On a pale gray Tuesday one August, psychotherapy trainee Janet C Love found her life changed forever. That morning, in her small flat in Islington, London, Janet Love's son uttered the one sentence that confirmed her worst fears: he had crossed the line from living in consensus reality into an altered state. He was psychotic. Love doesn't say exactly what her son said, or even how she came to the conclusion that he was psychotic. But there is no doubt that on that August morning Love's life changed permanently. Psychosis in the Family is partly a documentation of that profound change, and partly Love's way of coming to terms with it. The experience led to Love's exploration of various psychotherapies as either trainee or client, sometimes both. It brought her into contact with the English mental health system, with compulsory care, antipsychotic medication, and with a group of women who shared her experience of psychosis in the family.
In a particularly cruel development, long after Love's first encounter with psychosis, her mother developed dementia. Love recounts hoping that her mother's diseased brain would change her personality so that she would become warmer, less moody and more open to the affection offered by her daughter. That didn't happen, but Love nevertheless provided the support her mother needed until the end of her life. At the same time she was negotiating care for her son and attending to her own personal development and emotional responses to living with psychosis.
Most of this book is about Love's response to her son's psychosis. She explores the idea of what it is to live in an "altered state" especially when the reality of psychotic ideas is not recognized in society. Partly Love is making a plea for more responsive mental health clinicians and services, and partly she is appealing for a greater understanding of the experience of psychosis. Although she is clear that her son needed medical treatment, she is equally clear that that was not sufficient. She encouraged him to use non-traditional approaches, something that on occasion brought her into contact with mental health professionals. In the course of her own quest for self understanding Love learnt about the father she hadn't seen since she was five, something that had been a major influence on her development. There is a final sense of achieving coherence amid the sometimes overwhelming demands of providing care and support.
Psychosis in the Family is a courageous book which tells us about the reality of living with psychosis. Family members are charged with negotiating not only fraught family relationships, but health care systems which at times seem designed to heap one frustration on another. Janet Love seems to have weathered the storms of psychosis and emerged optimistic, although understandably skeptical about health services and mainstream models of illness. If there is a single message that can be taken from this book it is that a caring family member can make the difference between psychosis being an experience of alienation and one which strengthens belonging within the human family.
© 2010 Tony O'Brien
Tony O'Brien RN, MPhil, Senior Lecturer, Mental Health Nursing, University of Auckland, firstname.lastname@example.org