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On Reading Bipolar Memoirs

Posted on July 21, 2015 in Mania Stigma

square912Kay Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind deserves to be a classic in the literature of bipolar memoir. But to tell the truth, when I read it, I couldn’t identify. Parts of Andy Berhman’s wild and crazy Electroboy seemed a little like me, but once again, I didn’t find my story there. I admired Marya Hornbacher’s Madness — what a literary gem! — but her life was very different from my own. Patty Duke’s Call Me Anna — “ah fuck,” I said when I found this book. “This is me.”

I tell people to read everything they can get their hands on about bipolar disorder because sooner or later they will find a story that resonates with echoes of their own. Bipolar disorder has many masks, each one fitting just one person. There is common ground with others, to be sure, but bipolar is not a cookie cutter disease. Each of us has our own patterns, each our own set of connections, and each manic episode can be different. Some episodes are euphoric and some are dysphoric. I know my signs and symptoms, but sometimes new ones inexplicably creep in.

Like attending support groups, reading bipolar memoirs reduces my feeling of isolation. When I saw myself in Call Me Anna, I realized that I had something in common with other people. The rages whose origins I never understood — this wasn’t me, the pacifist and the kindly friend — became explicable. I suffered from manic-depression and so did the neurotypicals who had the misfortune of knowing me. This realization made me diligent about taking my meds, going to therapy, and reading all that I could find. Perhaps this was driven, at first, by mania. Good. I had found something productive to do with that energy.

In the hands of someone coming to terms with his illness, literature is a powerful friend. You can’t, however, predict the effect the same book is going to have on a neurotypical. As I have said before, neurotypicals are wildly unpredictable. Some will pity you. Some will fear you. Some will appreciate that you are a human being struggling in a human way with a disorder that disrupts your perception. Some will romanticize it. I knew a young woman online who told me that she envied me having a mental illness. It added character to me, she thought, something which she felt she lacked. I did my best to dissuade her.

Romantics are harmless. The worst person to get a hold of one of these memoirs is a know-it-all. Know-it-alls assume that they can get all the knowledge they need from books. I have had them tell me what my manias are like and what they ultimately mean. They do not listen. They do not want to hear your story. They don’t want to hear how they get it wrong. In their eyes, you can’t possibly know what drives your illness. They speak from a position of privilege. They lord their supposed learning and spiritual superiority over you. A memoir becomes one more tool in their arsenal of narcissism.*

Avoid them. Keep reading and sharing your reading with people who know that they can never get everything about you. I continue to read because I want to understand this strange state of mind that seizes me at unlikely times. My peculiar situation gives me an edge in appreciating bipolar memoirs; the wise among the sane accept this and do not gainsay the importance of my experience living in the country of madness.

*Occasionally, in a support group, I run into a variation of this creature. There is always someone who has read a self help book that spoke to them. They become its prophet. One guy I know gave everyone the same advice: start a journal. He even gave it to me, I who writes every day! He was a poor listener, but he never clued in to this as long as I knew him.

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