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by Lizzie Simon
Washington Square Press, 2002
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jan 10th 2003

Detour

Detour is another memoir by a high-achieving young person with mental illness, reminiscent of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation or Andy Behrman's Electroboy.  Lizzie Simon briefly describes her childhood.  She says she was born in 1976 and was “loved immediately by many many daring and dazzling people.”  Her mother is “a sex expert, a college administrator, a coordinator with Haitian Voodoo priests in their native land and tongue, a marathon runner,” and her father is “a pediatrician, a Little League baseball coach, a napper.”  Other close family members are equally talented and interesting, and their home in Providence, Rhode Island, was a stimulating place to grow up.  In her senior year of high school, already with an early acceptance for Columbia, Simon was attending an international school in Paris when she experienced a severe manic episode.  She was taking the antidepressant Paxil, and she became psychotic.  That’s when she was told she had bipolar mood disorder.  She started taking lithium, which worked well for her, and she eventually was able to return to school and graduate. 

Simon’s illness did not prevent her from going to college and achieving great success.  She started working for her college radio station as arts director, and soon she was interviewing Hollywood stars, artists, and writers.  She produced an arts festival, and on leaving college, she became the producer for a music venue in New York City.  She was soon putting on award-winning productions.  But then she got the idea for writing a book about people like herself, successful bipolar twenty-somethings, providing advice to other young people and their parents about how to cope with their illness.  She takes a leave of absence from her job and plans a trip around America, doing interviews. 

Detour isn’t quite the book Simon originally planned.  Instead, it tells the story of her road trip and about her personal life around the time she was writing the book, with some flashbacks to her past.  In particular, she tells of her relationship with another bipolar man, Nicholas.  Nick is her first interviewee, in New York City, and she realizes soon that although he is very successful financially, he does not fit her proposed profile.  He refuses to take medication to control his moods, and he has a problem controlling his anger and violence.  But Simon falls for Nick, feeling a great desire to take care of him, and to help him sort through his emotional difficulties.  Their volatile love affair fills her life, and it is striking that one of the most attractive features of Nick for her is that she feels he is able to understand her better than anyone else, because he knows what it is like to be bipolar. 

Despite Nick’s pleas for her to stay, Simon goes on her planned road trip and starts to interview more people with manic depression.  She first meets Marissa, who is twenty-nine and lives in Washington DC.  Her mania started when she went to college in California.  Her family brought her home and admitted her to hospital.  She recovered and finished her degree at the same college.  Her advice to young people who are manic-depressive and their parents is to learn about their disease and about themselves.  She is careful to avoid triggers that could cause a recurrence of her mania or depression, such as manipulative people, overwhelming responsibilities or dating the wrong kind of men.  Next Simon meets Jan, in her early thirties, who works as a morning show radio announcer.  Her job fits well with her manic style.  But her mania was causing her to spend huge amounts on items she did not need, and she also had an eating disorder and an addiction to speed.  Her advice is that people with bipolar disorder be allowed to make their own decisions as much as possible because they have so much control of their own lives taken away.  She also says that people should get educated about their condition. She urges people to get treatment for their illness, because it allows you to be who it is you are and who it is you want to be.  Simon talks with her subjects about all aspects of their lives, and always asks about their feelings concerning medication, which are particularly interesting in showing how people come to terms with the side effects and how they conceptualize the way medication changes their relation to the world.

Simon is surprised to find that doing the interviews shakes her up.  It is clear that this project may be a trigger for Simon’s mania or depression, and even clearer that Nick could be the wrong sort of man for her.  He is both needy and supportive while she is on her trip, calling her at least a dozen times a day.  As she travels around the country, she sometimes finds it difficult to locate people to interview, and she encounters a great deal of skepticism about the possibility of leading a happy and successful life if one is bipolar.  She goes to some support group meetings for people with bipolar illness, and often finds that they are poorly attended, unhelpful occasions where all sorts of odd and mistaken views are shared.  Nick joins her in Texas and at first he is great to be with, but then he picks a fight and is violent with her.  Simon becomes more emotionally fragile, and finds herself crying frequently.  But she survives and finishes her project, and she says that through interviewing people with manic depression, she managed to feel compassion for herself. 

Detour is a quick read, because it is written in many short chapters, in a rather disjointed style.  The most interesting parts are the interviews, which give a sense of what it is like to cope with manic depression on a day-to-day basis, dealing with medication, health insurance, work, and relationships.  The book might have benefited from more focus on the interviews and less on Simon’s personal life, although it is interesting to see how she experiences her illness and how her interview project affects her.  It is clear that she is in a very fortunate position with a supportive and well-connected family, and one wonders to what extent her privilege enables her to flourish despite her illness where people in less fortunate circumstances would have a much more difficult time.  Nevertheless, her central idea, to tell the stories of people with bipolar disorder who are successful, is a wonderful one, and could well be useful or even inspiring to young people with the illness wondering how they can manage to lead rewarding lives.

 

 

© 2003 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.