Brought to you by the students of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine
By Stephanie Benjamin
Spoiler alert: the take-home message of my book review is to go read Just like someone without mental illness only more so: a memoir, by Mark Vonnegut, M.D. (Bantum Books, 2011). In Dr. Vonnegut’s autobiography, which reads like a work of fiction, he retells the story of his life and shares his opinions and observations about the world around him. Clearly he has inherited a gift for writing from his late father, the iconic Kurt Vonnegut. Unlike many autobiographies which can be dry and self-important, his story is quite unusual and truly fascinating. I found that I had to remind myself that he is a real physician, not some unbelievable fictional character who attended Harvard Medical School and trained at Massachusetts General Hospital as a pediatrician, yet hears voices and is occasionally convinced that he has saved the world from mass catastrophe.
Dr. Vonnegut has bipolar disorder (or paranoid schizophrenia, or manic-depression, depending on the physician making the diagnosis) and much of his story focuses on the struggles he faces as he tries to be an effective and caring pediatrician, husband and father while constantly being aware of the possibility of having another psychotic break. As he reports, the voices occasionally pop-up and say, “You didn’t really think you could lose us, did you?” You get the point of view of a physician but also the insight from someone who is experiencing severe, and at times debilitating, mental illness. He also deals with substance abuse that developed in an attempt to control the side effects caused by his antipsychotic medication. Dr. Vonnegut shares his feelings on the stigma of having mental illness, discussing his concern over coworkers and his own patients seeing, or even just knowing, when he is hospitalized during his psychotic breaks.
One of the main ways he deals with his mental illness is through creating art. A personal disclosure about my conflict of interest in writing this book review: I am an artist in my (limited) free time and my first, very short-lived career before medical school was as a psychologist and art therapist; I was instantly hooked with his story. It is hard to remain objective when you are intimately familiar with and genuinely interested in the major themes of the book. He uses art as a form of self-care, a way to deal with overwhelming and sometimes frightening emotions and thoughts. I could not agree more with him about the power of art as a therapeutic outlet for all people. In addition to talking about art, he includes copies of his artwork (or family photos) at the beginning of each chapter.
Dr. Vonnegut does not just share the story of his life but he shares his opinions about everything around him. A lot of his opinions center around the irreconcilability of healthcare today with his goal of wanting to help sick people in a respectful and efficient manner. His opinions are unapologetic, straightforward, and occasionally entertaining. Here is a small taste of some of things he feels strongly about: healthcare and insurance, barriers to patient care due to bureaucracy and red tape, the process of becoming a physician as well as addiction and treatment. He also discusses the attempts to make medicine idiot-proof by implementing templates and decision-charts, the major issue of scrubs as a stylish everyday outfit (of which I am guilty), problems with the medical school admissions process and the futility of performing medical interventions that are both costly and unnecessary due to our societal belief that there is a pill and quick fix for every bruise and sneeze. This book is more than an autobiography; it is a social commentary on healthcare today. To summarize his beliefs, he says that he would like to hang a needlepoint on his wall that says, “It’s faster and much more profitable to do a test than to explain why it’s not necessary”.
This is a very entertaining, humorous, insightful, thoughtful and well written book by a physician who has battled a multitude of demons throughout his life. I must admit, it is hard to write a book review when all I wanted to do was quote every line from the book. Technically, then I would just be dictating the book to you, which is much less efficient than you going and reading the book yourself. As I revealed in the beginning, even if you are not an artist or former psychologist, I highly recommend this book.
A review of Dr. Mark Vonnegut's autobiographical second book.
Copyright © 2011 Mentis
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