A Life on Hold: Living with Schizophrenia is the second book written by Josie Méndez-Negrete, associate professor in Mexican American studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). Much like Méndez-Negrete’s first book, Las Hijas de Juan: Daughters Betrayed, her second book tackles deeply sensitive and personal subjects.
A Life on Hold works as an ethnography for her son, Tito, as he recounts his life’s memories living with schizophrenia. The book displays Méndez-Negrete’s and her family’s relationship with schizophrenia, providing a voice for mentally-ill individuals, a population of our society most often voiceless.
The narrative is told in short, easily-accessible chapters, with each one presenting an epigraph on schizophrenia. The chapters develop through long quotations Méndez-Negrete has documented from conversations she has shared with her son. The author herself only sparingly reveals her thoughts, emotions, and responses to her son’s narrative.
As I worked through the text, I repeatedly asked myself what is being gained with such a personal account of such a tragic illness? Why publish such an open account of such a personal struggle?
Of course, authors write because they believe they have something important to say. Their words move off their desks and are picked up by publishing houses that find niches for those books, holes in the book world conversations that need to be addressed.
A Life on Hold is important because it challenges cultural taboos about both mental illness and mothering. First and foremost, the book sheds light on the invisibility of those suffering from mental illness. For Latinos in particular, the invisibility of mental illness has been documented as a larger problem than commonly found in mainstream culture as outlined in the findings by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Stigmas about mental illness in Latino culture result in a general unawareness of mental illness, what it looks like, and what to do about it. Yet A Life on Hold documents Tito’s own evaluation of his illness. The text is first and foremost about Tito’s feelings and how he understands his disease. His voice provides insight into the mind of a mentally ill person, resulting in a breaking of barriers and stereotypes held about affected individuals, the degree to which they are competent, and the degree to which they need a stronger support system for their daily challenges.
Secondly, this text honestly reveals a mother’s unconditional love for her child even while she is willing to admit her self-perceived failings, something many parents have difficulty admitting to. Méndez-Negrete only sparingly offers her own insight to her son’s illness, but when she does, it reveals a depth of pain and loss that, at the very least, is difficult to comprehend.
In one instance, after listening to her son discuss his various living situations, she shares, “Guilt engulfed me as Tito reminded me that I have pushed him out and sent him to places in which he might not have been treated well. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to take care of you, I thought. It was that I couldn’t.”
Méndez-Negrete is well aware that she is a witness to her son’s illness. It is common for mothers to carry the weight of their children’s lives, to serve as surrogates for their children’s feelings. Méndez-Negrete’s book reminds the reader that however much she would like to take away her son’s pain, she, like him, is at the mercy of his disease. She writes as a reflection to Tito’s shared suicidal thoughts.
“Making every effort to help him control the psychosis, I nevertheless recognize now, as I recognized then, that I have no power over him," she writes.
Méndez-Negrete’s willingness to share her family’s struggle with this disease directly exposes hardships mentally ill individuals and their families face in all aspects of life. The struggles narrated by Tito and his mother repeatedly evoke deep feelings from the reader, challenging the reader to feel uncomfortable, helpless, frustrated. Because then, perhaps, readers will feel motivated to do something with those feelings.
And in this case, those actions could affect change for people who battle mental illness.
Top image: Josie Méndez-Negrete and her new book "A Life on Hold: Living with Schizophrenia." Photos courtesy of Josie Méndez-Negrete.