Books: Tornado: My Experience with Mental Illness

A friend named Barb recently loaned us the book Tornado: My Experience with Mental Illness (this link is to a site that provides the full text of the book online). I was interested for two reasons: first, because the author of this book, who just died this summer, was Barb’s mother; and second, because I thought it might give me some insight into what my own mother experienced in her struggles with mental illness.

It’s a very short book. I read it easily between supper and bedtime yesterday evening, even with the usual interruptions. It’s well written, a simple account of what Helen Moeller experienced, from her own point of view and without any medical jargon. There is no self-pity, no speculation as to why this affliction came on her, no details about her hallucinations or delusions. She tells matter-of-factly what she thought, what she felt, and the circumstances in which she found herself.

There is plenty of gratitude expressed, however – to her loving husband, who recognized her illness quickly and got her treatment right away, and helped her all the way through her hospitalization and the following two years of recovery; to the medical staff who treated her with skill and compassion; and above all to God, who brought her through this trial, to full recovery and a greater appreciation of the gifts of humor, self-confidence, and clear thinking, as well as of His great love.

I still have no idea how her experience of a mental breakdown compares with my mother’s. I know that my mother had a “nervous breakdown” when she was a young woman, but I don’t remember her – or anyone else – ever describing what actually happened. I asked a doctor once what a nervous breakdown was, and he said that it isn’t a diagnosis at all, it’s just a catchall term that used to be used and no longer is because it doesn’t really tell anything.

My mother talked sometimes about the thirteen months she spent in the Institute of Living. Her breakdown was more than a decade earlier than Helen Moeller’s, and electric shock treatments were still a normal course of treatment. She remembered them as being very painful, and for the rest of her life she also blamed them for loss of memory and her difficulty in thinking clearly. She had good memories of one staff member, but that was it. (I have no idea, of course, how much her impressions of her stay there were affected by whatever distortions of her mental processes had caused her to be committed there in the first place.)

One of the things that surprised me, reading Moeller’s book, was that there was no triggering circumstance. I had always been under the impression that a mental breakdown came about during a period of high stress, but Moeller recalls life as being very normal right up to the day she began to have delusions and hallucinations. She became convinced that certain people were going to die (herself included), and that she knew secrets that no one else knew. She saw people who were not there (her mind transforming strangers into people she knew).

I have struggled with depression since my teenage years (if not earlier), and I know depression is classified as a mental illness, but I am pretty sure I have never hallucinated or had delusions of the type Moeller describes. (I have difficulty being fully convinced of anything, and certainly not that I have any kind of special knowledge given only to me.) No doubt there are many different manifestations of mental illness, and it is very interesting to read an account of an effect so different from any I have known personally or heard firsthand from family or acquaintances.

Unlike my mother, Moeller fully recovered. (My mother was released from the hospital, but she struggled with various forms of mental illness the rest of her life.) It took two years, and she suffered from depression during that recovery period, but one day she woke up with her mind working as well as ever again. She attributes this in part to a job she got at a pharmacy, where she interacted with people on a daily basis.

My doctors had told me many times that they, as doctors, could do only so much; then, they said, “Nature must take over and do the rest.”
But in “taking over,” when it came to mental illness, it seemed, God must heal through men.
And He did. The customers in the store drew me out of myself and helped me back to health, and the amazing thing about it all was that they were not even aware of what they were doing.
However, I knew, and I was grateful.

2 Responses to Books: Tornado: My Experience with Mental Illness

  1. Margaret says:

    This is interesting. Mother once told me that what happened when she had her “nervous breakdown” was that she became so sad or depressed that she sat on the floor and cried and cried and cried, until those around her said, this can’t go on forever, we need to get her some help, and she ended up in the Institute of Living, using her inheritance from her father to pay for her stay. She also said she got the electric shock treatments because she felt so much better after each treatment. (I don’t know what that felt like.) I once hallucinated after taking strong codeine pain medicine. I saw things I knew weren’t real, but it was still scary. (But of course it stopped once the medicine wore off, and I chose pain over medicine after that.)

  2. Jane Doe says:

    Moeller didn’t suffer from a “nervous breakdown”, though that’s what it was termed then. We’ve since found out she had Bipolar Disorder, with other conditions, and unfortunately, it runs very strongly through her family. She was never “cured”, but she was able to gain a better control over her illness. (I’m related to the author.)

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