Madness: A Bipolar Life – Book Review

Marya Hornbacher is known for her gripping memoir Wasted, about her experience with anorexia. I read this as a teenager whilst I was unwell. It was amazing; she’s an incredible writer at telling her story of and through mental illness. Although our experiences were very different, at the time I felt she captured how my mind was working in relation to food. She was the first person who’s writing I read that really resonated with me. She got it, she really got it. During this time I read a number of eating disorder related books as the obsession becomes entrenched into every aspect of your life and nothing else is of interest, programmes, channels, websites, books, journals, academic books; all of it becomes much more interesting than spending any time with anyone else or doing normal teenage things. My tutor described me as an oddball when he asked what I’d done over the summer and I told him I just read all summer and didn’t see anyone. I was 17 so I accepted his comment and took no offence because it is a slightly odd way to send your summer holiday at 17.

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Hornbacher’s Madness: A Bipolar Life, a memoir of living with bipolar spoke to me, again 10 years later. At 16 when I read Wasted I never realised our illnesses would remain in a similar vein. She spoke about her experiences from childhood to learning how to manage her bipolar illness in adult life, including a good period of reluctance to accept her illness, comply with treatment and trying to deny anything much was wrong whilst conveying very deeply how very much was wrong. How very much she felt different and how bipolar disorder although known as a mood disorder is not simply about moods alone.

By exploring the cognitive aspects of the illness: forgetfulness, memory loss, psychosis and winding up in hospital to only realise a while into the admission that she’s there at all. Again, through writing about her experiences her experience resonated deeply within me. I am quite sure I am not the only one, her account is so accurate and profoundly detailed. Our stories are very different and our illness takes different forms at times: as is the nature of any mental illness despite having similar diagnoses. Having said that, whilst reading on my kindle I found myself highlighting paragraphs and pages of “Yes. That! Exactly that!” moments.

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It made it clear to me how much I didn’t understand my illness as much as I thought I did. It also encouragingly gave me the hope that my current stay well approach plan, which has been shaped through many years of successes and failures, is going in the right direction for the lifestyle changes recommended for those living with bipolar.

The book provided me with relief of reading someone else’s story that I could relate to, comfort in knowing many of the strategies I’ve started incorporating are on the right direction of track and sorrow that we have to live through and experience this illness at all: and how much of our lives we lose to being unwell, seeking the right treatment and trying to figure out what and how to manage living some form of purposeful life with bipolar.

It’s such a multifaceted battle that when you initially get a diagnosis it seems pretty easy and straight forward. Take some meds and you’ll be fine. Sometimes because of the information about coming off meds for other illnesses you simply come off your meds when your feeling better. Learning and realising that this isn’t the case, the hard way can take years upon years and lengthen the amount of time that it takes – which is already extensive – of finding the right combination of medication.

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It’s only when it gets to a certain point of illness that you start to resign from life a little and accept your disability. It takes a long time to accept that you can’t when you previously could, that you might not be able to like you’d previously dreamed, or that you have to put so much extra effort into functioning and getting through your days and life than – what feels like – everyone around you.

Yes people manage to work full-time and live very purposeful and successful lives with bipolar. This perpetuates the illusion that it’ll be just fine within a few months of diagnosis. For some I suppose it might be. For others, which is often not posted on self-help media and information online because it sounds a bit bleak, it might not. The key is to be realistic with people about how much they need to twist and turn and bend over backwards to accommodate their illness. She’s not going anywhere and you really need to walk on eggshells and twist like a contortionist to make your life work in a way you would like whilst working with and alongside your bipolar.

The temptation and automatic reflex to self medicate in some way can make things more complicated: drugs, alcohol, sex, food are all eligible candidates for self medication that significantly complicate the journey through illness to management. Pushing home the importance of taking your meds religiously as prescribed even if you feel well or good, and to avoid the temptation of letting a hypomania early signs become a hypomania or full manic episode can be difficult. This aspect of self-care with bipolar takes a lot of self-discipline because who doesn’t want to be achieving and having fun 24/7 with boundless energy to be the perfect super human being who can achieve all and encompasses almighty greatness above everyone else around them? Who doesn’t like feeling like that? It’s an illness filled with many steep learning curves, many great troughs that follow the epic highs that quickly become more menacing than exciting.

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In my opinion it takes a number of mistakes, fuck ups and slips to learn this lesson and that although far less exciting, balance really is the goal, and balance doesn’t include highs of grandiosity, marathons of achieving from hours of energetic and directive goal achieving.  It takes learning to forgo the excitement and euphoria of the start of a manic episode in order to avoid the devastation, chaotic destruction and yet alluring manic episode. Winding up in hospital bounding around the ward is not a good place to be, even if you’re still enjoying yourself and your ability to achieve with your goal directed exertion is stripped away from you. You are in there bare, on forced rest by sedative medications and IM injections when you become the embodiment of the untamable beast that bipolar can become.

Remembering the patches of these memories – because solid memories don’t seem to form during this time – enough times will eventually teach the lesson of balance, staying out of hospital, and really taking self management seriously whilst respecting your new lesser limits as a result of your illness.

The frustration and anger are very real. The hurt that you won’t be the amazing person you were destined to be cuts deep. Knowing that you might not even be able to pass as normal with a regular full-time job when it feels like everyone else is managing just fine is upsetting. Not only will you not be magnificent, or great even, you may remain someone disabled by your condition no matter how much effort and time you put into following the prescribed lifestyle guidelines of living with bipolar.

The reality of living with bipolar disorders has the potential to be bleak. It also has the potential to be a life changing illness through which you learn a lot about the mind, yourself, and people. Bipolar can turn you into the biggest grandiose asshole and a very sympathetic friend to lean on because you ‘get it’. Bipolar can turn your life upside down and in the words of Daredevil, ‘no one can give you your life back. You have to take it back’. This entails a lot of learning, a lot of self exploration, a lot of ups and downs, naturally, and a lot of damaged relationships. It can be ok though. It can and often does get better. Hornbacher’s memoir takes you on this journey in 300 or so pages, and it’s an accomplished and succinct tale of her journey that I am sure, resonates deeply with many who live with bipolar.

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