Sally’s "abysmal elation" in the Summer of 1996

Best-selling writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks has written a, by turns, heart-warming and educational book review on the topic of bipolar disorder (previously known as manic-depression) for the New York Review of Books.

The target of the review is Michael Greenberg’s memoir “Hurry Down Sunshine“, which tells the story of his daughter Sally’s experience of her first manic episode in the Summer of 1996, when she was aged just 15.

Bi-polar disorder is characterised by dizzylingly intense highs and deeply dark lows. With Sacks as our erudite, lyrical guide we learn how the early stages of mania can appear revelatory, seductive even:

“One may call it mania, madness, or psychosis—a chemical imbalance in the brain—but it presents itself as energy of a primordial sort. Greenberg likens it to “being in the presence of a rare force of nature, such as a great blizzard or flood: destructive, but in its way astounding too.” Such unbridled energy can resemble that of creativity or inspiration or genius—this, indeed, is what Sally feels is rushing through her—not an illness, but the apotheosis of health, the release of a deep, previously suppressed self.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is some evidence suggesting a link between mania and creativity. Sacks points to famously creative people who probably lived with the condition: “Schumann, Coleridge, Byron and Van Gogh among them”.

But what’s difficult for those of us without the condition to understand is that rather than being like opposite poles, the depression and mania of bi-polar disorder are rather more like the ends of a circle closing back in on itself. Sacks tells us how Greenberg conveys the paradoxical aspects of the condition:

“He [Greenberg] speaks of Sally’s ‘pitiless ball of fire’ her ‘terrified grandiosity,’ of how anxious and fragile she is inside the ‘hollow exuberance’ of her mania….the ‘abysmal elation’ Sally sometimes feels ‘in the throes of [her] dystopic mania’.”

Particularly moving, is Greenberg’s description of his daughter’s recovery from her manic episode as expressed through her wonderfully unemotional, dispassionate acceptance of his offer of a cup of tea. “It’s as if a miracle has occurred,” Greenberg writes. “The miracle of normalcy, of ordinary existence.”

Ultimately, Sacks is unsparing in his praise of Greenberg’s book. “In its detail, depth, richness, and sheer intelligence, Hurry Down Sunshine will be recognised as a classic of its kind…What makes it unique is the fact that so much here is seen through the eyes of an extraordinarily open and sensitive parent – a father who, while never descending into sentimentality, has remarkable insight into his daughter’s thoughts and feelings, and a rare power to find images or metaphors for almost unimaginable states of mind”.

Link to Oliver Sacks’ review in the New York Review of Books (Open Access).
Link to publisher’s page for Hurry Down Sunshine.

Link to information on bi-polar disorder at the NHS online encyclopaedia.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

PS. I’ve just seen that Sacks’ review also caught the attention of Vaughan over at Mind Hacks.

One thought on “Sally’s "abysmal elation" in the Summer of 1996”

  1. Hi. I have been hiding for years recovering and figuring out a way to reach out. I have invested time into re-finding myself and looking inward. I am at tears and do not know what to see or say at this point. I have left Spring Lake Ranch and am planning to move out of Vermont soon. Writing is a calling again but I am not ready to post anything. Please if anyone has questions I am ready to attempt. My e-mail address is I don't know if anyone will respond. Know in your hearts if you are suffering there is ways to fight the stigma and re-cover.
    Sincerely Sally Greenberg

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