Tuesday, August 18, 2009
October and November tend to be weird months for me. Early October, 2006 saw the publication of my book: "Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder: What Your Doctor Doesn't Tell You That You Need to Know."
The book represented a major personal triumph for me, but life is seldom that simple. It's amazing, in hindsight, how I didn't see it coming, but we never do. One day I was winding down from a round of book-related speaking engagements and radio interviews, making a mental note to pick up a Thanksgiving turkey, the next I was dazed and disoriented in a Red Roof Inn, suddenly single.
I had been married (for the second time) for nearly three years, living in central New Jersey. On December 1, ten days after my break-up, I boarded a one-way flight to San Diego, wanting to sleep and never wake up.
"Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder" was the result of six years of writing on my illness. In January 1999, after a crushing round of severe depressions and a lifetime of denial, I was diagnosed with bipolar. I had been a financial journalist, and now I turned to writing about my illness, first for a website, then my own email newsletter, then my own website.
I was not afraid to write about my personal experiences, but first and foremost I considered myself a reporter. I went to the same conferences psychiatrists and researchers went to. I read their journals. I listened, I asked questions. I also listened to another group of experts, patients and loved ones.
I may have connected the dots in a way that no one else had before, but the book wasn't about me. I was simply passing on wisdom and insights I had learned from others and I had at least 300 footnotes to prove it.
But, in public, the audiences I spoke to had entirely different perceptions and expectations, which I failed to register for the longest time. For instance ...
NAMI's membership in large part comprises the parents of individuals with severe mental illness (mainly schizophrenia). These parents have struggled with a health care system that seems specially designed to fail their sons and daughters. Most have been told their kids will never get well. Then, they see me - me with a diagnosis - speaking to them on a very complex topic without notes.
For instance ...
DBSA is run by patients living with depression and bipolar. I'm one of these individuals. We all learn from one another, which can only work if we all accept each other as equals. Thus, an individual on disability brings the same insight and wisdom to the table as someone who has just been awarded a McArthur Genius Grant. But DBSA groups do bring in expert speakers, and suddenly I was one of them.
One day in the spring of 2007, at a DBSA group in Washington DC, someone happened to ask me this: "What do you do for your own recovery?"
Why on earth do you want to know? I could only think. I'm the same as the rest of you.
Ask me about the fine points of brain science, I wanted to respond. Grill me on the ins and outs of diagnosis and treatment. Diet, exercise, sleep - no problem. I had the expert answers at my finger tips and I didn't even need a life line.
Hannibal crossed the Alps with elephants, Abyssinia is what they used to call Ethiopia, and when Emil Kraepelin coined the term manic depression back in the early twentieth century he was talking about unipolar depression as well as what we now refer to as bipolar disorder.
I was stumped. It made no sense to me that someone else would view me as some kind of example of recovery. I blurted out something incoherent, and waited to be rescued by someone wanting to hear me expound on neuroplasticity or spell opthamologist or something.
I was still living in denial when I gave two presentations at a national DBSA conference that summer in Orlando. One of the organizers, without consulting me, had put on the program that I would be talking about recovery. Ha!
No way I was going to lecture people in how to run their lives. Ruin their lives, perhaps - I was an expert at that. But run? You gotta be kidding.
Recovery starts with knowledge, is how I began. Here's some cool stuff I learned, was the gist of what followed. The rest is up to you. Oh yeh, and I broke up one of the talks with a didgeridoo interlude. (You can check out why didgeridoos make perfect sense to me here.)
That's not the way you work yourself up from break-out speaker to keynoter, I learned. Or, for that matter, ever get invited back to speak again, not with two audiences primed to hear about recovery.
Apparently, there was this thing called a recovery movement. Recovery is for YOU to figure out, I wanted to scream. It has nothing to do with me.
But a funny thing was happening. I was changing. The person talking about my book in the summer of 2007 was not the same person who wrote it in late 2004-early 2005. Recovery is a journey, they say. Mine began one crazy October morning nearly 60 years ago when I literally forced my way out of a birth canal that my mom, on doctor's orders, had been blocking by holding her legs together.
Then life intervened.
Much later, on a weird November evening in New Jersey, a certain stage of my journey came to a precipitous and definitive end. A new stage was opening up. A leap of faith, one-way to San Diego ...
More to come ...