Book Review: Rambler: A family pushes through the fog of mental illness
Title: Rambler: A family pushes through the fog of mental illness
Author: Linda K. Schmitmeyer
Published: September 25, 2018
Synopsis: When Steve, a successful young engineer, suddenly quits his job after a fight with his boss and begins exhibiting troubling signs of mental illness, a family’s seemingly idyllic middle-class life is thrown into chaos. Rambler takes the reader on an incredible 10-year quest of a family to stick together through the worst of his troubles and find answers from a medical community whose understanding of mental illness was lagging in the 1990s.
In the realm of memoirs and nonfiction books based on medical issues, sometimes there are Important books, and there are Good Reads, and they do not always overlap. Many readers know the experience of trying to plod through an book just because they feel they should. The end result may be gratifying, but the doing is not. Or the act of reading a book whose narrative breezes along, but in the end, nothing of value remains.
This book is one of the fortunate few that exist in both spheres. Linda’s long career as a journalist and writing instructor is apparent, as events are presented in an engaging and easy-to-understand style. Despite the seriousness of a family struggling with the weight of bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder, Linda is self-aware enough to find a dark humor in her life, through things like her husband’s idiosyncratic obsession with Rambler automobiles, and an odd sequence of events that led to the cover photo of Steve standing triumphantly atop a Rambler half-sunk in the middle of a pond.
These are counterbalanced by heart-rending details of events occurring while Steve was having an episode and the family’s ensuing struggle to cope with all of the chaos that entailed, emotionally, socially, medically, and financially. Steve’s personal battle would reach an apex when, after losing his engineering job, he was arrested and placed in a psychiatric hold during an engineering conference in Detroit, Michigan. Unfortunately, it would still be several years before the medical community caught up with Steve’s issues and figured out both an appropriate diagnosis and a mixture of medications that could quiet his mind. These years were a trying time for a family who had effectively lost their primary source of income, and for whom medical answers were not readily forthcoming.
Although the family very humanly experienced wistful despair and even anger at their situation, through all of the struggles is an undercurrent of love. Childrens’ love for their father. A wife’s love for her husband. A father’s love for his family. Each are strained to their limit in turn and for different reasons, but their resiliency and dedication to holding together as a unit is truly uplifting.
Rambler is a worthy companion to recent popular nonfiction books regarding mental illness, like Brain on Fire, by Susannah Calahan (encephalitis); and fictional entries like Still Alice, by Lisa Genova (Alzheimer’s). Especially given that this books offers something that many others do not: the first-person perspective of a family member.
The book is now available on Amazon, here.
On a final, personal note, I know the Schmitmeyer family, although not especially well. Linda and Steve were a part of a “card club” including my parents when I was growing up, and their children were a frequent part of the cast of characters at a pool belonging to a mutual neighborhood friend in the summers. Although much of the events of this book took place before I was in high school and thus my understanding of both mental illnesses and the family lives of others was extremely limited, I was very surprised upon reading at how much of the Schmitmeyer’s struggle was kept quiet within the neighborhood community. I knew Steve to be a charismatic and fun-loving person, who had a 1000-megawatt smile and an eager laugh. The family’s reasons for their reticence to share are eminently understandable: the stigmas surrounding mental illness are still very real, and even today’s relative state of enlightenment is a far cry from society’s general views in the late 90s. But, I think this is an important lesson; not that we should pry into the lives of others where it is not wanted, but that we should be aware that we may not know what our friends are going through at a particular time, and to do what we can to offer a hand or even an ear when we sense a need, because the issues may run far deeper than we realize.
Thanks for reading.