“A portrait of motherhood and madness.”
At first glance, the tagline for Miriam Feldman’s memoir He Came In With It might evoke an image of a woman trying to wrangle her children while dealing with the challenges of life, and to a certain extent, you’d be right. However, the main challenge highlighted in Feldman’s book is her quest to help her son, Nick, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Feldman, who is an artist, writer and activist, carefully crafts a narrative of the “Bad Ten Years”, a time period in which Nick’s mental health progressively worsens and a series of disasters afflicts their family. She tells the story of not only how her family was impacted, but also her experiences navigating the mental health system. In particular, she refers to the “stabilize ’em and discharge ’em” mentality observed in short-term care facilities like hospitals, how unequipped law enforcement is to deal with mental illness, and the lasting impacts of stigma.
Stigma, in particular, plays an important role in the story as Feldman balances the need to present herself as a good mother, protect her family’s reputation in the community, challenge her own perceptions of mental illness and ultimately support Nick.
Feldman’s story is ultimately a story about her son. She describes Nick as charming and artistic, which certainly shines through in her recollections of him. It’s hard not to be affected by his words even when they are disturbing.
“As your growing son of 18, I take pleasure in glorifying your bitter gingersnap of a smile,” he writes in a card to her. “One could read your 48 years of mannerisms endlessly enthralled and hypnotized into a frozen Dali moment of infinity.”
Nick’s portrayal as someone who is kind, fearful, defiant and perseverant all at once reminds readers that he’s still human, even as his family wonders where the person they knew has gone. It was particularly refreshing to gain this perspective, especially when mentally ill individuals are dehumanized and considered bigger threats to others than to themselves.
Feldman often laments not seeing the signs of Nick’s schizophrenia sooner – at one point she writes, “if one compiled the list of the red flags for mental illness and then a list of normal teenage behaviors, it might as well be the same list.”
However, as many have come to learn, even when you’re familiar with the signs you may still miss them.
As I read, Feldman’s writing often conjured up memories of things I had read or learned about in the past. There’s a scene where Nick and his father get into a violent altercation in front of the family. It reminded me of a children’s book I once read called Memories of Summer, in which the titular character becomes upset and smashes a mug over her sister’s head during a storm. Remembering it now, I realize that this was my first exposure to mental illness, through reading about someone who was living through it.
Yet, despite all my reading, I was utterly unprepared when I actually encountered mental illness in real life. No matter how much you read or hear about something, especially mental health, you can never be fully prepared until you experience it directly. This sentiment reverberates within Feldman’s writing, as she grapples with the idea of Nick being mentally ill rather than simply being a “troubled kid”.
He Came In With It manages to capture the impact of Nick’s illness on himself, his sisters and his parents in a way that enthralls readers and keeps them invested in the journey.
Today, Feldman currently serves on the advisory board of non-profit Bring Change 2 Mind and is active with National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) Washington. Her deeply emotional memoir is worth the read.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
He Came In With It will be released on June 23, 2020. You can pre-order it through Bookshop.
Featured image via BookSparks publicity