REVIEW: The Great Pretender

Having previously read Susannah Cahalan’s memoir, Brain on Fire, I was so excited to hear that she was writing a new book about the mental health system in America.

The Great Pretender is the unravelling of the paper written by David Rosenhan titled “On Being Sane in Insane Places” and examining how it was influenced by as well as influencing in regards to the treatment of people living with mental illness. It examined the case of people posing as patients to “infiltrate” the broken system and prove the point of misdiagnosis as well as the dismissal of those who receive those diagnoses. Winding through history and even looking at the development of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and the modern method of Structured Clinical Interview for DSM (SCID) diagnosis.

Reading Cahalan’s previous book, I was familiar with her own experiences with misdiagnosis which I do feel was a key element in her ability to capture all of the elements of this narrative. My own experiences also gave me intense respect for those involved in the study and even for people that continue to speak out on behalf of those who are victims of the broken system that passes itself off as health care for the mentally ill.

I also found the final few chapters regarding fraudulent research and results in scientific papers to be fascinating. Tackling the disproven research from Freud all the way to the Standford Prison Experiment (which was a weird obsession I had in high school and will always find fascinating), it talked about not only creating fictitious results for the sake of being published but also how papers should really be taken with a grain of salt because not many of them age and achieve the same results when replicated.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in psychology, psychiatry, history, or even mental health in general. Whether it’s your major or you’re simply curious, Cahalan’s writing style is very accessible and attention-grabbing. Once again, Susannah Cahalan has knocked this one out of the park and I look forward to any and all future books she comes out with.

How Kaz Brekker Saved My Life; or A Very Personal Review of Six of Crows

While this blog post will also contain my review for Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows, it will also contain subject matter some reader my find triggering. Therefore, there is a content warning for suicide and suicidal ideation.

Should you only want to read the review, simply scroll past the first section.


It has taken me a long time to get to reading the beauty of the book that is Six of Crows. With it’s beautiful cover art, and stunning black sprayed edges, it’s a treasure on my shelves even if only to look at. There’s no real reason why I haven’t read it before now, but I will admit to reading it now primarily because I was told I’d get more from King of Scars (Bardugo’s latest book in the Grishaverse) if I did. I went into it thinking I knew what I was signing up for: a teen version of Peaky Blinders with more diversity and a touch of magic. As usual, I got a lot more than that, but I wasn’t expecting just how much more I got.

As followers of mine may know, I lost my 12-year-old cousin a year ago to suicide and it’s something I’m not ashamed to admit I’m still very much struggling to handle. As someone who has suffered very serious and very chronic depression along with being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, suicide is something that is constantly haunting me.

Does this mean that I, myself, am suicidal?

At one point it did but I’ve gotten a little better at handling the dark days to the extend it’s more like intrusive thinking on it’s own rather than an impulsive urge to follow through on said intrusive thoughts. It’s background noise that gets louder on bad days, but still background noise. Since losing my cousin to something that I’ve thought about so intensly over the years, the noise is harder to quiet. Considering my life is not nearly where I was hoping and wanting it to be right now, it’s especially hard to ignore.

My day job is not ideal. The feeling of being a burden to those around me is suffocating. Being 24-years-old and not even really knowing who I am in my own head, let alone to the world around me, feels embarrassing when I see those around me who are younger and still more successful. These are things that make the noise loudest and sometimes it’s to the point where it’s hard to breathe.

In the past I’ve tried to keep thinking of Harry Potter or Game of Thrones or even hyper focusing on anime like Naruto, Bleach and Full Metal Alchemist for motivation to keep moving forward (a prominent line from FMA) but those things always taper out and fade away and I’m stuck scrambling to find something else to chase away the overwhelming pressure of depression.

So where does Six of Crows come in?

Right now.

The moto of the gang (essentially) run by Kaz Brekker is “No mourners. No funerals.” To paraphrase the book itself, this passes between members of The Dregs as “good luck”. But to me, it spoke to the background noise telling me “Hey, wouldn’t things just be easier if you stepped in front of the bus?” It told this voice, this noise, “No. There will be no mourners. There will be no funerals.”

