I’ve often attributed my success in managing bipolar disorder to the meditation practice I added to my treatment regimen years ago. While there’s no doubt that the noticing involved in meditation has helped me head off major episodes of mania and depression, I changed something else in my life at about the same time I began to practice. This adaptation may have equal weight in my wellness. What did I change? I stopped reading fiction.
As a kid I buried myself in books. The family had four sets of encyclopedias (long before the internet) and I read them all, in their entirety. I wanted to know everything about everything. I gravitated toward biographies and histories, and when I entered college I studied semantics and political science. In business school I became fascinated with finance and case studies. Aside from a near obsession with Shakespeare, the only fiction, poetry, or drama I read was what was assigned to me in school.
Then, in my mid-twenties, things began to darken and I picked up novels. It started with Fitzgerald, Woolf, and the poems of Rilke. My tastes quickly became more contemporary. My shelves are filled with Winterson (her The Passion remains my favorite thing I’ve ever read), DeLillo, Easton Ellis, and Yoshimoto. When I checked into a psych hospital for the first of several hospitalizations, I packed all four volumes of Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy. Had the staff known what that was they would have confiscated it immediately.
As the darkness lifted and the mixed episodes leveled off, I returned to reading nonfiction. I’m no less curious than I was before, and I’m no less challenged by ideas. One can wrestle with some very big existential questions in a treatise on economics, and history takes us deep into issues that affect us still as individuals and a society. Nonfiction can be very visceral. It just hurts me less emotionally. It doesn’t make me question whether or not living is worth it. In no way do I feel like I’m dumbing down or neglecting art. I’m just happier to replace the question “why am I here?” with “how will I conduct my life?” The life I enthusiastically choose to live.
I know my tastes aren’t for everyone. One of the good things bipolar disorder has given us is truly profound writers and poets. We all have things to learn and there are many different teachers. I’m just finding mine a little closer to the mundane, and that enables my mind to fly to many inspiring places while still being excited about where I am today. I’m healthy, I’m managing well, and I’m still thinking.