Sarah Kelly of Hingham is a part-time physical therapist who developed an interest in mental health issues as a college student, when a roommate began staying up all hours of the night, making impulsive plans, drinking, and missing classes.
Sometime after the friend dropped out, Kelly learned she had bipolar disorder.
That experience became a point of reference when Kelly read “The Stormchasers” by Jenna Blum.
“When I first saw the cover, I assumed it was only about extreme weather,’’ Kelly said. “I was surprised to discover that bipolar disorder was really at the heart of this exciting story.”
“The Stormchasers” is the second novel by Blum, who received her master’s in creative writing at Boston University, taught for five years, and helped found Grub Street, a writing school in Boston where she led workshops on novels.
Blum sets her latest book in the Midwest, introducing us to twins Karena and Charles Hallingdahl.
Charles, an avid storm chaser, has been obsessed with tornadoes since adolescence and has bipolar disorder. Karena has spent her teenage years trying to keep her brother safe during his extreme and rapid mood cycles, but now lives in Minnesota and hasn’t heard from him for 20 years.
On her 38th birthday, Karena learns that Charles had been admitted to a Kansas psychiatric hospital, but disappeared after receiving medication that can make him manic.
The only way to protect Charles is to find him, and the only way to find him is to join a storm-chasing tour in Tornado Alley. Along the way, she confronts both a dark secret from her past and the depth of her love for her sibling.
As a psychologist, I view Blum’s portrayal of Charles’s intense emotions and behavior as an accurate depiction of bipolar disorder.
Like most psychiatric disorders, bipolar disease is something of a spectrum disorder. Few clinicans would fail to recognize the classic signs of a full-blown mania that defines the bipolar diagnosis: grandiose and psychotic thinking, boundless energy, dramatically diminished sleep, reckless judgment, and a profound sense of euphoria that may turn quickly to anger and hostility.
However, a milder form of this illness, called hypomania, frequently goes unrecognized and undiagnosed, with potentially dangerous results.
In hypomania, people usually cannot do without sleep altogether, but they do sleep less. People with hypomania may feel more euphoric than “normal” and experience unrealistically heightened self-confidence. They appear very upbeat and happy, have lots of energy, or become obsessed with a personal or professional goal.
Under these conditions, it’s easy to see how family, friends, and employers might miss these signals and perhaps even see an “upside” to hypomanic behavior.
However, hypomania also can dramatically impair an individual’s judgment, and blind someone to the conseqences of poor decisions regarding finances, sexuality, and other risky behavior. Moreover, hypomania is a very unstable condition that often cycles into serious depression that poses a grave risk for self-harm and suicide.
In reading the novel, Kelly saw those dangers in Charles, as well as the effect on those around him.
While noting that Charles’s mania was taking over his personality, Kelly said: “For family, like twin Karena, the emotional toll of fear, anxiety, hurt, and helplessness is painful to witness.”
Kelly also appreciates the double meaning in the book’s title.
“Like a tornado, Charles’s internal storm seems to crop up out of nowhere, take over the landscape, and leave destruction,’’ Kelly said.
“The lesson to be learned here is that both these forces are larger than us and certainly cannot be ignored, and perhaps, should even be met with humility and acceptance,” she said.