The life of Hemingway from the perspective of a person with Bipolar Disorder
by James Heaton
I was maybe six or seven when I discovered the book, Old Man and the Sea in my elementary school library. My other favorite book at that time was a Batman comic my grandmother had bought me at a local convenience store. I can recall the school library vividly, with its enormously high ceilings and giant wooden bookcases. There were hundreds of books all divided by grade level. I had wondered over to the fifth-grade section, ignoring the books for my age. Hidden amongst the novels was a true treasure. The first thing that caught my eye was the picture on the front cover of an old man battling a huge fish. It was captivating, the giant fish was leaping over the tiny boat and the old man was grasping the line attached to its mouth. When I opened the book I read about the author, and I noticed he was born on July 21st, 1899. This was the clincher, because that was also my birthday, only 73 years earlier. I checked the book out often over the next few years, struggling to read it. I often sat during recess under a giant oak tree, reading the words of the master while the other kids played kickball. It wasn’t until I was a few years older that I made it all the way through the book. I liked this Hemingway guy; he didn’t use fancy words and we shared the same birthday. Somewhere along the way my young mind got the idea that if we shared the same birthday, we would die on the same day as well. Every July 2nd I waited patiently for death to come knocking.
It wasn’t until seventh grade that our English teacher wheeled in the A/V cart with the massive television strapped on top, that I got the Hemingway bug again. We watched the Spencer Tracy version of Old Man and the Sea over a three-day period. I was the only one in class wide eyed and interested. The other kids either slept or passed notes, but not me. I was enthralled by the story of the old man and his battle, but seeing the movie cleared up some of the things I had missed in the book. I realized it was more about personal struggle and less about battling the fish. Hemingway had basically written a book about battling with the hardest parts of life and cloaked it with the story of a fisherman.
By the time I graduated high school I had read every Hemingway novel and short story ever published. I felt a kinship, a bond with the writer. Little did I know that he and I would also share a darker comradery, and that was bipolar disorder. It wasn’t until six years later that I would be diagnosed, but during that time I had gone from loving his books to patterning my life after the man. I felt as though I was privy to some secret hidden knowledge about the real world, as if only those truly knowledgeable of the real world knew about Hemingway.
Hemingway has been called a man’s man, and rightfully so. He was a war hero, a Nazi hunter, a big game hunter, had many wives and lovers, could drink anyone under the table and he could spill his heart without coming off looking pathetic. He was legendary for hunting Nazi U-boats off the coast of Florida and Cuba with a machine gun in hand, and then writing a book about. But one of the amazing things about the man was that he truly lived life. Many people talked about living life, but he had actually done it. He had lived on almost every continent and experienced every culture.
As my bipolar condition got worse, I battled heavily with my own mind. During my darkest time, I took a page from the legend and left America, bound for the Caribbean. I stood on the very shores of Bimini he had once stood, reading Islands in the Stream. I lived the life I thought he would have, getting drunk every night, starting fights, and spending my days on the open ocean. I visited Cuba and lived in Mexico, searching for that hidden story. He inspired me to tell a story, starting with one true sentence.
And like Hemingway I left my children behind while I went out searching for life. But much like the lead character in Islands in The Stream, I realized that my children were my greatest treasure. Hemingway had three sons: Gregory, Jack, and Patrick. Jack aka Bumby had three daughters; Joan, Margaux, who died of a barbiturate overdose in 1996, and Hadley (Mariel), the actress. Patrick had one daughter, Mina. And Gregory, later changed to Gloria or Gigi, had eight children. They were Patrick, Edward, Sean, Brendan, Vanessa, Maria, John, and Lorian.
In all Ernest had twelve grandchildren, leaving a legacy that is still growing today.
Sadly, the family curse of suicide was passed down through the family. His father, died of suicide, when Ernest was only 29. Two of his siblings, Ursula, and Leicester, and his granddaughter, Margaux also committed suicide. Margaux, who was a famous model in the 80’s, took her own life on July 1st, 1996. Mariel Hemingway describes her family as extremely creative, but victims to mental health problems and addiction.
