May 2011  << Back  

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Manic. A Memoir

Richard Balon, MD

Wayne State University, Detroit, MI, USA

By Terri Cheney. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers; 2009; ISBN 978-006-143027-5; pp 245; $13.99 (paperback).

Memoirs, especially autobiographical ones, frequently provide an insightful, vivid, lively, and colorful illustration of writers’ lives, events, and experiences, including individuals with mental illness. Interestingly, memoirs by persons suffering from mental illness have abounded lately. It is difficult to say whether it is a sign of increased tolerance and decreased stigmatization of mental illness or just another example of our society’s fascination with gossip, perceived oddities, and other people’s suffering. I tend to believe that it is the former, and that these memoirs help people understand the burden of suffering from mental illness.

Terri Cheney, a successful Beverly Hills entertainment lawyer, wrote a memoir of her life with manic-depressive illness, in part as a way of coping with her illness. Her memoir is not a traditional one. As she explains in the Preface, “… manic depression is not a safe ride. It doesn’t go from point A to point B in a familiar, friendly pattern. It’s chaotic, unpredictable. You never know where you’re heading next. I wanted this book to mirror the disease, to give the reader a visceral experience. That’s why I’ve chosen to tell my life story episodically, rather than in any chronological order. It’s truer to the way I think.… Life for me is defined not by time, but by mood” (p 1).

Through her book, Ms. Cheney describes her mental illness’ “own vibrant reality” (p 2), including being raped, arrested, drinking excessively, attempting suicides, hospitalization, therapy, and receiving electroconvulsive therapy, during which she switched to psychotic mania—“the most severe manic episode of my life” (p 158). Her depictions of depression, mania, hypomania, and mixed state are vivid and full of color and emotions. Take for example her description of mixed state: “Apparently there’s a strange place on the bipolar spectrum called a ‘mixed state,’ in which mania and depression meet and collide. In a mixed state, you have all the relentless, agitated drive of mania, but none of the euphoria. Instead, you feel depression’s misery and self-loathing. It’s the most dangerous condition possible, the one in which the most suicides occur. No longer protected by depression’s inertia, you now have the ability to act upon your despair” (p 185). Or, on the other hand, consider her depiction of hypomania: “Hypomania is that idyllic interlude just before mania when all your senses are in a state of heightened arousal. But they don’t overwhelm you. Nothing overwhelms you. The sun never shines too bright, but you feel its warmth on your skin. The wind never blows your hair awry, but it whisks the clouds away. Life is liquid and even; it balances” (p 206).

The reader will not get the traditional view of the disease course and even treatment of bipolar disorder, but rather a visceral, raw, real, honest description of the emotional, inner state of an individual going through the stages of her illness—the lows, despairs, highs, chaos, and frenzy of manic-depressive illness. Only in her replies to readers and reviewers over the Internet after her book was published, which are printed in this edition, does Ms. Cheney mention the full scope of her recovery regime—medication (frequently tweaked), psychotherapy, support groups, mental health advocacy, and writing. She also mentions facilitating a dual diagnosis group and the fact that “sobriety is essential to sanity.” Finally, she adds that writing has been cathartic and therapeutic and she felt it was liberating to get her “secrets” out in the open.

This is not your usual memoir of mental illness. However, it is a interesting and captivating book. It will help readers understand the experience of manic-depressive illness with great detail. Memoirs of mental illness also frequently are a good teaching medium. Maybe this book should be mandatory reading for clinicians learning about psychopathology and those who forgot about good old descriptive psychopathology based in clinical experience and observation. Probably reading about psychopathology and the patient’s inner experience is much better than standard textbooks and dry diagnostic manuals.