If you need to change a fan belt on a 1994 Fiat, you buy a
Chilton's manual, and not a treatise on the joys of high-speed
touring. If you need to make a lemon meringue pie, you get a
cookbook, and not a memoir on the joys of great French cuisine. Car
manuals and recipes are not always great literature by any means,
but they are often necessary in helping to get a job done.
Susan Rose Blauner's HOW I STAYED ALIVE WHEN MY BRAIN WAS TRYING TO
KILL ME is nobody's idea of great, or even good, literature. From a
purely literary standpoint, the book is chatty, tiresome and
irritating, filled with sentimental rubbish, New Age nonsense, and
ghastly psychological claptrap. It has been edited with an
over-gentle hand, preserving every little cliché and every
annoying scrap of poetry and personal reflection. It is a book that
very few people will pick up for pleasurable reading, and rightly
And yet, it will undoubtedly save lives.
HOW I STAYED LIVE WHEN MY BRAIN WAS TRYING TO KILL ME is not, as
you might think, merely a personal tale of survival from mental
illness. It is primarily a manual, a reference book, a resource for
people who have suicidal thoughts. Although the book is guided by
the author's own experiences with mental illness and suicide
attempts, it is written not to chronicle her life but to provide
direction and guidance for others in the same situation. And as
such, it is an undeniable success.
Blauner's book is guided by several hard-won insights. Suicide
begins as a thought, driven by negative feelings, and such feelings
are temporary and changeable. "Suicidal," Blauner tells us, "is not
a feeling." Suicidal thoughts are paired with feelings of anger,
guilt, loneliness, and desperation, and it is necessary to separate
those feelings from thoughts of suicide. Suicidal thoughts can be
addictive, we learn, with romantic notions of one's death and
funeral building upon each other. And these suicidal thoughts from
one's brain war with one's spirit, which doesn't want to die,
creating the conflict in the title.
The heart of the book is the "Tips of the Trade," 25 different
ideas, strategies, and plans that people with suicidal thoughts can
use to help avoid harming themselves. The most invaluable of these
is the "Crisis Plan," which is easily the best thing about the
book. Blauner details the plan that she, along with her therapist,
worked out to help her deal with suicidal thoughts. It begins with
"Take a deep breath," and proceeds from there to prayer,
activities, exercise, and phone calls to family, friends, and
professionals. Applying the principles of strategic planning and
crisis management to one's personal life may seem a little
unorthodox, but it is undoubtedly effective, and may prove to be so
for people with a variety of different needs.
The "Tricks" are extremely varied, and more than a little eclectic.
(This is to be expected from an author who describes herself as a
"Jewish Unitarian Zen-Quakerish earth-loving type.") Not all of the
"Tricks" will help everyone, and more than a few of them may seem a
little goofy, if not out-and-out weird. Realistically, though, you
never can tell what might help someone set aside a suicidal
thought. If throwing eggs at trees, or sitting in a chair with a
bucket between your knees helps someone, then it's a trick worth
sharing, no matter how odd it sounds.
HOW I STAYED ALIVE WHEN MY BRAIN WAS TRYING TO KILL ME is not an
incredibly well-written book, but it is brave and courageous and
helpful, full of resources and tips and ideas and strength for
anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts or anyone with a friend or
family member with such experiences. More than that, it is a book
that is, quite simply, "normal," if not invaluable, in helping
people in this situation finish the job of life.
Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds (firstname.lastname@example.org), a movie reviewer at http://www.txreviews.com/ on January 22, 2011