Leave of Absence
by Tanya J. Peterson
Inkwater Press

"She typically looked and sounded dispassionate, but when he looked beyond that, he saw a person who very much experienced the gamut of human emotions."

They walk among us, but when we sense their difference we typically shy away from them. Perhaps it is due to a misunderstanding of their situation or simply a fear of how they might react if interacted with, but whatever the reason may be we often shun the mentally ill. Tragically, though, it is frequently the twin catalysts of love and support from those around them that can help a person suffering with mental or emotional problems recover quicker or, at the very least, learn to cope better with their illness. In her poignant portrayal of Oliver and Penelope, the author attempts to demystify two of the more common psychological maladies and to remind her readers of the humanity of their victims.

Oliver wants to die. Poor timing and the efforts of a police rescue team were the only things that kept him alive when he tried to jump to his death. Admitted to Airhaven Behavioral Health Center after his suicide attempt, he resists the efforts of the staff to help him, believing that he deserves to be dead since he wasn't there to stop the murder of his wife and young son four months ago. Penelope, another patient at Airhaven, also believes she has very little left to offer the world. Having lost her career and ability to function normally in society due to her illness, she sees herself as worthless and an anchor around the neck of her fiancé, William. Ironically, this unlikely place is where they form a deep friendship which, in turn, begins to lead them both toward recovery.

Peterson, a Nationally Certified Counselor, tackles two frequently misunderstood illnesses in her story. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has garnered a massive amount of press over the last two decades as an increasing number of soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with it. Showing in the character of Oliver that the anxiety disorder can come about from causes other than warfare, she is able to fully explore how debilitating PTSD can be to those who experience it. Oliver's disorienting flashbacks, overwhelming depression, increased startle response, and nightmares are all typical features associated with the disorder, and by putting the reader into Oliver's shoes for a time she is helping educate those who may have previously been at a loss to understand what a family member of friend returning from the conflict overseas could be going through. In addition, the author reveals just how difficult it is for a person with schizophrenia to function in society. Like Sylvia Nasar did in her book, A Beautiful Mind, Peterson propels her readers into Penelope's mental anguish and reveals how the illness affects those who have to watch a loved one suffer through it by having the reader see the story at times through William's eyes.

Although the book might have further explored the motivations and reactions of some of the minor figures such as Maggie's parents and Rod, Peterson's handling of her three principal characters is quite good. Sometimes in the absence of knowing we fill in the blanks with counter-productive images of the mentally ill. The author helps strip away the surface stereotypes associated with those who suffer from PSTD and schizophrenia to show the real people underneath.

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