by Barbara Altman
Review by Tony O'Brien, RN, MPhil on Nov 15th 2011
Barbara Altman's first person account of her experience with depression and growing up with an alcoholic father is a brief but compelling insight into one woman's struggle with self-doubt, verbal abuse and painful self-consciousness. It is a testament to Altman's resilience that she not only survived the setbacks of her childhood and early adult life, but through her writing has communicated to others the sense of hope and optimism that sustained her. In many ways this is not an ordinary memoir of mental illness. Altman suffered a variety of psychotic and other experiences that could have earned her any one of a number of diagnoses. As a teenager she was told she was heading for schizophrenia and institutionalization, something she managed to avoid. But she did suffer emotionally and had difficulty making and sustaining friendships. However all that is on the negative side. Altman's book speaks of a woman with a love of music and of helping others. She has worked in various caregiving roles in state institutions and care facilities and offers many interesting insights from these experiences.
Cry Depression is a brief book at 128 pages. The first 100 pages are divided into 27 chapters of anecdotes, reflections and recollections of Altman's early life and various jobs. Each chapter covers a brief period of Altman's life, or an anecdote about a particular experience. Running through the book is the theme of low mood and low self-esteem and Altman's sometimes self-taught strategies to build the life she wanted. The chapters are not in chronological order, which is a bit disconcerting, but each carries a heading stating the period covered, so the reader is able to organize the book into a narrative. The final section of the book covers mental health disorders and a range of treatments. This section is prefaced with a warning to readers not to change treatment without consulting a medical doctor, perhaps motivated by Altman's experience with a negligent naturopath under whose direction Altman became dangerously underweight. This section is not nearly as engaging as Altman's personal narrative. The epilogue to both her parents shows a sense of reconciliation with these two influential figures on whom Altman was dependent, but who by her own account let her down in various ways. The message seems to be that forgiveness is part of the process of recovery.
Cry Depression will appeal to readers struggling to understand chronic low mood and self-esteem, and looking for a sense of hope that recovery is possible. Professionals will learn something of how one individual drew on her personal strengths to create her own recovery. They will perhaps take from the book some hints at how they can help clients by acknowledging and supporting their personal strategies. Although Altman provides her own observations on improving her health, she does not prescribe what others should do. She shares her Christian faith, but does not suggest that this is a path for everyone. Her book will inspire others to maintain hope and look for opportunities to build on their individual resources. Altman tells readers she wrote "one word, one sentence, and one chapter at a time". Readers cannot help but admire her commitment, and celebrate her success.
© 2011 Tony O'Brien
Tony O'Brien is a lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Auckland, New Zealand