Life with Bipolar Disorder through the Eyes of Dr. Mark Vonnegut

“The reason creativity and craziness go together is that if you’re just plain crazy without being able to sing or dance or write good poems, no one is going to want to have babies with you. Your genes will fall by the wayside. Who but a brazen crazy person would go one-on-one with blank paper or canvas armed with nothing but ideas?”

Author Mark Vonnegut poses this question in the first chapter of his book, Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So. In this intimate and sometimes comic memoir, Vonnegut goes one-on-one with his past and present struggles with bipolar disorder, his family history, and his qualms with the medical field. His medical background and first-hand experiences provide readers with an eye-opening portrayal of life with mental illness.

In order to understand his own disorder, Vonnegut looks at his family’s history as far back as his paternal great-grandfather. He ventures into his childhood, endearingly poking fun at his not-yet-famous father’s eccentricities and struggles as “the world’s worst car salesman who couldn’t get a job teaching English at Cape Cod Community College.” He also provides honest depictions of his mother’s bouts of depression and paranoia.

“My mother, who was radiant, young, and beautiful even as she lay dying, heard voices and saw visions,” he says, “but she always managed to make friends with them and was much too charming to hospitalize even at her craziest.”

In his twenties, Vonnegut was a self-proclaimed hippie, experimenting with illegal drugs and eventually suffering three psychotic episodes leading to hospitalization. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia, later with bipolar disorder. He found stability in adulthood, graduating from Harvard Medical School, and was eventually named Boston Magazine’s “number one pediatrician.” He was shocked when the voices came back years later, causing his fourth break and ironically leaving him strapped to a bed at the hospital where he works.

Vonnegut’s conversational and often self-deprecating tone has a universal appeal. He shows how mental illness affects the successful and brilliant as well as the poor and disenfranchised. He contends that not any one person is completely sane and that defining insanity is a slippery slope.

“None of us are entirely well, and none of us are irrevocably sick,” he says. “At my best I have islands of being sick entirely. At my worst I had islands of being well…. You either have or don’t have a reluctance to give up on yourself. It helps a lot if others don’t give up on you.”

Vonnegut watched his father use writing as tool to deal with posttraumatic stress disorder following his experiences in World War II.  He believes that art and creativity are excellent outlets for those suffering from bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. When asked about this in an interview with Sliver of Stone magazine last year, he concluded by saying, “Art is a lifeline and a form of insanity.”

Editor’s note: This week, PAR is pleased to welcome guest blogger Grace Gardner. A recent graduate of the University of South Florida with a B.A. in Mass Communication, Grace is working as an editorial assistant this summer in the production department at PAR.

 

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