Interview by Leslie Lindsay
Zig-Zag Boy: A Memoir of Motherhood & Madness (W.W. Norton; Feb. 2023), “is an urgent tale of a fierce battle a mother wages for her child.”
Tanya Frank’s memoir invites readers into a personal and often devastating story. It’s about the broken mental health system, mothering young adults, advocating for a better life, and ultimately: hope. Throughout this compassionate and moving memoir, Frank, an educator by training, based in her home city of London, following sixteen years in Los Angeles, explores how we come — are continuing to come — to terms with psychosis, motherhood, and trauma. As a nature lover, Frank volunteered her time as a docent at Ano Nuevo Elephant Seal Sanctuary, because, as she shares, “the healing power of nature was an important aspect of the story.” She also completed an internship in mental health psychosocial rehabilitation, working at Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services in Los Angeles, using memoir as a tool to aid self-expression and recovery.
What might have begun as a reckoning with psychosis, Zig-Zag Boy delves into a story that isn’t just Frank’s or her son’s, but also many other sons and daughters, mothers and fathers. It’s a collective voice of all families who have been touched by a severe mental illness.
“Families, like ours live on the edge,” she writes, “in a no-man’s land, our voices stifled or ignored by bureaucracy and archaic laws.” Although Frank was probably the closet witness to her son’s psychosis, she was also the most unable to advocate for her son, due to the myriad of barriers in place: he’s technically an adult, there are privacy and housing concerns, and also: what can be done — truly — if he’s no threat to himself or others? It begs the question: how can we help? How much sway does a mother have? How can we be compassionate without enabling?
Zach, a nineteen-year-old freshman at UCLA is thrown into his first “psychotic break,” as the doctor’s later would call it. Before that, she wasn’t sure if he exhibited any signs or symptoms consistent with the possibility of developing psychosis. Aren’t all teenagers moody and tired? Could she have missed something? Now he’s convinced phones are bugged, his friends have joined the Mafia, or the family is being spied upon.
In Zig-Zag Boy, Frank takes us on this journey, into her home, and into her supportive, but fragile marriage, as they both endure a loss. The concept of motherhood and madness is nothing new to me. My own mother, when she was about thirty, experienced what doctor’s then-called ‘a nervous breakdown.’ As a child, I witnessed similar events as my mother crumbled, as my world as I knew it, shifted dramatically.
Zig-Zag Boy is a collective book, giving voice to all families who have experienced this often terrifying and jarring experience.
Frank received her MFA in creative nonfiction at the University of California, Riverside. Her writing has appeared in the Guardian, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. She lives in London with her wife. Here’s our conversation:
Leslie Lindsay: Tanya, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. I am so taken by your candor and persistence—as a mother and writer. Zig-Zag Boy is indeed a love story, one of a mother’s fierce love for her child, but also your love for your wife. I think I want to start with that. The idea that this is a love story, because it doesn’t have to be. It could be a story of giving up.
Tanya Frank: Yes, that is an interesting question, because of course many parents do ‘give up’ I gave up at times too, then took up the slack again. The frustrations of the system alongside the exhausting role of keeping a loved one safe and of being with them in all their distress can be too much sometimes. I think it can compromise the health of the holder, the one who tries to make sense of the situation and battle for resources. I believe that giving up a little bit can be healthy too, enough to lead one’s own life and maintain self-care. It can become unhealthily consuming otherwise. Love is a messy and complex phenomenon.
I often felt in the middle and conflicted by it, trying to love my wife and my son, and feeling I was failing both. I was trying to protect my son with the fierce love of motherhood. I knew my wife didn’t need protecting in the same way, but she did want me to be with her, to be present in her life as her companion. This wasn’t always possible. I think my love and persistence as far as Zach was concerned, also grew from the fact that my mother had been an orphan as a child, and my father left when I was very young, so we had a very small family. My mother hung on much too tightly to us in some ways, it was what I learned to do in my own parenting.
LL: You do an incredible job of blending the informational with the emotional, breaking down psychosis in more biological-scientific (but never boring!) terms. This creates a strong sentimental arc to your story. In the spirit of conventional narrative, can you speak to how you developed a character arc through psychosis? I really could ‘see’ you and Zach being changed and challenged throughout the story.
