the center cannot hold – elyn saks

When you have cancer, people send flowers; when you lose your mind, they don’t.

Wow, Elyn Saks is one seriously brave and tenacious woman and The Center Cannot Hold is a brave book. I hadn’t heard of her until I saw the panel discussion with KRJ, which prompted me to read further. She says she has schizophrenia, OCD and is a hypochondriac. She’s also a fighter. She’d make Mike Tyson look silly.


Who was I, at my core? Was I primarily a schizophrenic? Did that illness define me? Or was it an “accident” of being—and only peripheral to me rather than the “essence” of me? It’s been my observation that mentally ill people struggle with these questions perhaps even more than those with serious physical illnesses, because mental illness involves your mind and your core self as well. A woman with cancer isn’t Cancer Woman; a man with heart disease isn’t Diseased Heart Guy; a teenager with a broken leg isn’t The Broken Leg Kid. But if, as our society seemed to suggest, good health was partly mind over matter, what hope did someone with a broken mind have?

With really severe delusional psychosis interrupting her almost every step of the way, she managed to forge herself a brilliant academic career, get married, write a book, be an activist  … etc.


I’m not so much reviewing the book as pasting quotes here and going zomg how dafuq did she manage all that?! Though she’s not snotty about it. Near the end of the book, she says that only one in five schizophrenics manage to live and work independently.

Her husband sounds lovely:

A serious question had been troubling me for hours, and finally I just had to ask it. “Will aliens be attending the reception?”

“No,” he said calmly, and he reached out to hold my hand. “There won’t be any aliens there, Elyn. Don’t worry about that.”

I needed to hear that reassurance from him, and having heard it, I happily went on with the day. It was as beautiful as I ever could have imagined, and it left me feeling quite fragile, as though a sudden noise or movement would blow the dream wide open. It was true, then: I was married, to the man I loved.

Another very educational aspect of the book is transcriptions of things she said while delusional, clang associations and all.

The book (her life) is an impressive journey, I have no hesitation in recommending it. Take it away Prof. Saks …

Recently, however, a friend posed a question: If there were a pill that would instantly cure me, would I take it? The poet Rainer Maria Rilke was offered psychoanalysis. He declined, saying, “Don’t take my devils away because my angels may flee too.” I can understand that. Mania in manic depression has been described as a sometimes pleasurable high that brings with it feelings of omnipotence. But that’s not the experience of schizophrenia, at least not for me. My psychosis is a waking nightmare, in which my demons are so terrifying that all my angels have already fled. So would I take the pill? In a heartbeat.

That said, I don’t wish to be seen as regretting that I missed the life I could have had if I’d not been ill. Nor am I asking anyone for pity. What I rather wash to say is that the humanity we all share is more important than the mental illness we may not.



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battlescarred, bright, bewildered, bent, blue & bipolar

31 thoughts on “the center cannot hold – elyn saks”

  1. She sounds lovely. I’d like to read her book.

    I’m all for being kind to people with (and without) disorders… I’m trying to muster up the courage to go apply in person for a day job tomorrow and I’m scared that my illness will somehow be brought up (“why aren’t you in school?” or what if I have to mark if I have any disability on a form? which has happened. or if I have to take a pee test, I will have to explain my false positives for PCP — yes, PCP — and amphetamines that come from one of the ~dozen drugs I’ve been rxed over the past few months).

    So this all seems relevant to me, in my paranoia of “should I lie about myself if it comes up? is it even myself that I’m lying about?” And I am just scared of how angry I can get when I am viewed as bipolar-stigma-person. When I am really just trying to get a retail job.

    End whiney rant.

    I just wish more people would read this type of thing. Not just a bipolar audience. Ya know?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. That wasn’t a whiny rant at all, it’s a realistic portrayal of the situation. Unfortunately. Hope you can walk tall and go apply.

      She talks quite a bit in her book, about her decision to go public with SZ, because she kept it private for quite a long time.

