Book Review: Balancing Act: Writing Through a Bipolar Life, by Kitt O’Malley

 

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A picture of the cover of the book Balancing Act: Writing Through a Bipolar Life, by blogger Kitt O’Malley. The cover contains a stack of black rocks which become smaller the higher the stack. The background is a gray storm cloud.

 

Everyone with mental illness knows that managing their disease is a balancing act. Kitt O’Malley, a mental health advocate with bipolar disorder and blogger at the eponymous kittomalley.com, knows this all too well.

O’Malley collected the best posts of her blog into a book titled, appropriately, Balancing Act: Writing Through a Bipolar Life. I was offered an advanced reader copy in exchange for a review, which I am glad to give.

This book is excellent. As a former Marriage and Family Therapist and fellow bipolar sufferer, O’Malley is uniquely qualified to write about the disorder and how it affects her life, as well of those of her loved ones. In the first and second sections, O’Malley clearly lays out the symptoms of her bipolar disorder (first diagnosed as bipolar II, now recently changed to bipolar I), as well as her mental health journey. The third section, Bipolar Thoughts, is an eloquent, haunting collection of posts detailing her “ramping” up in hypomania, and the debilitating dives into depression. The fourth section, Write With Purpose, describes what writing means to O’Malley and how the art fuels her activism. The fifth section, Caretake, is a description of her managing her son’s struggles with chronic illnesses, as well as helping her aging parents–both who suffer from dementia–navigate multiple care homes.

Let’s look at what does and doesn’t work.

What Does Work

  • The writing is poignant and straightforward, and at times lyrical. O’Malley includes the occasional poem as well. She is quite the wordsmith, coming up with turns of phrase I wish I would have thought of myself. The poetry is especially appreciated.
  • While O’Malley has attended a multi-denominational seminary, the book is not overly religious. This may not be some people’s preference, but for others, the approach will be fine.
  • O’Malley’s candor is refreshing. She describes every slip up she has, including the times when she was unfortunately abusive to her son and husband. Holding nothing back is incredibly hard, and O’Malley’s bravery is commendable.
  • One of Balancing Act’s great strengths is that it is, indeed, a collection of blog posts. We are able to travel along O’Malley’s journey with her in real time, reading first, for example, about her brother-in-law’s lung cancer, and then that he passed. O’Malley often addresses her readers with rhetorical questions, as well as thanking them for their support.

What Doesn’t Work

  • While reading Balancing Act, I had to take breaks every 40 pages. O’Malley’s struggles with managing her bipolar disorder, caring for her son’s migraines and digestive issues, and looking after her aging parents are relentless. I couldn’t help but sympathize with her constant difficulties, but I did feel overwhelmed at times, like she does. However, O’Malley often expresses her gratitude to her readers, her husband, and to her parents’ caretakers. I really appreciated that.
  • This is a small nitpick. Very rarely, O’Malley uses multiple sentences together without subjects, starting with a verb. This is fine; it’s a stylistic thing, and it’s a great demonstration of O’Malley’s anxiety and hypomanic symptoms. But the transitions were occasionally jarring. The writing is still excellent.
  • While the book being a collection of blog posts is one of its greatest strengths, that is also its greatest weakness. O’Malley sometimes includes transcripts of videos, which may have been more effective in video form. The posts can also be a bit repetitive, as some of it is rehashing information we’ve learned before in different words. These are tiny nitpicks, though, and all in all, the blog does translate well to book form, as long as readers keep in mind that the writing was once in blog form.

So that’s a glimpse of Balancing Act: Writing Through a Bipolar Life. The book will be on the market, published by Eliezer Tristan Publishing, starting September 19, 2019. I recommend this book and encourage you to pick up a copy today. Thank you, Kitt.

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Book Review: Breakdown: A Clinician’s Experience in a Broken System of Emergency Psychiatry

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The front cover of Breakdown: A Clinician’s Experience in a Broken System of Emergency Psychiatry (affiliate link*), by Lynn Nanos, featuring a police car shining its headlights on a sleeping homeless person wearing a green hoodie. Credit: Lynn Nanos.

*Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Thanks for supporting the work at The Bipolar Parent!

