Written by Janet Coburn
I just had a book, Bipolar Me, published. I never meant to write a book. Wait, let’s back that up a bit. All my life I wanted to write a book, but when I started my Bipolar Me blog, I had no idea it would turn into a book.
I figured that if I started a blog, I would have to write about something. And given that the universal advice given to writers is, “Write what you know,” my topic was clearly going to be bipolar disorder. Eventually, that blog formed the basis for my book. A friend suggested that I think about it. Then I attended a session at a writer’s workshop, “From Blog to Book,” led by the marvelous Jenny Lawson, aka The Bloggess.
How did I get from blog to book? I looked through my archive of blog posts and tried to group them in logical categories that would make sense to readers. I blog about whatever topics I think of every week (on Sundays) in no particular order. I may write about something that happened to me that week, or something that I remember happening in the past, or something based on headlines and stories I see in the news or appearing in my Facebook timeline.
But for the book, I felt it was necessary to impose some structure. The chapters I came up with were: Brain Games; Symptoms Galore; The Med-Go-Round; Family Matters; Heavy Weather; Swings Go Both Ways; On the Upside; The Social Whirl; Issues: My Take; and Society, Sickness, and Sanity. Within those categories, I discussed matters such as depression and hypomania, drugs and other treatments, self-care and caregiving, and even humor.
One thing I’ve learned as the process went on is not to discuss my own medications or other treatments or to recommend them to anyone else. I had seen too many requests in online support groups that said, “I just started taking drug X. What experiences have you had with it?” or “I have these symptoms. What would be the best medications for me?”
I maintain that this is not useful information to share, so I try not to be specific in the book. We may all have bipolar disorder, but the experience is personal to each of us. I have had very low depressive episodes and my hypomania comes out sideways most of the time as anxiety. You may have different symptoms. The cocktail of medications that my psychiatrist landed on after a long, long process of trying nearly everything in the book works for me but may have different effects on you. The side effects I can tolerate may not be the same ones you get or may seem more tolerable to me than they do to you. Our symptoms, our life courses, even our brains are different from one another. We share a disorder, but medication is individual.
Another pet peeve of mine, which shows up in the book, is scientific reporting. Too often I see headlines in the news that claim a new discovery or treatment may explain bipolar disorder or alleviate symptoms or point the way to a cure. I see a couple of problems with such writing. Too many times the headline writers get carried away with the “May Offer Hope” stance when the article says something closer to “may or may not.” Studies on mice are a long way from saying anything useful to the bipolar-on-the street too. In my opinion, too many of these stories offer false hope.
Of course, hope is a good thing. But I don’t write merely to be hopeful or inspiring. If a reader finds those things in my book, that’s good. But I set out with the intent of sharing stories of my personal struggles and occasional victories. I explore my own experience of bipolar 2. As I noted, your experience is likely to be different from mine in many respects. But if there is something in my writing and my experience that resonates with a reader, helps them in some way, or even just makes them nod, then I have done my job.
My job, it seems to me, also includes introducing bipolar disorder to people who don’t know much about it. Many of the essays in the book can help friends and family understand bipolar disorder better and may help them understand what a loved one with bipolar is going through. I’ve worked in educational publishing through a large part of my life, so I guess that seeps into the book. When I shared the book with my mother-in-law, for example, she said it was “thought-provoking.” That’s as good a review as I can hope to get.
Some people may be surprised that I included a chapter of more humorous pieces in Bipolar Me – “Cookie Theory,” “The Depression Diet,” and essays about bipolar disorder and science fiction, DisneyWorld, cats, and armadillos, for example. When I’m suffering with bipolar, my sense of humor is one of the things I miss the most, so when I’m able to lighten up a bit, I do. Besides, look at my influences – Jenny Lawson is one of my personal heroes and her books are hysterically funny, even when they deal with deadly serious mental health topics.
Finding a publisher for this admittedly niche work was not easy. I had sent it around to a lot of mainstream agents and publishers before I stumbled across Eliezer Tristan Publishing, a company that specializes in books about mental health, recovery, and emotional struggles. We were a perfect fit. My second book, Bipolar Us, is currently in production with them. A companion piece to Bipolar Me, it addresses more societal aspects of mental illness such as stigma, education, gun violence, sex, and support systems – and yes, humor again. It will be published later this year. I hope readers find something in both my books that will inform or touch them, or provoke some other reaction. That’s my job as a bipolar writer.