Scattershot: My Bipolar Family: A Memoir [Buy New]

By David Lovelace

Dutton, 320 pages, $25

“In our family whim-wham is a code, a defanged reference to any number of moods and psychological disorders, be they depressive, manic, or schizoaffective,” writes poet David Lovelace in this visceral memoir.

For the author, who, along with his parents and brother, suffers from bipolar disorder, a “whim-wham” is no mere euphemism for the disease’s jolting manifestations.

It’s a frustrating part of everyday reality — though “reality,” as viewed through the lens of the disease, is a decidedly amorphous concept.

Diagnosed in his late teens, Lovelace initially resisted prescription drugs, wary as he was of the vicious side-effects that plagued his father. In lieu of legally sanctioned treatment, the author embarked on a roller-coaster of self-medication, ingesting large quantities of alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and various hallucinogens.

Many of us have experimented with drugs and alcohol, self-medicating ourselves in one way or another in an effort to dull the pain, frustration, and confusion of adolescence. But Lovelace’s is a case of recreational drug use exacerbated by his already precarious mental and emotional state.

Often, he writes, he “passed [himself] off as sane by sheer force of will. Like my father, I’ve seen the beautiful cartwheel of thoughts pitch past and crash and I’ve learned not to speak of them, to let them all go.

“I can stand inside a desperate circus and force my mind to slow, if only for a few moments.”

But Lovelace’s ability to control his wild swings from mania to depression deteriorated, along with his already-fraught relationship with his family. While the author’s parents had battled manic-depression for years, his father’s condition was complicated and worsened by his deep religious conviction.

A lecturer on church history and an expert on Cotton Mather and the Puritans, Richard Lovelace battled demons real and imagined, constantly struggling to reconcile his faith and his psychiatric condition.

When he wasn’t holed up in his room amid incapacitating depressive jags, he was holed up in his study, writing and listening to classical music at ear-shattering volumes.

“I’ve heard my mother speak of demons and my father of angels,” Lovelace writes. “I’ve watched my family’s religion conspire with our brain disease to conjure spectral evidence and to feed upon it.”

Examining the troubled intersection of science and religion, the author chronicles a nightmarish coming-of-age during which he frequently considered suicide, but never mustered the courage to attempt it. As he writes, “suicide was a big decision and I couldn’t even choose my socks.”

Instead, for years he stuck it out, finding work as a carpenter around his hometown and in New York City, escaping to Central and South America for extended getaways and living for a time as a squatter in the various burned-out hovels of New York’s Lower East Side.

Even though the lithium, thorazine, and other medications rendered his mind foggy and his emotions brittle, the battle to maintain his sanity was often fought along more mundane lines.

“Compared to bipolar’s magic,” he writes, “reality seems a raw deal. It’s not the boredom but the slow dawning pain that comes with sanity — the realization of illness, the humiliating scenes, the blown money and friendships and confidence.”

Throughout the book, Lovelace’s prose mimics his fragile mental condition, accelerating to a breathless poetry during his manic phases and slowing to a near-catatonic whisper during the depressive phases.

Rarely lapsing into self-pity, Lovelace is careful to note that “one of the least attractive aspects of manic-depressives … is their deep, nearly bottomless capacity for narcissism. They claim to be theologians and poets. They write books explaining God’s own will; they write poems, throw readings and make people listen; they write memoirs.”

Fortunately, Scattershot isn’t just another memoir of shattered childhood, psychological illness, and drug addiction. It’s a consistently engaging, often frightening report from a damaged — but possibly brilliant — mind, and it should resonate with anyone who’s dealt with mental disorders or psychological anguish.

These days, that’s pretty much everyone.

Eric Liebetrau, a Charleston native, is the managing editor of Kirkus Reviews.