The Danny Diaries:Overcoming Schizophrenia - a mother's experience
Posted Oct 21 2011 12:00am
The Danny Diaries: Overcoming Schizophrenia by Ann Cluver Weinberg
This is a memorable schizophrenia story, written from the point of view of the mother. Why "great"? Because there is no other schizophrenia memoir, written by a mother that shows by vivid example how, by understanding and supporting another person, full recovery can happen. "Danny" has been well for over twenty years and works in a professional capacity in an extremely challenging workplace. They say that the younger the age when schizophrenia symptoms appear, the less optimistic the prognosis. Danny's troubles started in early adolescence, but he eventually recovered, proving how wrong this prognosis can be.
We are introduced to Danny as a child through his words and conversations that the author wrote down every night in her journal. She did the same for his older sister, Nicola. Both children are the precocious offspring of artistically-inclined parents. The father, "Oliver", is a musician and "Lucy" is the devoted mother, in the beginning more interested, it appears, in her children's well-being than in pursuing her own career goals. Right from the start, we get a real sense of who Danny is through his recorded conversations. The family is South African and living in London in the 1960s. When Danny is a small child, they move back to their homeland. This is a critical time in South African history, as it was still under government enforced racial segregation. The memoir is brimming with South African English words and Afrikaans dialect, which gives the book its special flavor, but the strange vocabulary can be hard to follow. There is also unfamiliar African terminology that needs explaining so that the reader isn't struggling to sort out the meaning.
I can forgive perhaps too much attention to the early years, because the dialogues keep it flowing. We really get a sense of what Danny and the rest of the family is like. Lucy gives Danny lot of freedom to be himself, even if himself is problematic.
What his problem is initially appears to be pot, or dagga, the local term for it. He's smoking too much of it way too young. He's a precociously talented guitarist, and with the freedom that he has, drugs are easy to come by. He lacks the self-discipline to break away from dagga, and the parents, being self-professed liberals and artists, by nature are not disciplinarians and are not effective at stopping the smoking. Even if they were by nature strict, I doubt that Danny's problems would have been averted. When he is off pot but hospitalized during a lengthy period in a drug rehab clinic, he is none-the-less diagnosed as "schizophrenic." The mother knows that dagga is only part of the picture. Recreational drug use never helps psychosis, but it adds unneeded complexity and angst to an already difficult condition.
Schizophrenia cannot be pinned down to an overly strict or overly lenient upbringing, judging from the varied reasons people give as the cause of their own psychosis. Their verdict usually favors the side of overly strict parenting as psychosis-inducing, but what causes psychosis is anyone's best guess. The point is, to overcome it. Danny was disorganized in an artistic household, which possibly implied he needed more help becoming organized at an early age than other children might who do not grow up in such a laissez-faire way.
Danny's growing absenteeism, confrontational attitude, and mental confusion means that he is shuttled from school to school. There appears to be no diagnosis, except pot smoking damaging his growing brain. The doctor shows his mother the results of his brain scan. It's scary. She handles this bad news rather well; she refuses to be scared, and is rightly critical of doctors who are grim about the prognosis for schizophrenia, seeing them as part of the problem, not part of the solution. She believes that taking him away from the dagga scene and nurturing him will make all the difference. And it does. She works miracles with her son by being attentive, and supportive. She's not perfect, occasionally she and her husband shout at him in rage, which is understandable given the often tense situation. She is confident in her mothering skills and in her judgment of Danny. She knows Danny, the doctors do not. She rarely wavers in her belief that Danny will be well one day. The trouble is, drugs are always within easy reach for Danny. He backslides a lot.
The doctors and psychiatrists are not helpful. As Lucy remarks after a visit to one psychiatrist, "he gave me a stern and gloomy diagnosis, but no practical information about how to help." The early 1980s was yet another transition period in determining what schizophrenia was and how to treat it. This is a diagnosis that is subject to trends. After a break of two years, Lucy takes her son back to see the psychologist, "Jeff" who was so helpful with the family the first time. Now he tells her that he believes schizophrenia is a lifelong chronic illness that needs to be treated by medications. He no longer thinks he can be of any help, based on new information. Potential support denied. Lucy is on her own once again to figure this out for herself. Her optimism puts her at odds with the medical community. One psychiatrist in England wants her to institutionalize Danny for life. Truly shocking advice for someone who is only 17. On a plane trip she happens to sit beside a psychiatrist who says that some people with schizophrenia do recover and a good thing to do is to support the person's interests.