Hemingway was named after his mother’s father, Ernest Miller Hall. Ernest grew up in Oak Park, Illinois. He learned to hunt at a young age and excelled at boxing. He had a passion for fishing, in the lakes or on the ocean. As Hemingway grew older he found solace on the ocean, in his prized boat – The Pilar. Between 1921 to 1961 he was married to four different women. It wasn’t until 1946 that he found the only woman to truly match his personality, Mary Welsh. She was a war correspondent and enjoyed a career as a writer herself. Her personality was more closely matched to Ernest than any of his other wives.
Hemingway popularized the festival of San Fermin in Pamplona, known for the running of the bulls. His book, The Sun Also Rises from 1926 spoke heavily about the art of bullfighting and glorified the famous matadors that he became friends with. People either idolized him or hated him, and the things he wrote about became popular with his enormous fanbase of Americans longing to live the life he thrived at.
His entire life was spent chasing moments of intense excitement, constantly pursuing the adrenaline rush of facing death in the face. From big game hunting in Africa, to running with the bulls in Pamplona, to battling Marlin in Cuba. He optimized the act of being a manly man, a rugged adventurer. But he battled his demons more than he battled any fierce animal. Depression ate away at his mind; while bipolar disorder pushed his limits of creativity. His mental disorder gave him the ability to write feverishly, creating inventive characters with real emotions and feelings that other writers couldn’t match. People who suffer from bipolar disorder often speak about how intense their emotions are compared to people who don’t suffer from the disorder. Hemingway personified it.
“I was so sentimental about you I’d break any one’s heart for you. My, I was a damned fool. I broke my own heart, too. It’s broken and gone. Everything I believe in and everything I cared about I left for you because you were so wonderful, and you loved me so much that love was all that mattered. Love was the greatest thing, wasn’t it?”
Ernest Hemingway, from To Have and Have Not.
This is my favorite quote from that book, and it exemplifies the passion associated with bipolar disorder. We got a glimpse of his passion and emotion, and he wasn’t ashamed to bare his soul to the world. His words weren’t just part of a book, they were his very existence. It was his very soul, bared for all the world to see.
Reading Hemingway was the first time I ever felt that someone else experienced the feelings I felt about love and life. His ability to express the intense emotions in simple sentences was truly remarkable. He may have been an overwhelming personality in real life, but on the pages of his novel he came across as passionate and honest. His struggles with bipolar were clearly visible to the people who truly knew him, even though the term bipolar had not found common use, it was simply referred to as manic depressive disorder. And only his wife and closest friends really knew his struggles with mental health issues, everyone else saw him as an intense lover of life who drank to excess and loved to fight and flirt with the ladies.
In the present day and age, we have terms for all the things that made Hemingway who he was. But during his life his behavior was chalked up to him just being larger than life. Hypersexuality, alcoholism, mood swings, excessive spending, self-destruction, all the things that made Hemingway great in the eyes of the world were also the things that were destroying him.
The hypersexuality, which is a common symptom of bipolar disorder was highly prevalent in his life. He had several affairs throughout his four marriages, most notable was his love of Adriana Ivancich, whom he romanced over seven years. Even though he was married at the time, he sent many letters expressing his romantical interest in her. His first obsession with the opposite sex began when he was a Red Cross ambulance driver, with Agnes Von Kurowsky, a nurse who took care of him in Italy after he was wounded from shrapnel. Agnes promised to join him after the war, but later opted to marry another man. This was one of the first emotional breaks that Hemingway experienced. It sent him into a spiraling depression that ignited his bipolar depression. She became the inspiration for numerous stories and the main character in his book, A Farewell to Arms. After that moment, one woman was never enough for Hemingway. He explored his sexuality deeper in his book, The Garden of Eden, which touched on androgyny and multiple partners.
His alcoholism which is also directly related to his mental health issues, was famous. He drank every day and to excess. He was known for his Papa Doble, or the Hemingway daiquiri. He preferred it without sugar. But he was also fond of gin and tonics and rum as well as whiskey. He drank to excess in public, and it transformed him into the loud, larger than life man that everyone knew. While living in Bimini, Hemingway offered $250 to any man that could last three rounds of boxing with him. Nobody ever took the money; Hemingway was a legend on that island.
But this life took its toll on Hemingway, in 1954 he survived not one, but two plane crashes in Africa over the Congo. But those injuries and the excessive drinking wore him down. Try as he could, even Hemingway wasn’t unstoppable. He eventually settled in Cuba, building a home and a life in the tropics. He remained in Cuba during the revolution, only leaving in 1960 because of the intervention from the US government with the famous Cuban Trade Embargo.
