I was surprised and delighted to receive an e-mail from Rachel Pappas asking if I would write a review of her book Hopping Roller Coasters. She explained in her e-mail that the book tells the story of her tumultuous journey raising a daughter diagnosed with bipolar disorder while she herself struggles with the same disorder. Aside from these significant and difficult struggles, what she fails to mention was a different roller coaster, her own battle with breast cancer.
Hopping Roller Coasters begins with Rachel meeting her future husband, Paul. After the birth of their daughter, Marina, each chapter focuses on the significant events in one year of Marina’s life up through her early twenties. Rachel describes in great detail Marina’s academic and social struggles, which begin as early as preschool and progress into violent mood swings in adolescence with self-mutilations, suicide attempts, and loud shouting matches between daughter and mother.
Over the next two decades, we are invited to look, sometimes painfully, at the many psychiatric hospitalizations and therapists, as well as Rachel’s fight with mental health practitioners and school personnel to protect and speak for Marina to be sure she gets the help she needs.
Rachel relates in vivid and honest detail how her own mood swings, her impulsive and hurtful outbursts, negatively affect Marina’s self-esteem and ability to heal. Reading through a mother’s painful honesty in describing these hurtful encounters, I kept wanting to hear more about her own struggles with bipolar disorder before becoming a mother. I can only assume that Rachel’s experience as a child and adolescent with bipolar disorder has given her a deeper understanding of what her child was going through. Hearing her story from that point of view would have enriched Marina’s story while also giving us a window into the depths of the author’s own history.
Throughout the book, Rachel provides many detailed memories describing the struggles she and her daughter experience. One particular event told in hindsight seems significant enough to have been given its own chapter: when Marina was 14 years old, the paramedics were called when she took flight after the school staff feared she had been cutting herself. When the paramedics arrive, Rachel relates this memory:
He was the paramedic who picked her up last time, when she was cheeking her pills, then spitting them out after I left her room. Later she took the twenty or so she’d stockpiled and swallowed them all. He’d just brought me back to that day—her first flight. How we eventually found her, crouched in the bathroom a block away at her psychiatrist’s.
I am certain Marina’s first suicide attempt had a significant impact on the family. I would have liked to have heard Rachel’s feelings about this life-threatening event and how the family reacted and rallied around Marina during and immediately after the episode.
Throughout the story, I felt the immense devotion Rachel has for Marina. She never gives up—not even during the experiences that feel so overwhelming and painful. Many times throughout the book I was thinking, “how is this family managing and moving forward? How can they handle one more crisis?” Then I realized what it was that kept them moving forward: Love. Rachel’s love for Marina is so deep, so unwavering, and so fierce that it gives her the significant strength and passion to do whatever she needs to do for her child. You even feel the deep regret and pain each time Rachel lashes out at her daughter, hurtfully and angrily, because of her own struggles with her own moods.
Rachel’s own support, the person giving her the strength and ability to fight each battle as it comes, is her husband, Paul. Paul is the quiet hero. Ever calm, positive, wise, and loyal, he is always there for both of them. With his support and her own immense love for her daughter, Rachel is able to help Marina come through the storm of her illness to the other side where she finds a satisfying job, a loving boyfriend, and independence. It was this determination and strength, I believe, that paved the way for Rachel to face her own battle with breast cancer.
I can only assume that Rachel’s exploration through her feelings and memories of this two-decade journey was therapeutic, a release from pain and a movement toward inner peace and a clearer understanding of herself and her daughter. It takes great courage and strength to share such raw experiences and painful memories.
I not only recommend this book for those who struggle with or have family members with mental health issues, but for those who want to be inspired and empowered by this strong, devoted, and loving family. It is a family that has been challenged again and again with great pain and uncertainty and has forged forward no matter what. When I came to the end of the book, I felt like I knew the family personally, and I was left wanting to know more.
You can purchase Hopping Roller Coasters on Amazon.com
*Rachel Pappas provided this review copy of Hopping Roller Coasters to me free of charge.