Families affected by serious mental illness, like my own, have many things in common: secrecy, confusion, alienation, exhaustion, fear, even terror; anger, frustration, loneliness, longing to be "normal."
Sadly, one of them is a common, and erroneous, conviction that we are alone. Because we lack a public and productive forum for sharing our stories, we miss out on a sense of normalization and connection to each other. Our isolation reinforces the importance of silence, which in turn reinforces stigma, which keeps us silent.
Perhaps nowhere has that silence rung louder than in much of the church, where we have allowed fear and misinformation about mental illness to rule. Tragically, this community with the greatest potential for loving and healing such families instead often deepens their sense of alienation.
Things are beginning to change, though, as people share their stories and come to understand just how common mental illness is. With just over 25 percent of American adults experiencing a diagnosable mental disorder each year, mental illness may be among the most common of health problems.
In fact, it is about equal to the total percentage of people diagnosed with cancer each year, those living with heart disease, people infected with HIV and AIDS, and those afflicted with diabetes—combined. And "serious" mental illness—disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and borderline personality disorder—affects six percent of American adults, almost 12 million people. Silence isn't helping anyone.
Families affected by mental illness need to tell their stories, not only for our own sake but also for the sake of others, who will discover in our words that they are not alone. I was eager to read The Painted Table, a new book by debut novelist Suzanne Field. The Painted Table tells a fictional story based on her own life—a story that rings true for many whose families were shaped by a loved one's mental illness.
Field's book honors reality—no sensationalized or romanticized pictures of mental illness here. I recognized my own family in this story, sometimes in spooky parallels: the family's Scandinavian heritage, the slow rise of psychosis in a mother who eventually would be diagnosed with schizophrenia, the family's denial and bewilderment—then quiet desperation. The devoted and faithful husband and father, in over his head. The fears of a daughter who fears the scripts of heritage and heredity drive her toward a destiny she is desperate to escape. And above all, the redemption that only God can bring within scarred families and individual hearts.
The Painted Table references the family's hand-crafted Norwegian table, lovingly made and handed down. The table travels across the Atlantic Ocean and four generations to make its way to Saffee, a young woman who struggled to grow up in a family increasingly defined by her mother's mental illness.
As the story unfolds, we learn about Saffee's mother's early life, her parents' newlywed days, and her own sad childhood. We also see her mother's illness burgeon and pass a confused heritage to her daughters. The story unfolds in a series of episodes that are touching, embarrassing, sad, alarming, confusing, and sometimes frustrating.
As Saffee comes of age, we wonder as she does, Is she destined to follow her mother's path, or will she find a way to live a very different life? When she's saddled with the unwanted Norwegian table, covered in layers of paint that symbolize her mother's unstable mind, she finds an opportunity to work toward redemption and healing.
Fields has a compelling and valuable story to tell. Unfortunately, she does not always tell it in a compelling way. Because I saw myself in this story and believe we need such stories, I wanted to love its characters. But I couldn't get close to them. I felt like I was watching events from a distance, reading a journalistic account of a series of family experiences.
The episodic rhythm feels choppy. The book's sweeping coverage (more than 100 years and four generations) means its descriptions of people and incidents are sometimes summarized rather than unfolded, told instead of shown. This also makes character development—and engagement even with Safee—a challenge.
The author uses a third-person perspective, with a variable level of omniscience, sometimes presenting the story through one person's eyes, then suddenly switching to someone else's. This leaves readers guessing who we should relate to and what is really going on within the characters. Then, as we begin to draw closer to living in the story, suddenly a narrative voice comments, again from a distance, to interpret characters' motivations and desires without having shown us the existence of such desires in the first place.
Still, within the episodes she describes, Field's book realistically captures the small tragedies, hard to recognize as they unfold, that add up to great sorrow. It portrays the everyday losses that accompany a life hampered by untreated mental illness. The confusion and bewilderment. The efforts to cope. The urge to escape and to paint over wounds that instead need healing. The need to relearn so much of what should have been learned the first time, at the knee of a parent who didn't know what was real. To feel valuable when a parent lacked the capacity to impart that sense of value.
I appreciate that Field has not tried to answer a lot of questions about mental illness and why people suffer. She has told a story that, with some flaws in execution, rings true. I hope it will help readers understand their own experiences and the struggles of their friends and neighbors who are thrown into crisis by mental illness. I hope it will point those same readers toward redemption, the kind that removes all the layers of anesthetic we use to try—and fail—to numb our pain, and replaces them with beauty that can come only through grief and surrender.
Amy Simpson is author of Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church's Mission (InterVarsity Press). She also serves as editor of Christianity Today's Gifted for Leadership. You can find her at www.AmySimpsonOnline.com and on Twitter @aresimpson.