Book: The Other Side of Silence: A Psychiatrist’s Memoir of Depression

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Depression is a disease that attacks indiscriminately, no one is safe from its claws – regardless of your age, gender, education, position and so on – it will catch you in its grasp and keep you there until you find the strength to get out – and most of the time, in order to be free from it, you need both therapy and medication prescribed by a psychiatrist. It is understandable to think that people that are familiar with the disease on an academical level would see the signs early and be able to manage it, or that they have found a way in which to be immune to it. But this book proves the exact opposite, you read about the struggles of a psychiatrist suffering from depression.

In a mixture of patient stories and her own battle with depression, doctor Linda Gask gives a multilayered account of what it feels like to be surrounded by mental illness and how society, both the public and the specialists, behave around it. With a sort of detachment, she retells her life’s story and, based on it, the people she meets who are traumatized themselves or have given her some comfort, or not, from her own troubles.

There is a gap between how depression is perceived and how she tells it, her account is much more personal and reflects, even in her writing, how the cycle of negative thoughts and dramatization of certain events that are so common with depression take over your rational thinking process and makes you unaware of all the details that make life worth living – being stuck in your own thought process and not being able to get out of it and enjoy the things that are worth living for is the greatest chasm one has to face when suffering from depression. However, there is hope – and although there is no great breakthrough, things do get better with time and with proper attention to your symptoms; some diseases are manageable and curable if we just keep working on getting better – finding a good therapist that you can connect with and working closely with a psychiatrist can lead to finding the medication that will truly make a difference in your life.

By the end of the book we do see a different person, much more calmer and focused – stable in her opinions, decisions and ideas. Although she goes through years of uncertainty and has the trademark highs and lows of her affliction, with proper support she manages to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Her achievement in finding inner peace is a statement that, although the fight with your inner self is crippling, there are ways in which you can cope and eventually be free.

Book: When the Air Hits Your Brain: Tales of Neurosurgery

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When young, the greatest of challenges seem within reach – we are never more than one step behind the goal, always getting closer to where we think we need to be. We are full of hope and energy, and we are ready to take anything life puts in our way.

In the world of medicine, and especially the world of medicine of the 1980s, the greatest of challenges was neurosurgery – the peak of what you can be as a doctor. In a world without medical imaging and where the surgical knife still ruled the operating world, neurosurgery was what all ambitious medical students wanted to become. It was, and is, probably the most difficult specialty one can master, so having a glimpse of what that world is can be truly mesmerising.

Frank Vertosick Jr. brings to life that world – the ambitions of a young medical student, eager to learn and to overcome life’s obstacles by proving himself one of the best. But to become one of the best one has to pass a great series of challenges – to cut a persons head open and start exploring with scalpel in hand is not something anybody can just get up and do. There are rules, and practice always proves itself to be more complicated than the textbook you just read, even reread. Mistakes will be made, and the horror of those mistakes can break a person. The long shifts where the hospital not only becomes your home – or your second home – it becomes everything you know. With each passing day you are wiser, but more numb – there is a breaking point to this story and if you are not careful it may break you to the point you can never pull yourself back together – most doctors will suffer from depression, and others will become sociopaths – not able to distinguish the body from the mind.

Written in a beautiful and simple style, the memoirs of the the young neurosurgery resident brings to life our human nature and how fragile, and yet how strong, we truly are. The moment where saving someones life becomes more than a job, it becomes a mission that one cannot fail; a duty one owes to oneself and to the world.

Stories about colleagues and patients, and of hospitals and residencies, intertwine and give us a lecture on how to tackle life – no one is perfect, becoming the best is a long road where every mistake is a lesson we need to learn from. The story of our bodies and our diseases might not define us, but we carry it with us always, never able to run away from it as it follows us everywhere; and when the story leads to catastrophe we rely on other people for our safety and recovery, and hearing the story of how these people came to become our saviours can be truly fascinating.
The life of a doctor seen from within is astonishing, from the years of medical school to residency and to one’s own practice – years and years of studying and practising with only one goal in mind – helping people.

Book: Turtles All the Way Down

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Not much to say about the plot of the book – it’s a young adult novel, and that pretty much sums it up. There are teenagers who go through a rite of passage – the discovery of who they are and what they feel. It is the beginning of an adventure we never get to see, only the gestation of it – we are left to draw our own conclusions of what happens after this episode that we have in front of us; but, in all fairness, it is this episode that you will want to read even if you had the choice of reading one out off all of them – it is here where the big conclusions are drawn; the point of no return.

