“Regaining sanity in a mental hospital is like treating a migraine at a rave.”
It’s a good line, and one that has the added benefit of being true. Zack McDermott should know; he’s been through a few stints at mental institutions as a consequence of his bipolar disorder, which he chronicles, with an affable and often rueful wit, in Gorilla and the Bird: A Memoir of Madness and a Mother’s Love.
Writer Jaime Lowe also lives with bipolar disorder; she shares her story — and a great deal more — in Mental: Lithium, Love and Losing My Mind.
The two books have been published within a week of each other, and both writers paint compelling portraits of a day-to-day existence limned by concerns the rest of us will never know: living with the low, persistent, wet dread that another episode lies in wait, and the knowledge that, however terrifying the mania may be after the fact, it also represents the purest, most intense high the human body can experience.
I didn’t do drugs, I didn’t need ayahuasca, I didn’t trip on LSD because I had done all that without ingesting anything. When I did cocaine for the first time, I thought, This is it? Coke was closer to Bud Light Lime than mania.
The books may share a subject, but they offer vastly different takes. Lowe’s Mental is the more polished, authoritative and comprehensive; McDermott’s Gorilla and the Bird, more intimate and personal.
Mental is cool and analytical; Lowe’s done assiduous research and is eager to show her work. She travels to Bolivian salt flats, she soaks in German hot springs, she meets with the “godfather of bipolar disorder” who oversaw its entry in the DSM-V — the hilariously named Dr. Jules Angst — and pumps him for information.
The result is a sweeping, expansive survey of the history of bipolar disorder, of psychiatric and pharmaceutical attempts to treat it, and — especially — the history of lithium itself (which she traces, with some help from Neil DeGrasse Tyson, to a few seconds after the Big Bang).
It’s not simply that, of course. Lowe uses all those stats and data points to supplement her account of experiencing her first manic episode in high school, and to document what she sees as the nigh-miraculous power of lithium to return her to herself.
Throughout, she’s grapples with questions of identity: Who is she, without the mania? Where does her personality end, and the condition begin? It’s heady stuff, but told with a sardonic humor that keeps things grounded. Following that first manic episode, for example, she’s pressured into trying out for the spring musical, Pippin, and she’s appropriately withering about that show’s excesses. (“I could not believe I was considered manic and this wasn’t.”)
As a writer, she’s given to long runs, collapsing extended stretches of time into lists that imbue her prose with an appealingly musical rhythm (“… we rode bikes to a bridge and jumped off that bridge, plunging into cold river waters; we ate the hottest, fattiest ramen on the hottest, fattiest day, sweating chilies and pork into the night. We sang karaoke with judo instructors and traded sake shots.”).
McDermott’s Gorilla and the Bird is the earthier read — warmer, more garrulous and ingratiating. It’s less interested in the history of mental illness and the culture of treatment around it, and more concerned with how his bipolar disorder affects those around him — his mother, especially.
It was she who nicknamed McDermott Gorilla, due to his hairy body and grumpy demeanor; he refers to her as Bird, “because of her tendency to move her head in these choppy semicircles when her feathers are ruffled.”
McDermott brings an vivid and unsettling degree of intimacy to his descriptions of mania’s onset. In several gripping passages, we see it slowly, steadily encroaching around his life’s edges, as when he describes an afternoon spent watching TV.
There was something funny about the feed, though: it wasn’t talking to me per se, but it was maybe trying to tell me something. The channels weren’t changing quickly enough when I hit the button. And the [show] seemed to contain subliminal messages that summarized my situation …. But nothing was so definitively out of order that I felt like I needed to tell anyone.
In place of Mental’s view-from-30,000-feet disquisitions on psychopharmacology, McDermott offers a passionate critique of a criminal justice system that he believes utterly fails the mentally ill. He’s got a front row seat to that; he’s an attorney — a public defender in New York City, and much of Gorilla and the Bird is devoted to his career of “soul-crushing impotence in the face of systemic injustice.”
One of the main reasons his book differs so starkly from Lowe’s is McDermott’s background: He grew up working class in Wichita, Kan., perpetually hovering just above the poverty line, as opposed to Lowe’s sun-drenched, thoroughly middle-class L.A. childhood. His work as a public defender grows out of a deep sense of empathy for the stigmatized and marginalized that’s evident on every page.
He uses that empathy to construct a deeply compassionate portrait of his mother — a resilient woman whose love helps ground him in the real, even in moments when his reality is at its most friable.
Lowe’s book is driven instead by a need to arrive at a deeper understanding of herself, and her condition — and figure out how to maintain her sanity once lithium, the drug she credits for so much, starts to poison her.
Gorilla and the Bird looks outward, at the many interpersonal connections that bipolar disorder tests, and sometimes breaks forever. Mental gazes inward, an exercise is rigorous self-assessment driven by a keen and inquisitive mind.
Ultimately, both books read like love letters, addressed to very different recipients: McDermott’s, to his mother; Lowe’s, to her medication.