Tanya Frank, ZIG-ZAG BOY: A Memoir of Madness and Motherhood

Tanya Frank, ZIG-ZAG BOY: A Memoir of Madness and Motherhood

Author Tanya Frank joins Zibby to discuss her gut-wrenching and compassionate new book Zig-Zag Boy: A Memoir of Madness and Motherhood, which chronicles her son Zach’s sudden and inexplicable psychotic break at age 19 and her journey to accepting the mysteries of his altered states. Tanya talks about the day of the psychotic break and what her son had been like before it (precocious, kind, and UCLA-bound), her fear that their move to the US impacted him negatively, and her desperate quest to find an answer. She also shares her thoughts on our flawed medical system and archaic mental health laws and gives an update on Zach.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Tanya. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Zig-Zag Boy: A Memoir of Madness and Motherhood.

Tanya Frank: Thank you. Thank you for having me. I’m really excited to be here.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, Tanya, your story, I feel like I felt it in my bones, every moment of the story, the way you talk about your son Zach. Everything was normal for so long. Then it just completely veered off. The way you wrote about it — I read all sorts of memoirs about motherhood. I read a lot of books like this because I love this kind of story. This book, you took us through those early moments in such detail and then tracked the whole story. I feel like as a mother, this is happening to my own child. The way you write about it, I feel all the emotions that it evokes in me. It was so powerful. Thank you for writing it as a book.

Tanya: Thank you. That’s really good feedback. That’s good to know because, obviously, it hasn’t gone out to the world yet. There’s just a select few that have been able to read it. That’s really, really important.

Zibby: I’m honored to have read it. Why don’t you just summarize the premise of this book now that I’ve raved about it? Make it more coherent.

Tanya: It was a very long time in the making, this book. It probably was maybe around ten years, actually. It’s been quite a journey. My son had his first psychotic break, as it would be called within the medical model, at the age of nineteen. Up until then — he’s my youngest son. He was a little bit more protected, my baby. He was always a bit small for his age and very shy and scholarly. We nicknamed him Golden Boy because he was just good at so many things. He had a lot of ambition. He knew what he wanted to do, where he wanted to go. The neighbors, everybody just loved him, really. He was on track. He had a merit scholarship at UCLA. He was very, very studious. Then around the age of nineteen, he started withdrawing quite a bit. He seemed somewhat troubled. He was smoking a lot of marijuana. I was brought up in quite a permissive kind of household. I wasn’t really an overly strict parent. I thought this is just what high school kids do. My partner told me about this thing in America. We were living in Los Angeles. We’d moved out there about five years before this kind of experience started. My partner said, “This is called senioritis in America. Don’t be too worried. He’s just got a lot on.”

Like most mothers, I think there’s this sense of protection where your mind doesn’t want to go to a place that feels so challenging and so unfamiliar, so it did strike me as something quite out of the blue, what happened with Zach. Also, because I was very unfamiliar with psychosis or altered states, as I think many of us are, I took him to the hospital because I didn’t really know what else to do. He was started on antipsychotics. I think that, although there are many people who claim that these drugs and that hospital can save their lives — I don’t want to advocate completely against such things. In our experience, it actually added a layer of trauma and complexity that really set us off on a path that I think, in retrospect, was much more difficult then maybe if I’d been able to look at some alternatives, which I did later on. The book charts a ten-year period, a decade during which time there are times where Zach is doing better. My youngest son, his name is Zach, which is why the book is named Zig-Zag Boy, because I called him Ziggy. We called him Ziggy or Zig-Zag as a kind of pet name. There are times where he does seem to stabilize and function and go back to university and have a girlfriend. I feel like, okay, this is all behind us now.

