June 06, 2016

By Luna Greenstein

People often portray bipolar disorder as a condition that causes someone to have constant and extreme mood swings at any given moment, but that doesn’t truly capture the nature of this condition. Representing bipolar disorder in popular culture accurately is critical toward achieving awareness, understanding and acceptance. One way to learn and promote understanding is to imagine yourself going through the symptoms. Here are two books that show what living with bipolar disorder is like.


Lily and Dunkin By Donna Gephart Delacorte Books for Young Readers (2016)

Lily and Dunkin is easy to read, appropriate for kids and realistically depicts what it’s like to live with bipolar disorder. The story switches between the perspectives of two eighth-graders facing incredible challenges—being transgender and living with bipolar disorder.

Norbert Dorfman, also known as Dunkin, moves to south Florida with his mom, where they live with his exercise-obsessed grandmother, Bubbe. Although we don’t get the whole picture until later, it is clear that Dunkin’s father is the reason they had to move. His father also lives with bipolar disorder and seems to have done something drastic, prompting the move. Dunkin is trying to block out thoughts that pass through his mind about his dad’s behavior.

Upon arriving in south Florida, Dunkin quickly makes a friend, Tim/Lily McGrother, an androgynous transgender person who spends her time reading in a Banyan tree named Bob. Their friendship quickly encounters obstacles, including when Dunkin is invited to be friends with the popular basketball players, who continuously bully Tim/Lily for her lack of a clearly defined gender.

Dunkin is initiated into the cool crowd due to his height, which leads them to believe that he’s going to be a great basketball player. To impress his new friends, Dunkin lies about his basketball-playing skills and agrees to try out for the team. His natural ability is less than satisfactory, even after many training sessions with Bubbe. But Dunkin knows an easy shortcut to becoming a better player: He could “forget” to take his medication.

Taking medication decreases Dunkin’s energy, so he believes that by stopping he’ll have more energy and play better. But when he starts skipping doses and his energy starts to skyrocket, so do the symptoms of his mania.

The author of the book, Donna Gephart, tells this story in a way that’s both simple and profound. To be able to take on two  distinct and unique challenges and concisely put those troubles into the minds and bodies of kids is worthy of recognition. This is a true teaching novel, perfect for young people first learning about mental health and mental illness and for adults who want to learn more.


Liar: A Memoir By Rob Roberge Crown (2016)

Liar, a memoir with an adult audience in mind, opens up the experience of a writer undergoing personal crises, substance abuse, and the harrowing symptoms of bipolar disorder. Each chapter contains a non-chronological listing of dates. Each vignette contains an event or memory that provides a piece of the total picture of his life. Author Rob Roberge is sharing his personal story with the reader. He’s telling the story of his life in the order that makes the most sense to him. The book is Roberge’s method of preserving his identity through recording important pieces of his life. He does this after learning that his many concussions have increased his likelihood of developing a memory-eroding disease.

Roberge tells his story in the second person as if he is outside of his life looking in. While discussing his bipolar disorder, he says, “Technically, to be diagnosed with rapid-cycling bipolar, you need to have four manic episodes within a calendar year. But four episodes a year doesn’t seem very rapid to you at all. In the year leading up to the release of your fourth novel you are firing off a few a month.”

Roberge details how both bipolar disorder and his substance abuse affected various aspects of his life and explains the biggest difference he noticed between the two: “Using addicts know how they’re going to feel in five minutes. Mental illness, on the other hand, is the ultimate loss of control.”

This book is not a traditional, feel-good memoir; it shows struggles in a light that is raw and real. Roberge has a lot of wisdom to share, and you can learn a lot about mental illness, substance abuse and stigma from reading his powerful words.

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