Nov 20

“That’s Mental”: Bipolar II in Humorous Essays

I spent most of my life hiding my mental issues because I was desperate to fit in and didn’t want to be a social outcast. But now everyone knows about my mental illness and I choose to be a social outcast. It’s so much better this way. Amanda Rosenberg, The Nerd Daily

Look up author Amanda Rosenberg and these are the words she uses to describe herself:

Writer. British Chinese. Bipolar II. Love Island. Mental. No worries if not.

Regarding her new book, That’s Mental: Painfully Funny Things That Drive Me Crazy About Being Mentally Ill, a series of brief essays divided into BC (Before Crazy) and AD (After Diagnosis), it’s “candidly mental but with jokes” (The Nerd Daily).

A less concise intro to the book (PureWow):

After a mental breakdown, suicide attempt, stay in a psych ward and misdiagnosis of borderline personality disorder, Rosenberg received a later-in-life (but correct) diagnosis of bipolar II, which the National Institute of Mental Health broadly defines as ‘a pattern of depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes, but not the full-blown manic episodes.’ Rosenberg describes her depressive episodes as feeling like her head is ‘clogged up with a toxic sludge,’ while manic episodes mean she’s ‘impulsive and obsessive,’ and finds it difficult to articulate how she’s feeling. ‘Everything [is] CAPS LOCK.’
How was she not diagnosed earlier? Largely because, as a part British, part Chinese woman, she didn’t fit the archetypal ‘mentally ill’ person (either a brooding, misunderstood straight white man or an off-the-handle straight white woman). The thing is, she reminds the reader, mental illness doesn’t discriminate. ‘It’s not just straight, white, ethereal-looking people who get depression. Asian people are depressed. Black people are depressed. Queer people are depressed. Trans people are depressed. People with disabilities are depressed.’

In a pertinent excerpt about mentally ill characters on TV (Salon) Rosenberg further notes:

I have nothing against white people playing characters struggling with their mental health. But when you’re a non-white kid and the only people you see on-screen are white, it seems like they’re the only ones who experience mental illness. Not just that—they’re the only ones allowed to have a mental disorder.

Mental health stigma, grief and loss, trauma, unhelpful advice offered by others, and the difficulty of taking mental health days are just some of the topics covered in Rosenberg’s book. Also, of course: medication and therapy. Nadia Bey, Affinity, alludes to an interesting facet of the author’s experience with the latter:

With mental illness, there’s a sense of needing to have everything figured out or have the ‘correct’ feelings. Rosenberg touches on this by mentioning how she pretended to be sad in therapy because it seemed to be what was expected of her, which contrasts with her pretending to be fine once her mental health began to decline.

Among the favorable reviewers is comedian Sara Benincasa, author of Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom (see my previous post):

Amanda Rosenberg writes in a very funny, wonderfully accessible way about her experience with bipolar II. She uses her experience as a jumping off point for advice that feels like it comes from a candid friend. Then, just when she’s got you comfortable, she punches you in the gut with a small snapshot of agonizing grief or a particularly evocative, elegant turn of phrase. Truly, this is my absolute favorite way for a writer to approach a tough subject, and she does it gloriously. May this book serve to make you laugh and to increase your compassion for all who live with mental illness. Perhaps you’ll even be kinder to yourself.

Jul 10

“Notes on a Banana”: Bipolar Disorder and More

In his masterful new memoir, David Leite weaves together three of my favorite things: food, humor, and debilitating mental illness. Notes on a Banana is beautifully crafted, inspiring, and poignantly honest. A must read for all foodies and memoir lovers who know the power food and family have to overcome nearly every obstacle in life. Josh Kilmer-Purcell

In Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Manic Depression the “Banana” in question is David Leite‘s nickname, the “Food” a significant part of his career, the “Love” his long-term relationship with “The One”—otherwise known as Alan—and the “Manic Depression” his symptoms of bipolar disorder that surfaced in childhood and didn’t stabilize until his late 30’s or so. Leite is now in his 50’s.

B. David Zarley, Paste, praises Notes on a Banana as “one of the finest portraits of bipolar disorder I have ever read.” He speaks from the experience, like Leite, of living with hypomania, and he states the following about Leite’s diagnosis:

Bipolar II, to be specific, the form of the disorder marked by deep depressive modes and hypomanic episodes (hypomania being, as Leite describes it, ‘a watercolor version of bright-neon manias’). It is the alternating currents of depression and hypomania that have galvanized and rendered black Leite’s life, a perpetual rolling brownout.

Leite also once had signficant difficulty accepting being gay. Kirkus Reviews:

In college, the author had affairs with men while ‘dating’ a woman he fantasized would be his wife but with whom he could never have sex. He also began experiencing the chaotic extremes of the bipolar disorder that psychologists had mistakenly diagnosed as depression. Leaving college without a degree, Leite went to New York, where he worked first as a waiter then as an ad writer while unsuccessfully trying to turn straight through involvement with the ‘gay curing’ Aesthetic Realism movement. A long-term relationship with a man who ‘loved everything about the ceremony of the table’ led to Leite’s reimmersion in the cooking he loved and the Azorean culture from which he had separated himself. It also gave him the courage to seek the answers that had eluded him and his doctors about the truth of his condition.

