This is a moving account of the incredible journey to madness and back by neuroscientist Barbara Lipska. Lipska and her family moved to America from Poland around the time communism was crumbling across Eastern Europe and, when the illness struck, she was Director of the Human Brain Collection Core at the National Institute of Mental Health.
As a neuroscientist, she examined brains, pursuing research into the causes of mental illness, in particular, schizophrenia, so when she began to have symptoms of mental instability herself, one might imagine she would be more aware of what was happening to her. But, as the author makes clear, this is often not the case. At times, patients can come to believe that it is those around them who are behaving oddly, not themselves.
When she could no longer see objects in part of the visual field of her right eye, Lipska had a good idea that she had a brain tumour. She had already had breast cancer requiring a mastectomy and treatment for an aggressive form of melanoma but in spite of her knowledge and experience, she tried to convince herself there was some other cause – such as a side effect of the antibiotics she was taking. The next day an MRI confirmed she had three small brain tumours.
Even at that early stage, the author writes about changes in her behaviour and personality. Although she was unable to drive as well, she uncharacteristically snapped at her husband when he questioned her ability. This was just the first of many episodes Lipska endured during her prolonged treatment which involved surgery, radiation and immunotherapy.
As the author was part of a very close and lovely family, perhaps the most upsetting episode for me was when she shouted at her grandson and made him cry. Even then, there was no insight into her own behaviour and Lipska writes about how she felt her family were against her – as if taking sides and not considering her feelings. The reader sees this again in an interaction with a physiotherapist, and when a train is delayed and the author goes on and on about them – being totally unreasonable but being unable to see that.
Lipska brilliantly intersperses her own story with highly readable medical information on the process and effects of mental illnesses. We learn about areas of the brain, particularly the pre-frontal cortex, as this is the area which controls our executive functioning and was most impacted by her tumours. She makes it clear how difficult these illnesses are to diagnose and treat because there are rarely physiological markers just as there are in physical illnesses.
This is a terrific book written from the very unusual perspective of someone who lost her mind and got it back. The author also understands the mental and physical processes through which she travelled to be able to share her rare insights with us.
Reviewed by Jan Kershaw
Rating out of 10: 8
Distributed by: Penguin Random House Australia
Released: April 2108
RRP: $39.99 hardback, $29.99 trade paperback, $14.99 eBook