Perfect Chaos

perfect-chaos260x420Perfect Chaos:
A Daughter’s Journey to Survive Bipolar, a Mother’s Struggle to Save Her
by Linea Johnson and Cinda Johnson
ISBN: 978-0312581824

You can’t fully understand mental illness unless you hear it from the patient’s and family’s point of view.

This is a very good book that deepened my understanding of mental illness, especially what it must be like to experience suicidal depression. It’s the story of an intact family that packs their talented, scholarship-winning daughter off to college only to see her crash and burn with a crippling, life-threatening depression and ultimate diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and the determined young woman’s first steps toward recovery. The book is written by the patient and her mother, with alternating entries, journal-style, of one to three pages at a time.

There a few minor shortcomings and let me get those out of the way first:

(1) Melodrama: it seems barely a page goes by without mother, daughter, or both, gushing tears like water over Horseshoe falls at Niagara. They cry in bathrooms, bedrooms, living rooms, at work, in class, at parties or in therapy sessions, while stoned or sober, while driving their cars in Seattle or walking the streets of Chicago, in coffee houses, hospital bedsides, doctors’ office waiting rooms, during airplane rides as well as departure and arrival gates; this is the most lacrimating family in the history of western civilization. They cry tears of sadness, worry, joy, relief, anger, regret, or for reasons unknown to the protagonists themselves. I realize this tale is one of mortal drama and not mere contrived melodrama, but — how to say this without appearing incredibly robotic and unfeeling? — one craves some respite (at least a page or two, perhaps) from protracted narratives of tears running down cheeks, smearing make-up, worries about the stares from strangers in public places, etc., ad infinitum;

(2) Although the family is intact and the father is mentioned copiously and quite obviously fully engaged and involved in the struggle to support their daughter, the title callously omits any reference to him and arrogates the role of savior to the mother (“a mother’s struggle to save her”); this omission from the title of the work seems an affront to the crucial role of the father of this valiant family. Would it really have hurt sales that much to change the sub-title to “…her parents’ struggle to save her” ..? It made me wonder more than once if there was some sort of over-enmeshment between mother and daughter that led to the young girl’s perfectionism and insecurity about being loved for just being herself rather than for what she could achieve in life;

(3) the name of the bright, persevering young woman who suffers the affliction, Linea, is given without any pronunciation guide or background on this unusual name. Several times I found myself distracted from the narrative wondering of the origin of the name, and how to pronounce it. I wondered about the taxonomist Linnaeus, I thought about classes in calculus (“linear”) and anatomy (as in “Linea Alba”), etc. Yes, I realize this makes me a somewhat shallow and trivial person to mention this issue, but when you read this pretty good book (and I hope you do), after seeing the name in print almost 1,000 times in 300 pages, you too might crave some background, or at least a phonetic pronunciation. Put yourself in my position.

Now on to the positives, which are not so minor:

(1) it is educational to hear a learned doctor describe mental illness, but it is truly enlightening to hear an articulate patient describe her experience in first-person, as well to hear it directly from the parents’ point of view. I don’t think we can ever fully understand mental illness unless we listen to the stories of those who’ve been through it;

(2) this is a story of loss, struggle, uncertainty, and partial redemption. At times Linea’s depression seemed so bad that she could never recover – yet she has done so. We can all take heart and be more hopeful about our own adversity after reading this story;

(3) it remains vexingly difficult to distinguish symptoms of serious mental illness from normal variations in mood and behavior. When we hear Linea is talking fast and feels happy, does that mean that she’s doing better, or going into a dangerous manic episode? When she contemplates quitting her music program, is that a sign of maturity and independent thinking, or a foretaste of another bout of impending depression? The narrative of the book helps us to listen well and think carefully about what’s really going inside a person.

(4) Linea’s story illustrats that the nature of recovery is not so simple as taking the right medicine and getting cured; indeed, recovery is anything BUT a simple, “linear” (pun intended), upward path restoring the person to his or her pre-bipolar self. Rather, recovery is up-and-down, partial, and a more complex process of learning to let go of parts of the old self and accept both the illness and a new, changed self.

(5) The dark family secret that is not revealed until almost half-way through the book (that I’m not going to reveal here) adds layers of complexity and suspense to Linea’s struggle to define herself and hang on to hope in the face of suicidal thoughts.

Overall I think this book adds a great deal to our deeper understanding of mental illness and recovery. Other excellent books in this genre include Beautiful Boy by David Sheff, History of a Suicide by Jill Bialosky, and Hurry Down Sunshine by Michael Greenberg.


GSD, M.D. is a medical doctor and psychiatrist, specializing in the psychology of resilience, personal courage, and renewal.

Posted in Child Maintenance, Psychology/Psychiatry
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