Finally having the ability to spend some time reading for enjoyment instead of reading specifically for school, I picked up Detour: My Bipolar Road Trip in 4-D, a memoir about bipolar disorder by Lizzie Simon. Being 211 pages long, I knew the book wouldn't take very long for me to get through. I didn't realize that it would overlap with a visit home and end up leading to two nights of not sleeping when I really need my rest so I can deal with my family's annoying questions such as "When are you getting a real job?" or "Isn't it about time for you to get married and start having babies?" So snapping at my wonderful Appalachian family aside, this was an awesome read and I just wanted to share some thoughts about it with you all.
Read this book if you are bipolar and struggling with making sense of how that affects your life, love someone bipolar but can't really grasp what it is like, skeptical that bipolar disorder is serious, or are just looking for an enjoyable and interesting read.
By writing in a style that alternates between short, staccato sections and longer descriptive sections that are rich with analysis, Lizzie Simon captures some of the reality of the mood swings that structure the lives of many bipolar people. The first three pages are three separate sections that introduce the reader to Lizzie and her life. I quote loosely from the three pages after the jump to give you some insight into her style and how she starts to try to understand and translate her experience for non-bipolar readers.
It all started the day after I had been accepted for early admission to Columbia College.
December 19, 1993.
I was seventeen years old...
I don't remember everything that happened...
...And I suppose it didn't start on that exact day,
that it started in high school,
much before maybe,
or pre-birth; it started with my grandfather, who had this illness, or with the
relative of his who passed it along to him...
What started the day after I found out I was accepted to college was an episode so horrific that it would become impossible for me to deny that I had a mental illness for the rest of my life...
From there Lizzie discusses in detail the ways that her illness impacted her high school and college experiences, leading to a fear of failure that would most likely have come true if she hadn't been privileged economically as a middle class white woman. Her family was able to afford counseling and medication to help her work past her obstacles and allow her to proceed through life being largely successful.
Possibly my favorite quote from the book is:
Mental Illness interacts with the way you define yourself from the instant it enters your life. There was a whole seventeen and a half years of living before this horrible episode descended upon me. Seventeen and a half years of wondering why I never felt quite right anywhere.
The book then moves on to follow Lizzie through her college education and into her first job as the creative producer at the Obie Award-winning Flea Theater in Manhattan. In describing her successes in this job she talks about the ways that mania fueled her success by providing her with a seemingly limitless supply of energy. Eventually she leaves this job to pursue an independent project aimed at collecting the life stories of successful young bipolar people. She travels across the country on a car trip interviewing people and attending support group meetings to recruit potential participants. Her interviews provide insights into how young successful people make sense of their lives and deal with their bipolar illness in vastly different ways.
The adventures she has in a romance with a fellow bipolar man who also happens to be a drug addict and alcoholic as well as the ways her trip and the interactions with other bipolar people impact her moods are the meat of the book for me. Page 96 probably is the shortest section with the entire section saying just, "Nick calls me at least a dozen times a day." This makes total sense to me as Nick is probably in a sustained manic episode and is experiencing time totally different than Lizzie who is at this point medicated on lithium.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It spoke to me on a lot of personal levels about my life and the lives of some of my loved ones. Whether having a diagnosed condition ourselves or knowing someone who does emotional and psychological disorders touch all of our lives, and I would recommend this book as an introduction to understanding the experiences of bipolar folks in a more concrete and narrative way than any clinical guide could ever provide readers.
On a closing note, in my version of the book there is a Readers Club Guide that includes a conversation with the author. Below is my favorite questions and answer segment from the conversation. If I convinced you to read the book be sure to let me know what you think about it.
Q: What insight did you gain--about yourself as well as others--from taking your cross-country trip?
A: I learned that compassion for yourself is incredibly important and powerful, and that most of us lack it. But when you share similar experiences in a safe and meaningful way, you can transfer your natural empathy for some else to yourself.