I started out by really, really wanting to like this book. I adored Ellen Forney’s graphic memoir, Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me, which came out a whole six years ago. So I was excited when a friend told me that Forney had a new book out called Rock Steady: Brilliant Advice From My Bipolar Life.
But I also kind of didn’t expect to like it, because generally I’m not keen on advice guides. They tend to be just too prescriptive, and the American ones I’ve read in particular seem to be very heavy on the “take your meds, keep to a routine” approach with little room for nuance.
I tried to keep an open mind.
The book is rendered in a combination of text (hand lettered, there is no standard print until you come to the resources section at the end) and cartoons, with some illustrated characters or features recurring throughout. Forney draws herself much as she does in Marbles, for example when showing herself interacting with her doctor, but as much of the advice is directed at any person with a mood disorder, people are usually represented as generic, well, person shaped figures (or occasionally a teddy bear). There are lots of tiny, quirky comments in the margins, some of which made me laugh out loud.
The main thrust of the book is that if you are stable, you might well relapse in the future, but you can improve your odds of staying well through self-management. Forney distils the basics of her programme for staying well into the self-consciously clunky “SMEDMERTS” – sleep, meds, eat, doctor, mindfulness, exercise, routine, tools, support system. Uh oh, I thought, mindfulness. Uh-oh, I thought, routine. Here we go.
Only every time I expected Rock Steady to become rigid or prescriptive, it – didn’t. There’s a healthy pragmatism throughout. Sure, it’s better to stay off devices late in the evening if you want to get a good night’s sleep. But the book doesn’t preach; if setting them aside “isn’t an option”, it suggests you might want to adjust the colour palette on your phone or find an a pair of blue-blocking glasses. I also liked that the book isn’t prudish – it suggests that giving yourself an orgasm is a perfectly nice, acceptable way to help you to get off to sleep. I’ve never seen that in a self-management book before.
OK, we all know that drinking alcohol when you’re on meds is not a great idea, but I do it, and lots of other people do too. Rather than just tell you that alcohol is BAD, Forney focusses on whether a person’s drinking is problematic in its own right, rather than yelling at you. There’s a healthy separation throughout between the ideal and the possible. It’s all about finding solutions that work for you. Can’t do a 15 minute mindfulness mediation like Forney does each morning? Well, guess what, she hasn’t always been able to either, and sometimes a walk in the forest can be just as nourishing.
In Forney’s world, it’s OK not to know what you want. It’s OK to feel multiple things at the same time. “Once when I was really low, I was conflicted… I really wanted a stuffed animal, but I was already struggling with feeling like a big baby. Then I had an idea for a stand-in: big soft fuzzy pillow.” It’s OK to have a complex blend of feelings about meds, and the book is careful not to assume that meds will always be a part of someone’s treatment package.
One thing I found particularly useful was the metaphor of “red flag poles” (things that could be triggers for an episode and that you need to watch yourself around) and “red flags” (warning signs that are running up the flagpole and may suggest you’re becoming unwell). I’ve already used this with my Community Psychiatric Nurse, because I’ve had a few red flagpoles recently, including losing my job and mega sleep disruption caused by a nasty cough. And just in the past few days there have been red flags. Feeling full of energy despite lack of sleep. Me, a notorious hater of housework, wanting to clean from the minute I wake up. The need to dance. Huge irritability. The CPN suggests I use the model when completing my crisis plan because it clearly makes a lot more sense to me than the format on the plan itself.
There’s a lot of “been there”, hands-on wisdom. How to swallow your meds easily. How to cut pills. Techniques for better sleep (and even this hardened insomniac is planning to give some a go). A massive range of helpful phrases to keep telling yourself to help you to hang on. A lot of the practical advice doesn’t really apply to a UK audience, though, as it involves choosing a psychiatrist and/or therapist, finding a hospital that will take your insurance, etc (although the way the NHS is going, perhaps we will all one day need this advice).
Should you buy this book? Obviously it will be of more benefit to those recently diagnosed with a disorder on the bipolar spectrum (the books does take care to mention major depression and dysthymia, but it’s really most useful for those with ups as well as downs) but even this old hand found some practical tips and some general inspiration for cleaning up my act a little bit in terms of looking after myself.
Put it this way: a young relative of mine has recently been diagnosed with bipolar. Rock Steady doesn’t come out until 29th May, and today is the 24th. I’ve already pre-ordered him a copy.
You can follow Ellen on Twitter (@ellen_forney)
Image shows a red book, spine and open pages (sourced from Flickr, credit https://www.flickr.com/photos/horiavarlan/)