6c413a0f076a683ae908f290fdbe95dbTo me, it’s a reminder of the hardships that come with death. It points at my cousin’s still mourning family and says, “Do you really want that to happen instead?”. There are many books I can get lost in for hours at a time to simply forget what’s going on around me or to help me ignore the storms of conflict that are raging in my head. No mourners. No funerals. can calm the anxiety that tightens my throat when the last thing I want to do is be a cashier. It can remind me that there are people who care about me without sounding patronizing. It’s a warm blanket in the rain that pushes me to make things better myself. And that’s what Leigh Bardugo has given me.

She has taken spite as motivation and given it a strength and a voice that I can hear in my own head and use with my own strength.

Mental illness is different for every person who deals with it, but that’s the thing. We deal with it. And sometimes it’s impossibly hard to just deal with something that makes us legitimately considering the possibility that ending our lives will make it easier for those around us and even for ourselves. Let that sink it. Death as something easier. Coping is hard no matter the healthy or unhealthy method being used, because coping isn’t a solution. But it’s something that can keep us going which is so important.

Therapy and medication are proven to help, but therapy isn’t always accessible and medication doesn’t always provide ideal help as often the side effects outweigh the positives. If you are capable of trying either of these methods, I encourage you to. But if you are unable to find at least one thing to keep you moving forward. It doesn’t matter how small that thing is or how insignificant you think it might be to someone else. It does not matter what it is long as it matters to you. For me it’s this quote. It’s not wanting to put those I care about through mourning and funerals.

So this is the story of how Kaz Brekker, the Bastard of the Barrel and a very seriously fictional character, showed me that spite and perseverance can be enough. That it’s okay if that’s enough. Because as long as there are no mourners and no funerals, everything will still be moving forward. And maybe that will be okay.

And, please, if you are depressed: tell someone. If you want to die: tell someone. If you have no one to tell, I will listen to all venting. Just send me an email. If you’re struggling, there is no need to struggle alone.


THE BOOK REVIEW

Thank you for coming to my TED Talk on my personal experiences coping with mental illness. If you skipped it, thank you for coming to this review.

Six of Crows takes The Grisha Trilogy to the level the world truly deserves. The third person perspective makes the narrative so much stronger and using what I’ve been calling “the A Song of Ice and Fire method”, switching between characters every chapter is great (and with a much more manageable cast size than ASOIAF).

The Dregs we meet in this book are Kaz Brekker – the ring leader and best known criminal in the slums of Ketterdam, Inej Ghafa – Kaz’s secret finder and Wraith of Ketterdam, Jesper Fahey – gunner, gambler, and secret Grisha, and Nina Zenik – ex-member of the Ravkan Second Army and known Heartrender. We also get to know the latest Dreg still proving himself, Wylan Van Eck – son of a promenant merchant and explosives expert, and Matthias Helvar – a Fjerdan Grisha hunter.

This band of misfits joins together for the biggest heist of their careers and wind up stuck in a trap bigger than they planned for.

I loved the way each character bonded and how their motivations were all so entirely different and yet they were still so supportive of each other. I loved how this book had my heart racing at every twist to the point that it actually took me almost three weeks to finish it (something unheard of when it comes to how fast I normally read).

The diversity of the characters and even how their different cultures kept clashing just made the world feel so much more real and alive than it did in The Grisha Trilogy. Don’t get me wrong, I am still a supporter of the original trilogy, but the growth in Leigh Bardugo’s writing is an absolute honour to see.

I do think that the best part of the book is definitely Kaz. I felt a real connection to him and his constant anger hidden behind fierce nonchalance and sass. I related to his dislike of being touched and appreciated that while his emotions changed throughout the story, that his ticks remained the same. He’s come to mean a lot to me, even if he is fictional.

While being very late to this party, I adored this book from cover to cover and once I have recovered from the ending, I look forward to the beauty that is my red sprayed hardcover of Crooked Kingdom that has been sitting on my shelf since release day.

REVIEW: Brain on Fire

I don’t normally read biographies of any kind (with the incredibly rare exception of Carrie Fisher’s books), but I especially don’t ever read autobiographies about illness. Given my own various mental illness diagnoses, non-fiction books about illnesses tend to trigger a certain kind of anxious paranoia in me that I just can’t shake.

However, if you know anything about me, it’s that for a very long time the Hannibal films have been an obsession of mine, and for a shorter length of time, the television series as well. Through my enjoyment of the show, I have a curiosity about the real-life effects of encephalitis based on Will Graham’s experiences in Bryan Fuller’s adaptation. That curiosity placed this book on my TBR but never pushed me far enough to read it. With the release of the movie adaptation on Netflix (starring Chloe Grace Moretz), I figured it was time to dive in.

Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan is a more detailed look at an article she wrote for the New York Post and gives a true idea of just how horrifying it can be to lose control of yourself without reason. Very quickly this book terrified me. The initial symptoms Susannah encounters are things that I, myself, and friends of mine as well, have dealt with as – as I mentioned before – I did find myself getting paranoid despite the rational part of my brain knowing full well that I did not have nor probably will ever develop encephalitis.

I won’t get into the details of the symptoms or even Susannah’s patch-work of what she endured while in the hospital, but I do want to talk about the structure and the writing.

Clearly, Susannah Cahalan is okay. Otherwise we wouldn’t have this book. Her writing style is tight and she doesn’t ramble to fill the page. Her narrative has been put together by the vague memories she has, anecdotes from those who were with her, and video footage from the hospital. Given the extensive medical terminology used, Cahalan never ones writes to look down on people. She gives explanations for everything while still not getting overly descriptive and therefore boring the story. You can feel the fear that comes out of early chapters, and the helpless yearning of those close to her in later ones. Even with every diagnosis or misdiagnosis, the hope that the suffering will be over radiates off the page, even more so when it is at last discovered what Cahalan is truly dealing with.

Those who have seen the Hannibal tv show may believe that they have a basic understanding of encephalitis – as I did myself. But the reality is far more terrifying than black outs and spatial neglect.

I learned a lot from this book and am truly pleased to have read it. As a narrative, it is compelling and suspenseful even with the lack of a “countdown” shall we say as is with cancer or other fatal illnesses. As a book about the connection between physical and mental illnesses, it was as fascinating as it was tragic given that, more often than not, patients with encephalitis of any kind can go undiagnosed.

Definitely worth the read.


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Author: Susannah Cahalan
Published: November 13, 2012
Pages: 266
Publisher: Simon & Shuster Paperbacks
ISBN: 9781451621389

Synopsis: When twenty-four-year-old Susannah Cahalan woke up alone in a hospital room, strapped to her bed and unable to move or speak, she had no memory of how she’d gotten there. Days earlier, she had been on the threshold of a new, adult life: at the beginning of her first serious relationship and a promising career at a major New York newspaper. Now she was labeled violent, psychotic, a flight risk. What happened?

In a swift and breathtaking narrative, Cahalan tells the astonishing true story of her descent into madness, her family’s inspiring faith in her, and the lifesaving diagnosis that nearly didn’t happen.

An Update

Things haven’t been great the last few weeks, and as I thought things were beginning to look up, I got knocked down once again.

This month was supposed to be full of fun Star Wars posts that I had had planned out for months, but – as is usual for me lately – mental health has gotten in the way. A lot of rough stuff has been going on behind my camera and I just don’t have the strength or energy for a lot of things these days, from photos to even just reading. It sucks and I’m trying my best but there’s only so much I can do right now to try and make things better. It’s hard when you feel like you’re getting punched in the face no matter what it is you do.

Let’s hope that June is better and I can put some pride into my work again. I don’t want to let people down like I keep doing to myself.

Until then, here’s a pretty photo of my Steve Harrington funko pop, looking about the same as how I feel.

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Find this photo and more on my Instagram — @lucieninthestars

 

How RuPaul’s Drag Race Helped Me Learn To Love Myself

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The first time I heard of a drag queen, I was maybe seven or eight years old. My mother had shown me and my younger brother the film Priscilla: Queen of the Desert and we were instantly obsessed with the final dance number in the film. I can remember loving everything about the makeup and the costumes, and never once questioning why these men were in dresses, lip syncing away to Abba and CeCe Peniston. Fast forward a few years later when I was in high school. My friends and I were anime fans, constantly cosplaying at conventions or at each other’s houses and often dressing as the opposite gender for the sake of being the characters we loved. Once again, I never questioned dressing or presenting as a boy when it came to cosplay. It was just what I did. What we did.

But then a cosplayer I highly admired (and still do) did something I had never heard of. He came out as trans, explaining that he had never truly felt comfortable as a woman and was going to begin his transition. That was the first time I felt anxious about who I was in regard to gender. I had never really thought about my casual flip-flopping between masculine and feminine presentation but knowing that being transgender was actually something people could do, put my whole concept of “crossplaying” into a different kind of perspective.