While the novel has scattered all over cliches and improbable events, it does come to a good conclusion and, rounding everything up, it does appear to make some sense. It’s nothing mind-blowing, just the usual live the life you always wanted to live kind of thing.

But the novel does get one thing perfectly right, the subject of mental illness. The main protagonist suffers from severe anxiety and OCD, and both play a very important part of the character construction and some of the plot devices.

Going through such strong emotions is perfectly captured through the thoughts and actions of the character, showing the audience again and again the torments that people everywhere and of all ages suffer every day – it is the voice not of a generation, but of an illness that does not discriminate ages and genders, that creates harm out of thin air and has, over time, claimed the most talented and brilliant of individuals.

Mental illness is not always depression or another crippling disease, sometimes it is the burden that other people do not see. Anxiety doesn’t make us incapable of leaving your bed, nor does it make you crazy in the eyes of others, but it is a slow burning fire that torments relentlessly and consumes you to the point of giving up. The series of scary thoughts that never leave your head, that just come and come to the point of exhaustion, seem less important for most people, but that doesn’t mean that people that are currently going through it and people that have overcame it do not find it important, it is as defining for an individual as birth itself.

Turtles All the Way Down is a nice, short and fun read that tackles successfully a very important topic, especially in today’s lens. Although John Green’s mental illness has caused him a great deal of pain, it is refreshing to see how the human mind can overpower its traumas and, while doing so, create art.

A tale of crypts

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The road was bumpy. And desolated. A scene that will not last, a remnant of our past that our incompetence keeps alive until the moment the future will crush it. I was speeding, probably because, unknown to me at that moment, I was carrying death with me. Death doesn’t look like death, death looks like the past – o void of memories of places, people and feelings; and that’s death, not the memories themselves, but incapability of ever seeing the places, meeting the people or evoking the feeling ever again. Death is not about emotions, death is about not being able to care anymore, about not bothering if you take another step again.

For a few hours I was stalling death, for one brief moment emotions flowed again, there was purpose – even if it was just a matter of cleaning an old grave. A grave of people long gone from both hearts and minds to most people, but a few. It was those two, the few, that kept time still – death will have to wait while these two sisters cleaned their parents grave – people with no time awaiting death cleaning what death left behind and time crowned them as the last memories of the lives once lived.

While waiting for the graves to be sufficiently cleaned so the honour of the family to not be effaced a construction in the graveyard caught my eye and I headed in its direction. Getting closer I realised it was a crypt, the resting burial of an old boyar mostly forgotten, except for a high school and a square named after him – founding member of the Romanian Academy. Read More

Book: Letters to a Young Contrarian

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Christopher Hitchens is known as one of the greatest essayists since Orwell, but also one of the world’s greatest polemicists – his oppositionist views ranging from history, religion, politics to art. Almost no subject is unknown to him and he masters the art of rhetoric like no other, every sentence comes out full of poignancy and rigour – in terms of debate he has no equal, his adversaries have mostly failed against him even in his last days, weakened by the disease that stole him much too early.

It would make sense that when looking for someone to write a book in the Art of Mentoring series no one would be more equipped to tackle this than him, even if he was opposed to the idea of being called a contrarian – he delivers a lesson in what it means to bring consistency to opposition, the art and toil one must muster in order to criticise and go against something – especially if that something is already rooted in history and minds. Not an easy feat, but necessary and important if we are ever to progress and leave behind the preconceptions developed in the infancy of our species.
Offering a history of what contrarianism is, Hitchens goes to lengths in explaining what he considers not only and art form, but an obligation. Ranging from Socrates to Emile Zola the book offers us a glimpse into what is needed for an objective opinion – what tools are needed but, more importantly, what state of mind is to be better suited for the job.

Coming from Christopher there is the inescapable feeling of being inferior, how will I ever rise to the task as well as him? But although he uses examples from his own experience which, in all fairness, coming from anyone else would seem just a gross lack of modesty, but in his case just the simple and honest truth of a life served for the pursuit of truth, it is a bit hard to relate and the idea of following in the author’s footsteps seems unlikely. However, the lessons are very useful and clear cut – you don’t need to be an expert, you just need to go through the process of informing yourself and finding your voice, as these are the absolutely necessary in performing a contrarian’s job.