In addition to the medications and therapy Leite now uses, he’s described other parts of his “bipolar arsenal” (his blog) :

…Things no shrink can prescribe and no therapist can analyze—namely, cooking and writing about food. Even on my worst days, when it feels like I have some gargantuan creature threatening to drag me down through the couch cushions, the simple act of swirling a knob of butter in a hot skillet can cheer me. And nothing mercifully bitch-slaps depression for a few hours like the utterly frustrating and highly improbable act of stringing together words, like pearls on a necklace, and turning those words into stories.

Publishers Weekly:

He expertly walks the line between sad and funny, making himself the clown and hero of this coming-of-age tale. His firsthand account of mental illness pulls no punches, serving up an honest and open perspective on personal and family issues that are often swept under the rug. Despite Leite playing the leading man, the true stars of the memoir are Leite’s parents, who mirror his passion (his mother) and thoughtfulness (his father) and allow Leite to continually draw the focus of the story back to family and food, love and learning.

Apr 29

“David’s Inferno”: Memoir About Surviving Depression

A new book by David Blistein, whose “writing is the culmination of a lifelong pursuit of wisdom, transcendence, and humor” is called David’s Inferno: My Journey Through the Dark Wood of Depression. His reference point is The Divine Comedy of the poet Danté, who was familiar with “both depths of despair and manic visions of rapture.” In advance of publication, Blistein introduced the impetus for David’s Inferno on his blog:

I’m easily as cheerful as the next person these days. But between October 14th, 2005 and Summer 2007, I had (depending on whom you ask) a major depressive episode with hypomania, brain chemistry gone ballistic, a virulent mid-life crisis, Pluto opposite Sun, raging kundalini, and/or congealed heart ch’i. Or maybe I just got seriously tangled up in the dark woods made famous by Danté.

He notes that “nervous breakdown” doesn’t do his experience justice:

It’s a rampant agitation that careens from constant low-level anxiety to gut-wrenching, dry-heaving despair. After the worst attacks, I’d feel like I’d just been spit up, Jonah-like, on the shore, wondering if next time the whale would be a shark. Breakdown is way too static a word. Every day is spent on roiling waves. Occasionally—for an hour or two, maybe even a day—those waves buoy you up high enough for a gasp of blessed air, only to sweep you back down into such fierce undertow that drowning, while terrifying, at least holds out the promise of peace.

Indeed, Blistein notes that the uncertain and variable language of his disorder has been a significant challenge. Working backward from his current diagnosis—Major Depressive Disorder, Recurrent, in Partial Remission—he lists many of his previous labels, including the following:

His favorite is yet another: Melancholic Depression–Severe with Hypomanic Episodes. “Just seems like a nice blend of literary and technical.” All kinds of therapy, both Eastern and Western, were tried. Unfortunately for him, for too long a period nothing helped very much.

Caroline Carr, author of Living with Depression: How to Cope When Your Partner is Depressed, states about David’s Inferno: “Warm and compassionate, often hilarious, and full of hope and encouragement…If you love someone who is depressed (or who you think might be), read this book.”

Nov 29

Joshua Walters: Bipolar Disorder, Creativity, and Resources

“Maybe no one’s really crazy. Everyone is just a little bit mad. How much depends on where you fall in the spectrum. How much depends on how lucky you are.” (Joshua Walters)

Joshua Walters is a performer and mental health educator and speaker as well as a facilitator of the DBSA (Depression Bipolar Support Alliance) Young Adults Chapter in San Francisco, which he co-founded. He’s been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

The mission of DBSA is to offer “hope, help, support, and education to improve the lives of people who have mood disorders.” Also from their site: “Because DBSA was created for and is led by individuals living with mood disorders, our vision, mission, and programming are always informed by the personal, lived experience of peers.”

Various “Personal Wellness Tools“—including a Wellness Tracker and a variety of Toolbox topics, such as a Therapy Worksheet, both a “Trigger Tracker” and “Trouble Tracker,” and a Suicide Prevention Card—are made available by DBSA.

Walters has learned to put a more positive spin on the challenges of living with mania and hypomania than some. Here he is giving a TED talk:

A couple books mentioned in the clip are listed below along with pertinent reviews:

I. Clinical psychologist John D. Gartner‘s The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (A Little) Craziness and (A Lot of) Success in America (2005)

From Kirkus Reviews:

Gartner works the edges of manic-depressive disorder to explore a lesser-known syndrome: hypomania, ‘a mild form of mania, often found in the relatives of manic depressives.’ Hypomanics are full of ideas, energy, and sometimes insufferable self-confidence; they make decisions quickly, seldom look back, and generally view those who don’t get them as enemies or, at best, mere hindrances. They’re not mentally ill, but they’re close. So far, so good, but then Gartner wanders onto shaky historical ground…

II. Clinical psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison‘s Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament (1993)

Jamison, diagnosed with bipolar disorder herself, has written a number of well-regarded books on related issues, including her autobiography, An Unquiet Mind.

The following is an excerpt from Kirkus Reviews:

The basic argument here is ‘not that all writers and artists are depressed, suicidal, or manic. It is, rather, that a greatly disproportionate number of them are; that the manic-depressive and artistic temperaments are, in many ways, overlapping ones; and that the two temperaments are causally related to one another.’

…Lithium and newer drugs, she explains, often dampen creative highs while relieving victims of turmoil and suicidal lows, but calm periods at optimum serum blood levels may allow longer, more productive periods of creativity…