Am J Psychiatry 156:6, June 1999
CONFRONTING MENTAL ILLNESS
His Bright Light: The Story of Nick Traina,
Steel. New York, Delacorte Press, 1998, 296 pp., $25.00.
Nurturance, compassion, and love reflect a mother’s in-
tense feelings for her first-born son. Danielle Steel conveys
each of these and much more in
His Bright Light: The Story
of Nick Traina.
Ms. Steel portrays them with a very skilled
writer’s eye for nuance, development, and tragedy. Her heart-
wrenching effort to tell us how mental health professionals
could have served Nick Traina better is extremely coura-
geous and completely open. We need to listen ever so care-
fully to Nick’s story.
Nick was an exceptionally bright child with much love for
his family. He could be stern, funny, and insightful, some-
times all at once. As he matured, his world expanded and his
interests developed. He became a talented writer, composer,
and singer. His peer group assumed great importance. Girls
entered his life. Nick started to experience problems in
school. His emotions were much more erratic. He became
very self-analytical. He entered the world of mental illness,
one of 3.5 to 4.5 million teenagers who are seriously emo-
As Nick’s behavior became more extreme—bouts of de-
pression punctuated by periods of high emotion—his mother
and his family became gravely concerned for his well-being.
Family confidants were consulted; his mother took Nick to
specialists. He went to a residential program. Much money
was spent. Nothing seemed to work.
The family was desperate for a treatment or drug that
would help Nick: “It was a time of terrifying frustration. I
am a capable competent person, with ample funds at my dis-
posal. If I couldn’t make things happen for Nick, I shudder to
think at what happens to people who are too shy or too
frightened to speak up, people who don’t know their way
around” (p. 126).
Different diagnoses were offered; a depression drug was
prescribed. Nick’s symptoms were mitigated only slightly. A
new crisis occurred; Nick was placed into hospital inpatient
care, first with other teenagers, then with other adults. He
went to live with another family for two years. Specialists
Nick’s medication was switched to lithium after he was
given a new diagnosis of manic depression with attention
deficit disorder. His life seemed to be miraculously changed;
Nick took lithium regularly for 2 years. He became an ac-
complished singer. There were occasional inpatient stays.
Nick’s independence led him to refuse to take his medica-
tion. Using a combination of drugs, including heroin, he at-
tempted suicide once, twice, then three times. Legal interven-
tion was used to make sure he received care. Nick’s rock
band went on tour. His fourth suicide attempt was success-
ful, his final tragedy.
We can, should, must do better. We must improve training