Skip Navigation

Submitted Literature

Inching Back to Sane: My Years With Bipolar

By Leif Gregersen

Review

The recent surge in the publication of first-person memoirs offers readers a valuable opportunity to step into the shoes of those who are, or have been, suffering from mental illness. With the latest studies reporting that 1 in 4?* of us will * at some stage in our lifetime, it is vital that we educate ourselves to place us better to support loved ones. Statistics and studies are all very well, but can seem meaningless without individual experiences.

Leif Gregersen’s latest book, Inching Back to Sane, is a brave account of his adult experience of the highs and lows of bipolar disorder.  It follows the publication of Through the Withering Storm  (20**) - a memoir of his teen years struggling with the illness – and explores frightening and challenging experiences: misdiagnosis, paranoia and delusions (believing a bomb had been planted in his apartment building; that mental health nurses watched his every move through windows; that he was next in line to the British throne; that hospital staff had undergone cosmetic surgery to conceal their identities as people he had met in the past; that TV presenters addressed him by name and offered him enormous prizes; that his brain was controlled by a microchip inserted by a fellow patient; that when he stopped going to Church the building was torn down by termites), feelings of self-loathing, and denial. He describes repeatedly reporting his acquaintances to the police (believing them unsympathetically and often erroneously, to be mentally-ill criminals), being questioned by police in a murder investigation, awkward sexual encounters, unpleasant medication side effects, problems with housing, his own and others’ addictions to smoking, alcohol, drugs and gambling, time in the isolation room of a psychiatric hospital, his racist outbursts, sexual harassment and other anger management difficulties. Gregersen’s non-linear narrative, with gaps and repetitions in the chronology of events, indicates his ongoing struggle to make sense of and come to terms with a difficult and unstable past, frequently changing or being forced to change housing and employment arrangements.

Having been diagnosed with schizophrenia by hospital doctors in Vancouver, a close friend of Gregersen’s later thought he was a psychopath. Both these conditions come heavily laden with preconceptions, and these assumptions, almost accusations, inevitably seriously damaged his self-esteem. He was, in fact, suffering from psychotic delusion: ‘when a person’s mind is chemically altered and false ideas and delusions of grandeur and such occur.’ Bipolar and its paranoia and hallucinations can be enormously distressing and confusing, so to be misdiagnosed, including by medical professionals, leaves a gaping hole where a strong foundation of trust and certainty is most needed.

Leif writes that ‘thanks to television, the general belief of the public is that people who are mentally ill are out to murder them, and their illnesses can be contagious.’ Certainly the media has been responsible for a dreadful amount of stigmatising, stereotyping and sensationalising mental illness in the past, from nineteenth-century sensation and gothic novels, through to tabloid newspaper and film accounts of famous serial killers. 

Key Themes:

  • Bipolar Affective Disorder

Significant Quotes / Pages

However, this is slowly changing. Too little too late, some may argue, but recent, more positive media coverage suggests that we can look forward to a brighter future for mental health sufferers.

In his introduction Gregersen admits that sitting down to write this book has been a real struggle: for some time he ‘just didn’t see the point.’ An unexpected ‘renewed sense of honesty and maturity’ enabled Gregersen to see the project through, and this may be seen as a courageous act – a sustained effort of defiance against the popular belief that those suffering with these kinds of distressing illness are dangerously violent, contagious, and liable to kill themselves or others at any moment. People are notoriously afraid of mental illness because they cannot identify it so easily as, say, a broken leg, which is helpfully indicated by a plaster cast and crutches, and which usually has a clear estimated recovery time.

Ignorance breeds prejudice. The more memoirs of this kind that are published and read, the more public will understand, resulting in more sympathetic treatment and, one hopes, increased public funding. Leif Gregersen and others describe everyday life with mental illness, enabling readers to identify with them more closely so that we may be quicker to spot the signs in ourselves and others, enabling faster treatment, or feel more comfortable talking about how we really feel. When someone asks how we are, it’s too easy to simply reply ‘fine, thanks’ by default. We owe it to each other to mean what we say when we ask that question – that we genuinely want to know, and we must say what we mean in giving an honest response. Gregerson’s story is ultimately one of hope. In his concluding pages, he reveals no sudden ‘cure,’ but rebuilds his family relationships, welcoming his niece in the world as ‘the light of his life,’ enabling him to feel positive about the future, even following the tragic death of his mother. He concludes, ‘We depend so much on each other and when we lose someone close to us, especially when it’s beyond our control, we either grow or let the loss destroy us. My loss nearly destroyed me but now I go on, thinking of what losing me or her mother would mean to my niece and how important it is to go on no matter what.’

 

 

‘The sad reality for me was that though I was an addict of gambling, I thought if I went through a program I would be able to get a job and a girlfriend and all the things I desired, but deep down internally, addiction or not, counselling program or not, I was still afflicted with bipolar disorder.’ (161-2)

‘I was in a Catch-22 of being sick enough to need help but also being too sick to be able to get it.’ (162)

 

‘I don’t know why I didn’t realise it fully then, but when I am on medications and understand that my delusionary thoughts are false creations of a mind that is flawed, it makes sense that I go through a pattern: one is go off my medications; two is get angry that higher forces and powers are playing with my head, and three is the inevitable situation where I end up in a psychiatric ward or a mental hospital.’ (204)

Reference: Leif, Gregersen. 2014. Inching Back to Sane: My Years With Bipolar. Copyright Leif Gregersen, 2014

Reviewer

Ms Helen Goodman
Date Review Submitted: Wednesday 10th December 2014