Diary of a Bipolar Explorer by Lucy Newlyn

Reviewed by Jean Morris

This book is both useful and beautiful. Lucy Newlyn, recently retired Oxford professor of English literature, author of a lovely book, among others, about Dorothy and William Wordsworth (reviewed here at SNB by Harriet) and poet with two collections to her name (Ginnel, Carcanet, 2005, and Earth’s Almanac, Enitharmon, 2015), has now written the “back story” to these scholarly and creative accomplishments – about living for the past 15 years with Bipolar Disorder (BD). Royalties will be donated to MIND. It’s a direct, accessible, personal work for a wide audience concerned by mental illness, and in many cases with our own experiences, or those of loved ones, to bring to our reading. It’s also unlike anything else I’ve read on this subject, full of a scholar’s lucidity and acuity, a poet’s lyricism and capacity to surprise and move.

In 2002, as her father lay dying in hospital, Lucy Newlyn experienced a severe psychotic episode that led to her diagnosis with BD. She had not slept for days. Her father’s face on the pillow became that of her older sister, whose death two years before had hit her very hard. What she saw in the hospital ward morphed into a scene from a book she had been reading of death in the First World War trenches. She felt morally implicated in horrifying slaughter. Outside her mother’s flat in suburban Leeds she clung and screamed. Police and ambulance were called and she was sectioned. The sound of the sirens, the trauma and subsequent shame, would long remain with her. She understandably recalls that day as the most distressing and terrifying of her life, and yet care and sympathy for those who have been through such episodes are not what they might be. Hospitalised some years later with serious physical symptoms, she ruefully observes how much more attention and concern were evident from all around her.

This is quite a short book, structured in brief sections, but its powerful writing, unusual form and satisfying cohesiveness make it a ‘big’ book. Reconstructed diary extracts give a close-up, vivid account of living with a serious mood disorder through 15 years of a demanding professional, family and creative life, punctuated by periods of remission, relapse and crisis.

This writer knows that her experience is not unusual and not the worst, that a solid marriage and secure, respected career are massive cushions. Her challenges have nonetheless been many. The common misrepresentation of BD only as a condition where periods of deep depression alternate with wild mania puzzles and dismays her and much of the book is an attempt to convey the more complex reality, where extremes of mood coexist in swirling, intense repetition. Faced with the checklists/questionnaires beloved of our health service – one to measure symptoms of mania, and then another one for depression, her responses to each often in contradiction – the scholar, accustomed to intellectual probing and pushing, asks: why two separate questionnaires, when she is just one woman? What her book seeks to be is a more adequate depiction of a complicated individual’s complicated condition. And, oh, she can write!

In middle age, in the years after her sister’s death, Lucy Newlyn started writing poetry, found there great and unexpected consolation and, despite her successful and fulfilling academic career, an unprecedented satisfaction. She has that rare and lovely gift of combining great formal skill with unforced and engaging expression. And while this is mostly a prose memoir, there are also sections of prose poetry and poems. These add immeasurably to the picture, the formal repetition of lines in villanelles, sestinas and pantoums such a powerful and appropriate evocation of repeating, obsessive mental patterns:

“Poetry is an essential tool – not just because I am a poet, but because this particular medium is closely allied to my illness and a by-product of it. Formal experimentation on the boundary between poetry and prose is also important to the kind of narrative I need to present. To be true to life my writing must acknowledge the in-between and mixed states of mood disorder. |The mental condition I describe does not accommodate itself to the normal tidy distinctions between forms, and no straightforward narrative mode will do.”

I’ve read the book a few times now and keep going back to reread: it’s so engaging; vivid glimpses of a life over these past years that we’ve all lived through too, with frightening political developments at home and abroad, affecting even the “ivory towers” of Oxford, alongside the personal dramas of unending grief after a sister’s premature death, the day-to-day impossibilities of motherhood and career. It’s a crazy life for all of us. Some have to deal with added crazy, frightening responses issuing from their own temperament and constitution – and ordinary life and disordered response aren’t separate. The stresses of work and family spiral into uncontrollable moods; weight gain, social media, surveillance cameras, the ‘time poverty’ and exhaustion of today’s workplace and especially of working mothers – the things that sometimes become too much for all of us feed into the story of mental illness. There are periods of stability and serious relapses, though nothing quite as bad as that first psychotic episode, a lot of sick leave but no further inpatient stays. It’s always there. And a complicated, gifted personality is always so much more.

Lucy Newlyn tells her complex, if not unusual, story with searing, lyrical yet down-to-earth lucidity. She tells it in the months after her retirement. At work, her college authorities and closest colleagues knew about her diagnosis with BD, but typically she suspected both a tendency to sweep it under the carpet and a risk of stigma, loss of professional respect:

My case history has raised questions about how Bipolar Disorder is approached in two different interlocking institutions – the family and the workplace. In both these contexts I’ve encountered difficulties in getting my condition understood. Individuals can be compassionate and in my experience they often are… But communities are uncertain about how to deal adequately with disabilities. Mental illness is something that continues, even in 2017, to cause collective fear.

Such talent as both a scholarly and a poetic writer makes her uniquely qualified, I think, to give a compelling insight into the journey of one ‘bipolar explorer’. To end, here are a few lines from the poem that moved me most, about her husband:

I asked him why he stays with me
when I withdraw from company,
and all is difficult and strange.
He smiled and said such things must be,
I married you; you married me.
I love you and that doesn’t change.

Jean Morris is a translator, editor and writer, recently lured away from both fiction and non-fiction by poetry, but finding that books like this one defy all genre distinctions.

Lucy Newlyn, Diary of a Bipolar Explorer  (Signal Books, 2018). 978-1-909930-63-6, 232 pp., paperback original.

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2 thoughts on “Diary of a Bipolar Explorer by Lucy Newlyn

  1. Lucy Newlyn says:

    Thank you very much for your generous review, Jean. I couldn’t have wished for better!

  2. Jean Morris says:

    Thank you, Lucy – I really loved your book, and that’s so hard to try and do justice to in a short review! I do hope my enthusiasm inspires others to read it.

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