Reading the book now, especially if you are a fan, is extremely hard – it just shows how much humanity has lost when Christopher has passed away – he has a voice and clarity that so unique that it will make you shudder from the very first sentences. Every topic and every lesson is treated as the most important thing and given every bit of attention it requires – nothing is left to chance. This type of rigour is one of the hallmarks that have made Hitchens so loved and so despised.

How to have and defend, or go against, an opinion is an extremely valuable lesson and an area that the twenty-first century must learn how to cherish, protect and inspire if we are ever overcome the struggles that lie ahead.

Movie: Dunkirk

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I walked in the cinema expecting a war movie and, by all means, it was; but it was so much more – I came out of the movie theater with both a history lesson learned and complete audio-visual experience. What Christopher Nolan does with Dunkirk is no short of genius – from the acting to the effects and the storyline it is hard to find any faults with the movie.

Background

The story of Dunkirk is actually a rescue mission called Operation Dynamo. Following the surrender of Belgium in front of the Nazi troops the battleground in France came under siege by the German military. Being blocked from all sides the allies retreated to the beaches of Dunkirk in order to be evacuated. Almost 400.000 soldiers were on the beaches, but excessive fire from the Luftwaffe sinking most British destroyers sent to get the troops caused the British government to use the civilian fleet of fishing and pleasure boats to be sent for the soldiers on the beach – given the fact that they were much smaller it was harder for the Nazi air forces to sink them. The operation was a success, the small boats rescuing more than 330.000 soldiers that were brought back to the UK so they could protect the homeland and be deported to other battlegrounds and would eventually win the war.

Layers

The movie is comprised of multiple time layers that come together at the end – the ability to see the same scene from different perspectives offers an unique viewing experience and gives quite a bit of food for thought. While watching the movie you are also solving a puzzle in your head trying to put all the pieces together. This technique gives the impression of a very well thought out script and storyline and in terms of movie watching experience it is quite rewarding. Although a small group of people might find it a bit confusing it does not distract heavily from the whole experience of the movie and if you pay enough attention the story will make perfect sense throughout the entire film.

Motives, faces and dialogue

Christopher Nolan has mentioned in multiple interviews that the story on Dunkirk is something that was always a part of British history – growing up the story of fisherman and civilians taking their boats and going to a war zone to rescue their fellow countrymen was unavoidable. However, he thought that the story has never been properly told to the world and that had given him the idea on writing the script and directing the movie.

One fact that surprises is, although he uses some familiar faces from his earlier movies, most of the cast is young and not very well known in the movie world. The reason is that the story Nolan wanted to tell is about young people, as wars are usually fought by young men send to war by their seniors, that are of the proper age – no point in hiring 30 something actors that play the role of 18 year-olds, it doesn’t feel authentic. The decision was successful as it offers a bit of ambiguity – movie watchers expect that movie stars not to be killed off early on, but not the same can be expected when there is a cast that is unknown. It also offers a perspective of compassion beyond the usual one in war movies – we wanted them to live and we root for them with much more passion than usual. There is also no central character, and while the stories are grouped around a set of characters there is no lead and each story is equally important.

The movie uses less dialogue as it relies mostly on visual storytelling. The intense ground, water and air scenes don’t need so much dialogue as they offer plenty of context themselves. The dialogues is short and on point, much how a war movie should be – there is no time to philosophize about life and death when the line between them is so thin and the enemy is right around the corner.

The movie has a PG 13 rating as it lacks all the blood and gore that we have become so used to in depictions of war and battles – this is due to the fact that Dunkirk, apart from offering an unique visual art experience, also wants to be a history lesson and the opportunity that teenagers can see a small page of history right before their eyes is truly worth it – the movie is so mesmerizing that you do not even notice it anyway. Read More

Book: In Therapy: How Conversations with Psychotherapists Really Work

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Admitting to having an emotional problem is almost always seen as a sign of weakness, we are told from an early age that we need to be strong and make the most of what we got – losing it means that we are outcasts, people which are used as a negative example in society. It is this trend that makes psychotherapy a science that is avoided, as it is considered a failure if you need it, and not what it actually is: a consultation with a professional about a part of your body that is not behaving as it should. You wouldn’t consider not seeing an orthopedist when your leg hurts, on the contrary, you would assume and consider to be exactly the thing that is needed.

