'Mental: Lithium, Love, and Losing My Mind' is a brilliant dive into the mind of its author

Monday, October 30, 2017 - 8:47pm

Jaime Lowe’s “Mental” is an intimate read. It’s fitting, seeing as the book is a memoir detailing the author’s struggle with bipolar disorder. But Lowe’s sense of closeness is carefully crafted and realized. She pulls the reader in the old fashioned way: By telling her own story, starting with her first manic episode at the age of 17, up to the present day in her early forties, living in Brooklyn and working as a journalist.

Lowe was raised in Los Angeles and was a creative, opinionated, bright kid up until her senior year of high school when she “broke hard.” She was institutionalized at 17 and started taking lithium to stabilize her mood swings. Lowe documents the ups and downs of her illness since that point: her manic episodes, her depressions and all the moments in between that try to piece her life back together.

Lowe is the gifted kind of writer who pulls you in from the start. She makes it feel as though there’s no distance between the feeling and the language being used to describe it. When she writes about a manic episode, you feel the fluttering euphoria of it before ever putting together what exactly it is she’s talking about. She brings the readers inside the manic mind — all flights of fancy and grand delusions. She talks about feeling like a superhero, or like she had survived the apocalypse, but it’s a testament to Lowe’s skill as a writer that it never feels as though she’s explaining her mental state. She’s never didactic, but always brutally honest about the toll such an illness takes on her life.

But “Mental” is brilliant for more reasons than just sheer technical skill. Lowe brings us into the very depths of her mind, but she constructs this intimacy carefully. Some moments are laid out in painstaking detail, and sometimes years pass by without a notice. This is on purpose: Her manic episodes are short in comparison to the scope of her life, but the damage they do to her life and relationships take years to clean up. Lowe spent almost a decade putting herself back together after an episode in her mid-20s resulted in poverty, a near marriage, several lost jobs and her house burning down. “I was feeling otherworldly,” she writes, “But not functioning in this world at all.”

The fallouts are described with devastating precision. She talks about her lifelong inability to trust any feelings of happiness, for fear they may develop into something more dangerous: “I was hyperaware of hyperactivity,” Lowe writes, “Of feeling too good, too complicated, too much.” Where she describes mania in increasingly flowery and complicated turns of phrase, there’s a heartbreaking simplicity to her depression. "It didn't feel like I made an impact on anything at the time,” she says. “Sometimes I would just watch Seinfeld reruns quietly. Being me hurt.”

“Mental” is good for more than just a personal meditation on experience with mental illness. It’s also an in-depth history on the uses of lithium, and of mental illness — an attempt to grapple with the fact that lithium is a part of her, flowing in her veins and allowing her to function in the world for over 20 years. She contends that lithium is one of the oldest elements in the universe, one of the three created in the Big Bang. “Mental” makes the minutiae of the brain into a celestial body, and it’s all the more riveting for it. “It is everywhere in space, on earth, in me, on me,” she writes of the lithium.

Jaime Lowe uses this massive, all-encompassing framework to take her readers through the highs and lows of an illness, a mindset, a life. And as a result, it’s a beautiful book — honest and clear, funny and sad, painful to read at times and gorgeous at others. “Mental” is full of brilliant insights and self-awareness. But at its heart, beyond the skill in its construction, beyond the clever quips and well-researched asides, it’s a story that garners empathy. And that’s when stories are at their best.

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“Mental: Lithium, Love, and Losing My Mind”

Jaime Lowe

Blue Rider Press

October 3, 2017