Book Review: Broken Brain, Fortified Faith

Both Marys were lucky enough to have read the un-edited version of the manuscript for Broken Brain, Fortified Faith: Lessons of Hope Through a Child’s Mental Illness by Virginia Pillars.

broken brain blurb

broken brain blurb endorsements.jpgLast night I read the newly-released version, which is even more gripping, heart-rending, and ultimately…beautiful. I began reading at 8:00 and couldn’t put it down until I completed the entire book. As a mother, I could not imagine the torment of watching a child descend into madness, but I could certainly relate to the mother-bear instinct that kicked in upon the diagnosis of schizophrenia for this brave woman and her equally brave daughter.

Mental illness is not happy subject, nor is it fodder for casual conversation around the table. In fact, I would conjecture the topic of mental illness rates right up there with death in terms of our willingness to face it head on, but according to this book more people are living with mental illness than heart disease, lung disease, and cancer combined. We need to talk about it because there is a good chance someone we love will be affected by it.

Reading Pillars’ chronicle of a journey no one wants to take was difficult at times. As readers, we can’t help but put ourselves or our loved ones in the place of those who are suffering. What if this was my daughter? I thought as I read. I found myself wiping away tears a few times. It struck me as I read this memoir that this could be any one of us, that the insidious beast of mental illness crouches at the door of the best of families, waiting to pounce on its innocent prey. Pillars’ daughter Amber had a solid education, a good job, and a strong faith when she was unexpectedly gripped in the claws of mental illness. Thankfully, she also had a family who loved her and a good friend who wouldn’t give up on her. Hope remained. And in the end, it was that faith and hope, and some good medical care, that eventually brought this family out of the dark pit of despair. Amber now lives a full and productive life, and the author works tirelessly to bring hope to other families through her work with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

broken brain

book reviewed by Mary Potter Kenyon


Want to make a Mary very merry?

Try paper.

As our readers are well aware, the Marys love stationery. Of the two of us, I seem to be the one more apt to imbibe in the collection of it.

When I received a $25 e-gift card from Staples in my work e-mail, I thought it might be a scam of some type, but the girls in the front office thought it was more likely I’d filled out some survey they might have ignored. Since it didn’t ask for any passwords or access to any of my accounts, I printed it out and intended to use it on programs for my daughter Emily’s upcoming Saturday wedding.

We headed to the Staples store located at 4601 1st Avenue SE, in Cedar Rapids. (write this down, Cedar Rapids area peeps, you just might want to visit this store in the next week or two).  Once there, we headed straight to the copy center, where the woman informed us the programs wouldn’t be ready for 2-3 days, since they were running on a skeleton crew because they would be closing in September. I might be a little rusty in the coupon-using department, but my  deal-seeking radar still went into full alert at that comment. I immediately turned my head to survey the area behind me, and there it was, in all its glory; a sign on the greeting card display, declaring all remaining greeting cards to be 50-cents. I handed Emily my keys and told her to head to the nearest Copyworks while I shopped. After all, I had that coupon to use before the end of the month.

50 greeting cards later (some originally priced at $5.95 each),  I pushed a cart up and down the aisles, looking for more deals. I hit the mother lode in the stationery/wedding aisle, where $11 packages of “thank you” cards were marked down to 50-cents. Three packages went in the cart for Emily. Blue envelopes, marked down to 50-cents, 100-sheet packs of designed letterhead printer paper just $2, packages of beautiful cards for 50-cents. I left plenty of 100-sheet packages of paper and if you were in the early stages of planning a wedding, there was embossed blank programs, name cards for table settings, and boxes full of wedding invitations.


If utilized correctly, those 50 greeting cards, paid for by a free gift card, will brighten the mailboxes of 50 people in the months to come.

Now, that’s the kind of sale that will make a Mary very merry.

Mary Potter Kenyon

A Book Club Visit

by Mary Jedlicka Humston

Imagine receiving a large envelope in the mail and finding several handwritten thank you notes inside. Talk about a treasure! While sitting in my queen chair in the front room, I smiled while opening and reading each one.

Those of you who follow this blog and know that Mary & Me: A Lasting Link Through Ink is about Mary’s and my 30-year friendship linked by thousands and thousands of letters will know why these thank yous thrilled me.

des moines book club notes

The Walnut Hills Women’s Book Group and I spent a lovely evening together last month in Des Moines. We met at Panera and talked about the book as if we’d been lifelong friends. I felt such warmth from these wonderful women and was blessed by our discussion and the sharing of numerous friendship stories.

