Friday, November 8, 2013

Book review: "Weekends at Bellevue: Nine Years on the Night Shift at the Psych ER"

After nine years evaluating the mentally ill at the Bellevue Medical Center psychiatric emergency room, Dr. Julie Holland has some stories to tell.

Like the one about the disturbed man who sucker-punched her in the face. Or the guy who committed suicide right there in the emergency room. Or the sadly remorseful baby killer. Or the just plain crazy people who have lost all touch with reality.

Holland tells these stories in her 2009 book, "Weekends at Bellevue." Some of these stories are funny, some sad, some upsetting, but they're generally well-told and they expose the reader to a world few people see. The "CPEP" the Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program has the manic atmosphere of the show "ER," but the room is stocked only with the mentally unstable. It's Holland's job to sort through them, and decide how to treat them.

"There is a diaphanous membrane between sane and insane," Holland writes. "It is the flimsiest of barriers, and because any one of us can break through at any given time, it scares us all of us. We all lie somewhere on the spectrum, and our position can shift gradually or suddenly. There is no predicting which of us will be afflicted with dementia or schizophrenia, who will become incapacitated with depression or panic attacks, or become suicidal, manic or addicted."

If Holland had stuck to stories from the emergency room, she'd have an outstanding book. But too often she strays off the path to offer self-indulgent stories about herself. She wrings her hands over her personal anxieties, shares her petty disputes with her boss, tells us her childbirth story (though there's nothing particularly unusual about it).

At one point, Holland describes herself as a "narcissist" and I'm afraid that's true. To put it bluntly, she talks too much about herself.

My suggestion: Stick to the stories in the CPEP, and skim through the other stuff.

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