Book review: Strictly Bipolar by Darian Leader

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‘I REMEMBER when, I remember, I remember when I lost my mind.” Gnarls Barkley’s hit Crazy was the soundtrack to early 2006, a sinuous, insistent, ironic paean to the pains and pleasures of mental illness. Its hook line, “it wasn’t because I didn’t know enough.

Strictly Bipolar - Darian Leader

Penguin Special, £5

I just knew too much”, perfectly described the teaming torrents of thought that those suffering from a manic high experience as a deep connection with the universe.

As the psychoanalyst Darian Leader argues in this short, provocative book, bipolarity is the mental illness of our time. Not only are sufferers more willing to share their experiences than ever before, prompting a growing sub-genre­ of “mania memoirs”, but the condition seems intimately connected to the deep changes which are working in our society. Leader suggests that some aspects of bipolarity “seem so well suited to the exhortations to achievement, productivity and intense commitment that today’s businesses demand”.

It’s an intriguing idea: the hysteria which so afflicted female patients in Freud’s time is now routinely connected to the profound changes which were at work in the role of 19th century women. Could changes in our society explain why an entire generation of Western adults are now being prescribed mood stabilising medication and why diagnoses of bipolarity have risen by 4,000% since the mid-1990s?

Leader’s answer is “possibly”: as the tectonic plates beneath our economy shift, the old professions, with their virtues of reliability and reputation lose their centrality, and more people are forced into working on short-term projects. Intense bursts of work, burning the midnight oil, obsessing about projects, followed by long weeks lying on the sofa. In between times, marketing ourselves with a single-minded belief in our abilities, followed by inevitable “downs” when our plans fail.

Does our economy force us all to behave in bipolar ways, even if we have no disposition to the disorder? Does the diagnostic evidence that many bipolar people spend, spend, spend in their manic phase hold in a world in which (until the credit crunch) many of us were spending money we did not have? As Leader points out, many people spend good money attempting to acquire the levels of energy, self-belief and fluency that those with bipolar disorder have access to during a manic “high”.

Opportunities for diagnosis and self-diagnosis of bipolarity continue to grow. Go on the internet and you quickly find “diagnostic tests” for bipolarity without having to see a pesky psychiatrist. Discussion boards of the self-diagnosed hum with activity, and encourage discussion of what happens when “highs” tip into mania then into self-loathing lows. Wikipedia has a page listing well-known people with Bipolar Disorder. Others cast the net back in time to snare Vincent van Gogh and Virginia Woolf.

But as a Freudian, and one who has written on Lacan, Leader is sceptical about a drug regimen for bipolarity which aims to flatten highs and lift depressive lows. In a series of fascinating “readings” of bipolar experience (many of them from the memoirs of sufferers) he focuses on the linguistic facility of those in the grip of a high, not as a symptom of mania, but as a clue to the deeper causes of the condition. His argument is “listen to bipolarism”. His short book is compelling and profound. «