I move up to Northern California with my wife. I try to forge my own life because I think that I had become quite enmeshed, just so enmeshed and quite traumatized myself by the experience. I became a docent on an elephant seal colony called Año Nuevo. A lot of the book is set against the backdrop of the elephant colony, which I think gives us a reprieve. Also, it’s really a metaphor for the mystery of these marine mammals and the mystery of psychosis and the way that elephant seals have to let go at some point and the way I felt I had to let go at certain points as well. The book isn’t an especially happy ending. It’s not a Hollywood “happy ever after” resolution. This situation is still ongoing with my son. That’s a little different from some narratives that I’ve read around addiction and mental health, which I think was a little bit of a struggle at times for the editors, especially in America. The book comes out in England as well, which is where I’m based now. Halfway through the book, we return to England. Then we see how the system here is quite broken as well, and we’re in the midst of the pandemic. It’s an ambitious book. It takes us through a lot of times and places and moments of pondering and a lot of questions and not necessarily everything answered.

Zibby: I could listen to you talk forever. I think I want to ask you one or two more questions and just have you go on. My gosh, you’re so articulate. The way you talk is reflected in the book and the way that you write. Your writing is all so measured and thoughtful and beautiful. There are two pieces of this. One is your story itself. One is the fact that you turned it into a beautiful book as well and what you did to turn it into a book. First, with the story, when Zach had his first psychotic break and you take him to the hospital, you describe in such detail, driving back home and being like, what am I supposed to do, walk around Westwood right now? and just going in and waiting. Your partner was so amazing and took off work. The two of you were waiting and bracing yourselves. I feel like as the reader going through this, we’re there with you and wondering. Your search, also, for why this has happened and all of the — what was it like in pregnancy? Was it something in utero? Was it your fault? essentially, is the through line. Did I do something wrong nineteen years ago that has somehow caused this? Even the suggestion that it was some of the THC-laced marijuana that he had at some point that could’ve caused psychosis, your struggle to understand where it came from — not that it ultimately matters, but I feel like that is so human of us to have to find a cause. Where do you stand even on that? How have you come to terms with that?

Tanya: There are times where I still look back and think, was it this moment that was the catalyst for what happened? Would it have been different if we had stayed in England and not made that move to America? It was a very sensitive time in Zach’s life and his development. It was really hard for him to adjust. In the years after Zach’s break, I spent a lot of time trying to research, just pouring over statistics. What could’ve caused this? What could’ve contributed? There are definitely some studies that have been done to say that immigrants are a little more predisposed just being unsettled in something so new and unfamiliar and not knowing the systems. There was a period of time where it was just very uncomfortable for Zach to be in this land and to have lost his family and his network and his friends. There are certain times that I do go back to and wonder. Also, I’ve realized that I do have to come to some kind of acceptance that I can’t change — regret, I think it takes up a lot of energy. I think it stops me from being an advocate, which is really important. I want to do advocacy as well as be an artist. I’ve tried to come to some kind of acceptance.

I also feel really strongly that trauma and epigenetics are also a big part of why so many people experience psychosis and hear voices. I think we’re led to believe that it’s a disease. It’s a broken brain. It can be cured with pills, a quick fix, like a lot of other things in Western society that we expect to be able to do. I’ve learned that, actually, if you dig a little more deeply and look a bit more carefully, I think probably, a very few number of people actually “recover,” in inverted commas, through drugs. The side effects can be powerful and really debilitating. Quite often, it’s a process. If people are allowed to be in that process and we’re brave enough and safe enough to be with them and to listen, it can actually be something — even the hearing voices, people can talk about, this process is quite a spiritual endeavor rather than — I think in our society, we really do medicalize life events and our response to life events in a very different way to some other places and some other times.

Zibby: You feel that trauma can cause the break?

Tanya: I think trauma. For Zach, I think marijuana could also precipitate some of — I think you can be a little predisposed. Just as you have, maybe, heart disease or cancer or diabetes in the family, I think that your epigenetics or what is carried down through the generations, which I didn’t realize until I started digging around — I realized that a lot of my forebearers had died in concentration camps. My grandmother had actually been incarcerated in a mental hospital for many years of her adult life. I thought, oh, that must be genetic, then. There must be something genetic. My grandmother was like this, and this is why my son — if I find the right pill and if I find the right doctor and if I find out what was wrong with her, then I’ll be able to cure my son. Actually, what I do think is that trauma — there have been a lot of studies. They are quite complex. There have been studies done to show that this kind of trauma can attach to the genes and be expressed later on. There’s a greater sensitivity. Something might happen to Zach that happened to his brother. Just because his brother didn’t express it in the same way doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a congenital or a genetic defect. It can just be how it’s expressed epigenetically.

