Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Manic: A Memoir - Terri Cheney

My first year of law school was an emotional roller coaster ride. One year ago today, I was seriously debating dropping out, taking my $10,000 in debt, and walking away from it all. It clearly was not worth it. Yet something told me I would be too afraid, thinking that all of my friends and family and colleagues would judge me for wasting so many years studying for the LSAT, applying to schools, and getting this "higher degree" of education on track. Here I am halfway through. The second year has been better (so far - and we do not yet know our grades), but the anxiety will never end until we find our job and support ourselves like normal people are supposed to do.

I digress. I often told my older sister about this strange phenomenon which I had been experiencing since 2008 or so. I called it a "rapid rapid cycle of manic depression" - a term I had gleaned from wikipedia. Basically, it involved a cycle from a manic to depressed state every 24 to 48 hours. For me, it was every other day. Sunday I would go to bed hating life inordinately. I would pray that I would have a heart attack in my sleep and never wake up, never have to grow older and get lonelier, never have to go on welfare, never have to live sober and try to attain happiness. A little part of me would say, it's okay, tomorrow, you'll have your rocket fuel. Monday I would wake up and feel this sense of empowerment, like I could do anything. I could sit down to study and be enormously productive. I could talk to everyone without feeling self-conscious. However, I would have trouble falling asleep Monday night. Tuesday would be depression. Wednesday would be mania. Thursday would be depression. Friday would be mania. And so on. The only way to subtly affect this pattern was to self-medicate. My sister told me I should read Manic so I did.

Manic is the story of a woman who clearly suffers from manic-depression. Anybody who reads this book will inevitably think of James Frey and his famous fake memoir A Million Little Pieces. I have not read that book, but this memoir presents scenes that are so over-the-top that a reader cannot help but think that Cheney, a lawyer, is using a little bit of hyperbole for emotional heft. However, Cheney comes off as sincere, and her goal in writing the memoir wholly admirable. Who knows what Frey's intent was - warn against the dangers of drug addiction? I do not know. I do not want to particularly read that book as it seems a waste of time.

Many people may consider this book a waste of time but it is relatively short. It took me a while to read because of other obligations. However, the main audience for this book is manic-depressive attorneys or law students. There is little to no legal jargon in this book so non-attorneys will probably enjoy it more and the myth that a professional career in law is a surefire way to a lavish lifestyle will be propagated just a tad bit more. To be fair, Cheney leaves her job in the legal world behind in the end to write, and explains it in this pithy aside:

"It took me sixteen years to realize this. Sixteen years of reassuring myself on the way to work every morning that there's no such thing as a happy lawyer. It was just this particular case I was working on, this client, this judge, the latest Supreme Court ruling, the airborne viruses in my corner office. Perhaps if I tried another firm. So I tried another firm, several other firms in fact, each one bigger and better and more prestigious than the last. I landed higher-profile clients and took long, exotic vacations, and made a considerable amount of money. And I went to parties, a whole lot of parties, for every cause imaginable, or no cause at all. I billed the time regardless.....
If you nurture it long enough, a lie can become a life. Bad nights don't surprise you much after sixteen years. You come to expect them. You just don't expect them to go on forever. I should have known that the bout of depression that finally ended my career was the worst one yet, when I ran out of business cards and didn't have the energy to order new ones. Nothing mattered to me at that point except the pain, and the pain was everywhere." (234-235)

Cheney was an entertainment lawyer, arguably the dream job of many a law student (myself included, though I don't pursue it relentlessly as I go to school in New York, not L.A. - Cheney went to UCLA Law). To repeat, she does not write so much about her daily practice as much as her "pharmaceutical cornucopia." Perhaps it was reading this book that finally led me to see a psychiatrist and obtain prescriptions for Celexa, Ambien, Klonopin, Ritalin, and Adderall. The combination has worked well for me over the last few months but the concerns about chemical dependence remain. I do not recall many passages parlaying this particular concern, but I do believe Cheney mentions that she will probably be on medication for the rest of her life. She does, at the end, point to the need for sobriety, as many non-diagnosed depressives tend to self-medicate.

There are many memorable episodes in this memoir--chief amongst them a few suicide attempts, and stays in psychiatric wards. There is also a whiff of the bizarre, when Cheney describes her relationship with food, when going through depressive episodes where she would sleep 20-22 hours a day, and eat for the time she was awake:

"My mother went grocery shopping one day a week, usually on Sunday, so by Friday we'd be almost completely out of food. I clearly remember those endless Friday nights when there was nothing left in the cupboard and depression was gnawing a hole in my stomach. I had to eat something, anything. Toward the end of my depression, I ate whatever was there: iced coffee packets, bags of flour, spices ranging from anise to fennel to marjoram to thyme. Of course my body eventually rebelled and I wound up throwing up half of what I frantically shoved down my throat. I didn't stop until I finally fell asleep, exhausted, with my hand still clutching whatever I was eating." (191)

There is not much more I can say about the book that will not spoil any possible readings of it. In short, there is nothing offensive about it to me. I do not complain about people being "whiners" because I am a whiner myself. People that don't understand depression will probably still write it off and erroneously infer that Cheney is exaggerating. While I may not be as depressed as her, I can certainly relate to certain portions, where, for example, she describes in a rather profound way, hypomania as an idyllic state where everything seems (and perhaps is) possible:

"I've looked in the mirror when I'm hypomanic and even I can see it: my eyes are an open invitation, a bottomless well of empathy. 'Trust me, tell me everything,' they say, and people do. Not just men sitting across from me at a candlelight dinner, either; and not just men, for that matter. Men and women everywhere seem compelled to talk to me, touch me, give me their confidence. It happens in the oddest of places: in the aisles of the supermarket, waiting in a movie line, sitting at a coffehouse, and especially in elevators. Hypomania breaks down that invisible wall that exists between well-mannered strangers. There are no strangers anymore, only unknown friends, waiting to tell me their stories." (208)

In summation, I am not jealous of Cheney for writing a memoir that became a New York Times Bestseller. I usually am jealous of such authors. While the book may not be a pleasure to read, it is a book that has something to say, and will probably help a lot of people. It also may create a small and unnoticeable increase in business to the pharmaceutical industry. But that is probably just a sign of the times.