Ann E. Jeffers, Ph.D.

Professor | Author | Engineer

What I’m Reading: “The Center Cannot Hold”

Book cover

Elyn Saks is a hero of mine. Ever since I watched her TED talk, I had to know more about her. She is an esteemed professor of law at University of Southern California. She holds an impressive slate of degrees from Vanderbilt, Oxford, and Yale. She also happens to have schizophrenia. 

In her memoir, The Center Cannot Hold (2007), Elyn recounts her journey with mental illness (and its treatment) while staying on a tenuous path toward academic success. She shares deeply personal experiences including her symptoms of psychosis and the details of her numerous psychiatric hospitalizations, only to arrive at a regimen that works for her in the end. The book gives insight into an illness that confounds doctors, while giving hope to others who may experience symptoms of serious mental illness.  

What I Loved about the Book

  • The author does not shy away from the ugly and embarrassing nature of psychosis. In fact, she shows her symptoms full-on in gripping reflections. This type of realistic first-hand account is incredibly  rare.
  • The storytelling is on point. Elyn covers a wide slice of her life, but the story moves at just the right pace and with the right balance of details about her academic progress and her troubling experiences with mental illness. 
  • The dialogue is excellent. I especially appreciated the disorganized words coming from the “main character” in her moments of psychosis. They really worked to draw the reader in. 
  • The author’s conclusions about treatment resonated with me as a person with bipolar disorder. I was able to empathize with the importance of finding a mental health provider who I connect with, is competent, and uses a treatment philosophy that matches what I need. Treatment has a long way to go but is moving in the right direction thanks to the author’s important advocacy work against restraints, for example. 
  • I really connected with the author’s message about the importance of meaningful work in recovery. We all need something that makes us feel like our lives have meaning, and having “work” (whether that’s academic work, volunteering, or a hobby) gives us a reason to get out of bed each day. It’s especially important for those of us with mental illness.
  • Lastly, I found it quite remarkable that the author was able to take her experiences with mental illness and turn that energy toward helping people with mental illness in her life’s work. This is something we all should aspire to.

Summary

Overall, I thought this was an excellent book on all accounts. It was entertaining, heartbreaking, thought provoking, and it cast mental illness in a positive yet realistic  light. This is a must-read for anyone in the mental health profession as well as anyone who is passionate about mental health.

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