Lithium and Dogs: Jaime Lowe’s “Mental” and Eileen Myles’ “Afterglow,” reviewed

Early on in Jaime Lowe’s “Mental: Lithium, Love, and Losing My Mind,” the author of 2008’s “Digging For Dirt: The Life and Death of ODB” lists the books that helped her understand her first fateful episode (a manic moment in 1993 at age 16, not long after she was sexually assaulted at knife point) and make her feel less well, insane: Elizabeth Wurtzel’s “Prozac Nation,” and “An Unquiet Mind” and “Touched By Fire,” both by Kaye Redfield Jamison. It’s not only a moving mini-syllabus, but a good way to understand “Mental”—it’s pretty much a cross between those three books. Part lacerating confessional, part ruminative and occasionally clinical memoir, and part contemplative historical document of manic depression throughout the ages, as written by someone who has a profound and empathetic grasp of Wu Tang Clan’s possibly undiagnosed schizophrenic wisp, Ol’ Dirty Bastard.

What you also get in “Mental” is a celebration of and semi-eyeroll at THA ’90Z (ska! skateboarding! alt-weeklies! Maxim!) and then, a devastating, discursive, journalistic journey through lithium. In this final third, Lowe travels, trying out lithium soaks while struggling with Depakote, the anticonvulsant she’s offered when it is revealed she has kidney damage from years of lithium usage and through that, comprehends firsthand the inherent absurdity of medicine-as-industry (basically, you can’t copyright and therefore big time profit off lithium so research on it is stagnant).

Another thread: How doctors throughout time—almost entirely empirically-minded asshole men—misdiagnose or just plain damage women (during the 1700s for example, women were essentially masturbated to prevent manic depressive-like symptoms then understood as “hysteria”). Lowe quotes extensively from the notes from her doctor, Dr. Schwartz, to show that in some ways, medicine and science are a bit better these days though just as gendered. Schwartz frequently refers to Lowe as “aggressive,” praises her for “generally making herself more attractive,” and writes, “is she a lesbian,” after she details dating and commitment problems.

Lowe’s prose perks up and gets daring when she describes an episode—explosive, jazzy lists of everything and nothing—so you witness, even in her sentences, the visionary, touched insight manic depression provides along with the endlessly complicated emotional clusterfuck of it all too (Lowe dressed like a hippie He-Man rapping Eminem-inspired freestyles exclusively about um, poop).

That laughing-but-very-serious kind of comedy in “Mental” slips away in the health scare/lithium deep dive end of the book where a trip to the restorative hot springs in Bad Kissingen, Germany finds Lowe reflecting on family members from this area who fled this gorgeous Bavarian town to avoid the Holocaust and continues on to a conclusion that is the very definition of tragically optimistic. “No episodes yet!” the epilogue reads in full.

Think “Eat, Pray, Love”—another book Lowe celebrates in “Mental”—as written by well, again, someone who totally got where ODB was coming from.

A disclosure: I am not only an overly dedicated dog owner but also one who has tried, and probably mostly failed, to explore my weird relationship with my pet through confessional, experimental non-fiction prose (see here and here) and so hey, Eileen Myles’ latest, “Afterglow (a dog memoir),” a memoir about their dog and their dad and the Bush administration and gender and power and grief is something that’s tough for me to review reasonably or “objectively,” whatever that even means.

Another disclosure: One time when I was on a whole lot of mushrooms, my dog ran into the room real fast—”Comin’ in a little hot,” I declared—so I lifted my hand up, pointed my fingers down, indicating he should sit, and sit he did. He was well-trained. I was shattered and thought, “What have I done to this thing?” as he waited obediently for the next command.

You get a far more terrifying if less stoned version of this in a gnarled chapter of “Afterglow,” in which Myles describes the time they had their beloved dog, Rosie, a pit bull that lived from 1990 to 2006 (essentially through Bush I and Bush II’s entire presidencies along with Clinton’s and through Myles’ performance art presidential run in 1992), mate with another pitbull and what follows is a tortured, ugly, embarrassing description of the violent fucking Myles and the other dog owner casually observed in a New York apartment. What have I done to this thing, Myles wonders, and still wonders, like me on shrooms overanalyzing pet obedience and OMG WHAT DOES IT ALL MEANNNNNNNNN.

Another, another disclosure: There is an absolutely devastating poem just tossed onto a page of “Afterglow” and it made me laugh and cry a whole lot. It is titled “ZIZEK/LOVE/CUB” (though Myles prefaces it with, “Here’s a sad poem I found in the box. I don’t think this is really the title but I enjoy it”) and the poem reads in full: “The inevitability/ that God/ would be a/ man the absence/ adding up/ to something/ and my plants/ brownly/ scrunching/ up to something/ cause they/ never die/ & neither/ does my/ dog/ & neither/ do I.”

If it sounds like I’m filibustering or eliding getting into this book, well that’s because I am—or OK, look, discussing “Afterglow” demands thinking and writing differently and doubling back on one’s own thoughts and accepting that there are so many things that we’ll never get to the center of, such as grief and love. At the core of the book, an amalgamation: Rosie and Myles’ father (who died when Myles was 11) become the same and both are kind of sort of God and well, we’re all dogs, dumbly dedicated to something or other for reasons we’ll never quite comprehend. What a beautiful book.

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