America’s mental health system is broken. It has failed millions of people suffering from mental illness and will continue to do so unless sweeping changes are made. That’s the premise of Lynn Nanos’ Breakdown: A Clinician’s Experience in a Broken System of Emergency Psychiatry (affiliate link*).

I was offered a copy by the author in exchange for an honest review, which after reading the book, I am thrilled to provide. Nanos is a clinician in the field of emergency psychiatry in Massachusetts with over twenty years of experience in the field. She is uniquely qualified to write this book, having spent much of her life caring for the sickest of the sick.

According to Nanos, there are three core problems in the broken psychiatric system: a lack of inpatient beds due to deinstitutionalization; malingerers, who falsify claims of mental illness to request inpatient treatment; and that patients are “dying with their rights on.” The latter means that a prioritization of patients’ rights causes people suffering from psychosis who refuse treatment due to a lack of insight into their mental illness to be discharged from hospitals too early. These patients are often homeless and vulnerable to being attacked on the streets. Nanos’ solution to these problems is to promote a program called Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT), a court-ordered program which forces patients suffering from psychosis to comply with treatment when living in the community.

Nanos describes a condition called ansognosia, where patients have a lack of insight into their mental illness. This book has special significance for me because I have bipolar and have endured psychosis, like the patients in the many case studies Nanos covers in Breakdown. When I suffered a psychotic break, I had no insight into my mental illness, like many of the patients suffering psychosis that Nanos describes. I was fortunate in that, as I complied with treatment, I gained such insight and was able to take steps towards recovery before I left the hospital. Like Nanos points out, this is not the case with the majority of others.

What Doesn’t Work Well in Breakdown

Because I don’t want to end on a negative note, I’ll start with one item that didn’t work well for me in Breakdown.

  • Disclaimers: The opening chapter is full of disclaimers about what the book does and does not cover. These disclaimers are vital to understanding how the rest of the book works, but they make for dry reading, especially for a first chapter. However, I don’t know how else Nanos would have structured this. These disclaimers are necessary, and they need to be placed upfront.

That’s it. That’s all I didn’t like. If a reader can get past the tedious first chapter, the meat of Breakdown is brilliant.

What Does Work Well in Breakdown

As promised, here’s what does work well in Breakdown:

  • Fulfilled Promise: In the opening chapter, Nanos promises a solution to the issues she raises later on, and she delivers on this promise. The writing is accurate and engaging, with case studies of patients offering an emotional look into people who suffer psychosis and their mental illnesses. The book is a blend of clinical information and painfully personal writing, which is another part of what Nanos promises and delivers.
    Research-Backed Opinions: Nanos’ commitment to scientific research is admirable. She cites approximately 300 studies, and the last chapters of Breakdown are especially filled with mental health statistics, which back up her claims.
    Professional Formatting: Despite being self-published, Breakdown is professionally formatted. The cover, featuring a presumably homeless man being confronted by police while lying on a sidewalk, is well-drawn and fabulous. Not that I’m saying to judge a book by its cover, but Breakdown is visually pleasing inside and out.
    Case Studies: The most arresting parts of Breakdown are the case studies. Nanos demonstrates why psychotic patients need treatment through the examination of her encounters with them in a clinical setting. Some examples are: a woman who traveled from Maine to Massachusetts because a spirit called “Crystal” ordered her to, a man who smeared dead insects on his neighbors’ doors to help purify toxins in their apartments, and Lily, a woman who delivered dead dogs to strangers, among other stories. Most of these people refused adequate treatment due to ansognosia. A great number of them bolted before Nanos was able to arrange for transportation to hospitals. Some of them were violent, and a few went on to assault their loved ones, with two specific cases ending in death. The case studies are the most effective parts of Breakdown, and demonstrate why the AOT program is so important.

Final Thoughts

Breakdown: A Clinician’s Experience in a Broken System of Emergency Psychiatry (affiliate link*) is a fascinating book. It’s professionally written and formatted, research based, and effectively delivers its message. The case studies were especially enlightening, and are the heart of Breakdown.

Mental health issues affect all of us, whether we suffer from mental illness, have loved ones who do, or are impacted by the mentally ill people all around us. Read this book and see how you, too, can join the mental health discussion.

