In his 2012 release, “Expecting the Broken Brain to Do Mental Pushups,” Dave Elder discussed the experiences that led him to understanding the behaviors of his schizophrenic mother, the drug- and alcohol-addicted friends he met during his youth and his depressed love “M.” It’s a sad memoir of trying to learn, and live with, psychiatric disorders that can’t be seen, touched, or truly understood.
Throughout the book Elder compares someone suffering from a psychiatric disorder, such as schizophrenia, to someone with a broken arm. He frequently refers to having a psychiatric disorder as having a “broken brain.” To explain his comparison, here is an excerpt from his Introduction:
“Imagine a man with a broken arm. Now imagine the family and friends of this person asking and expecting him to do pushups. The family and friends of the broken arm person keep telling him that if he tries hard enough, and believes strongly enough, he can do it. Try as he might, he’ll never do those pushups, and he feels a lot of pain every time he tries. However, his family and friends grow impatient with him for not fulfilling their request, and they tell him he’s not trying hard enough. They lose respect for him, and they chide him for not really wanting to succeed. They tell him he’s a bad person with a serious character flaw. They tell him the problem is all in his head, and if he truly cared, he could fix it himself just by thinking about it. If he dares to complain about the pain, his family and friends call him a cry baby.”
Elder goes on to explain that no one would actually treat a man with a broken arm so cruelly and that is because they can see that his arm is broken. No one can actually see a psychiatric disorder or a “broken brain” which is exactly why it is so difficult for people to understand it and show compassion.
From the description of the book I expected to read about Dave and his family first learning about his mother’s diagnosis of schizophrenia and how they ultimately learned to cope with her illness. I wanted to read about experiences at home and family stress. I had hoped to read about specific instances at home that led to his understanding of his mother. The family focus that I had anticipated was not in the book to the degree that I would have preferred. Instead, Elder mostly discusses his experiences with drug- and alcohol- musicians and junkies during his time in Atlanta. He discusses various bands he had and how they broke up due to drug- and alcohol- abuse by other band members. He briefly hints at the likelihood of his older brother having a less severe diagnosis of schizophrenia but he never really fully engages in those details. He also discusses his life with “M” and her struggle with depression. He explains how it is due to a chemical imbalance and, unfortunately, is outside of the control of the person who suffers from the illness.
There are some spelling and grammatical errors in the book. They are minor but they are present and obvious. The primary aspect of the book that I found lacking were the details. I wanted to read about specific instances in which his mother’s schizophrenia interfered with their family’s life and how they eventually came to coping with her illness. Elder mentions, in passing, that after his father’s death he and his younger brother had to become more involved with his mother’s care but we aren’t given any specifics on how they cared for her or what changed.
I wanted details. I wanted to feel emotionally connected to Elder, his family, and his friends. I wanted to feel involved and I wanted to care about the people in the book but the emotional connection wasn’t there. There just were not enough specifics to make the connection that I had hoped would develop. Despite the lack of emotional involvement it was still a good book and I would still recommend that you pick it up for a read. It’s very short (only 107 pages) and can easily be read in a single sitting. It does provide insight into how the average person views someone with a psychiatric disorder and it is educational. It is an interesting story and would be an enjoyable read for anyone interested in mental illness.
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