Staff Pick: Manic - A Memoir
By Terri Cheney (Harper)
''I didn't tell anyone I was going to Santa Fe to kill myself."
So begins Terri Cheney's memoir Manic, a journey through the author's struggle first to identify, then treat, her bipolar disorder (more commonly known as manic-depression.)
Cheney is a well-paid, Porsche-driving, attorney living in Los Angeles. Beverly Hills, in fact, as she is quick to point out. Just as she is quick to inventory her closet full of designer labels and her weekly delivery of the most exotic flowers money can buy.
It would be easy to dislike the author immediately. But once you dive into this unanaesthetized, raw story of suicide attempts, bouts of depression so severe Cheney was rendered immobile, spurts of mania that sent her naked into a freezing ocean, psych wards, electroshock therapy, padded rooms, doctors, pills, pills, and more pills, you begin to understand: The fine clothes and fancy cars and colorful flowers were distractions to keep those around her from noticing what a train wreck she was.
And it worked. For a while.
Cheney's book is written not chronologically, but organized in vignettes of mood. Chapter one begins with Cheney's sexual encounter and subsequent beating from a stranger (promiscuity is common during manic episodes) to her suicide attempt a few hours later. This was no cry for help. Cheney really meant to do herself in. She'd stockpiled pills for months, gulping down handfuls at a time with the numbing accompaniment of icy tequila.
Fortunately for Cheney (though no one who seriously attempts to take his life sees it this way immediately after), the very man who violently had his way with her comes back to check on her, and calls 911.
From here, the rest of the story unfolds. The reader is dragged along through Cheney's life exactly as she lives it — in fits and spurts without the ease or familiarity of order. Despite the memoir's unorthodox structure, it's an easy path to follow as the author describes the highest of the highs and lowest of the lows that are her life.
Free of saccharine rhetoric, Manic is a raw, unflinching, inside look at the destructive nature of one of the most misunderstood of mental illnesses. Anyone who has ever dealt with the disorder themselves or known someone who has will find it enlightening, and perhaps experience several "ah-ha" moments.
But here's the rub — and it's a complicated one.
Outsiders looking in at a wealthy, successful, seemingly has-it-all woman might find it irksome that such a person has anything to be depressed about. But no one has the right to judge who should be happy and who shouldn't. Or why and why not. There's plenty of guilt felt by most of those with the illness to go around. "What do I have to be depressed about when there are children starving in . . ." But depression is chemical. It doesn't care if you have a Porsche or a bus pass. It just attacks.
Though most people are ashamed of their illness, as Cheney was in the beginning, as the years passed, so has much of the stigma associated with the disease. But the author goes one step beyond mere acceptance. Cheney seems to delight in her illness, as though it makes her special and more insightful than those without a debilitating mental disorder. She comes across as narcissistic and self-absorbed as she constantly reminds the reader how gorgeous she is, how her fiery red hair (natural, not dyed) makes the bleached LA-types jealous, how thin she is, how clear her skin, how bright her eyes.
By book's end, I found it impossible to empathize. I did, however, come away with a clearer picture of the illness. Who knows, perhaps Cheney was manic when she wrote the memoir (narcissism is a trait of mania), but I find it hard to believe that a manic episode could last for 245 pages. I'm glad Cheney survived her suicide attempts, and I hope her book helps others understand the illness. But I also hope she doesn't expect any kudos from this reader. I found it appalling that one with such a clear understanding of how bipolar disorder affects individuals never acknowledges the havoc she wreaked upon those in her life who tried to help. Mental illness or not, that, to this reader, is unforgivable.