When you hear the words “mental illness,” what’s the first image to pop into your mind? Is it someone foaming at the mouth? Is it someone wearing a straitjacket and handcuffs, fighting to escape? Whatever the case may be, it’s possible that you know someone with mental illness, and have never realized it.
This, and a number of other themes, are explored in Lizzie Simon’s Detour: My Bipolar Road Trip in 4-D, an autobiographical account of her diagnosis with this illness; her struggle to live with it; and her quest to find others who share the same ailment. Ultimately, her goal is not only to find other bipolar individuals, however; it is to unearth those that are leading productive, successful lives (in stark contrast to the above paragraph).
Towards the beginning of her memoir, Simon graduates from Columbia University, shortly after putting a name to the mental illness gradually rearing its head. She wrestles with various psychiatric medications until discovering lithium, which she says essentially allowed her to live a “normal” life. Like many individuals with bipolar disorder, Simon is intensely creative, and includes an account of her work as a producer at a New York theater.
The heart of Detour, however, takes place when Simon makes the momentous decision to leave her job and take off on a road trip across the United States, meeting and interviewing others that share her illness (whom she affectionately calls her “herd,” a reference to a journal entry written in her childhood.)
Detour, as you may or may not know, is engrossing from start to finish, thanks in no small part to Simon’s powerful, evocative writing style. While certainly not a work of fiction, it shares many of the same elements with the best thrillers out there: suspense, romance, conflict, and in a sense, resolution.
Simon says (no pun intended) of her book, on LizzieSimon.com: “I wanted to collect testimonies from young bipolar people who had been treated successfully and were in the process of building careers and families and healthy lives. I felt our stories weren’t being told anywhere.”
This she does, although her “road trip,” just as the illness itself, has major ups and downs. Her first interviewee, Nicholas, is a financially successful young man, although he refuses to take prescribed medication for his mental health (and instead turns to illegal drugs and alcohol to tame his mood swings). During the course of the book, Simon falls in love with him, and their relationship, too, is a roller coaster of sorts.
The honesty and skill with which Lizzie Simon details her life, relationships, and struggles with bipolar disorder make Detour a harrowing trip indeed. At times, the reader can almost put herself in Simon’s shoes, experiencing the same isolation, manic energy, hopeless despair, and love that she endures and embraces. Simultaneously, she is able to convey the real person masked by the illness; those with such diseases as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and depression are not defined solely in terms of their ailments, but as human beings.
Nonetheless, along her journey, she has a number of encounters with very unstable individuals, in particular those attending “group therapy” to discuss their various ailments. In some chapters, Simon also conveys the feeling of loneliness (and the apparent lack of solutions) that may accompany such a disease.
By the way…as you may or may not know, there are numerous famous people who have (or once had) bipolar disorder; according to MentalJokes.com (despite the name), such writers as T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Victor Hugo, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, and Graham Greene were all suspected of having the disease. Currently, as you may be surprised to learn, there are many more: author Patricia Cornwell; director Francis Ford Coppola; singer/songwriter Tom Waits; actor/comedian Jim Carrey; and actress Margot Kidder are among the many talented and successful individuals whom you might say have been cursed with this illness.
Lizzie Simon demonstrates much of this same talent not only in her writing, but in her work as a theater producer and radio personality (both detailed in the book). All in all, Detour is a sometimes tormenting, but always fascinating, trip through the mind of a creatively blessed and determined individual.
In hopes that more men and women will have the opportunity to read this amazing true story, pick up a copy of Detour today; your ride awaits you.