As my regular readers know, we have dealt with our share of mental health issues in our family. Bud has generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and chronic insomnia. Art's uncle has bipolar disorder. Art's grandfather had paranoid schizophrenia. I have also had bouts of anxiety. So it was with great interest and trepidation that I started Leave of Absence. I was fearful that it would read like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
But just a few pages in, I realized that this book is something completely different. Something special. Tanya J. Peterson captures the agony and beauty (and yes there are both) of mental illness in both Oliver and Penelope. The characters help you to feel what they are feeling. I had a harder time connecting with Penelope's character because she hears voices, but I could identify with how she felt when she asked her fiance' to leave because she didn't want to burden him with her illness. There have been many times when I have asked Art why he stays. After all, he didn't sign on for an anxious asthmatic. I was a normal, bouncy teenager when we met.
Penelope's fiance', William, describes his love for her in this way:
It was a deep, all-encompassing love that didn't just stop when things became difficult. When he looked at her, not just at her happy images in photographs, but at her, no matter how she was in the moment, he saw Penelope. He didn't see a mental illness. He saw the whole picture - the woman he loved who happened to be experiencing something awful.
That was just the first time I cried while reading this book. There are so many touching moments as Oliver learns to confront his past and accept his feelings and Penelope learns how to work with the voices in her head. At one point in the book, she explains to Oliver how for her shapes and colors have meanings. For example, blue is love or friendship, lines are truthfulness and octagons are gratitude. After she meticulously draws out beautiful geometrical patterns for Oliver so he can have a "cheat sheet" of her world, he responds in this way:
He reached for the box of crayons on the table and slowly slid out a blue crayon. He drew an octagon on his paper. His hand shook and he made the lines all wobbly, but it was still recognizable as an octagon. Inside the octagon he drew a stick figure with a ponytail and labeled it "Penelope." He drew a line under the octagon.
Anyone who has or knows someone with a mental illness will appreciate the journey of Oliver, Penelope and their loved ones take toward healing and understanding.