A harrowing and unflinchingly intimate portrait of a life unfulfilled from the perspective of a survivor.
Sheila Hamilton’s breathless narrative surrounding her husband’s descent into irrecoverable mental illness and ultimately suicide is a harrowing and unflinchingly intimate portrait of a life unfulfilled from the perspective of a survivor. Structured in much the same manner as your typical television procedural, All the Things We Never Knew begins with an innocuous enough opening sequence in which Hamilton finds herself attending a fancy party with a new man in the face of an impending divorce from her increasingly distant and erratic husband, David Krol. What reads as a typical night out quickly descends into a scenario straight out of a psychological thriller as Hamilton receives a phone call from an officer in the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Department in which she learns her soon-to-be ex-husband has broken into a woman’s home, stolen a gun and holed himself up in the surrounding wilderness.
Shifting quickly to the early stages of her relationship with David after setting up the story’s endgame courtesy of the proverbial Chekov’s gun, Hamilton begins retracing the steps that led to the final, tragic outcome. Positioning her family’s struggle with her husband’s worsening mental illness as more of a cautionary tale in which the telltale signs of those suffering from bipolar disorder are laid out within an ordinary, everyday context, All the Things We Never Knew strives to provide those who may one day find themselves in the same unenviable position with a chance to prevent David’s personal outcome.
With interstitial chapters offering a more straight-forward, often clinical analysis of the stigma surrounding mental illness, the effects of mental illness on intimates and resources for those struggling to properly discern the next step, Hamilton’s deeply personal recollection is lent an additional degree of gravitas as she goes beyond the typical point-to-point narrative detailing a loved one’s struggle with mental illness by offering these myriad resources and professional statistics and analyses. It is here that her journalistic background shines most brightly as she manages to enliven the majority of the book with her own story while still approaching the highly stigmatized subject matter with a clarity and straightforwardness that refuses to sugarcoat any of the increasingly troubling details of her deteriorating relationship with not only her husband but also his parents, both of whom it is implied suffered for years with similar, albeit varying, degrees of mental illness.
Through her husband’s family’s poo-pooing of modern psychology – despite the brutal irony of one of David’s sisters having become a psychologist – Hamilton lays out her own views on just how damaging this type of thinking can be for those most in need of help. By passing psychology and, to another degree entirely, psychiatry off as little more than crutches of the weak (at best) and outright nonsense (at worst), those quietly suffering in isolation refuse not only the potential help available to them but also prevent any hope of recovery. And while Hamilton toes the line in placing the onus on the afflicted individual, she in turn stresses the importance of those around the individual recognizing and identifying the signs of a more severe problem. This becomes increasingly important as she begins searching for the genetic markers and telltale signs of a bipolar disorder within her daughter, Sophie, fearing for her chances in the face of her paternal grandparents’ and father’s own struggles.
Without relying on an overabundance of clinical speak and expanded DSM entries, Hamilton instead makes very real an otherwise textbook study case of bipolarity and suicidal ideation. By humanizing the narrative, laying bare both her own character flaws and her husband’s in equal measure, she shows that there is never any right or wrong answer and the pursuit of answers in the wake of suicide is ultimately an exercise in futility. Yet by sharing her own story in all its intimate, messy detail – the discovery of hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, among other things, is a particularly sickening revelation – Hamilton foregoes the usual route of saving face in hopes of instead saving the lives of others suffering through similar circumstances. A noble approach to be sure, she can’t help but come off from time to time as something of a martyr. Yet it ultimately proves to be her own way of trying to make sense of and sort out the series of events that led David to take his own life.
As the narrative finally comes full circle, we learn that the initial sequence was but one of several suicide attempts, the first being more a cry for help than well-considered plan. After hospitalization, the administration of medication and familial intervention, David presents a reformed disposition, one in which he has been ostensibly “cured” of his disorder. Here Hamilton advises that the period following hospitalization can be the most dangerous as those with suicidal ideation who may not have succeeded and present themselves as past the point of wanting to take their own life are most likely to ultimately follow through. As David disappears and goes days, weeks and ultimately months without being found, it becomes clear his recovery was masking a more steeled resolve to finish what he had started.
For those who suffer from mental illness, All the Things We Never Knew proves highly affecting. Where most similar books are presented from the perspective of the afflicted, All the Things We Never Knew instead offers a glimpse from the outside looking in and trying to make sense of and help with the well-being of the afflicted. It’s a sobering read that forces one to reassess their own interpersonal relationships, taking stock of the impact unchecked behaviors can have on loved ones while also raising an internal awareness of identifiable behavioral traits that can be combatted with little more than an admission that help is needed.
By being so multi-faceted, All the Things We Never Knew – note the plurality of the pronoun within the title of an otherwise highly personal story – presents a holistic picture of mental illness with a very specific case as its central through-line and a more generalized overview scattered throughout to help lend greater understanding to both the mentally ill and those who love them. Anyone with even the slightest interest in or personal experience with any form of mental illness should spend the requisite time with All the
Things We Never Knew.