A fierce advocate for tackling the stigma of mental illness, L.M. Kugler’s early life was significantly affected by her father’s struggle with schizophrenia and depression. In this book, she explores ten life lessons that her father directly or indirectly inspired.
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Kugler has a master’s degree in General Psychology from the University of North Florida and works in education and research, focusing on the statistical and social science aspects of psychology. Author, speaker, advocate for mental health awareness and disability rights; Kugler lives in rural Georgia with her husband, daughter, mother, and cat.
To begin, I think it’s important to highlight some content warnings: mental illness, schizophrenia, psychosis, depression, suicide, death, trauma, domestic abuse, child abuse, animal abuse, violence, threats, intimidation, guns, racism, discrimination, poverty.
About the book
This is not an easy read – Kugler didn’t intend it to be. Her own experience of trauma and anxiety along with witnessing her father’s schizophrenia, later becoming his carer, means that she is all too aware that mental illness is still a difficult topic to discuss.
Nevertheless, she does not sugar-coat her story. She is brutally honest about how debilitating mental illness can be, both for the individual and their loved ones. Whilst being open about the pain her father’s illness inflicted on her family, she remains his most loyal supporter and cheerleader, even after his death.
What I liked
From the outset, Kugler identifies the important issue of the ongoing prevalence of stigma against mental illness, and how this can have wide-reaching consequences. I was pleased that she talked about how patients with mental health diagnoses are often disbelieved when reporting physical symptoms, though I was saddened to read that this exact kind of negligence played a role in her father’s early death.
I think the author does an excellent job of illustrating her father as a whole person, not just his illness. In doing so, she is also brutally honest about her father’s flaws that were unrelated to his schizophrenia. She affirms that those with mental illnesses are no more likely to inflict harm on others than the average person, which is a crucial part of tackling myths around mental illness. She also delves into how guilt and shame can have devastating effects on the individual – an undeniable part of the damaging impact of stigma against mental illness.
But in his state of mind, he was so despondent he didn’t see a way out. This was his shame […] and according to the National Institute on Mental Health in 2019 suicide took 47,500 lives, making it the tenth leading cause of death nation-wide.Chapter Seven
On the contrary, she is still honest about the pain experienced by her father and those who loved him. I think she shows great balance in both acknowledging this pain, but also never blaming her father for the symptoms beyond his control. His unpredictable reactions, severe paranoia, and even death threats against her, made Kugler’s childhood home a place of fear and tension. But she shows an immense capacity for patience and understanding that is vital for families living with the effects of mental illness, and for those who bear the worst of it, the individual themselves.
The book’s overall premise is about important life lessons she learned from her father, including unconditional love and love in action. But the author also draws life lessons from the mistakes that her father made – mistakes she is determined not to repeat with her own daughter. She explores the importance of breaking generational trauma cycles, along with cherishing the simple things, that can become the most treasured memories.
Finally, Kugler uses some incredible imagery to depict some of the internal battle of living with schizophrenia, based on the descriptions her father gave her. This kind of insight is so valuable in helping families and support systems to understand what the individual might be experiencing. As the author says, schizophrenia is much more than “hearing voices”.
What I didn’t like
My pet peeve about this book was the large number of little errors, such as missing punctuation, missing spaces between words, or lowercase letters at the beginning of sentences. It’s only a minor irritation, but an irritation nonetheless. I know how much this book means to the author. However, I feel that the lack of editing detracts from the reading experience. I would love to see a more polished version of the book. The content is so powerful and it’s a shame to let easily fixed errors interfere with the message.
Another issue I had with the book was that there are a few sweeping statements thrown in. An example of this is in Chapter Two:
Which is more than can be said of a lot of people in today’s culture […] So many fall into the trap of thinking they have found some hidden knowledge. Something few others have discovered […] but they cling to their idea because it seems secret and precious and is theirs.Chapter Two
Who is “they”? How many is “so many”? What idea do “they” “cling to”? To me, this was an oddly wishy-washy section, when much of the book includes either sources or at least a specific piece of anecdotal support for the point.
The biggest problem I had with this book was in Chapter Six. The story centres on a barbecue at Kugler’s home when she was a child, during which her friend, Alice, was slapped across the face by her (Alice’s) father, Adam. The author’s father intervened, but only to say that Alice’s father must not do it again on his property.
Kugler uses this as an example of the life lesson “You can’t change anything but yourself”. I agree with this in theory, in terms of being in control of how we react to situations. However, I think this is an inappropriate anecdote to illustrate this point, because the adults present at the barbecue did nothing to challenge or subsequently report to authorities the fact that this fully-grown man slapped his minor child so hard that “the loud crack of it echoed off our house and through our yard”.
[My father] also said that he couldn’t really change what Adam was going to choose to do, only how he reacted to it. That our reactions are the only choice we have in this life.Chapter Six
I agree that ultimately we cannot change how others behave. I disagree with the implication that this rule applies to witnessing what I would describe as child abuse. We might not be able to stop this man from being violent or from believing his violence is acceptable. You don’t have to personally convince an abuser not to abuse. However, we can report their abuse to the police and/or child protective services. We can affect whether or not the abuser has the opportunity to enact this abuse. We can and should enforce a behaviour change in certain circumstances.
I understand that this is a small section of the book, but it weighed heavily on me when I read it, so I felt the need to comment on it.
I’m giving this book 4 out of 5 stars. I think this book is great and the issues I found with it are vastly outnumbered by the positives.
I would recommend this book to anyone who would like to learn more about the effects schizophrenia can have, both on the individual and their loved ones.
Kugler’s raw and honest look at this misunderstood illness is heartbreaking, insightful, and perhaps most importantly, a credit to her father, who I am positive would be incredibly proud of his daughter right now.
He always tried his best, and so does she.
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