Thursday, October 7, 2010

Guest Post: Understanding Through Reading 3 Must-Read Memoirs on Biopolar

As anyone who has suffered bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or other related disorders knows, it's more difficult to live with than other illnesses because it affects you and everyone you know. While chronic physical disorders don't necessarily change your behavior, chemical imbalances in the brain make it a daily struggle to maintain healthy relationships because behavior is unpredictable.   Your friends and family, try though they might, just don't understand. And this lack of understanding is precisely what causes these strains in interpersonal relationships in the first place.

Reading about those who have struggled with bipolar disorder is a helpful way of gaining a new understanding and perspective. Everyone has different ways of dealing with the disease, and it can be inspirational to find others who understand, and who can articulate their personal stories. Here are a few memoirs that are particularly noteworthy:

Kay Jameson is probably the leading researcher on bipolar disorder. As both a psychiatrist and a sufferer of bipolar disorder herself, Jameson offers insight into the illness that both personal and professional. Jameson, although critical of big pharma, does demonstrate how a combination of lowered medication and personal support saved her life. Best of all, Jameson clues us in on the latest advances in neuroscience that can offer new hope for an illness that has been misunderstood and misdiagnosed for centuries.

We all know Kurt Vonnegut, the eminent writer who gave us such classics as Cat's Cradle and Slaughter House Five. But what many don't know is that his son, Mark, struggled under his father's shadow with a debilitating bout of decades-long psychosis that was first diagnosed as schizophrenia but what he now considers bipolar disorder. In his latest volume, released this year, Vonnegut offers fascinating insight into his own struggles, as well as giving readers a more expansive perspective on mental illness in general.  With panache and humility, Vonnegut is adept at both writing humorously and inspirationally. In one of my favorite segments, Vonnegut states:
"None of us are entirely well, and none of us are irrevocably sick. At my best I have islands of being sick entirely. At my worst I had islands of being well. Except for a reluctance to give up on myself there isn't anything I can claim credit for that helped me recover from my breaks. Even that doesn't count. You either have or don't have a reluctance to give up on yourself. It helps a lot if others don't give up on you."

While Jameson's book is told from the perspective of a clinician, and Vonnegut's is told from both the perspective of a doctor and the son of a famous writer, Manic is written by a former entertainment lawyer. The most interesting part about Manic is that Cheney writes her book in short episodic segments that very accurately describe what it's like to cycle from the rapid highs to the soul-wrenching lows that characterize bipolar disorder. Cheney's account is not necessarily an uplifting one, but it's certainly describes the bipolar life with a candor that is hard to match.

These are just a few memoirs out there about individuals who have learned with varying degrees of success to live in the rollercoaster existence of bipolar. Even if they don't offer hope per se, they at least offer solace. Knowing you are not alone in your suffering can sometimes be more uplifting than anything. 


This guest post is contributed by Kitty Holman, who writes on the topics of nursing schools.  She welcomes your comments at her email Id:

***This is a guest post. The views and ideas expressed in this post are not necessarily the same as the author of this site. Please direct any comments or questions to the author of the post at


The Depressed Reader said...

An interesting guest post, thanks for that Kitty. So far the only mental illness memoir I've read is Elizabeth Wurtzel's "Prozac Nation", and that tormented me enough that I haven't read another.

That said, I found the quote you included from Mark Vonnegut very interesting. I have never managed to articulate it quite so well, but I agree with what he says. We cannot choose to have or not have a reluctance to give up on ourselves, it is just the way we are.

We can't take credit for it any more than someone who is tall or short can take credit for that. It is just the way we are made, and we suffer or benefit accordingly.

susan said...

Hi Depressed. The Kay Jamieson book is like the bible for bipolar, it's very good and there is talk they are turning it into a movie.

I have read another book by Mark Vonnegut and I adored his father's writing, so I am looking to reading that as well.

I thank Kitty too for a wonderful post.

sarah said...

these are very good resources....I don't have bipolar but I struggled so much with an eating disorder, drugs and self harm. Stay strong okay.

Donda said...

I have read the Unquiet was very good. @Susan, I would like to see it as a movie.

Cheryl said...

Out of that list I've only read an unquiet mind. I've also read voluntary madness by norah vincent & madness by marya hornbacher

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