Imagine that you just found out you had bipolar disorder. How might you feel?

An unexpected diagnosis often throws us for a loop. As we incorporate this new information about ourselves, we might experience fear, confusion and even denial about what our diagnosis means for our lives. But perhaps most of all, we may find ourselves asking the question: now what?

Luckily, for those diagnosed with bipolar disorder, that is the question Hilary Smith sets out to answer in her newest edition of Welcome to the Jungle with a new subtitle, Facing Bipolar Without Freaking Out.

In 2010, Smith’s blunt, insightful and witty first edition of Welcome to the Jungle offered readers a unique perspective on what it means to have bipolar disorder. Seven years later, Smith has revisited her original text with a greater sense of introspection and a more nuanced approach to her diagnosis and how best to deal with it.

“I wrote the first edition of Welcome to the Jungle when I was twenty-three…Since then, my thinking on what we call mental illness has evolved quite a bit,” writes Smith.

While retaining the quirky style and delightful imagery of the first edition, Smith’s thoughtful exploration of what bipolar can mean for an individual drives this revised version of the text.

Welcome to the Jungle resists categorization. Certainly it contains a fair share of useful strategies and recommendations for individuals both newly diagnosed and those who have been living with their bipolar diagnosis for a while. Likewise, it would be a useful text for the loved ones of individuals with bipolar or anyone with an interest in the topic.

Smith’s prose is consistently engaging and accessible for readers of any background. And yet we cannot quite deem it a self-help book; Welcome to the Jungle offers more than that. It is part autobiography, part guidebook and part meditation on the nature of mental health and society.

Smith divides the book by topic, beginning with: “What Just Happened? Life Beyond the Diagnosis” and going on to explain the mechanics of addressing a diagnosis including the nature of bipolar episodes, the role of medication and mental health professionals, how to anticipate and prevent episodes and strategies for maintaining stability.

She then navigates the particular risks of bipolar disorder in Chapter 7, titled “Bugs in the Jungle: Suicide, Psych Wards, and Other Downers.” Here, Smith explores coping strategies following an episode, makes recommendations about how to approach friends and family and goes beyond traditional Western psychiatric medicine in “Hippie Sh*t That Actually Works: Herbs, Wilderness, and Other Ways to Help Yourself.”

The conclusion of Welcome to the Jungle revisits one point in Smith’s central argument: that individuals dealing with bipolar develop or innately possess unique perspectives, empathy, creativity and vision. But Smith is quick and careful not to romanticize her disorder and encourages her readers to think carefully before making significant lifestyle changes, such as discontinuing medication.

Smith clearly finds some resonance in the idea that people with bipolar have difficulty living in this particular iteration of Western society: highly mechanized, densely populated, and focused on production over the individual. In another context, she suggests they might be considered visionaries, with the capacity for more creative thought.

Skeptics of this perspective, of mindfulness and meditation, and herbal remedies will still find many useful ideas in Welcome to the Jungle. Smith’s guide is first and foremost practical, in the sense that it directly comes from practice and her personal experience. She tackles questions ignored elsewhere, such as the mechanics of dating while bipolar, navigating the many different breeds of mental health professionals and the effects of drugs and alcohol and bipolar episodes. She carefully emphasizes that, while the text may explore other options, approaches, and philosophies it is not useful to entertain these questions while in the middle of mania or depression.

First and foremost, Welcome to the Jungle provides vital resources to people who likely need them, both those diagnosed with bipolar and those who care for them. All the better, too, that they are delivered in good humor and friendly prose.

As for her other assertions, they are largely compelling—the ways we as a society treat those dealing with various mental health concerns do deserve more conversation and consideration among patients, providers and the general community. And what better way to begin that conversation than by listening to the people stigmatized for having these diagnoses? Provided, of course, there is also a liberal dose of jungle metaphors.

Welcome to the Jungle, Revised Edition: Facing Bipolar Without Freaking Out
Hilary Smith
Conari Press
224 pages, softcover

Psych Central's Recommendation:
Worth Your Time! +++

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