      And yeeeeessss … a wider audience would be better. Sigh. Humanity ….

      Liked by 1 person

    2. The general public doesn’t see mental illness as a disability they see it as a plague. Personally I would say nothing about it because it’s none of their business.

      I don’t think it is actually legal here where I live to ask those questions. They can phrase questions like “Is there any reason why you may not be able to comply with the job requirements on a daily basis?” Sneaky


  2. I saw her on TED talks (i love TED talks) a few months ago at the TED talks web site or maybe on Netflix. I loved her talk and thought she was really great. I would love to read this book. Thank you for suggesting it . I will add it to my Amazon cart.
    Great review. I am sure she would appreciate it. We have to stick together, us broken minded people.LOL

    Liked by 1 person

  3. re the flowers, very good point!

    Never had heard of Clang Associations: from; Updated September 16, 2014. Definition: Clang associations are formally defined as “psychic associations resulting from sounds, often observed in the manic phase of manic-depressive psychosis.” In simpler terms, clang associations are groupings of words based on their sounds, generally rhyming or partially rhyming, without necessarily having any logical reason to be put together.

    Examples: “Imagine the worst
    Systematic, sympathetic
    Quite pathetic, apologetic, paramedic
    Your heart is prosthetic”

    I was surprised a year ago August when my brother visited us (Maine from Florida) to find that my brother’s illness (schizoaffective disorder) was a lot like my bipolar when I am at highest mania. Either that or one or the other of us is misdiagnosed lol.

    I try very hard to differentiate, that I am a person with bipolar (versus a bipolar). I also remind myself I have bipolar but it doesn’t have me. Unfortunately as the years go by that is harder and harder to say with conviction.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m happy with I have bipolar or I am bipolar, but not I am a bipolar. I don’t wanna use it as a noun. :)

      I believe there is a ‘schizoaffective disorder – bipolar type’ but don’t quote me, I haven’t checked.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I guess maybe I could have schizoaffective disorder – bipolar type (I looked it up) or else my brother could have severe bipolar … who cares, as long s the medication works lol. Mine works pretty good for the moment and my brother’s constant voices/delusions have subsided – again, for the moment. :( I say ” :( ” because “they’ll be boch” (in my best Arnold imitation)

        Speaking of Schwarzenegger, have you ever seen this guy?

        Hope you don’t mind my flight of ideas. This stuff is so serious to me I can’t stand it sometimes

        Liked by 1 person

          1. Mutter mutter … they are a long way from finding a “cure” or “treatment,” but I suppose I should be happy w/ the substandard stability my brother and I experience. (sniff) I went from being a trauma ICU nurse in 82 to not even holding a cashier job. Um, perhaps feeling sorry for myself. Well at least I am a source of comfort or amusement depending on the day. Thing is I am cared for (disability) and I can pursue my dream (novelling), I can still drive, I have God, so what am I complaining about? mur mur mur lol


            1. I wish they’d even just improve palliative care :(

              You’re allowed to complain – and I feel sorry for you and me and all of us. I have lots to be grateful for too, but it’s also good to vent etc.

              Or something.


  4. Crap. ANOTHER book. Do you have ANY idea how many books I have to read? Really? Unfortunately, I know too many authors one way or another. That’s what happens when you start blogging, going to writers meetups, and chatting online with people. I figure there’s no reason to write a book, for it’s been done already. Over and over. Why I blog? Why am I writing this comment? Bye!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Lolololol you just gotta be selective ;) but yeah there is soooo much good stuff out there that I don’t even really have time to answer your comment so I’m just gonna g

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I bought the book tonight around midnight online and it seems it will have me up all night. It is 4:30am here on the east coast. Cue lecture from boyfriend on sleep and bipolar disorder, blah blah. It’s so good!

    Liked by 1 person

          1. aaaand now the sun has come up and my animals are waking up and getting off of me (no!) I really should sleep someday but lack of sleep/punctuation seems to reverse depressive states at least for a little while even if it makes my undereye area look like hell


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