josh rosner


In Australian Politics, Book Review on May 22, 2012 at 5:50 am

Below my review of Neil Cole’s Stability in Mind which was recently published in the Canberra Times.

Cole was a lawyer and Labor Party politician in the Victorian Parliament. In his memoir he recounts the long journey he took to a final, definitive diagnoses of bipolar disorder. Like many people with bipolar, as I note in my review, Cole was misdiagnosed as a child – bipolar is often mistaken for ADD – and was not finally, correctly diagnosed until well into his thirties.

To be honest, I had never heard of him before reading this book for review. But I’ve witnessed and experienced the effects of bipolar first-hand, so I was keen to dive into this book. Cole mentions a number of times throughout his book that others have commented on the skill of his writing. After all, this is not his first book and he has made a post-politics career as a playwright. Nonetheless, I did not find the writing particularly dazzling. Not to suggest it is poorly written. It isn’t. Perhaps Cole was attempting to find a simplistic, chatty style to tell a very personal story. If so, I don’t feel he has succeeded. However, don’t let that deter you – it’s why I left it out of the review.

Cole has written a very important book. Mental illness continues to be stigmatised in Australia and the more books recounting personal stories such as this one, the better.

STABILITY IN MIND. A Memoir of Politics and Plays in the Shadow of Bipolar Disorder. By Neil Cole. New Holland Publisher. 243pp. $24.95

Bipolar disorder is one of those human conditions that is difficult to correctly diagnose – particularly  in young people – and, unless the person inflicted lives in a remote cave isolated from humanity, it has an unavoidably impact on family, friends, work colleagues and even complete strangers.

At a young age, bipolar is frequently diagnosed as Attention Deficit Disorder and only later, often well into adulthood, correctly diagnosed as bipolar illness. As anyone with bipolar will tell you, it is difficult to manage and compliance with the appropriate treatment is crucial.

Many highly successful creative people have or had bipolar. In her book, Touched With Fire, Kay Redfield Jamison suggested that creative talent and the mania or hypomania of bipolar are linked. Kurt Cobain, Adam Ant, Robert Downey, Jr., Sinead O’Connor and Stephen Fry – who made a BBC documentary about his illness – are just a few who have led highly creative lives while inflicted with bipolar. Unfortunately, with the creativity also often comes bouts of destructive behaviour.

In Australia, Neil Cole became the first politician to publicly declare his bipolar illness in 1995. Cole was a Labor member of the Victorian Parliament from 1988 to 1999, serving as Shadow Attorney-General during the 1990s.

In his memoir, Stability in Mind, Cole recounts a lifelong battle with mental illness that began at a very young age and has consumed every day of his life ever since. In heartbreaking detail Cole recounts the debilitating lows of depression and the uncontrollable mania which, for him, remained undiagnosed as bipolar disorder until he reached thirty-five years of age. It’s not an uncommon story.

Stephen Fry recalls in his documentary, The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, that he was not diagnosed as bipolar until well into his thirties. Like many belatedly diagnosed, both Fry and Cole felt an overwhelming sense of relief at the diagnosis.

Cole began taking lithium, recalling that, “… without too much fear of contradiction, I was never the same again. My manic mind, the mind that raced all the time, was stopped. The agitation, obsessions and racing thoughts removed.” Fry, in comparison, reveals in his documentary that he has never been medicated for his own bipolar disorder.

Although as humans we have much in common with the seven billion other people who inhabit the planet with us, when it comes to matters of medicine and psychology we are each uniquely individual. The medication or combinations of medications required to treat bipolar in one person will very likely be different to that required in someone else with bipolar.

The difficulties of treating bipolar are acutely highlighted by The Black Dog Institute, which states that, “Treatment often distinguishes between (i) management of the acute episode and (ii) maintenance. For example, an individual with mania might require an atypical antipsychotic and a mood stabiliser during an acute episode but, when settled, only require the mood stabiliser to prevent further episodes. Similarly, an individual with bipolar depression may only require an antidepressant at that time before relying only on the mood stabilizer when the depression has resolved.”

It is little wonder the bipolar is a difficult illness to diagnose and manage, and more devastating, it too frequently leads to self-destructive behaviour, such as self-harm and suicide.

Cole writes of his illness that, “Bipolar mood disorder is a very serious illness. Certainly I wish I didn’t have it, whatever I may or may not have achieved because of it.” The sentiment is understandable, but not everyone diagnosed with bipolar would view the illness in those terms. The link between creativity and mental illness is little understood, but many with bipolar see it as crucial to their output.

In the 2006 documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, the American musician Daniel Johnston revealed that his extraordinary output in his teens and early twenties, during which he wrote hundreds of song lyrics, was a symptom of his worsening bipolar.

Devin Townsend, songwriter, vocalist and guitarist with Canadian metal band Strapping Young Lad took himself off his medication in order to write the lyrics for the band’s album Alien.

Wayne Coyne, lead singer with the American band the Flaming Lips has spoken on the impossibility of separating the creative output of someone with bipolar from the illness of the person who created it. “The simplicity of the lyrics comes from true inner anguish,” he has said. “Madness shouldn’t be thought of as people in mental hospitals peeing on themselves. Who’s to say at what level all of us don’t have some inner struggle?”

After leaving politics, Cole sought an outlet for his bipolar-fueled creativity and he turned to playwriting. He has had fourteen plays produced. He writes of his medicated state and its influence on his creativity suggesting, “Just because you don’t have the extremes of mania or depression with bipolar it doesn’t mean you can’t think about all the things you would think about if experiencing an extreme phase, you just don’t have the intensity or extremity.”

Neil Cole has written a book which sits comfortably in the canon of mental illness memoirs. There is much to learn from his personal journey navigating the bipolar landscape and, although each individual with a mental illness must find his or her own path, this book will undoubtedly serve as a beacon of hope for those afflicted.

%d bloggers like this: