The Edge of Every Day: Sketches of Schizophrenia
By Marin Sardy. Pantheon, 2019. 304 pages. $25.95
Marin Sardy grew up in Anchorage with a mother with schizophrenia and a brother who developed it as a young man and lived on the streets for years. Her deeply affecting book, told in essays that function as chapters, traces her family’s journey through the challenges and despair of mental illness and our capacity — as family, friends and community — to address it.
Imagine being a 10-year-old whose mother checks your ears to see if radio devices are hidden there, piles furniture against the doors and thinks that her husband was swept away by a tsunami and the man claiming to be her husband (soon ex-husband) is an impostor. The family knew that Sardy’s mother suffered from delusions, but felt helpless to do anything about it.
One essay, “Conversations with Family,” is a series of statements the author collected from several generations of family members through interviews. Again and again, they express their concern and confusion — “I honestly didn’t know what to do.” “That was the basic default position: You just didn’t notice it. It was a shameful condition... There was no understanding that it was an illness, a treatable illness.”
After her parents’ divorce, Sardy and her three siblings went back and forth between the households of their parents, but didn’t talk about what they experienced of their mother’s bizarre and sometimes frightening behavior. In one essay here, purportedly about the folk belief that you can balance an egg on its end on the equinoxes, Sardy uses footnotes to describe how her father kept the children safe while basically ignoring their mother and their time with her. Looking back to that period, Sardy writes, “… it’s distressing to recall the way the illness was handled by my family. The breaking apart of lived reality and acknowledged reality. The new kind of madness this birthed.” And, in another footnote, “Our life with her became our hidden life, the story under the story.”
Sardy rescued herself, in part, by becoming a teenage gymnast. “Gymnastics was a world of absolute order and I wanted to believe that I could fit into that order.” She later made it to college, escaping the orbit of her mother’s illness, and trained as a biologist. In her 20s, she was back in Alaska, studying and banding birds, “hiding” in the woods.
During a vacation in Costa Rica with her younger brother, she finds herself “trying to discern whether Tom has crossed a line, into the mental territory to which he is pressing so near. What I’m trying not to do, on the other hand, is acknowledge what I’ve known for weeks — that I already have the answer.” She recognizes the blank look on his face, the stiffness of his body, his gestures lacking inflections. He’s silent or he speaks of visions involved matrices and a concern that his jaw has detached from his face.
Much of the later part of the book traces Tom’s life after he returns to Anchorage. There he, like his mother, denied that he was ill and refused to seek help, even as he had delusions of becoming a professional soccer player through visualization exercises. Despite the support of his father and various friends, he ended up on the streets, camping in the woods and frequenting soup kitchens. He got into trouble for trespassing or following women around, thinking he needed to rescue them. He spent time in jail, the Alaska Psychiatric Institute and halfway houses designed to ease patients back into the community. This was his life for eight years, until he ended it in 2014.
Sardy writes, “Tom was trapped in what activists in mental health circles often spoke of as the ‘revolving door’ of care that people living with schizophrenia are commonly subjected to in this country — round after round of crisis care with little or no follow-up.” Yet, she credits the Anchorage police and others providing services with doing the best they could with limited resources, and she later mentions the city’s “housing first” initiative as a positive development.
Any reader of this intelligent, deeply felt and beautifully written book will come away with a greater understanding of what it is to live with mental illness — as an individual, a family member, or simply a fellow traveler on the road of figuring the lines between mental health and mental illness, or between mental illness and madness.
Aside from telling her very painful personal story, Sardy brings to this work considerable research into brain functions, mental processing, the varied expressions of schizophrenia and other psychotic illnesses, the effects of antipsychotic drugs and the promise of non-medication therapies.
As homelessness and the numbers of people coping with mental illness present multiple societal problems in cities all across our nation, Sardy’s “The Edge of Every Day” should open a wide window into the reality of these lives. A reader’s heart must go out to a man, once so smart, talented, kind, and loved, who is aware enough to know that others see him only as a “bum.” And to the families who, despite their best efforts, fail to save those they love from such an insidious, intractable and misunderstood disease.
In her final chapter, “That Fragile Space,” Sardy writes of suicide as a complication of mental illness. People die of schizophrenia “with the help of stigma and isolation and family dynamics and a horribly flawed system of care.” While she makes abundantly clear that there’s no simple answer for dealing with what she calls “a shapeless thief,” she advocates for greater understanding and programs that “enable people like Tom to participate in society rather than push them to its fringes.”