On a cloudy California day, Tanya Frank looks out through binoculars at an elephant seal and her pup. Following nature’s diktat, the mother is about to abandon her offspring, ignoring his cries as she swims out to sea. “Her skin shimmers like silver foil as she dips into the surf,” Frank observes.
The scene foreshadows the complex relationship between mother and son that plays out in this book, and also sets the narrative tone – terse and elegant, replete with meaning and metaphor.
After her youngest son, Zach, is diagnosed with some kind of schizoaffective disorder (though he receives many diagnoses), Frank picks a trail through medical appointments, hospitalisations and, most of all, pharmaceutical drugs and their many side effects which make them difficult to take. Her account uncovers how resistant to medicine some illnesses remain and the challenge families face when the cure is almost as harmful as the illness.
The memoir takes us back through Frank’s own life and what led up to her rather glamorous existence in the Hollywood Hills. Her mother had been in an orphanage, and she grew up in Chingford on the outskirts of London. She left school with a couple of GCSEs and soon afterwards was pregnant.
She went to university and became a lecturer. She figured out she was lesbian. When the chance to move to Los Angeles beckoned, she moved there with her two young sons.
Frank has a cool, down-to-earth voice, but her short, sharp sentences convey a sense of constant stress. A couple of days after Zach’s initial diagnosis, when a pharmacist explains he will need a second medication to counteract the side effects of the first one, Frank describes how she feels grateful neither for the treatment nor the diagnosis and the label, which carries such a stigma. “I want to say f**k you, not thank you,” she writes.
As Zach’s despairing battle with his condition drags on, she acknowledges the increasingly enmeshed nature of their relationship. She fears leaving him alone for even short periods of time. One time, while he was living independently, he disappeared for two full weeks, re-emerging weak and dishevelled after spending time on the streets.
All this takes a toll – on Frank and all her relationships – and as the book proceeds we watch her prioritising, choosing, and increasingly torn.
Zach wants to return to the UK where his father lives and they go, leaving Frank’s wife behind. “Again, I find myself trying to find a way to be with two different people separated by an ocean, a feat as daunting as it was six months ago, six years ago, a phenomenon I cannot pull off unless I can compress time or space or both. An impossible feat.”
What’s shocking to anyone unfamiliar with this mental illness is how unclear the right course of action is. When they’re in England, Zach agrees to enter a psychiatric ward but pulls back when he learns of the side effects of the drug he will be obliged to take, which include urinary incontinence, drooling, tachycardia, and weight gain so severe it can cause diabetes.
Frank sketches out better alternatives – in Norway, where clinics don’t force medical intervention on patients, and rare projects in the US that offer living on organic farms (at an extortionate price). Frank concludes that mental health care in the UK is not as progressive as she had hoped: “The archaic paradigm is as unchanged as ever.”
Zig-Zag Boy picks apart the experience of living with a loved one who is desperately ill. Although she zips across continents and has a home in the Hollywood Hills, Frank’s is an ordinary story – of learning about an illness, finding a way through medical systems, and trying to figure out the best path for her and her son.
‘Zig-Zag Boy: Motherhood, Madness and Letting Go’, Tanya Frank, Harper Collins, €16.99