Where are the Cocoa Puffs?: A Family’s Journey Through Bipolar Disorder
Karen Winters Schwartz
Goodman Beck Publishing (2010)
Where are the Cocoa Puffs? illustrates how a well-crafted piece of fiction can be effective at explaining the experience of mental illness. The story unfolds like the chronology of an earthquake, with 18-year-old Amanda at the epicenter and those close to her being shaken to varying degrees by the development of her illness. Just like in documentary photographs of a quake or a storm, what communicates the hugeness of the event are snapshots of the details: a troubling conversation in which Amanda plans to cure blindness and deafness; a trip with the extended family; the breakdown on the cereal aisle because there are no Cocoa Puffs; mother Carol’s tears in a restaurant that reminds her of happier times or Amanda’s younger sister acting out with the wrong guy. Bipolar disorder shows itself to be a storm that peaks and levels and rages again, but that is best communicated by daily events like meals or a mundane activity cut short by a phone call signaling the beginning of a new stage of crisis.
One of the most gripping themes in Cocoa Puffs is watching Amanda’s father, a psychiatrist, slowly recognize and come to terms with his daughter’s illness. The reader sees events such as the first suicidal conversation and the first hospitalization through the eyes of someone who has experienced them many times before—but not like this. In one moving scene, Jerry receives a prescription from his daughter’s psychiatrist and finds himself lingering, knowing that this is all the doctor can give him, but wishing the other man could just give him some reassurance about his daughter’s illness.
Another interesting element in the book is Amanda’s relationship with her boyfriend, Ryan. Older, long-haired, not currently in school, he is not what her parents ideally want for her in a partner. But over time, he becomes a powerful support to both Amanda and the rest of the family. Like the NAMI Family-to-Family class that helps Carol, Ryan shows how sometimes families find healing outside the family. When the reader is inside Ryan’s head, it’s like a moment of calm. All the worries, anger and projections from the minds of the rest of the family stop, and we can just appreciate what he loves about Amanda, even as we see his own struggle to understand her illness.
Unlike its title, the book is not always sweet—sex, strong language and drugs are all part of this slice of life. In keeping with the naturalistic tone, the book’s resolution is a glimmer of normalcy. After many months of painful ups and downs, mother and daughter finally meet in the middle for a regular conversation. “Wow,” the family says together. Readers with all degrees of familiarity with mental illness may very well find themselves saying the same at the end of the book.
Reviewed by Kim Puchir