Bookmonger: Viewing mental illness in a new light

“All the Things We Never Knew” by Sheila Hamilton

In the last half of the 20th century, the First Ladies in the White House would adopt pet projects while their husbands served as President. Everybody remembers Lady Bird Johnson for highway beautification and Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign.

But this week I was thinking about Rosalynn Carter’s advocacy for mental health as I read the new memoir, “All the Things We Never Knew,” by Portland reporter and radio personality Sheila Hamilton.

When Mrs. Carter was in the White House, I was too callow to appreciate her passion for a topic that sounded – well, kind of boring. But with maturity, I realize how much mental illness is compromising our way of life, and how lovely it would be to live in a society where good mental health is a top priority.

Author believes we can do a better job of serving, and saving, those who are mentally ill

This is something that Hamilton believes, too. But she came to this in the hardest way imaginable. Her husband, David, suffered a chaotic descent into bipolar disorder. She wrote “All the Things We Never Knew” as therapy for herself after David, unable to bear his illness any longer, committed suicide.

David was diagnosed only six weeks before he died, but Hamilton realizes in retrospect that her husband had been suffering from his illness much longer. She’s dumbfounded that she could have missed the signs of her husband’s affliction for nearly a decade.

She retraces her life with David, from their courtship, marriage and the birth of their daughter, to the years of slow disintegration, and the traumatic episodes and institutional lockup that led to his suicide. She realizes now that there were clues all along the way.

But he was attractive and charismatic and effective at compensating, as well as outright lying. Her own denial figured in, as did his parents’ and siblings’ failure to alert her to a family history of mental illness.

Hamilton has always worked in broadcast news, and she folds some of the stories she has covered as a reporter – from Oregon’s first school mass shooting, to an interview with New Age guru Deepak Chopra – into this narrative, providing an eerie backdrop of a confusing era.

Hamilton caps each chapter with a page or two of findings from her research into mental health science and therapies since David’s death. She intends this as an educational support to readers who may be dealing with mental illness in their lives – and cites a Mayo Clinic study suggesting that fifty percent of Americans are likely to develop a mental illness at some point.

Hamilton’s purpose with this book is to help remove the stigma of mental illness. “The brain is just another organ, vulnerable to illness and capable of recovery,” she writes.

“All the Things We Never Knew” is a deeply personal story which exposes the author’s own missteps and flaws, and also identifies public health policies, law enforcement procedures, and therapeutic approaches that she believes can do a better job of serving, and saving, those who are mentally ill.

The Bookmonger review appears each week in Take Five. For more entertainment, go to BellinghamHerald.com/entertainment.