Madeline Sharples fulfilled several purposes as she wrote her memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On, about surviving the trauma of her son's sudden affliction with bipolar disorder and eventual suicide. One purpose was to find closure for her personal grieving process by sharing Paul's story with the world to ensure his memory lives on. She also wrote to educate the public about this disorder and mental illness in general, hoping to make some dent in the lingering stigma it still carries, and finally to provide hope for others that families can survive such tragedies intact in mind, spirit and relationships.
Several terms came to mind as I read her account:
Brave and Gritty. Sharples seems scrupulously honest and forthright about feelings and intimate details of family life during the stress of Paul's illness and following his death. In the first chapter she explores factors in Paul's background that could have led to his condition, factors she felt guilt about, and could have chosen not to include. She enlarges the focus by including details of her rocky relationship with her mother and mental problems in many of her older relatives. In divulging personal details such as the pleasure she takes in looking her best, she holds to her purpose of showing how self-care has been a cornerstone of recovery for her. While not everyone can afford to hop on cross-country flights several times a year to aid troubled offspring, indulge in writing retreats at Big Sur, or frequent the opera, anyone can follow her example and find ways of pampering themselves within their means, possibly with videos from the library, going out for beer and pizza, and a new style from Supercuts.
Innovative. This memoir began as a collection of poems that poured from her pen shortly after Paul's death. She initially intended the poems to serve as a memoir, but soon realized narrative was required to flesh them out with detail and context. Poetry and photos are an integral part of the book, lending an emotional depth difficult to achieve with standard narrative.
Resourceful. Although this is primarily Madeline's memoir, to some extent it is also a Sharples family project. She includes a few snippets from her husband Bob's journal entries along with input from her son Ben. These additional perspectives lend depth and round out the story. Bob's view of the situation is dramatically different from Madeline's and the comparison helps readers realize how variable reactions to grief can be and how differences can be a source of strength.
Inspiring. The family has come through this devastating experience without a second suicide (an unfortunately frequent aftermath), divorce, substance abuse, or other dysfunctions. Although they'll never forget, and their lives have been changed forever, the Sharples family has returned to a normal, healthy, even happy life. Knowing this should be encouraging to many who are waiting, or will be, for recovery from similar trauma and loss. Even if this form of tragedy has not touched your life, this book is sure to increase your understanding and compassion for others in turmoil.
Read an excerpt from this book.
Madeline Sharples studied journalism in high school and college and wrote for the high school newspaper, but only started to fulfill her dream to work as a creative writer and journalist late in life. Her memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother's Memoir of Living with Her Son's Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide, tells the steps she took in living with the loss of her oldest son, first and foremost that she chose to live and take care of herself as a woman, wife, mother, and writer. She hopes that her story will inspire others to find ways to survive their own tragic experiences. Visit her blog.
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