Book Review: Birth of a New Brain by Dyane Harwood

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Birth of a New Brain, Healing from Postpartum Bipolar Disorder by Dyane Harwood

I remember it like it was yesterday: racing thoughts, intrusive images and the overwhelming urge to harm myself and my then 5-month old son. I would later learn I had Postpartum Depression and Anxiety (PPD/A). Sitting across the room from my psychotherapist a year later, and I broke down realizing just how close to the edge my motherhood experience had brought me. As a PPD survivor, I am always reminded of how lucky I am to have gotten help in good time.

Read More: My Postpartum Depression Story

That is what spurred me to start PPDKenya, a CBO that provides information, resources and psychosocial  support for moms with PPD. PPDKenya’s vision is a Kenya where moms are more informed about PPD, and have access to support and resources to improve their maternal mental health. In line with this, we carry out awareness campaigns both online and offline. Our online engagement is what led me to e-meet Dyane Harwood. Dyane is the author of the candid memoir, Birth of a New Brain: Healing From Postpartum Bipolar Disorder.

Dyane and I are both survivors of maternal mental illnesses, and I was excited to hear from her. She offered to share a PDF copy of her memoir, both for my benefit and the moms we support in our groups. This year, I decided to delve into her book. Dyane is, no doubt, an incredibly talented writer whose ability to share her story candidly is both inspiring and compelling. I decided to share my book review on her memoir in this new series I am starting on my blog.

Book Review

Birth of a New Brain, Healing from Postpartum Bipolar Disorder by Dyane Harwood

Post Hill Press, New York, 2017

272 Pages, PDF Copy

Non-Fiction Work/ Memoir

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From Amazon:

“After the birth of her baby triggers a manic maelstrom, Dyane Harwood struggles to survive the bewildering highs and crippling lows of her brain’s turmoil. Birth of a New Brain vividly depicts her postpartum bipolar disorder, an unusual type of bipolar disorder and postpartum mood and anxiety disorder. 

During her childhood, Harwood grew up close to her father, a brilliant violinist in the Los Angeles Philharmonic who had bipolar disorder. She learned how bipolar disorder could ravage a family, but she never suspected that she’d become mentally ill—until her baby was born.

Harwood wondered if mental health would always be out of her reach. From medications to electroconvulsive therapy, from “redwood forest baths” to bibliotherapy, she explored both traditional and unconventional methods of recovery—in-between harrowing psychiatric hospitalizations.

Harwood reveals how she ultimately achieved a stable mood. She discovered that despite having a chronic mood disorder, a new, richer life is possible. Birth of a New Brain is the chronicle of one mother’s perseverance, offering hope and grounded advice for those battling mental illness.”

Read More: When Moms Experience Trauma During Birth

Review

Living with a mental illness is not easy. Moms who experience maternal mental illness will admit that it is not an easy journey. For moms with bipolar disorder, shuttling between the incredibly highs during mania and the despair-filled lows of depression makes it difficult to enjoy motherhood.

Dyane has lived with bipolar for most of her life. Her dad lived with bipolar one disorder too, yet never did Dyane once imagine that she would fight the same mental illness her dad did. It was not until her second child was born that her bipolar disorder was activated. Her first daughter’s birth, for whatever reason, did not activate the disorder then.

According to Dr. Alaine Gregoire, the founder of the Maternal Mental Health Alliance,

“The Postpartum period carried the highest risk of developing bipolar disorder in the human lifetime, although reasons are unknown” as cited in Harwood, 2016, Page 26

Her second birth experience led to her hypomania, what she aptly describes in the first chapter title as ‘The Gateway to Postpartum Bipolar Disorder’. No one at the hospital seemed to have detected her hypomania, likely because she appeared ‘excited’ about her child’s birth.

Dyane is discharged to return home. In the chapters that follow, she shares her experience with hypergraphia. This is defined as an overwhelming urge to write, so much so that affected persons write on just about everything. For Dyane, it hampered her ability to care for her child as she could not stop writing even when breastfeeding or visiting the washroom!

Dyane soon realized she needed a psychiatric intervention after nights of sleep deprivation, racing voice and pressurized speech. She began to get psychiatric treatment as an outpatient. But as is the case with many who live with bipolar disorder, outpatient treatment may not be adequate. This marked Dyane’s first admission of what would turn out to be seven hospitalizations.

Dyane Harwood, Author of 'The Birth of a New Brain'
Dyane Harwood, Author of ‘The Birth of a New Brain’

Read More: Postpartum Bipolar Disorder 

The Birth of a New Brain paints the picture of Dyane’s resilience, especially after receiving several doses of medicine. Most of this medication was found not to work as a result of bipolar-medication resistance. In a bid to improve the quality of life, doctors will often prescribe multiple medications to better the patient. For Dyane however, this caused severe depression and suicidal thoughts.

One of the things that stand out in Dyane’s experience is the use of ECT (Electroconvulsive Therapy) to lift her out of the depths of despair. This, following her dad’s death, drives Dyane to request for ECT. ECT is a process that induces seizures electrically to treat patients with medication-resistant bipolar.

Additionally, Dyane shares some of the changes that she makes at a personal level. These include bibliotherapy, forest baths, exercise, sleep and selfcare habits. Her book also lists resources (mainly in the US and the UK), but there are also websites which are accessible for many people. Dyane is also kind enough to recommend reading material for anyone who would love to learn more about maternal mental illness.

What I liked:

Dyane writes well and is able to let readers into her world as a person with bipolar disorder. She does not use big heavy words. Even she makes mention of medical terms, she goes on to explain what a word/technique means/works. Her writing style has prose and is easy to follow through. Dyane also backs up information with resourceful content for anyone willing to read further.

What I Did Not Like:

There is not much to write here. However, I was hoping to read a little bit about her husband’s experience having a partner with bipolar disorder. This, I presume, would be helpful for fathers reading the book. It would give a glimpse of their experience, as well as highlight other practical ways to help.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Dyane’s Birth of a New Brain does a great job of creating awareness and educating her readers on bipolar disorder. To do it so clearly required that she share her story with candour. I would highly recommend this book for the mom with Bipolar disorder, Peripartum onset. Moms who have had any type of maternal mental illness will catch glimpses of themselves in Dyane’s moving memoir.

Follow Dyane on her website here.

You can also read one of her many interviews on this post.

For Kenyans looking for a support group for bipolar disorder, USP Kenya and PDO Kenya offer psychosocial support, information and resources on Bipolar Disorder.