Today's treatment for schizophrenia and other mental health problems is skewed disproportionately in favor of medication. If Danny's treatment took place today, instead of in the 1980s, the author's strategy would not change, but she would also have to battle the by now well-entrenched biochemically determined treatment model of the so-called illness. At first, Danny was not on any medication, and then he was occasionally given sleeping pills at night. He was on lithium for a short period of time and was on an antipsychotic for a short time. Lucy comes home after Danny was doing very well and discovers him in a knife-wielding rage. She attributes this more to pot smoking (his rages usually lagged pot smoking by a few days), than to the fact that she had abruptly discontinued his antidepressant a week earlier because he was doing so well. In those days, there was no information about the dangers of going cold turkey off these medications. Dropping them quickly can cause rebound psychosis.
Lucy encourages her son in many ways—to drive a car, to be involved in music, to develop more self-discipline through Karate, etc. This is what he likes, and more of what he likes will be therapeutic. She reads Eric Erickson, and frames what Danny is going through as a difficult, extended maturation process. There is an astonishing statement by Danny towards the end of the book, which I won't reveal, that, if I interpreted it correctly, backs up the author's contention that Danny's problems were a child's struggle to become an adult in his own right. Doctors call this struggle "schizophrenia," but they maintain it is a "disease."
Here is advice from the author about the best way to treat anybody who is considered "mad."
I explained to him (Oliver, her husband) my now clearly formulated philosophy of not even thinking Danny mad, or an addict, or helpless, or hopeless, etc.
Early the next morning Lucy finds his bed empty and Danny in the garage with his new Kawasaki.
"Danny!" I exploded, "Haven't you been to sleep all night? "No. Me and Anthony rehearsed late late. And then I was just too fascinated by my bike. I couldn't leave it." I thought. He is like a farmer sitting up all night with a horse.
Like a farmer sitting up all night with a horse. Exactly! The author shows the reader how to change what may be disturbing or unusual behavior to an understandable motivation, and then keep up a cheerful attitude even though you may have doubts. The child will adapt well to this strategy over time. I've done the same for my own son. Read this book (please!) for many of these insights.
This book has global readership potential because of its special flavor and its powerful message, but it is not without its problems. It needs more editing. There are many places in this book where the writing is vague, leaving the reader confused. The dialect problem is clear. I don't believe in eliminating dialect, but for a world market—which is where this book belongs—most readers need help with Afrikaans and South African English. Another problem is that there are so many characters that I couldn't keep them straight. It also appeared to me that occasionally the same character would have a nickname, and both names would be used. Way too confusing. A bit of artistic license could be employed to collapse several characters into one, or else not refer to them specifically by name, making them just "friends" of Danny. "Tara" for example, is the name of a psychiatric hospital, but it would have been helpful to not refer to it later in the book as just "Tara" because then I wondered who this girl "Tara" was. I also only realized part way through the book that "Lucy" was in fact, the mother. This puzzled me because the author is Ann Cluver Weinberg. Where does "Lucy" come from? I can't recall a disclaimer that the names are fictitious, but maybe there was one and I missed it.
Now, here's my confession. I read this book as an e-book, and e-books present special problems of their own. I would like to go back and refresh my memory in order to write a tighter, more accurate review, but e-books make this very difficult. I can't underline sentences or ear mark pages. Very frustrating, indeed.
I would love to see this book widely disseminated because here is a mother telling you that yes, schizophrenia is an understandable condition. This condition, seen in the light of a difficult transitioning from childhood to adulthood, can be overcome by seeing the person, not the medical model of the disease. Her viewpoint is very relevant today, when the purely medical model of the disease is being challenged as never before.
Consider asking your local library to order a copy.