Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories That Make Us
Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction
- Glass, Guy
- Date of entry: Oct-18-2022
- Last revised: Oct-18-2022
When Rachel Aviv, the author of Strangers to Ourselves, was six years old, she simply stopped eating. She said she got the idea from the Yom Kippur fast. She was promptly checked into a psychiatric hospital where she became one of the youngest-ever patients to be given the diagnosis of anorexia. Through associating with older, more seasoned anorexic girls she became a sort of “anorexic-in-training” (p.13). Fortunately, after a few months she snapped out of it, and was discharged. She never suffered from the same symptoms again.
As an adult, Aviv began to think about what had happened to her. The only remnant of her experience was a diary entry from age 8: “I had a diseas called anexexia” (p.231). Had she even had the disorder, or had the diagnosis been a mistake? Why had she not gone on to have “an anorexic ‘career’” (ibid.), while one of the girls who had mentored her ultimately died of anorexia-related causes? In order to answer these questions for herself, Aviv meets with the therapists who treated her more than thirty years ago as well as with the family of her deceased copatient.
As a result of Aviv’s introspection, she becomes intrigued by people whose psychiatric diagnoses do not fully capture the complexities of their situation. Strangers to Ourselves presents detailed case histories of several such individuals. Bapu is an Indian woman whose visions have caused her to be diagnosed with schizophrenia. Are they delusions, or is she a mystic? Naomi is a socially disadvantaged black woman who has struggled unsuccessfully to get ahead. During a manic episode, she jumps into a river with her young twins, one of whom dies. Her claim that “white people are out to get me” (p. 146) is ignored because her doctors insist that “delusions couldn’t on some level make sense” (p. 150). Yet another woman, Laura, bounces from diagnosis to diagnosis, and sleeps fourteen hours a day because of all the medication she is on. She becomes one of these people who no longer even know if their lack of functioning is “due to their underlying disorder [or] the heavy medications they’d taken for it” (p. 203).
Following Bapu’s death, her daughter started an organization called Bapu Trust (www.baputrust.com) which speaks of “decolonizing the Indian mental health system” and whose purpose is “to see a world where emotional well-being is experienced in a holistic manner, and not just as ‘mental disease.’ We dream of healing environments where every person uses their own capacity to make choices, heal themselves, recover and move on.”
Farrar, Straus and Giroux