In Notes on a Banana, Leite writes about what he experiences as the central elements in his life: his Portuguese/Azorean heritage, his sexuality, his body image, his relationship with food, and his mental illness. In a straightforward manner, without self-pity or melodrama, Leite writes about how these elements intersect in his life, how his awareness of and relationship with these elements develops over time, and how this relationship affects those around him.
As I read, I found myself nodding at so much of what Leite writes. I relate to the visceral experience of panic and the desperate need to escape despite the fact that the thing to escape is internal. I relate to the endless lists and the determination to become perfect—and the sincere belief that, with enough effort, I can will myself to perfection. I relate to the frenetic bursts of productivity and setting aside interests when they lose their luster. I relate to the discouraging psychopharmacological trial-and-error and the intimation that, if the drugs aren’t working, it’s the patient’s fault. I relate to the desire to not be myself anymore.
Most of all, I relate to Leite’s description, via the image of a curve on a graph, of the gradual, delicious ascent into hypomania and the precipitous descent into depression:
“Words came easily, charm and sociability bubbled (this was when you wanted to get invited to our house for dinner)…I’m a genius, I would say to myself. As the curve reached its crest, life swirled, energy crackled, I needed little sleep. But something else began whirlpooling under the surface. Irritability and anger swelled, and a hot, screaming frustration took root. Why is everyone so stupid? Why is everything so fucking slow? And suddenly, fences broke, and anxiety and panic galloped wildly through every artery and muscle in my body. Anxiety, I came to see, wasn’t the problem. It was the exhausted, pitiful reward for all that hypomania. And it acted as a switching station for the descent, which wasn’t a curvaceous, gracious slope downward, a mirror image of the exhilarating, addictive ride up. It was almost a vertical drop. A free fall into depression.” (327)
For me, I substitute “rage” for “anxiety”—the anxiety’s there, but it’s secondary to the rage. Aside from this, the description is spot-on.
Reading Leite’s memoir, I think about the assumption of personal responsibility for mental illness in our culture. If someone has epilepsy, they’re not held personally responsible if they have a seizure. No one says, “Jesus, asshole! Control yourself!” But if someone with bipolar has a panic attack on an airplane or has a bout of rage or cancels plans at the last minute because they lack the energy to leave their bed, they’re a pain in the ass or melodramatic or anything but a person displaying symptoms of an illness.
I also relate to Leite’s inclination to try to find a reason for his moods. I’ve been experiencing a fairly deep depression lately in the wake of a very paltry hypomania. (I read four novels in 24 hours, but even though I didn’t get the euphoria I’ve come to expect and crave, I still had to pay for it with rage and depression. Doesn’t seem a fair exchange. Thanks, mood stabilizer.) When I’m lying deflated on the bed in a pool of self-loathing, my husband asks, “What are you depressed about?” Out of habit, I fish around for something to blame it on—rude drivers, less daylight as we move towards winter, stress, eating too much sugar—but in reality, it’s none of these things. These things might piss me off or make me feel physically blah, but they don’t cause my depression. My depression is just part of the ebb and flow of my life. Or at least the ebb.
What’s funny to me is how I forget, in a way, the previous mood once it passes. This is something Leite also writes about, and it made me smile with recognition. I know the mood happened, but it feels far away, the experience of someone else, almost. Leite refers to the two experiences as happening to “extroverted David” and “introverted David.” I divide mine more into “fun me” and “pain-in-the-ass me,” but the idea’s the same. I get lured into the idea that whatever I’m feeling now is permanent. This is a great feeling when I’m hypomanic. It is not a great feeling when I’m depressed. On top of this is the certainty that I’m depressed because I’ve failed to not be depressed—if I’d just tried harder, I’d still be up there where I’m happy and confident and fun to be around. Logic isn’t a path out of this thinking, either.
I was also struck by the unique difficulty of diagnosing bipolar. Leite writes about how so many of the mental health professionals with which he worked began with a conclusion and then interpreted what Leite told them in a way that supported that conclusion. Something else that complicates things is that due to the cyclical nature of bipolar disorder it’s difficult to see the whole picture. I only ever sought professional help when I was depressed and anxious, so that’s all anyone ever saw. Why would I go into therapy if I’m hypomanic? Whether through circumstance or assumptions or just not asking the right questions, they don’t see the other side of the coin.
Perhaps the most poignant part of the memoir was Leite’s worry that his relationship with his partner, Alan, was going to end because of Leite’s bipolar. In retrospect, I realize that my husband and I met during a period of hypomania, and while he stuck with me through the depression that followed, I always felt like maybe I’d lured him in under false pretenses. He started to love the fun me, the smiling me, the spontaneous me, and then felt compelled to stick by the me who was stuck in molasses, who wanted nothing more than to get away from herself, who couldn’t bring herself to clean her dorm room or do laundry. Even after nearly a quarter of a century together, I still worry that one day he’s going to say, “This isn’t who I thought you were,” and take off. That feeling only increased when I got my bipolar diagnosis. Now he was married to an honest-to-goodness crazy person. I wonder if he’d have stayed with me back in those early days if he’d known I had bipolar before he loved me. But I only wonder that when I’m depressed.
The only thing that felt off about this memoir was the incredibly rosy ending. It’s not that I don’t believe Leite, and I sincerely hope the acceptance and contentment and friends galore are his for the long-term. I just don’t see that as the path I’m likely to travel. I’m not sure contentment is in my nature, and I even less sure that my friends would stick with me if they knew I’m bipolar. I tend to separate myself when I’m “pain-in-the-ass me,” so I’m not even sure if the people I know now realize the extent of my mood swings. The couple of people I’ve told expressed doubt about the diagnosis, which seems to support my hypothesis. But it’s also possible that I question Leite’s Hollywood ending only because I’m so convinced that it wouldn’t end well if I engaged with those in my life with the honesty that Leite’s shown (she says on her anonymous blog).