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by Brian Adams
Jessica Kingsley, 2002
Review by Marion Torchia on Mar 19th 2003

The Pits and the Pendulum

Brian Adams had his first manic-depressive episode in 1970, when he was a young community education student in Glasgow, Scotland. He produced his senior thesis in a state of total elation and self-absorption, and fell into a comparably deep depression afterward.

The wild mood swings recurred regularly in the ensuing years, along with embarrassing behavior, uncontrolled spending sprees, erratic job performance leading to the loss of his career, several hospitalizations, and an attempted suicide. Brian’s memoir is in large part an attempt at self-validation, and an effort to recoup some of his losses by making sense of them and contributing something to the rest of us.

As the book ends, Brian is descending into yet another episode of depression. Nevertheless, he has succeeded in what he set out to do. He has shown us that he is a credible witness, and he has articulated some important realities about mental illness.

Brian describes how he felt at various painful moments – as a community development worker attempting to deal with office politics going from bad to worse, and as a resident of various National Health Service hospital wards where the workers were often more interested in amusing themselves than in caring for the patients. His judgments of these situations are not really skewed either by mania or depression – they are the judgments by someone who remembers his bad behavior under the influence of illness, but who has regained perspective during the extended periods of sanity between mood swings. His message to us is that those suffering from mental illness are not crazy all of the time.

Brian sees stigma, the byproduct of the instinctive horror most people have of mental illness, as the source of much of the insensitive treatment he received as a hospital patient and in his social life. People’s ordinary laziness or selfishness allows them to give into their feelings of aversion. Well-meaning people who would have deluged a “properly ill” patient with flowers and get-well cards forgot about Brian when he was a psychiatric patient. Hospital administrators found it convenient to disbelieve his protestations that the wards were untidy or dirty. The members of his community theatre group used his psychiatric history against him he made legitimate objections to some of their decisions. 

Brian wants us to know that his feelings of anger, shame, remorse, and loneliness are normal human emotions with real objects. And that people with bipolar disorder need respect, a social role, and purposeful activity just as much as anyone else. 

Brian accepts the common understanding of bipolar disorder as a disease – a chemical imbalance with a genetic basis. But he does not see it as comparable to a physical ailment or an infection or injury that comes from outside. Because the illness has affected his personality at its core, he believes it is more accurate to say that he “is” bi-polar than that he “has” bi-polar disorder.

He tells us that it has taken him most of his life – from his early twenties to his mid-fifties – to realize that he is “stuck” with his illness, that it is a part of him, and that it will probably never be overcome. But he has reached the point of accepting his situation as “a particular, valid, important form of life.”  He believes he has achieved what he has in life because of, not in spite of his illness. Whether or not he is right, he certainly exhibits an awesome combination of honesty, compassion, and determination to continue living in spite of it all.

 

© 2003 Marion Torchia

 

Marion Torchia earned a masters degree in applied and professional ethics from the University of Maryland in Baltimore. She has held positions in several Washington DC health and behavioral health associations. She is interested in the moral dimensions of our attitudes towards mental illness and addiction.