*Disclosure: Some of the links above are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

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Book Review: Dyane Harwood’s Birth of a New Brain

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Dyane Harwood’s brilliant memoir, Birth of a New Brain.

*Disclosure: Some of the links above are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

Dyane Harwood’s brilliant breakout memoir, Birth of a New Brain: Healing from Postpartum Bipolar Disorder (affiliate link*), chronicles her heartbreaking struggle for stability after the onset of postpartum bipolar disorder. Dyane’s battle to reestablish her mental health from the ravages of mania and the pits of depression is recorded in a gripping account with an almost-journalistic flair.

An often overlooked and misunderstood perinatal mood and anxiety disorder (PMAD), postpartum bipolar disorder is listed in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as part of the bipolar spectrum. In Dyane’s case, she suffers from a severe form of “treatment-resistant” bipolar I disorder, which spirals high into manic episodes and deep down into soul-sucking depressions.

Dyane deserves all of the praise her novel has received from various sources. It’s a fascinating account with a structure unique to memoir: Dyane takes us from her birth in the beautiful Pacific Palisades to her first boyfriends to her seven hospitalizations. She spends a great amount of time describing her attempts to live medication-free and the disastrous results. She deals with over-prescribing, unethical psychiatrists, powerful electroconvulsive therapy treatments to negate her suicidal thoughts, and, eventually, finds a medication that works: a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) called tranylcypromine. Other useful contributors to her mental health are getting enough sleep, exercising thirty minutes for six days a week, and “forest bathing”–taking frequent long walks in a redwood forest.

Above all, Dyane is honest. She’s candid about her many failures–as well as her many triumphs!–on the road to recovery. She tells us about her relationships with her father–who suffered from bipolar I himself–and her mother, and their relationship with each other. Dyane even tells us about the fights she had with her husband. All of this contributes to a beautifully-written memoir.

Harwood’s book is crucial for understanding the postpartum bipolar experience. She references writers and doctors with experience dealing with bipolar disorder. Her memoir, Dyane Harwood’s brilliant breakout memoir, Birth of a New Brain: Healing from Postpartum Bipolar Disorder (affiliate link*), is one of the greats.

Disclaimer: Dyane is one of the frequent commenters on this site. She offered me a PDF of Birth of a New Brain for review, which I was glad to do. Dyane blogs at DyaneHarwood.wordpress.com.

*Disclosure: Some of the links above are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

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Book Review: Rock Steady: Brilliant Advice From My Bipolar Life

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Ellen Forney’s book, Rock Steady: Brilliant Advice From My Bipolar Life.

Ellen Forney’s self-help book, Rock Steady: Brilliant Advice From My Bipolar Life is everything this blog aspires to be. With clean-lined, funny art pieces and truly brilliant advice, Forney’s book is easy to read and will be one of the staples in my repertoire. I highly recommend reading it.

Forney’s primary goal is to encourage and instruct people who suffer from bipolar disorder to obtain and then maintain stability. She clearly loves people, and wants them to succeed. Her best advice comes in the form of an acryonym: SMEDMERTS, which stands for Sleep, Meds, Eat, Doctor, Meditation*Mindfulness, Exercise, Routine, Tools, and Support. Using this acronym as a basis, Forney explains which doctors are out there and how to pay for one, how to get to sleep and stay asleep, and how to manage your meds. She also offers an entire chapter of coping tools, as well as a chapter on “the danger zone,” where she offers advice about how to recognize your warning signs when sliding into an episode.

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Forney’s acronym, SMEDMERTS, which stands for Sleep, Meds, Eat, Doctor, Meditation*Mindfulness, Exercise, Routine, Tools, and Support. Taken by Cassandra Stout and protected under a Creative Commons license.

Forney’s real talent lies in the unassuming artwork. This book is so much more than a list of to-dos. The art makes reading fun, and the information easy to digest. Each picture is clearly crafted to elicit a smile from the reader. The cover (pictured above) features the title in large, bold text, and an overwhelmed smiley face with a tongue sticking out. My toddler delighted in mimicking the emoticon, complete with sound effects.

Overall, I would rate Rock Steady a ten out of ten.

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