Zibby: Wow. Do you know any more details about the concentration camps? I’m so sorry.

Tanya: I know that my grandmother on my father’s side, so my paternal grandmother, she lost most of her family as a young — she lost her sister very young in a tobogganing accident. It was said that she was a little strange after that. That was the urban myth, the kind of thing that was carried down through the generations, that after Tilly lost her sister, she was a little strange after that, which I think was probably trauma induced. Then she lost she father very young, and her mother. She had one brother remaining. He was really beloved and really precious to her, possibly because he was all she had left. She left Czechoslovakia, she left Prague just at the outset of the second world war to come to England with my grandfather because he was British. They were one of the last out. She said to her brother, I will get you out no matter what. I’ll bring you here. I’ll see you again.

The war happened, and he wasn’t able to come here. At the end of the war, she discovered that he’d — it took a long time to discover because there was so much displacement and so many missing people. Eventually, she found out that he was killed at Auschwitz. I think she was so bereft and so broken. Maybe nowadays she may have been able to have some therapies and counseling or something to support that process. At the time, she unraveled with grief. It was a madness. She was sent to the hospital. She remained there. It was a secret. Everybody thought she had died. I grew up not knowing this story. I actually uncovered it in the process of writing the book. It’s not in Zig-Zag Boy, this story, but it’s something that I want to work on for my next book, to look a little more deeply at my female ancestors and who they were and what happened to them. I think that might be my next endeavor.

Zibby: It definitely should. As you were talking, I was like, did I miss that somehow? Where was that? I feel like that’s something I would totally remember. My gosh, what a story. Wow, poor Tilly. What about on your other side?

Tanya: On my mother’s side, my mother was an orphan, actually. She was in a Jewish orphanage. I think it was, again, a lot of trauma in her upbringing and also not really knowing what it was to be part of a traditional family, to parent, to mother in a way that was secure and safe. She held on very tightly to us as we were growing up, but in some quite unhealthy ways, I think because of being an orphan and being in an orphanage. In turn, my parenting, I’ve asked myself a lot of questions about, did I hold on too tightly? Am I still holding on too tightly? I think that it’s interesting because there’s that whole movement, if you’re part of twelve step or in Al-Anon or AA, about being dependent and codependent and letting go. I think that when somebody has psychosis and they’re extremely vulnerable — also, I’m sure even if they don’t have psychosis, if they’re vulnerable in other ways, from substance issues or alcoholism, I think it’s very difficult. There was a time where Zach was homeless. I was forced to let go.

Zibby: That was so awful when he said how, “It’s okay. People gave me food and water.” You were just so grateful to the strangers in LA who looked after your son in his darkest time. Oh, my gosh, it made me want to cry. You found him with his eyes sunken in. He was confused. You were like, why didn’t you come home? He’s like, no, I thought you sold the house.

Tanya: It’s a process. Letting go of somebody who’s vulnerable, no matter what age they are, especially if they’re still your child, I think it’s a process that will take me forever, really. Some days, I’m better at it. Some days, I’m not. I’m excited about the book coming out and just how it will land and where it will land. I’ve been quite busy. I’ve had a lot of great publicity. I’m really thankful for that. I’m thankful to be with you as well.

Zibby: How did it feel writing the book for you? Were you crying at times? What was this like for you emotionally?

Tanya: It changed depending on which sections and where I was in my life because it was written over quite a long period. When the pandemic hit, I actually had to take a little bit of time out of the writing because I was really surviving at that time with my son. It felt too hard to live through that and write through it. It felt too close and too raw. It’s interesting. I recorded the book recently, the audio version. That felt really exhausting emotionally to actually read it out loud and relive it all in the space of three days. The actual writing, a lot of craft elements came in where I was thinking, what works on a writerly level, on a level of structure? With the editing as well, it was a lot about craft. It allowed me to push some of those emotions to one side a little bit. There have been times since where I’m like, wow, gosh, I hope that’s not too dark for people. I think that’s why the elephant seal sanctuary is a little bit of lightness as well and takes away from the more devastating elements of what my son went through and what I witnessed. I hope there’s a sort of measure of being able to take a breath in those moments.

