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A Q&A with Hilary Smith, author of Welcome to the Jungle, Revised Edition

Why did you write Welcome to the Jungle
I wrote Welcome to the Jungle because it is the book I wish I’d been given when I was diagnosed with bipolar as a junior in college. So many of the books available at that time were very medical, mainstream, party-line books written by doctors and psychiatrists, and while doctors and psychiatrists obviously have useful and important things to say about bipolar, there was something missing from the conversation. Welcome to the Jungle was my attempt to fill that gap with a book that was approachable, open-minded, and written from the perspective of a “real person” and not an authority figure.

What is different about the second edition?
When I wrote the first edition of Welcome to the Jungle, I was a twenty-three year old who had only been diagnosed with bipolar a few years before. I wrote the expanded edition as a thirty-year old with a much broader experience of life and of my own trials, errors and discoveries in dealing with bipolar symptoms. As a twenty-three year old, I had a lot of energy and exuberance but a limited pool of experience—I simply hadn’t been alive long enough to observe patterns over extended periods of time. As a thirty-year old, I’ve had years to closely observe the patterns of my life and to gently modify the ones that are contributing to mental and physical illness, and a big priority in the second edition of Welcome to the Jungle has been to share those skills of self-observation and gentle change.

Who is this book for?
Welcome to the Jungle is for anyone who has been looking for a bipolar book by someone who “gets it”—a book they’d feel happy (rather than mortified) to have their friends and family read too. I especially wrote this book for people who are dealing with the diagnosis for the first time, and who are at a crucial turning point in their lives, when a friendly and reassuring voice can make all the difference.

What is the biggest misconception about bipolar disorder?
The biggest misconception about bipolar disorder is that people with bipolar are basically dependent on medication-for-life to regulate their moods and cannot learn other skills to support their recovery and cope with their symptoms. Yes, medication is useful and even life-saving for many people—but it makes me angry that people diagnosed with bipolar are usually not offered even basic mindfulness training, cognitive behavioral techniques, or support for the trauma and anxiety that many people who develop bipolar disorder live with day to day. The truth is, basic mindfulness and/or cognitive behavioral techniques can make an enormous difference to people with mood disorders, yet our medical system is not structured to deliver them. The new edition of Welcome to the Jungle devotes a good deal of space to the ways mindfulness and insight can support recovery and curb bipolar symptoms for all people, even if they also take medication.

What new research about bipolar disorder has surprised you the most?
Since the first edition of Welcome to the Jungle was published in 2010, there have been some interesting findings on the causes and risk factors for bipolar disorder. A genetic study (REF) found common genetic links between bipolar and autism, which is fascinating, because when you compare bipolar and high functioning autism, they do have a lot of similar manifestations—sensitivity to stimulation, intense interests, tendency towards depression, anxiety, and insomnia. Another interesting study (REF) identified the role of adverse childhood experiences in developing bipolar, which has interesting implications for the role of psychotherapy in addressing the repressed trauma that may be contributing to bipolar symptoms.

What is the most important skill a person with bipolar can develop?
The best thing a person with bipolar can do is to become a really good observer of him or herself. The better we know our minds and bodies, the more easily we can identify the early warning signs that can kindle into mania or depression, and recognize the beliefs and behaviors that may be unwittingly fueling our symptoms. A good place to start is to get in the habit of asking questions: “What is my body telling me right now? What unspoken rules am I following that are making my life harder than necessary?” Little by little, this habit of self-observation can help reduce the frequency and severity of bipolar symptoms and of other forms of suffering.

If you could travel back in time to the year you were diagnosed with bipolar, what would you do differently?
I would have sought out a really good counselor or cognitive behavioral therapist to help me address anxiety, isolation, stress, repressed emotional pain, and other factors that were going on in my life at the time. As it is, I went on meds, saw a psychiatrist for a few months—and didn’t get the social support or learn the skills to help myself get better faster.

How can family help a person with bipolar?
Recognize that bipolar disorder does not exist in a vacuum. It is pretty rare to find a bipolar person whose family is perfectly normal and healthy, and he or she “just happens” to be “the crazy one”. Whether or not other family members have full-blown bipolar, chances are that certain less-than-ideal coping strategies or interaction patterns are common among the other family members—and having the whole family work on improving those patterns can be a great thing for everyone involved. Having the whole family work on developing healthy patterns also makes the person diagnosed with bipolar feel less alone, less like “the problem,” and more supported in his/her recovery.

What do you hope readers will get out of Welcome to the Jungle
I hope every person who reads Welcome to the Jungle comes away feeling empowered, inspired and confident in their ability to manage their mental health, develop insight, and make their own discoveries about the experience of bipolar disorder.
Welcome to the Jungle, Revised Edition
Welcome to the Jungle, Revised Edition
Facing Bipolar Without Freaking Out
Hilary T. Smith