TF: The arc was painstakingly hard to achieve in the beginning. I sold the book on proposal and only had a few scattered chapters and an idea of the structure. It changed a lot though because I was living out the story. Together with my editor from Harper Collins, we watched much of the story evolve as I experienced it. I understood that I was changing. I was starting to look at the alternative paradigm of mental health, seeing psychosis through a trauma lens, not a medical one. I also split up from my wife for a time, physically and geographically more than emotionally, but I had to grow as my own person and realize I could survive the pandemic and the return to the UK on my own, and with reliance on friends, family, support groups and mostly through the healing power of nature.
I worried that the arc of the book was too subtle, that there was no loud powerful happy ever after Hollywood resolution, but rather an acceptance of the truth and of loss and grief on the one hand and the discovery of compassion and the beauty of nature on the other. But this was a closer version of the truth. It is a story of the duality that comes out of suffering.
LL: Like Zach, my mother was diagnosed with all kinds of mental illnesses. Bipolar with psychotic features, ‘just’ bipolar, schizophrenic (which she detested), and finally, like Zach, schizoaffective. What I think this speaks to is the notion that even doctors aren’t exactly sure what is going on. Can you fill us in a bit? How would you define schizoaffective disorder? And if psychosis is thought to be genetic, a symptom of brain chemistry gone awry, why are there no disease markers in brain scans or bloodwork?
TF: I think that this is a complex and very controversial issue. But my a-ha moment came when I saw Zach’s labels changing over time, realizing that even the doctors aren’t exactly sure about what is happening during this process. The fact that there are no physical markers was also a huge part of my awakening in my journey of witnessing Zach’s situation. Mental health is an industry, and the pharmaceutical companies and psychiatry makes a lot of money out of the drugs and treatments. We cannot push this aside when we think about psychosis.
Also, new diagnoses are being defined every year in the DSM Diagnostic Statistical Manual, the so-called bible of psychiatry. This is interesting too, because what was once seen as perhaps a distressing life event, for example grief after losing a loved one, is now being medicalized and called prolonged grief disorder if it is deemed to continue for too long. The way labels of the past are removed from the DSM are notable, too. For example, I would have been labeled as mentally ill if I had been born a few decades earlier, because of my sexuality. Being gay was seen as a psychological disorder.
Psychosis is often thought to be genetic, or a symptom of brain chemistry gone awry, which is what I was led to believe for much of my journey through the traditional mental health system. Zach’s first diagnosis was psychosis NOS (Not Otherwise Specified), a vague kind of darned if I know description. Then later, depending upon which doctor he saw, he was classified with either schizophrenia, paranoid schizophrenia, depression with psychotic symptoms, or more recently, schizoaffective disorder.
The mental health campaigner Will Hall once said, “When doctors diagnosed me with schizophrenia, they weren’t revealing something inside of me, they were casting a spell and imposing something on me. It was my job to break that spell.”
LL: One resource you mention in Zig-Zag Boy is NAMI (National Alliance of Mentally Ill), an organization I am quite familiar—I was once a Family-to-Family educator. I believe it imperative to connect with others on the same path, even when—especially when—that path is a little crooked. Can you tell us a little more about NAMI, and how you found community to be so integral to your healing and understanding?
TF: What a blessing you must have bestowed upon those who came to your classes. I know that there is a lot of training that you had to do, to qualify for the position too. I was a little bit resistant to attend NAMI to begin with. I felt that maybe if I didn’t talk about it then it might go away. I think I had some shame and guilt too that made it such a messy ordeal.
It was Zach’s psychiatrist who had referred us to NAMI. I think he recognized that we needed to connect as a family. Zach tried some of the peer-to-peer sessions. We took the family-to-family class. Once I attended, I instantly felt very connected to the other family members. I think you become kin when facing something that is so outside of what you know, and something so painful that the only way it can be caried is when it is shared. I eventually felt that NAMI literature was a little bit too steeped in the biomedical model, and when I came to the UK I departed from that way of thinking. However, I kept in touch with some of the other mothers I had met in NAMI, and I still speak to them now. I am more involved with alternative more radical groups who use a compassionate trauma-based model of understanding psychosis.
The sense of sisterhood is the same though. These women know my pain and when our resources are pooled it makes us extremely knowledgeable and empowered. In my Safely Held Spaces group, there is an ex social worker, an ex-psychiatric nurse, and so there is a lot of knowledge about how the systems-which are archaic and bureaucratic—work. We also share information and articles in the media.
