No Going Back: A Hard Look At Bipolar Disorder

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For years, I've taken issue with depictions of mentally ill characters in books and movies. Irrational behavior is easily explained away: They're crazy! No need to elaborate further.

So when I picked up Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See, I was apprehensive that the main character, an untreated bipolar Hollywood studio executive who leaves his wife and child for an international adventure, might be a kooky manic cliche.

But the author, Juliann Garey, is not an outsider looking in — she's a bipolar journalist and screenwriter, and the character she creates in this novel is interesting and complex.

Each chapter begins inside Greyson Todd's thoughts as he goes under anesthesia for his ECT treatments in a New York psychiatric hospital. He is strapped down and told to think back on his life to help him keep calm. We learn his life story in pieces — nonchronological flashbacks of his childhood with a bipolar father, his disintegrating marriage and career, and his travels, where he tries with varying results to escape himself.

The author's strongest skill is to make us really feel that we are inside Grey's head. You'd think he'd be a difficult character to love — he abandons his family, he's unpredictable. But we can understand his rationales; we know that he's not a villain. His self-absorption is part of his episodes and part of how he's trying to survive.

We also like Grey because he is funny. His disarmingly dark, dry sense of humor made me laugh out loud several times. Once, he doesn't remember regaining consciousness in the recovery suite after his ECT treatment. He says, "That's what they call it — a suite. Someone in the hospital's PR department must have spent quite a while paging through a thesaurus in search of that gem ... I've spent a lot of time in hotel suites over the last decade, but not one of them had a bed made up with rubber sheets or came with an in-room defibrillator or a guy in the next bed who thought he was Jesus."

The author's description of how mania and depression feel from the inside resonates deeply with my own experience of bipolar disorder. In mania, heightened sensations feel like superpowers, and life is typhoons and hurricanes. Depressed, life is like drowning. Grey describes how even breathing is exhausting: "I am no more up to the constant inhaling and exhaling than I am to running a marathon."

But my own experience doesn't include psychosis, the delusions and hallucinations that are sometimes a part of mania, and in this book I think I learned the most from Grey's descents into psychosis. We are deftly led through his erratic trains of thought, and suddenly we are with him in the irrational, sometimes violent place, and oddly, we understand how we got there.

In one scene of a psychotic break, he develops a buzzing in his ears that soon builds to panic. He is dangerous, especially to himself, and he needs treatment, but we have sympathy for him.

Reading this book is like Greyson's ride on the back of a stranger's motorcycle in Uganda:

"Kwendo climbs back on the bike and motions for me to get on ... He drives fast. No one here wears helmets, and on several sharp turns I have to squeeze my thighs together to keep from becoming roadkill. The experience is everything I'd hoped for ... I am lost now and there is no going back."

Ellen Forney is the author of the graphic memoir Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me.

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