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Recovered, not Cured was the SANE Australia book of the year in 2004. I hadn't read much of this compact little memoir before I could see why. Recovered, not Cured is a quirky, idiosyncratic little book that gives a compulsively readable first hand account of the author's slide into psychosis, his treatment, and ongoing recovery. As the title suggests, McLean continues to struggle with mental illness, but has achieved a measure of control over it. The book recounts a long period in which delusional ideas grew in frequency and intensity, finally leading McLean to seek professional help. All of this is recounted in the context of important life events, making for a potted social history of adolescent and young adult life in Australia at the fin de siècle.
In describing his attempts to deal with his growing rift with reality, McLean relates many anecdotes in which he tried to convince others that these experiences were real. He berated the manager of a factory about the PA system that was broadcasting denigrating messages about him; he had his mates drive him past street lights so he could demonstrate his power to turn them off by thinking about it; he brought a group of friends to his room so they could hear the voices outside the window. In recalling these experiences McLean comments:
The whole situation seems very surreal and macabrely funny to me now, and I am amazed that someone so nuts could actually convince sane people to entertain such surreal notions. (p. 65).
His friend Wez left him in no doubt about the voices: "Well I can't hear shit."
McLean's growing delusions developed a pattern of defensive self reference:
"I was convinced people were trying to make me think I was delusional." (p. 70).
A few pages later:
"…I was convinced that because I had read a book on schizophrenia people were trying to make me think I had it." (p. 75).
During this period of voices, paranoia and delusional ideas, McLean continued to work, to socialize, to mix with family and friends. His family were concerned, and his close work associate Bruce had some inkling that things were not right. At the height of his psychosis he set out on a tour of Europe, following, as he points out, the tradition of people seeking geographical release from troubling experiences. Voices and conspiracy theories were constant companions during this period, all adapted to the change in location. At one stage he confronted a picnicking couple on their complicity in his persecution. He accosted strangers, questioning them on the reasons for his voices and the nature of the plot against him. They all seem to have taken it in their stride. Perhaps there is more social acceptance of odd behavior than commonly thought, at least until it becomes labeled as mental illness. McLean describes a homecoming in which he was reunited with the more familiar psychotic experiences of his parents' house and family environment.
Mixed with his unsettling thoughts and perceptions was the difficult business of sexuality. McLean talks about his ambivalent bisexuality, his brief encounters with opposite and same sex partners, and about the peer group climate of homophobia that fuelled hallucinations and delusions about this. Australian youth, especially the larrikin variety that made up most of McLean's peer group, is not known for its tolerance of gay (or bisexual) men, but they are known for their colorful and sometimes aggressive defense of their heterosexual norm.
Throughout the text McLean posts questions for readers, marked with an email envelope icon. These are messages culled from various websites and Internet discussion forums, and are chosen for their relevance to the topics under discussion. They give a sense of a book that is part of a global network of questioning and seeking answers. As McLean comments in his introduction, these are brief, heartfelt messages that highlight the uniqueness of each person's experience of schizophrenia.
McLean is a gifted illustrator. The book is generously illustrated with his own drawings, accompanied by a commentary that elaborates a little on the illustration, providing readers with an insight into McLean's intentions as an artist. McLean's commentaries construe the drawings in psychological terms, and locate them in the context of his developing psychosis. But they are also intriguing interpretations of the natural and human world. Sketches like "The Satellite Plan", showing the root system of a plant as a genogram reminded me of the drawings of Serafini's Codex, especially those where vegetables morph into animal life. McLean studied art during the time his perceptions were altered by delusional ideas, graduating with a BFA (deprecatingly referred to as Bachelor of Fuck All). He is obviously more than a weekend artist.
McLean continues to live with difficulties in interpreting the world around him. He talks of difficulties in knowing whether his idiosyncratic perceptions are "real" or not, and mourns the loss of many magical insights which, although not shared by others, brought some comfort, and a lot of interest as heuristics. His ambivalence about his life so far is reflected in the observation:
"I'm almost glad to have had such a powerful experience but I would never wish it on anyone." (p. 173).
A major strength of this memoir is in the natural manner of its exposition. Events and commentary are stated as they were experienced. Where McLean steps back from recounting events to reflect on them, and in particular to comment on how they typify schizophrenia, there is no sense that a psychiatric conceptualization of his experiences exhausts their possible meanings. Although McLean found professional intervention, especially antipsychotic medication, helpful in taking the edge of his delusional ideas, his story is told as a postmodern narrative that doesn't lead inexorably to a moral conclusion of medical enlightenment. McLean's is an unfinished life, both in the meanings that may be found in his experiences so far, and in its possible futures.
Recovered, not Cured makes rewarding reading for mental health professionals who wish to understand mental illness as a human experience. Consumers, parents and those who wish to improve their understanding of mental illness will also benefit from the rich insights of this book.
© 2007 Tony O'Brien
Tony O'Brien is a lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Auckland, New Zealand: firstname.lastname@example.org