LL: I mention ‘healing’ here in the sense I am guessing you felt a tremendous loss, a grief, of your boy as you once knew him. Similar feelings emerged for me as well, but with my mother. She was no longer the same person. It was a loss, one that is nebulous and challenging on many levels: the person is still there. They have new and different needs. While you, yourself are not psychotic, your life has been irrevocably changed as well. Can you talk about that, please? And what helped you? Was it your volunteer work with the elephant seals?
TF: I felt extremely “mad” in the years after Zach was diagnosed. I often spent long nights awake and worrying. I tried to micromanage everything and to fix him. My world changed and I couldn’t work in the way I had expected. I had always taught but I didn’t feel able to leave Zach alone to carry on in that profession. I was able to rent out part of our home which meant that I had an income but could still stay close to home. I think the things that really helped me to manage my own extreme hypervigilance and angst was writing and nature. I wrote to try to make sense of the chaos and the complexity of what had happened, to give it some order and to name some of my extreme distress. Also, to keep notes and records which seemed so crucial at the time.
My wife and I went on long hikes often up mountains and the sheer physical effort helped me to be in my body. I loved being outside in nature too, and once we moved to northern California, I became a docent at an elephant seal sanctuary. The place was so wild, and it was off the grid, so I couldn’t really call or text Zach once I got to the sanctuary. It was a really hard thing for me to do, to be out of touch like this.
Also, I had never really studied the environment or marine biology, so it was a steep learning curve, but I needed to find myself, and have something all my own, even though Zach was on my mind so much of my time, every single day. This time that I carved out forced me to try to be more at one with the elements. I also had something to talk about other than my complete focus on Zach, which was becoming unhealthy for all of us. I miss the elephant seals now that I am in the UK, but I do go to the forest a lot, and I also swim at a lake all through the year. The cold water during the winter helps to take me into my deeper brain where all I can think about is moving to keep warm.
I do still feel like there has been a cumulative stress in my mind and body. I see the fallout in my elder son too. Witnessing someone you love going through such trauma brings its own stresses that I think do irrevocably change you. It is not all bad. I can be with people in distress and misery now, and just listen. I think I am more compassionate after what I have been through.
LL: I don’t want to forget your relationship with Nance, because she too, was processing a loss—several, in fact. For a time, you were toggling back and forth from L.A. and London, while she stayed back with her ailing mother. That’s two losses already. But also: Zach. What I think I am getting at is that everyone is affected by a family member’s mental illness. Also, Savanna, Zach’s then-girlfriend, his father, Gordon. Can you talk about how we all experience these events differently, based on our role and proximity to the person affected?
TF: Yes, I think for a time I was blind to the ways in which the event of Zach’s breakdown or breakthrough or whatever we might call it, affected others. I thought that as Zach’s biological mother, I was impacted most and the worst, I know I was not always present for my elder son or for my wife. The way I manifested my trauma was very visible and loud and emotional and with a lot of fear at times, but my elder son struggled silently, and in later years he was quite challenged by the role he had to play and the chaos he witnessed. My wife too had been brought up to be less demonstrative. Also becoming a co-parent when Zach was already a teen made it complex in some ways. I think that a lot of blame was shifted around too. And guilt.
Gordon was mostly absent, but that brought its own complexities to the table too. I am still in touch with Savanna. It was a hard journey for her, for both she and Zach. It is something that affects the family, and in places where the community is stronger, in societies where there is faith or ritual more embedded in the culture, it seems like the events are dealt with and processed a lot differently. Also, there is less reliance on drugs and less stigma in some of these worlds. I think that the greater the lack of agency the person faces who is at the center of the dilemma the harder it is for those around him or her.
LL: I could probably talk about this all day, but alas we both have other things to do! What might you want to leave us with? Maybe something along the lines of advocacy, self-care, or something I forgot to ask about?
TF: I think that it is important to realize that our loved ones who are going through extreme distress or altered states need us, and they need us to be strong and well to be able to advocate for them. For this reason, I cannot state how important it is to practice self-care and to learn the kinds of strategies that will help to that end.
I think that looking at other forms of support and ways of understanding psychosis is crucial too. The systems that we have are just not helping sufficiently. There are more people than ever that are finding life too challenging, and that doesn’t look likely to change. So, to understand how community incentives such as Soteria House, Open dialogue, hearing Voices and ISPS can help, and in a less expensive and a more compassionate way is an important tool for our future, for all of us, because I do believe that we are all in this together.