A Superb Stigma-Bashing Exercise — Terri Cheney’s MODERN MADNESS: AN OWNER’S MANUAL

In her New York Times bestseller of 2008, Manic: A Memoir, Terri Cheney vividly recounted her long double-life as a manic-depressive suffering from bipolar disorder. On the one hand she was a chronic over-achiever: a Vassar graduate and a high-powered Hollywood attorney to the stars. On the other, she was also a deadly bundle of ricocheting emotions and moods ranging from the often-embarrassing highs of mania (when all self-restraint and self-discipline were thrown to the wind), to dungeon-like depressive lows of self-loathing and powerlessness, when suicide seemed not so much an option as an invitation.

As she tells us early on in her third and latest volume Modern Madness: An Owner’s Manual (Hachette/September 2020), Cheney recalls sitting at meetings with clients such as Michael Jackson where she projected a powerful and confident persona, impeccably dressed in Armani with an elegant white silk shirt, the French cuffs of which “just about [hid] the virulent red slashes I’d acquired from a recent suicide attempt.” Such are the ironic juxtapositions that we — I say we because I count myself among the damned — bipolars often experience. Only after treatment (which we are usually too confident to feel we need during our highs, and too depressed to seek during our lows) do we obtain some measure of normalcy, though even this is never quite complete.

Published by Hachette, September 2020.

I remember a night more than a decade ago, shortly after my diagnosis and the beginning of my treatment for bipolar depression, when I was having dinner at the National Arts Club with a friend, Edmund Morris, the Pulitzer Prize winning biographer of Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. As I described my condition and my medications, and how they were intended to moderate my highs and lows, Edmund commented that he hoped my moderation would not be so severe as to stunt what he called “the flights of creativity” necessary to achieve the “fine conceptualization” always necessary for excellent writing.

Whether that is the case with me is for others to say. All I know is that Cheney is not so well-medicated that it has dulled the wit, inspiration, and passion she brings to her prose. Cheney’s experience-inspired eloquence, clarity, and compassion are on full display in Modern Madness: An Owner’s Manual. The book is a superb stigma-bashing exercise in revelation — one packed with cleverly rendered, narrative-driven advice and knowledge that will inspire sufferers to seek help, and aid those who are not members of our cursed club in understanding a disorder that is all too common across our country and across our world. (If you are not afflicted with bipolar disorder, or don’t have a loved one who is bipolar, you almost certainly have a neighbor or colleague who is. Count on it.)

Modern Madness is, as Cheney says, an owner’s manual. Her mission, which she accomplishes beautifully, is to get under the hood of bipolar disorder: to demystify and reveal tools for coping. Information, after all, is power. Cheney cites Sun Tzu’s key lesson in The Art of War: know thy enemy.

And she does. For example, she notes what are for her the familiar warning signs of both the lows and the highs: the harbingers that tell her “who is coming to visit” and that it is time to take preventative measures, such as a proactive call to her therapist and perhaps a moderation of meds.

One must be on constant watch for the tips to the two separate but equal icebergs of depression and mania. “The world gets very spooky when I’m on the verge of depression,” Cheney writes. “It’s like a carnival after hours — full of half-glimpsed terrors and half-heard noises, evil vapors swirling in the air.” Likewise, she knows when mania is on the way. She feels herself growing overly flirtatious, increasingly entitled, and increasingly prone to suddenly irresistible impulses — sometimes so small and trivial a thing as eating a plum in a grocery store without paying for it, even though she is not a thief.

Such stories as these both compel and inform. Consider Cheney’s tale of the at-first annoying three-day waiting period before she — during a deadly “mixed state” episode of self-hate coupled with manic energy — could obtain the gun she’d planned to use to destroy herself. These were three days during which she finally confessed to her therapist what she’d thought of doing.

Throughout the book, Cheney provides a steady flow of anecdotally-driven descriptions related to hard-won skills for dealing with all phases of the bipolar moon — the mixed state, the nearly equally dangerous state of “rapid cycling” back and forth across the vast chasm between highs and lows, suicidal idealization, and finally the art of how to confront the stigma of being “mentally ill.”

In the years since Manic: A Memoir, Cheney has gone from being an attorney for the stars to becoming something of a celebrity herself. Manic was optioned for a series on HBO, and Anne Hathaway portrayed Cheney in a critically praised episode of “Modern Love” on Amazon Prime. More importantly, Cheney has become one of the world’s most prominent and important writers and speakers working to educate people about bipolar depression along with all other forms of mental illness. Modern Madness: An Owner’s Manual is yet another vital step in that effort.

Modern Madness: An Owner’s Manual by Terri Cheney

Hachette; 9/8/20; $27; ISBN 978030684304.

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