Her brother Nolan is dead, her parents are divorced, her aunt Joan is a “hurricane,” and Mel Hannigan has one of many versions of bipolar disorder, but some things you just don’t tell the world. In the same spirit with which Terry Spencer Hesser skillfully and credibly illustrates obsessive compulsive disorder in Kissing Doorknobs and Mark Haddon writes about life for someone coping with autism in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Eric Lindstrom shares his honest and informative novel, A Tragic Kind of Wonderful. Books like these, with realistic representations of people who experience mental health issues, can help readers not only situate themselves in the world as they search for a sense of identity but also help them realize they are not alone. Through his protagonist, Lindstrom illustrates how mental illness can dislodge a person’s sense of self and how it can disrupt daily life. As seventeen-year-old Mel fights for her crumbling sanity, she struggles to keep her condition secret, because for Mel, it is inconceivable to tell her friends or her therapist about her brain’s stuttering and how her moods contradict reason. However, without a support system, her unbalanced self hangs in the balance.
Hoping to better understand her manic and depressed states, Mel has worked diligently to decode her life with graphs that explain her mental cycles. With Dr. Jordan’s help, she describes the forces that control her by giving each an animal label. The hamster is her head and indicates the clarity of her thinking; the hummingbird is her heart and records her energy level; the hammerhead monitors her physical health, her well-being, and she is the host—the Hanniganimal that must cope with the antics of the other animals who have minds of their own and fluctuate independently. As the novel oscillates from past to present and as Mel juggles changing and challenging friendships, family drama, and other relationship dynamics, these animals indicate her current mental state.
Without medication, Mel is prone to manic and depressive episodes. Although the medical cocktails keep her from experiencing the joys of being supercharged, they also prevent the crushing lows. In Mel’s estimation, the meds stop someone else from jumping into her head and grabbing the controls, tricking her into “thinking and feeling and doing all [kinds of] random shit” (77). Mel knows she can only socialize for so long before she needs to recharge, and she has learned how to distract her mind and body to break the spells—especially the powerful energy and compulsion to act that threatens to overwhelm her during dysphoric mania. But this hyper-awareness is incredibly difficult, and life is messy and stressful enough without bipolar shenanigans, which magnify feelings and affect thoughts, posing multiple challenges with “endless variations of moods, emotions, intensity, frequency, reactions, episodes, delusions, and breakdowns” (248-249).
As Mel struggles to identify “which girl is the real me” (135), she finds a sense of contentment with her job. At Silver Sands retirement home, she can work Mel’s Magic, giving dignity to the aging who endure their own challenges with mobility impairment or memory loss, where she can be the “light in the room” (154), lifting everyone else’s moods even when she herself is sad. Here, she meets David Li, the intense grandson of a resident, who misdirects his anger at Mel. Over time, the two form a friendship, but Mel can’t imagine letting him get close enough to qualify as a boyfriend, and she likes him too much “to burden him with a girlfriend like me” (151).
Gradually, Mel discovers that she’s not bipolar, although she has a bipolar disorder, and that she has to give her friends—especially David—a chance to know and love the real Mel. Lindstrom’s novel shares Mel’s journey as she searches to define happiness, to uncover who she is, and to come to terms with Nolan’s death.
- Posted by Donna