The author was 6 when he first felt overwhelming anxiety. He was extremely shy in kindergarten, and in first grade, he found that he was too afraid to use a public restroom. From a Mennonite background, Hostetler and his six siblings were raised by his mother and stepfather in a cockroach-infested home. Growing older, he found himself too insecure to date girls but outran his nervousness on the football field, where he became the school’s star linebacker in his senior year. Acceptance to Vanderbilt University punctuated his ongoing academic success, but his sophomore year there marked the beginning of his bipolar illness. In his sophomore year, he took a test in which he performed exceptionally well. His reaction to success was “I got lucky.” Rather than celebrate, he spiraled into self-doubt. What followed were periods of depression, which were blown away by “winds of mania.” He began plotting to kill himself, putting a knife to his own throat while he lay in bed. The memoir tells of his therapy and misdiagnosis, attempts to control his illness with various combinations of drugs, and eventual hospitalization. It also describes the impacts bipolar disorder had on his everyday life, including his struggle with relationships, compounded by anhedonia. The memoir moves toward a revelatory moment where the author experiences six months without a bipolar episode and is eager to share this breakthrough to offer hope to others.
Hostetler explains bipolar disorder in nonmedical, evocative terms: “Sunny days and thunderstorms. Energy and exhaustion. Euphoria and melancholia. Bipolar disorder is an illness of two poles: mania and depression. They are the ingredients for committing suicide.” His writing style is smart, spirited, and acutely observant: “Treating bipolar disorder is like buying an umbrella knowing it’s going to rain again and a kite for when the wind blows.” He courageously excavates torturous moments in his life; on one occasion, he renders a suicidal moment as a conversation with death: “Stop! Death, please stop. Tears rolled down my cheeks, but they couldn’t wash him out of my eyes.” The author goes on to offer advice to those facing similar circumstances, often simple but telling statements, such as “bipolar disorder should never be handled alone.” Frequent discussions of various pharmaceuticals and their side effects are interesting but may be of limited use to a wider audience given the “range of uniquely bipolar symptoms that vary from person to person.” A quibble: occasionally, unnecessary, banal details hinder the narrative: “She asked to be my friend on Facebook, and that summer we messaged each other back and forth. Our messages were engaging.” The author also relies on clichés, such as hiding behind a “glass wall” to describe his sense of isolation, whereas a more thorough, detailed unpacking of his emotions would prove more illuminating, particularly since he obviously has the writing chops when he’s trying. This does not detract greatly from the memoir, which offers a lucid account of bipolar experience and contains details of clinics and organizations that specialize in bipolar disorder for those seeking help.