Reviewed by Serena Wadhwa.
In She’s Not Herself, Linda Appleman Shapiro tells the firsthand experience of growing up with a family member who struggled with a mental health issue. Shapiro, as a young child, tells the tale of what it was like growing up with a mother who wasn’t “herself” on many days, as the plaguing grip of her depression took hold and permeated much of Shapiro’s childhood.
What started out as a book meant to fill a gap for clients—Shapiro is a mental health professional—ended up being more a healing process for herself. She realized that, as a child of a mother with a mental health issue, she had a story to tell. Dealing with family secrets is one of the many obstacles to health most are familiar with, whether through personal experience, what we hear from friends or colleagues, or on a professional level. Shapiro recognizes this not just as a professional herself, but mainly as a fellow human being who struggled with many of the questions and imperfections some of us may be able to relate to. She courageously shares what it was like growing up not really knowing what was going on with her mother’s unstable moods, suicide attempts, and unpredictable clouds of darkness, and, as a child, not being allowed to know that children “were protected.”
Let me add a disclaimer. I listen to stories from my clients and students (I am a clinician and assistant professor) and often hear about family issues. While working with families is not my main area of clinical interest, I am always interested in hearing stories. And I do believe that our past influences our present. We learn and internalize certain characteristics, traits, and beliefs based on single or connected experiences from our past. So, in this respect, I was curious to read Shapiro’s story of her childhood and what is was like for her as a child to grow up with a mother with depression. Even though I don’t know Shapiro personally, I found that she did a nice job providing the threads that linked certain experiences growing up to behaviors, thoughts, and her way of being as an adult. I thought there were many moments where she gave some touching examples of how something that happened growing up became a pivotal point in influencing who she became.
“Spending the day in school gave me the freedom that Father probably felt at work, when he didn’t have to worry all day . . . Not until my walk home did I begin to feel nervous again. I would prepare myself for Mother’s mood, whatever it might be, and hope it would be ‘normal’ for the afternoon and evening. However, life at home continued to be uncertain. As always, we watched changes in her behavior, the sleepless nights, the restless days. Even when we were together, each of us felt alone.”
“Even now, with years of practice as a psychotherapist behind me and several years of my own therapy, there are times when life is relatively calm, and still I don’t trust that it will last—that somehow, in some way, a storm is probably looming.”
I found myself experiencing similar emotions that the author indicated she felt as a child. As the reader, to be able to experience the horror, pain, confusion, terror, and determination of a young child at certain moments of their life is a rare opportunity. I’m not sure if this is the result of the authorship or because of what I do for a living; however, it does suggest that Shapiro is able to convey many of her most vulnerable moments in this book.
I struggled with a couple things in this book. At times, it seemed that the transitions were choppy. While I recognize that books have a limited number of pages, it seemed that some of the transitions from story to story were not as smooth as perhaps I expected or wanted. Shapiro also offers a reading group guide, which has several questions that can be used in a group setting. This confused me, as the author indicated that she wanted to write the story from the perspective of one who has experienced this firsthand and not as a psychotherapist. There wasn’t a rationale provided for this, which may have helped to clarify the author’s intention with the dual roles. Aside from these aspects, I found this book to be engaging and heart-and-soul igniting. It does provide one individual’s journey of what it’s like growing up with a family member who has a mental health issue and not only living with that disease, but living beyond it.