A&E

Making sense of mental illness

Portland author shares her memoir with Palo Alto

The statistics are sobering: Suicide is now the tenth most common cause of death for men and women. Every thirteen minutes, another American dies from suicide.

Yet statistics don't convey the full horror and grief left in the wake of a loved one's self-inflicted death. Sometimes it takes a first-person account of the lead-up and aftermath of such a traumatic event to express its enormity.

In her new memoir, "All the Things We Never Knew: Chasing the Chaos of Mental Illness," Portland, Oregon-based radio broadcaster Sheila Hamilton reveals how her husband's suicide a decade ago caught her unaware and devastated her and her family.

Hamilton will discuss her book at Shine On Book Salon this Friday, Dec. 4, at Gravity Bistro in Palo Alto.

The news director and morning show co-host for top-rated rock station KINK-FM, Hamilton is a five-time Emmy winner and currently holds the title of "Portland's #1 Radio Personality." Yet for all her insight as a reporter, Hamilton wasn't able to interpret correctly the signs of her husband's developing mental illness. She could not understand why her spouse, building contractor David Krol, indulged in extramarital affairs, let his business fall into disarray, seemed to want to lead a separate life from her and finally was hospitalized after breaking into his girlfriend's house and stealing a gun.

Six weeks after being formally diagnosed with bipolar disorder, David shot himself without leaving any kind of note. Hamilton and their 9-year-old daughter, Sophie, were left grief stricken and confused, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.

Years later, when she decided to write a memoir about the experience, Hamilton found she was able to reconstruct her years with David thanks to the journals she kept at the time.

"I felt I needed to have the story move through me, in a way, to make sense of the trauma that I had experienced, and also to have an accounting for my daughter if she ever wanted to have an understanding of what happened to her dad," Hamilton explained in a recent phone interview.

The chapters of "All the Things We Never Knew" alternate between accounts of Hamilton's and Krol's years together -- both the good and the bad -- and discussions of the latest research regarding suicide and mental illness.

"What I really learned is how much mental illness hides itself," Hamilton said. "That a person can appear as if they're functioning and doing OK in life, but they go through periods where they're under more stress, and then the illness really begins to manifest. I want people to understand how much mental illness waxes and wanes in a human being, especially in the early development of the illness."

In her memoir, Hamilton discusses how difficult it can be for people with depression or mania to reveal their problems.

"Most people don't want to talk about how they're feeling," she said. "They're not very comfortable about it. They've been raised in places where, if they think about any kind of mental frailty, it's considered a character flaw or a weakness. So people don't want to be very open about it. That's what makes determining whether a loved one has a mental illness especially fraught. It's very difficult to do."

Even once it becomes clear that someone needs help, she noted, it can be difficult to get the proper care.

"There are certainly a lot of holes in our safety net. Even as we begin to improve the conversation around stigma and people begin to ask for help, they find that getting good help is difficult. Your insurance (might not) cover a provider that you hear is very good. And when you finally do find a provider, it's a 6-to-8-week waiting list."

Yet Hamilton sees viable alternatives to these frustrating roadblocks.

"What's working more for people right now is a combination of a very low use of pharmaceuticals and a higher reliance on connection to family and friends to help you through a crisis."

Hamilton said she also sees the value in mindfulness, yoga and cognitive behavioral therapies.

"That's where I think mental health is headed. It's not going to be between you and a psychiatrist and the medication helping you get better. It's going to be between you, your loved ones, your extended family, your church or some sort of social group and your workplace."

Asked about the detection and prevention of teen suicide, Hamilton said, "We must understand that anybody who is struggling with these issues of depression or anxiety and is going through really big changes -- and I believe that a lot of young people are living at hyper-speed and are undergoing radical change right now -- any time that they have their sense of identity undermined by some personal or cultural change, they're at risk for suicide.

"We've got to start taking our emotional health as seriously as we take the training for the SATs," Hamilton said. "We must pay as much attention to the development of a person's emotional spectrum as we do to their physical health. We get them tutors for their soccer and their piano and everything else for which they're showing aptitude. What are we doing to help kids develop really strong and resilient minds?"

As for her own family, Hamilton has remarried, and her daughter is now a college student. She waited a long time before finally letting Sophie read the manuscript of "All the Things We Never Knew."

"We were on a family vacation together, and she told me that I got it absolutely right," the author remembered. "I think that's the highest praise I've received."

What: Shine On Book Salon with Sheila Hamilton

Where: Gravity Bistro, 544 Emerson St., Palo Alto

When: Friday, Dec. 4, 5 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to goo.gl/RyGO5O.

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