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by Jean Johnston
Cairn, 2005
Review by Tony O'Brien, RN, MPhil on Jul 18th 2006

To Walk on Eggshells

To Walk on Eggshells is a companion volume to The Naked Bird Watcher, Suzy Johnston's autobiographical account of mental illness. Written by Suzy's mother Jean Johnston, To Walk on Eggshells tells Jean's story of her daughter's mental illness, and the family's struggle to cope with its devastating effects. It is a deeply personal story, written as a direct first person narrative. I read To Walk on Eggshells without the benefit of having read its predecessor, but there would clearly be benefits to reading the two volumes together.

The book is written in the form of a personal memoir, and seems crafted to appeal to parents of young people with mental illness, or to others who find themselves dealing with mental illness in the family. The author describes the onset of changes in behavior, initially unrecognized as mental illness, but which profoundly influenced the lives of both mother and daughter. Although short, at a mere 75 pages, the book ranges over a variety of issues that families affected by mental illness will recognize. Johnston has a lay audience in mind and does not wish them to become 'bogged down in heavy and painful reading'. She succeeds in the first objective. However, although Jean does not overstate the difficulties faced by a mother whose daughter's life is disintegrating, the pain is palpable. The memoir is both moving and absorbing. It is recommended reading for the parents of people with mental illness who want to know how it was for someone else in the same situation.

After some initial background chapter three begins: 'I knew something was wrong with our daughter'. This stark statement sets the tone for the following chapters, and for Jean's strongly subjective account of her experience. Readers are taken on a roller coaster tour of Jean's life as a mother coping with mental illness in a loved daughter: bewilderment at the unusual and disconcerting behaviors, the uncertainties of negotiating appropriate care, self-blame, feelings of 'uselessness' and especially the theme that gives the book its title, 'walking on eggshells'; in a nutshell, the tiptoeing around issues that parents dare not confront for fear of 'making things worse'. The language is refreshingly direct: 'God it is so tiring. You are literally living your life on a knife edge.'; 'The truth is that I think mental illness can be total shit.' This is no distant and detached account.

Johnston is an avowed non-expert ('I am no authority'), but one whose experience equips her to provide practical advice to parents and families: 'we would be wise to watch out for [signs of self harm]'.  In sharing her experience as frankly as she does, Jean achieves something likely to elude a more comprehensive description.

Johnston is sympathetic to the work of mental health professionals, and she is optimistic about measures undertaken by the Scottish Government to address mental health concerns. There is none of the generalized lambasting of 'community care' which can make for tedious reading at times. But just as Johnston acknowledges the care provided by professionals, she is also forthright in noting that families do not always receive the services they need. She encourages carers to advocate for their needs and demand appropriate services. 

Some readers might wish for more specific information. What was Suzy's diagnosis? What is the medication Jean thinks she may have to take for life? What are some of the strategies that have assisted Suzy's recovery? To Walk on Eggshells is a book with a modest but important objective: to engage its audience. It is the sort of book that will enable readers to identify with Jean, and to seek further for the support and information they need. One shortcoming is that the book does not provide contact details of where families or carers can access help. In chapter eight Johnston refers to some 'excellent service-user led [internet] sites' but, disappointingly, the addresses are not given. I can imagine that family members reading this book would like to see a list of support agencies or services for those with mental illness. However the book does contain the web address of the publisher, which in turn provides links to web resources.

To Walk on Eggshells is a warm and absorbing first person account that is a valuable resource for family members looking for someone who speaks to their experience; a fellow traveler on an anxious and uncertain road. 

 

© 2006 Tony O'Brien

 

Tony O'Brien RN, MPhil, PhD candidate, Senior Lecturer, Mental Health Nursing,  University of Auckland, a.obrien@auckland.ac.nz