Keeping these feelings to myself was a lot to deal with, but after a while I stopped thinking about it. That is, until college when the anxiety flared again as I came to know more and more people who identified outside of the binary. The term genderfluid came into my life at that point, and much of the anxiety was lifted. It was okay to be somewhere in between cisgender and transgender that was still valid! I started to become more open about my own existence outside of the gender norm and was comfortable with that.

But what does any of this have to do with RuPaul’s Drag Race?

Lately, using they/them pronouns hits my ear wrong when it’s in regard to myself. She/her pronouns make my skin crawl as well, but explaining they/them to those who aren’t familiar (or even open) to their usage when it comes to a singular person gets exhausting. It’s hard to feel like a valid person when you don’t know how to completely come out of the closet and be yourself.

Anyone who watches Drag Race is very familiar with Ru’s end-of-episode mantra, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”. To this 23-year-old, gender-confused, bisexual who is riddled with anxiety disorders, that mantra means everything.

I was introduced to Drag Race during a particularly rough time in my life, as I was tumblr_nrgozqmrj31togmudo8_250told it might help cheer me up. As a fan of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Paris is Burning, I thought I would give it a go. I was already familiar with some of Katya’s work, so I began with season 7. The queens were often catty and vicious with each other, but they also surprised me with their compassion for each other as they listened to the struggles their new drag sisters had gone through, bonding over homophobic encounters, mental illness, eating disorders, substance abuse, and even gender identities. It was these moments that got to me the more I watched, and after devouring the season, I binged watched all the other seasons as well, learning more and more about each of the queens and feeling more and more validated when it came to my anxieties in regard to my own issues with gender and sexuality.

cp9wjef12i5zIn the most recent season (Season 9), I found myself being drawn towards Peppermint and Sasha Velour the most. Peppermint was very open about being a transwoman, and Sasha never shied away from her thoughts on how “gender is a construct, tear it apart.” (as stated in the song C.L.A.T.). Thinking more and more about where my gender sat on the spectrum, I found my anxieties growing as well. It can be a very difficult thing to struggle with, especially when you don’t feel you have anyone to talk it through with. Explaining my genderfluidity was hard enough to do with friends, but to throw in the possibility of being trans on top of that? Not a chance. But I watched these queens strut their stuff week after week, and seeing their confidence helped give me confidence. They showed me that I don’t have to tell anyone right away, that I can take the time and think things through.

Every time I find myself anxious or panicky about my gender, I think of RuPaul and the RuGirls. I think of drag. Every time being femme makes me uncomfortable – at home or at work, where I’m still mostly closeted – I think of it as drag. Every time I feel like I want to be femme, but that it contradicts my wanting to be male, I think of drag. It validates my feelings and reminds me that gender is little more than a social construct (and before anyone brings genitals into the mix, sex and gender are different things).

RuPaul has built an empire based on drag, and empire that flips the bird at gender constructs and spreads positivity to a community that is constantly getting put down based on who they love. Queens like Katya, Alaska, Jinkx, Peppermint, and Sasha represent – to me – positive icons who rock who they are and don’t let the crap people can say get to them. I find myself looking to them to remind me to be confident, to not listen to negativity, to not give in to my insecurities. Without them or the other RuGirls or even Mama Ru herself, I wouldn’t be able to confidently voice my thoughts and feelings on the matter.

At this point in my life, I still experience anxiety when it comes to telling people about my pronouns or answering questions people have about gender identity, but I’m working on it and my confidence. Am I ready to transition? Not just yet, but maybe one day, when I’ve had more time to find myself.

My name is Rachel, my friends call me Rae, my readers call me RJ. One day, I might go by something else, but I have time to figure that out. One day I’ll be more confident about being a boy (despite all these lady parts). And I’ve realized all of this because of Drag Race.

So to anyone struggling with the same anxieties, the same insecurities, the same fears: you aren’t alone and you never will be. There will always be people who are there to listen, to help, and to support you throughout your life. Yes, there are people who won’t understand, and that is a scary thing to think about, but you deserve the lives you want to live with the people who support your decisions.

And most important of all:

If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?

Can I get an amen up in here?

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