So, thanks, Walnut Hill Women’s Book Group, for providing this unique opportunity for me to meet you all. And, thanks for the thank you cards. Your kindness deeply touched me.

des moines book club

If your book club would like one, or both of us, if possible, to come and talk to your group, let us know. One of our joys is to hear how Mary & Me has touched others. We also hope it promotes friendship: both ones of longevity and those that are brand new, for each and every friendship possesses the potential to change lives and to create wonderful, rich legacies.

We designed our book to be utilized by book clubs, with a discussion guide at the back of it. You can see the discussion questions on our publisher’s website by clicking here.

The Support We Need When a Soulmate Dies

I read a lot of grief books.  That’s obvious from my Goodreads profile. What might seem an unhealthy obsession to some, could be explained as research for the book proposal I’ve been working on, or as part of my training in bereavement to help others. I’ll be teaching an expressive writing through healing seminar at a Heal Your Grief retreat I’m coordinating in Dubuque for October. So reading about journaling and other ways of healing just makes sense.

My latest read was Alan D. Wolfelt‘s When Your Soulmate Dies: A Guide to Healing Through Heroic Mourning. When I read this, I thought of my friend Mary:

“To be truly helpful, the people in your support system must appreciate the impact this death has had on you. They must understand that in order to heal, you must be allowed-even encouraged- to mourn long after the death. And they must encourage you to see mourning not as an enemy to be vanquished but as a necessity to be experienced as a result of having loved.” (page 126)

Soulmate cover

Mary has been that support. Mary is the friend who visited once a month, every month, for eighteen months, treated me to lunch, and sat and listened, asking questions no one else dared ask. She has written countless letters of understanding, never complaining about my need to vent in my return letters.

I would have loved to have read this book shortly after David died. I think it would have been a tremendous help. Of course, if I was reading it then, my comments wouldn’t be included in it, would they?

Soulmate page

I’ve notice that about one-third of the people in our lives are capable of showing up with a loving heart and a ministry of presence. Another third can’t really help in this way but don’t hurt us either. And the final third are often toxic and harmful to our healing. They may tell us to quit mourning or declare that we’re doing it wrong.” page 84 of Wolfelt’s book

I count Mary in that first group of people. Unfortunately, I’ve also had experience with those who fall in that third group. Wolfelt’s wise advice is to steer clear of them.

Wolfelt discovered that it isn’t just spouses that can be soulmates. Some of the people he interviewed had lost a child, mother, sibling, or friend that was a “soul mate.” Yes, a friend. If we are lucky, we have experienced the kind of friendship that means our very souls have connected. We feel it immediately. For those who have read our book, you will know that for most of my adult life I didn’t experience many friendships outside of sisters and Mary. Almost as if loss broke my heart wide open, I have since accumulated many female (and male) friends, and there have been those I’ve connected with on a soul level. I can hardly wait until the group of people I have hand-picked for the “Heal Your Grief” retreat are in one room together, because each of them is that kind of friend. What happens when we all congregate under one roof, these chosen people? Do sparks crackle in the air above our heads? Angels sing? I can hardly wait to find out.

I am well aware that in the process of learning what it is to establish friendships, I have also opened myself up for further grief.

“I’m scared to get too close to him,” I confided. “Because of his age.”

I didn’t have to say any more. Mary knew what I meant. I didn’t want to face the possibility of a friend dying. The death of my husband was too recent, and I was raw with grief.

But it was too late. I already loved Cecil Murphey. The fact that I can admit as much shows just how far I have come in the friendship department. I love Shelly Beach, Wanda Sanchez, and dozens of other women I have met through Christian Writers conferences. Then there’s my Bible-study family. I love each and every one of them.

“I think that must be what heaven is like,” my daughter Elizabeth commented after one of our more animated studies when we’d laughed until we were nearly in tears.”- from “Mary & Me: A Lasting Link Through Ink,” page 124.

I don’t want to lose any of my friends. They are all too dear to me. Despite how much I love them, I don’t expect the grief to be the same as that when I lost David.
Have I dared to contemplate what it would be like to lose Mary? As briefly as possible. From our book,on page 184.

“Mary is more like me than I realized,” I told my daughter Elizabeth on the phone.

“Maybe if Jim dies someday, you and Mary could live together,” was her reply.

Without thinking, I’d blurted out in horror, “Oh, no, she’d drive me crazy!” Mary laughed when I confessed this transgression one day at my brother’s house.

“We’re too much alike,” she agreed.

“Can you even imagine not writing each other?” I asked then. I saw tears well up in her eyes.

Later on the way home, I let myself briefly consider a life without Mary’s letters.

I couldn’t bear it.