Cindy Wittstrom has faced off against some of the deadliest mental and physical disorders known to modern medicine and lived to tell the story. "When The Brakes Fail" (Gatekeeper Press) is a well-written account of one woman’s fight to survive postpartum depression, bipolar disorder, breast cancer, insomnia and a number of associated symptoms and syndromes. Readers will find both inspiration and points of practical guidance within the pages.

Beyond the raw emotion of such experiences, Wittstrom is dedicated to increasing public understanding of these conditions in an effort to reverse the associated social stigmas. "When The Brakes Fail" is a moving and meaningful book for anyone facing a major medical crisis, or for those who want to support a loved one in a challenging time.

In the prologue, Wittstrom states a few specific reasons she wrote the book:

"The first is that I am searching for clarity and understanding, verifying the dates of events, reviewing my personal expressions via my journals and finally, learning the effects my illness has had on others, especially those close to me.

Secondly, I hope to educate you, the public, on this illness through my life experiences."

"When The Brakes Fail" accomplishes both objectives and so much more. The primary focus of the book is what the author considers her most overwhelming and immense challenge: bipolar disorder. In addition to the diagnosis, this amazing woman has lived and overcome a number of other health problems that have claimed the lives of millions, including depression and breast cancer.

Wittstrom shares this story with intimate detail, in a manner that feels deeply personal but also universal. The pain, frustration, sadness, grief she and her family experience are emotions anyone in this situation must face.

Pulling back the hospital curtain

Wittstrom’s medical history is interwoven with other major milestones of her life in a way that generates a deep emotional connection with the reader. The first major episode of depression accompanies the birth of her first son; she faces the difficulties of being a new parent while also confronting a new threat to her own mental and physical well-being. Later in the story, we witness how her job, civic duties, family drama and even the simple act of travel can each throw off the stasis of her illness and lead to serious complications.

The author does a remarkable job of including an unprecedented level of clinical knowledge in a way that is easily understandable for most readers. "When The Brakes Fail" explains the medical terminology and psychiatric protocols in a simple and straightforward manner.

In some cases the explanations are included as dialogue with the various health care providers who help along the way; in other sections, a paragraph or two of informational text is interspersed with the difficult conversations Wittstrom has with her husband and other family members as she informs them on her conditions. In this effort, the author accomplishes her second goal of providing education to the reader in an efficient manner that never slows down the pace of her story.

Stigma and shame

One aspect unique to this book is Wittstrom’s dedication to exploring how her illness has affected those around her. She provides brief interviews with neighbors, colleagues, her sister, children and husband to shed light on what they understood (or misunderstood) throughout her life with bipolar disorder.

A major focus of "When The Brakes Fail" is to demonstrate how the misconceptions around this illness can be just as detrimental as the disease itself. In one extremely insightful section, the author compares her mental health challenges with the breast cancer she battled:

"In comparison to postpartum depression and bipolar illness, cancer was easier to share with others — the diagnosis, the treatment, the aftercare. To me, there was little shame in having breast cancer. Through no fault of my own, it simply appeared. A protocol was in place to solve, or attempt to solve, the problem. If not this, then that. Mental illness is much more elusive."

Strength, courage and persistence in dark times

Another remarkable aspect of the memoir is a decidedly optimistic and positive message throughout. The author dedicates space to recognize the outstanding care she has received from various providers along her journey. On multiple occasions she reiterates what a blessing it was to find advocates in the psychiatric and medical fields who demonstrated a personal commitment to her recovery. This story focuses not only on the low moments, but also on the small miracles, the periods of stability and the happiness Wittstrom has been able to find in spite of everything.

She remains active in her church community and civic duties, her family life and personal pursuits. Wittstrom proves that a life with bipolar disorder, depression or other diseases can still be a very rewarding and meaningful one.

"When The Brakes Fail" helps to fight the misconceptions surrounding mental health. Wittstrom’s memoir also reminds readers of the role we can each play in supporting others in times of need. This shining example of strength, courage and persistence in dark times has the power to give readers hope.


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