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Story offers a lucid glimpse of living life with a mental illness

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/4/2014 (1185 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

On a sunny morning in Victoria, Glen, a marine biologist, and his team find a killer whale beached on the shore, already in an advanced state of decomposition. After a preliminary examination, the men are unable to determine the cause of death. The whale's sickness, and the mystery surrounding it, effectively set the tone for the rest of the story.

A biologist herself, Canadian novelist Ann Eriksson lives on Thetis Island, B.C., near Victoria. High Clear Bell of Morning is her fourth novel.

Glen and Sybil's daughter Ruby has been acting strangely of late. Normally a genial and responsible young woman with high academic standards, Ruby has abandoned her university classes, withdrawn from family and close friends, and flies off the handle at the least provocation.

When she begins scrawling cryptic messages on her bedroom walls and talking of soldiers in the trees outside her window, Glen and Sybil seek a medical opinion. But nothing could have prepared them for the diagnosis: schizophrenia.

A neurobiological disease, schizophrenia counts hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, lack of energy and attention to personal hygiene, and impaired judgment and reasoning among its many symptoms. It affects one in 100 people, both men and women equally, typically between the ages of 16 and 25.

High Clear Bell of Morning highlights the vulnerability of those suffering from a mental illness, at the mercy of both crippling disease and an imperfect, overtaxed medical system, where qualified doctors and easy answers are often in short supply.

Like most schizophrenics, Ruby is prescribed an ever-changing roster of drugs -- anti-psychotics, mood stabilizers, anti-depressants and anxiety pills -- which ease the hallucinations, but leave her feeling foggy and lethargic: "The thought of taking a bath or getting dressed... made her want to crawl into a hole."

Although most of us cannot fathom what it's like to live with schizophrenia, or to be virtually numbed by prescription drugs, Eriksson offers up meaningful glimpses, as when Ruby removes her clothes and wanders out into the snow.

" 'Ruby?' Glen called... 'Honey, what are you doing?'

She scribed an arc through the air with an arm. 'Trying to feel.'

'Feel what, honey? What are you trying to feel?'

'Anything,' she answered..."

Meanwhile, further tests have revealed that the killer whale's body was chock-full of pollutants and chemicals, and although the cause of death is officially "unknown," Glen draws his own conclusions.

Cleverly interweaving Ruby's condition with the plight of the killer whale, Eriksson suggests they are both casualties of human "progress" and technology.

Through additional research, Glen learns that although schizophrenia is a biological disease, there are theories that it may be caused by infection, or brought on by changes in diet, or exposure to toxins: "PCBs, DDT, methyl mercury, flame retardants. All of them making the whales sick. Making his daughter sick?"

Soon Ruby moves in with a fellow patient she met at group therapy, Kenny, and before long, at his suggestion, she is self-medicating with cocaine and other street drugs.

New tensions arise at home. While Glen takes every opportunity to support Ruby, Sybil's answer is more rules and structure -- "tough love." When Ruby phones to speak to her dad, Sybil is immediately suspicious, asking if Ruby was after money, ostensibly for drugs. "Please, please don't bring her home. It's starting to feel normal around here."

Eriksson's story deftly demonstrates how even the most stalwart of families can disintegrate when faced with mental illness, a wily, unknowable opponent that often claims as its victims not only the patient, but their family members as well.

There are a few problems with Eriksson's narrative in terms of plausibility. Though mental illness takes an undeniable toll on every aspect of one's life, with the right drugs and therapy there is still hope for a fruitful, normal life.

But Eriksson steers too wide of the mark with an almost-miraculous storybook ending, perhaps not entirely representative of reality for the vast majority of schizophrenics.

Still, Eriksson should be applauded, if only for addressing a topic sorely in need of attention.

Lindsay McKnight works in the arts in Winnipeg.


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Updated on Saturday, April 26, 2014 at 8:44 AM CDT: Tweaks formatting.

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