Jamie Lowe’s Memoir Captures the Unrelenting Nature of Bipolar Disorder
Author: Jon Butz, MA, LCPC – Adult Group Therapist
Jaime Lowe’s memoir Mental: Lithium, Love, and Losing My Mind is a vulnerable, brash, and brutally honest portrait of Lowe’s struggles with her bipolar I diagnosis. The memoir begins in 1993 whilst Lowe was experiencing her first diagnosed manic episode at the age of 16. This episode ultimately leads to her first psychiatric hospitalization sharing “waiting I learned is a big part of mental illness recovery.” Subsequently, the book follows her life from hospitalization to present day, and how she tries to navigate both the interpersonal and intrapersonal complications of having a bipolar diagnosis. Along her journey she delves into the love-hate nature of her longest standing relationship with the medication lithium. Lowe brazenly states “I don’t believe in God, but I believe in lithium” in one breath while in another stating “I missed the manic me. No one around me missed that person.” It is these self-assured expressions of thoughts and associations one experiences while living day to day with a bipolar diagnosis that draws the reader into the nuances of her plight. In addition to personal insights, Lowe uses this memoir as a platform to educate readers with short histories of how bipolar has come to be treated throughout the world, and how mood stabilizers became the current medications prescribed today. As the book progresses, Lowe eventually uses her prose to help the reader understand and embark on her journey coming to terms with whether her body will ultimately shut down with prolonged lithium use and if there are any alternatives. These journeys include talking to leading psychiatrists, and seeking where, from the actual Earth, lithium comes from.
Lowe is a seeker. She has been in publishing for most of her adult life, and contributes to several publications including the New York Times. Within this profession it comes as ironic that part of her tasks in publishing required her to be a “fact checker”, which by her own admission, was a struggle due to questioning her own reality. She reminds us early in her book that “everything is a symptom in retrospect,” and it’s hard to imagine the process a person who has had manic episodes must go through when recounting their own personal history. And therein lies one of Lowe’s greatest strengths; the unapologetic way she communicates that whether manic, depressed, or somewhere in between, what she experienced IS her reality for better or worse.
Wherever the reader is in the novel it always comes across pressured and fast paced, which is definitely not a bad thing. At times it will read like a resume, given the difficulties Lowe has holding a steady job and joining publications that ultimately folded. At other times it reads as a laundry list of failed relationships. The memoir is at its best when Jamie is recounting experiences while being manic and her insights into the dialectic of how enjoyable yet destructive mania can be to her and those around her. Lowe reminds the reader that “it was a cold world; one second I was exuding glitter and rapping with Em, the next I was literally sifting through rubble.” These passages are examples of her willingness to open her reader’s eyes and let them into a world one rarely gets to see. Lowe never pretends to have the answers, is never preachy about medications being the end all be all, or what those with bipolar diagnosis “should do”, and is always unrelenting in her ability to articulate her truth.
One area where the book could have used more development was the impact of her mental illness on the long standing relationships in her life, specifically her older brother and divorced parents. It appears even in her most honest moments; Lowe is fearful and resistant to letting others get too close. That being said, Lowe is extremely effective at giving the reader a glimpse of the struggles and triumphs someone with a mental health diagnosis may have, as well as helps develop empathy for just how hard coping with a lifelong mental health diagnosis can be. Her insight into how “lucky” she was to have the family and access to resources she had makes the reader thirst for more insights into the complexity mental illness has on family dynamics.
One last unique aspect of Lowe’s memoir compared to others’ is the black and white photos from her past which she shares throughout the book. The images include family photographs, self-portraits, and pictures of art created by Lowe herself, while manic, which all are haunting and make her loneliness more palpable as she learns to live with mental illness. At the very least the reader will have a better conceptualization of bipolar I through the eyes of a first-hand account, and how it is currently treated. At its best, as I experienced, the reader will develop a better understanding of the loneliness that accompanies mental illness, how proper treatment and support can be provided to those individuals in developing a life worth living, and how our understanding of mental illness is still something all of us, including mental health providers, need to constantly evolve.
Jon Butz is a licensed clinical professional counselor and adult group therapist for Compass Health Center. Among other hobbies, Jon enjoys reading memoirs, or fictional works, which include mental health, and tries to bring these materials to the group setting as a way to make treatment more accessible to patients.
“Mental: Lithium, Love, and Losing My Mind”
Blue Rider Press (October 3, 2017)