Book Review: Birth of A New Brain by Dyane Harwood
I "met" Dyane Harwood online when she joined this blog's Facebook group. She so kindly offered a free copy of her book, and when I started reading it, I knew I wanted to feature it in the Writers With Mental Illness Book Club & Subscription Service. We've been discussing Birth of a New Brain this month if you'd like to pop in and see what people are saying.
As an avid memoir reader, I've come to appreciate the different techniques of various memoirists. While memoirs aren't generally known for being thrillers, Harwood consistently ended every chapter with a hook that pulled me to the next page and kept me reading. I really appreciated Harwood's raw honesty above all. She is down-to-earth, and by the end of the book, it felt like she was a good friend of mine. I think the best books are like that.
Birth of A New Brain Summary
Birth of a New Brain is a memoir about being a mother and wife with postpartum bipolar disorder. It chronicles the development of the mood disorder, as well as the narrator "stumbling through [her] new reality of chronic mental illness." From her childhood with a father diagnosed with bipolar disorder and her college years where she experiences heartbreak to the activation of her disorder and seven subsequent hospitalizations, Harwood has provided us with a case study of herself. Birth of a New Brain is about a woman with a treatment-resistant illness who refused to give up, trying different medications, doctors, exercising, essential oils, ECT, forest bathing, and more. Packed with research, it's a must-read for anyone with a mood disorder.
- Dyane - Author and narrator with postpartum bipolar disorder type one
- Dyane's father - Violinist with bipolar disorder type one
- Dyane's mother
- Craig- Narrator's husband
- Avonlea - Narrator's older daughter
- Marilla - Narrator's younger daughter
Creativity and Mental Illness
Harwood opens the story effortlessly by bringing us into the delivery room with her as she gives birth to her daughter Marilla (can I just say I love her daughter's names?). Marilla's birth activates Harwood's postpartum bipolar disorder. Right after giving birth, she becomes hypomanic, a form of mania. Mania is a symptom of bipolar disorder characterized by "an elevated mood, irritability, pursuing goal-directed activities more than usual, heightened energy, a decreased need for sleep, excessive talkativeness, pressurized speech, racing thoughts, spending sprees, hyper-sexuality, and grandiosity." Harwood also experiences hypergraphia, "the overwhelming urge to write."
In theory, hypergraphia seems ideal to writers suffering from writer's block. The acclaimed author Dr. Alice W. Flaherty reflected upon her hypergraphic experience as positive, but my hypergraphia experience was bittersweet, with an emphasis on the bitter. Fear was the primary force that drove my writing. Being in a postpartum hypergraphic state was an exhausting way to live.
It is interesting how time and time again, authors explain how their conditions have both helped and hindered their creative process. It was refreshing to get a perspective on mental illness and creativity that was more grounded. Sure, mania brings bursts of inspiration for me, but it's all fragments, much of them unusable. The link between creativity and mental illness is there, so it can be easy to declare that our illnesses are the source of our creativity, but how much are they hindering us? And what if, just maybe, our creativity comes from ourselves, and we are giving our illness the credit? But of course, the argument about where mental illness and the self begins is a complicated one with no clear answer as of yet.
Well-Researched and Honest
Harwood's book is superbly researched and provides immense insight into her disorder. She balances her research with personal anecdotes that kept me reading, discussing how postpartum bipolar disorder affected her relationship with her husband and her kids. In later chapters, Harwood goes into detail about her manic behavior, and I was touched by her honesty. We see Harwood gushing to Dr. Austin and handing him "a bunch of awesome gifts!" We watch as she chases down Tim Finn after a show to give him a gift. On her wedding day, she screams so loud that her "throat bled." Later, she starts a "Moms with Bipolar" support group, "courtesy of hypomania's inspiration."
I wanted to participate in life, not merely survive it.-Dyane Harwood
Harwood's account of her mania is different because it doesn't focus on all good or all bad aspects of mania. It's a mixture of all the symptoms, which show us an accurate portrayal of what it's like to live with a mood disorder. Mania is romanticized often, and while I do love the creativity and productivity that can come with mania, as I've gotten older, I've come to dislike my mania. I used to love that part of myself, but my behavior when I'm manic embarrasses me now that I am more aware of what's happening. Mania can be very hard to deal with, despite its associations with heightened creativity. It was relieving and also very important to read a book that gave a balanced view of an often romanticized symptom of mood disorders.
Relatable For Anyone With A Mood Disorder
Reading Dyane's story really helped me get out of my own story, out of my own hard past, and remember how many of us have struggled with mental illness and had it negatively impact our lives. I felt a sense of belonging, of community. I appreciated Dyane's honesty about her angry outbursts and the car accident, her attempts to get off medication after reading about Big Pharma (This hit home! I felt like she was reading my mind).
I appreciated it because too often I'll read a book about mental illness that either reads as victimization or glamorization of mental illness. For example, I love Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, but wow! Staying in a fancy hospital and playing guitar with friends is NOT a realistic expectation for anyone about to be hospitalized. Harwood's book is different ultimately because it was real. Authors like her cut through the noise and offer realistic help for individuals with mental illness.
Birth of a New Brain is one of those memoirs that makes you feel like you're best friends with the author because of its honesty and authenticity. While it's too late to get the discounted price from the book subscription service because February has passed, you can still buy the book directly from Amazon! Don't forget to flip through the super helpful resources in the back.