Later in the fall of 1960 he was hospitalized at the Mayo Clinic for his mental health issues. During that time, he received 15 sessions of electroshock therapy. Speaking from experience, I personally received 8 sessions of electroconvulsive therapy myself in 2018, I understand how undergoing such extreme treatment can leave one with an empty mind. He found himself unable to remember, unable to write, unable to plot stories and this was his entire life. Being left incapable to do the one thing he was superior at, the thing that made him who he was, left him hopeless. At the time he was living in Ketchum, Idaho with his wife Mary. He had been forced to leave his home in Cuba during the revolution with Castro. It was in Cuba; with his boat, The Pilar, that he was happiest. He was truly meant to be on the ocean experiencing life in the tropics. But he was uprooted and forced to return to the United States. He was suffering from paranoia, believing that he was under investigation by the FBI as a result of his support of the Cuban Revolution and his friend Fidel Castro. The change in environment, from the Caribbean to the bleak mountainous region of Idaho, away from his friends and the places that he loved, all took a heavy toll on him.
I believe this was the breaking point for Hemingway. Bipolar breaks are often triggered by changes in environment. Being uprooted from a place you find solace and happiness, forced to leave the place you feel most at home, can have detrimental effects on a person’s psyche. Hemingway had worked his entire life to find the one place he truly belonged, and the Finca Viga Estate in Cuba was his paradise. The home was surrounded by lush vegetation and was open and inviting. He frequently had his friends over for large dinner parties, with people regularly sleeping over. He had a beautiful pool that he used daily and his boat, The Pilar, was docked nearby. Leaving his home, his paradise was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
My personal experience with ECT, much like his experience with Electroshock Treatments, left me incapacitated for almost three years. After my 8 sessions I was left without any passion for the things that made life worth living. My mind was quiet and void of any creativity. It was a horrible experience that although cured me from suicidal tendencies, left me broken and lifeless. It wasn’t until three years later that I finally regained the passion for life and the things that I enjoyed. I can recall the feeling, months after my last treatment, that life was meaningless. What is life without the passion and drive that propels us to do the things we love? Hemingway was lost without his love of writing, unable to form that one true sentence that he spoke so fondly of, he resorted to the only thing he truly knew. He took control one last time, like his father had, and shot himself on July 2nd, 1961.
Every July 21st I celebrate another revolution around the Sun. But with the celebration of my birth, I am always reminded that I too suffer from bipolar disorder, and like Hemingway I struggled with looming thoughts of suicide. I strive every year to learn from him, to understand that it can get better, and life is ever evolving. The words will come back, and the one true sentence will flow from our minds, allowing us to put our story onto paper. No-one has ever inspired me as much as Hemingway, and even now in the 2021 he still has an enormous following. Every year in Key West thousands celebrate the Hemingway Days Festival. People still long for his simplistic writing style, that described the world around us. His novel, A Moveable Feast, remains one of my favorite pieces of all time.
“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
Ernest Hemingway – A Moveable Feast
That paragraph remains my favorite piece of literature of all time. Hemingway has been my companion through all the struggles. His books travelled with me to Mexico, Cuba, and The Bahamas. I recall being in Bimini with my worn copy of Islands in the Stream, standing in the very place he had stood many years earlier, and feeling his presence. Looking out over the crystal-clear water at the vast expanse of the ocean, I felt the serenity that he must have felt. The ocean has a way of calming the most tormented soul. Struggling with bipolar disorder has been the hardest thing I have ever done but knowing that Hemingway experienced the same struggles has given me the strength to do what he was unable to do. I like to consider myself a survivor, and it has been because of his words that I have made it this far. His sacrifice, his death brought attention to the need for mental health reform and better treatment methods. Even the strongest men can be brought down by their own minds.
Hemingway once said,
“It is easy to write. Just sit in front of your typewriter and bleed.”
I owe my life to him; it is a debt I can only hope to repay by helping others with their struggle with mental illness. That little boy sitting under the mighty oak tree during recess, struggling to read the words of The Old Man and the Sea, has survived because of one man’s words, one man’s struggle to be heard.
Thank you Ernest.