One of the things that is still a mistery is what is gong in inside – what will this stranger get out from me? what if I am too embarrassed and say things that I do not anyone else to know? The ins and outs of a psychotherapy session is still a reason for concern, mostly for the same reason I mentioned before: people feel ashamed for the fact that they even consider they need to speak with somebody. Multiple shows and books have surfaced in recent years trying to inform people of what to expect and what this science actually does – this book is one of those examples.

The most basic thing is that the patient is always in control – they decide what they speak about and how many details they give. The idea is not only to speak of the things that hurt you emotionally, but to get to the center of what exactly is that is hurting you. Identifying the cause is one of the primary goals of these sessions. The therapist will listen and ask further questions about the subject you want to approach, many times the subject will creep in the conversation no matter how much we try to avoid it – but this is a good thing, because once it is out there you will feel an immense sense of accomplishment, it is now that the healing begins. The questions directed at the patient are also to find the cause of the illness even if the patient is not aware of it – this is what therapists do, and in doing it they not only help you get over what is hurting you, but they will also help you understand what the power of expressing yourself really is – a simple thing like talking can have huge benefits for your mental health.

The book offers a few mock sessions with fictional patients that deal with real life issues – we get a sense of what it means to go to therapy and what subjects are discussed there. There are couples, women, and men, and each have their own issues that they need to discuss – a great variety of issues are being dealt with and are inching away at a resolution. Also, there are examples of what happens in the first session where the therapist determines what type of therapy is needed going further – all the anxiety and trauma about seeing a psychotherapist goes away. The more you know about a thing the least possible number of things for it to scare you.

In a fast world with high amounts of stress we will inevitably face all sorts mental disorders at one stage or another – seeing a therapists will become as necessary as doing routine blood work. Preparing ourselves with information for what is needed for when such a situation appears is necessary. The recent talk shows, videos and books that have appeared in order to further educate on this aspect are extremely useful and hopefully the trend will continue until psychotherapy will be seen as the helpful hand that we need.

Movie: Brain on Fire

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Cringeworthy! There is no other way of putting it, the movie is a slaughter of the book – nothing has been left untouched – the true chronology of events, the reactions, the relationships. For a person that has read the book before this looks like a joke.

If I were to remove the fact that I read the book before I saw the movie I would still have the same reaction. The story is very weak, the actors are worse. Everything seems fake – there is not an ounce of originality in the entire movie. it is a poorly written script with an even more poorly execution. There is no feel whatsoever, the cinematography is absent also. From all directions this seems one those failures that are always released for some reason.

If I were to add a third view, that this is about a true story that contains a breakthrough in diagnosing and treating a disease , it would still be an extremely crappy movie. Nothing in it brings alive the true anguish of suffering. The fear of unknown is butchered, portraying only an angry father that gives ultimatum to doctors – this is the length to which an incredible memoir was reduced too.

Thinking that the story is so very well written and researched, with the goal of both therapy to the author and as a lesson for people that might suffer from the same thing, it seems unthinkable that someone approved this movie – I cannot even begin to conceive what the author and the rest of the people involved thought of this.

Book: Brain on Fire

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I have always been fascinated with memoirs, the idea of reading the exact thoughts that a person has, albeit subjective, draws me in every time. One of the best things that mass education has given us is the ability of people to write down their lives and experiences – their intimate inner workings and how they chose to deal with a certain situation or event.

Brain on Fire is definitely a memoir, but it is so much more. The level of research that has gone into writing this book is staggering, and if I was to include the gargantuan task that was needed to find the courage and energy to write this it becomes, probably, one of the most interesting books I have ever read.

As I have been dealing with my own struggles I became aware of this book – although I kept postponing reading it for quite a while – mostly because it was about a person that was trying to figure out what was wrong with them and trying to share their experience in doing so, a subject that is very close to my heart.

As a young intellectual with a writing passion that goes through a gruesome medical episode I cannot but admire the necessary effort, both physical and mental, to come up with such a composed and detailed recollection of events – as the author mentions in the book, she had to go through thousands of medical records, speak to an army of doctors and interview every person that was a part of her story in order to remember and recollect what has happened.

The memoir is also unique in the sense that it details almost a breakthrough – a young journalist that suffers what happens to be a breakdown that actually is a very rare and serious disease. Her telling of the numerous doctors and tests that she had to go through to little avail, the way in which it has traumatised her family and the ones closest to her, the way in which she felt like she was losing every sense of what herself was – a disease that was discovered only a few years before she has suffered the episode and the way in which the diagnose was made is almost like the script for a House MD episode, only that this was real and the pain and suffering was not played out, but felt.