Zibby: You’ve touched on this already, but the effects of some of the drugs and the car accident with the Adderall and all the different doctors and all the different diagnoses and all the different attempts, it’s hard to not come away from this book and feel a little bit — not hopeless. That sounds terrible, but a little less confident in our collective ability to treat mental illness, especially this type. How do you feel about it now?

Tanya: I think it’s relentless. I think that there is a sort of relentlessness to it in the book and also in my life. I’m thirteen, fourteen years on now. My son is still struggling. The medicine has actually — I don’t even like to call it medicine because I don’t think it has made him better. I think it’s made him worse in a lot of ways. I would say drugs have caused a lot of quite debilitating physical — there’s a lot of tremors, Parkinsonian tremors that can occur after long-time use or very high dosages of antipsychotics. There are medicines that I used to counter the effects. Then you get into a place where some people are on four, five, six, a whole cocktail of drugs. It’s hard then to see what is working and what isn’t and how they interact and some of the difficulties that are caused through those interactions. Even if they don’t work and if they’re not hugely effective, coming off can be a really hard process because the body and the brain become so dependent. The withdrawal can create some rebound psychosis, which is worse than the original. It is hard. It’s definitely hard. The thing that has really helped me and that still helps me are the other mothers in a group that I currently belong to and also mothers in a group that I belonged to in America. They just became family instantly. I can reach out to them. They can reach out to me. I think not walking that journey alone is what’s really allowed me to survive it.

Zibby: Where is Zach? Do you see him? Are you in the same place now? How can you not be enmeshed? If you have a child in distress in any way, what are you supposed to do, just walk off into the sunset?

Tanya: I know, absolutely. I see Zach about twice a week now. He’s in a rehabilitation unit about thirty miles away. I’m working quite hard to try to get him out into the community because I feel that he’s quite institutionalized. The mental health laws are very archaic and very bureaucratic and quite complex. At some point when you’ve been in the system for a long time, the person themself often loses their voice and loses their confidence and loses their will to live, even. The family, who know them best and who want to advocate, are often seen as a little interfering or difficult. Consultants and the treating team, I think it’s kind of sometimes easier for them to get on and to treat within this medical model and not be open to looking at it in other ways. I’m not saying that every hospital and every nurse or doctor follows that paradigm, but it’s definitely something that I’ve seen a lot of and something that the groups that I’m working with are trying to fight against to look at alternatives. There are alternatives in places like Scandinavia and part of Italy where psychiatric hospitals, locked units don’t exist. Drugs are not forced. This whole coercive measure of psychiatry is not as prominent. People are doing much better with these kinds of alternatives because I think they need to be listened to. People like Zach, if they can restore their sense of having a voice and having some autonomy, I think that’s the essence of being human, really, even if you hear voices, especially maybe if you hear voices, to be able to look at the meaning behind all of that rather than see it as disease.

Zibby: Tanya, I am so moved by your story. I’m so moved by your bravery, your strength, your ability to share with us, your complete prowess and beauty as a writer. You’re amazing. I really am. Whenever you talk, I’m imagining my own children in this situation. As every parent listening to this and reading this book will think, what would I do? How could I help? It’s just amazing. You’re amazing. Zach is so lucky to have you. You’re lucky to have him.

Tanya: Thank you so much. Thank you. I really appreciate that.

Zibby: I really wish you all the best with the book and with your life. It’s just really moving.

Tanya: Thank you. I’m so appreciative. Definitely, there are times that it does feel quite vulnerable and quite exposed. Of course, it’s going to, but I feel driven. I feel like it’s too crucial not to get the story out there.

Zibby: Making me cry. Tanya, have a great day. Buh-bye.

Tanya: See you.

Tanya Frank, ZIG-ZAG BOY: A Memoir of Madness and Motherhood

ZIG-ZAG BOY: A Memoir of Madness and Motherhood by Tanya Frank

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