill. "Michel is having a hellish time - he's
obviously really worried about his mum, looks exhausted,
is worried about me and is generally struggling. I DON'T
KNOW WHAT TO DO..."
Yet the tenderness and warmth of their relationship
certainly comes through and continues on.
As I read through the account I also shared Suzy's anger -
thinking why has this been allowed to happen to her? Why
is she having to suffer this experience? Surely there was
another way of treating the virus - why should her mental
health have to suffer. Suzy captures this by describing her
experience as: "Viral Hepatitis A was a thief who had
stolen my barricades which had been carefully constructed to
keep out psychosis"
She goes on to describe her frustration of seeing the drugs
trolley only a few metres away knowing that it contained
medication that had kept her well. Yet it was forbidden for
her to take this.
Suzy's strength and ability to account her symptoms
through her struggle has enhanced my understanding of
a person's difficulty through illness. I could never have
before understood or imagined the level of pain, anguish
and utter despair that someone could be going through.
The account is a must-read for both mental health
practitioners and anyone wanting a first hand impression
of mental illness. No other account captures so vividly the
unrelenting pain and pressure of in-patient recovery.
I would advocate that this book is not only useful to all
practitioners both new and `old' but to carers, families
and service users as this may help them relate to their
Alison Lee, Clinical Specialist,
Meriden Family Programme
on 16 March 2011
I am 24 years old and have been in psychiatric hospitals 3 times once on a section over the past 2 years after I suffered a mental breakdown and collapsed into the cruel world of psychosis. I was diagnosed with psychosis, bipolar disorder and depression. It has been very hard to come to terms with these debilitating illnesses and to cope with them and so I vehemently admire Suzy for her stark and utterly absorbing true life account of the day to day struggles of living and coping with Psychosis and Bipolar while confined in a psychiatric ward for a period of six months. I found myself relating to so many of her experiences whilst she was ill and I could completely understand her fears and worries as I have shared many of the same fears and worries whilst i was in hospital. If you are interested in what truly goes on inside the mind when one is ill and in the throws of Psychosis then please do read this book, it is hard to read but so worth while and you will have a better understanding of these illnesses. Thank you very much Suzy you are truly an inspiration to me <3
on 6 October 2011
NAMI Review - 2010
When Do I Get My Shoelaces Back?
(The Cairn 2010)
The author, who lives with bipolar disorder, becomes ill with hepatitis A. Forced to stop taking her psychiatric medications, she experiences the most severe episode of bipolar disorder of her life. As part of her therapy, she chronicles her time this diary, revealing what it was like to experience feelings of paranoia and vivid hallucinations during her treatment in the psychiatric unit. This account is a unique insight into psychosis and the author's frustration with the separation of mental and physical health in hospital treatment.