The memoir, with its plot and medical terminology explained, is set to offer a vivid exploration into the mind and actions of a sick person, but it also wants to be a resource for people that might be going through the same experience. It is popularising autoimmune disease and informing people that a very unknown disease might be what they are really suffering from and not the more common diagnosis that they have received – the book also mentions in the final chapters the story of a father that, because he had read the experiences of the writer, was able to get the doctors treating his daughter to do the necessary test, diagnose her properly and offer her the needed treatment – so, just by the fact that one life was saved or was significantly improved by the author’s story proves that it was well worth the effort of the documentation and writing of the book.

No fiction will ever beat real life – the pain and disorders we go through on a daily basis offers us more knowledge and art that we ever hope to receive from any masterpiece – the fact that one person’s experience can make a difference in the lives of others proves that we are on the right track to becoming more knowledgeable and adapt to what difficulties lie ahead.

The story of Susannah Cahalan is one of those rare gems that, through suffering and documentation, grips the reader and makes him suffer. And through that suffering it makes the reader more compassionate and informed, and nothing is more necessary in our day and age.

The monthlong epic compacts so many emotions that it is hard to simply read the book, you have to live the despair of the person that thinks it is losing its mind; the parents of a young adult that go through a shock and a constant fear of what is about to happen; simple lives of friends and lovers that are forever changed by something that they never imagined or prepared for. And to add on top of that, the courage to bring these experiences on paper; to relieve, explore and inform.

Book: When Breath Becomes Air

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Many times, I wondered what is left of us after we pass away. What do we actually leave behind? It’s always an impossible list as I always know that something might happen that will be definitory to my life up until that point. What we need to make that list is a clear sign that our demise is near and that we will not be able to amount to much else than we already have – but even then, are we really incapable of something great that will remain as our most valuable lesson? Is the idea of death an influence when it is imperceptible or when it is all-encompassing?

Paul Kalanithi emigrated to the US along with his parents and initially followed academic studies in English literature, ultimately to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a doctor. He chose the hardest medical profession, neurosurgery, in which he became one of the most respectable and acclaimed fellows. His residency training was assimilated quickly and he became chief resident. Offers of academic research were pouring in – a remarkable career lay ahead with certain voices calling him one of the best neurosurgeons and doctors of his generation.

After experiencing night sweats, unrelenting back pain and a cough he chose to have a medical check-up that delivered the fatal news: lung cancer. A non-smoker, recently married with everything pointing to a fulminating career was drawn in the tragic story of untimely death.

The story does not end here – this is not the story of the brilliant neurosurgeon that dies of cancer and the world will never know what might have happened. The story begins here – the recollection of his childhood, the love for literature and his family and the last stand in the face of death. Treatment begins and all the ups and downs that come along with it. Hard choices are being made – he and his wife decide to have a daughter, he continues to practice his trade and decides to write a memoir.

When Breath Becomes Air is a memoir that will become a classic – it is pure and straightforward, it paints the image of a life that was lived as all lives are lived and was extraordinary in its unspectacularly dullness. A family that emigrated, a son that became a neurosurgeon and married and after a swift illness had passed away. But there is more, much more – between every line of text there is this feeling that lingers on, like tasting salt. It is simple, but it masks an incredible thirst for knowledge, a love for mankind and the art it is capable of. To study, to practice, to love, to write – each with its difficulties and rewards.

Paul Kalanithi takes us on the journey of his life, we see him as he has saw the world around him. We learn of the hardships and the joys of his life. The struggle of becoming a neurosurgeon, the passion for helping people and developing his craft, the illness and the decisions that have come alongside it, his family and the last day as a doctor. It is intense and it is real and there is nothing more to say other than that – it is a life between two covers, a real life.

To the world When Breath Becomes Air is what we will have left of Paul Kalanithi – we will remember him as a writer and only a handful of his patients that he operated on during his residency will remember him as a doctor. The illness reshaped his life and with that his destiny – he might have become the greatest neurosurgeon in the world, but today he is known as the man that documented his life and his illness, his family and his trade, in one amazing memoir that will remain his testament upon this earth. The incurable disease has stolen the son, the husband and the father from a family and the man who could have made a real difference for some patients, but it has given the world an insight to the nature of man.