Monday, September 28, 2009

My Life as an International Awardee (How it Helped In My Recovery but Didn't Change My Life)

Rural southern CA, two months after my arrival, Feb 2007: An intriguing heading to an email was waiting in my email box. “Mogens Schou Award,” it read, or something to that effect. The email was from the Seventh International Conference on Bipolar Disorder, to take place later in the year.

I was well familiar with the Mogens Schou Award. It was established in 2001 in honor of the late Danish psychiatrist, who back in the sixties built an airtight case for the safety and efficacy of treating bipolar patients with the common salt, lithium, thereby helping open up a new era in psychiatry. To give you an idea what he was up against, prominent British psychiatrists characterized Schou’s efforts as “dangerous nonsense” and “a therapeutic myth.”

I was at the 2001 conference when Dr Schou was honored as the founding recipient. His frail health at the time - he was in his 80s - prevented him from attending, but he did address us via a pre-recorded video. I was particularly moved by the man’s passion. Here he was, his time on earth running short, urging a younger generation to investigate lithium for treating recurrent depression.

The conference also honored Jules Angst, the legendary Swiss diagnostician who conducted the ground-breaking longitudinal studies that helped give rise to our modern views of both depression and bipolar disorder. In addition, the conference paid tribute to philanthropists Vada and Ted Stanley.

Two years later, at the next conference in 2003, a clear pattern for the awards had been established: Research, Education and Advocacy, and Distinguished (later Public) Service. The line-up that year included Husseini Manji of the NIMH (Research), with a slew of prestigious awards already on his mantlepiece, and celebrated author Kay Jamison (Education and Advocacy), with a MacArthur “Genius Grant” and other honors to pad out her resume. Philanthropist Waltraud Prechter received the Distinguished Service Award.

The 2005 Awards singled out another stellar trio: Family-focused therapy innovator David Miklowitz PhD (Research), Paolo Morselli MD (Education and Advocacy), and lithium pioneer Samuel Gershon MD (Distinguished Service).

So naturally I was curious about what was going on with the 2007 Awards. This was early February. The Awards wouldn’t be announced till the Conference in June. Were they looking for nominations? If so, why contact me?

Please read the attachment, the email instructed, or words to that effect. I opened the attachment. “Yada, yada, yada ...” Then:

“Mogens Schou ... Public Service ...”

Something wasn’t tracking. It appeared as if they were referring to me. Then something like:

“... attend ... to accept ... Award?”


Surely a re-reading would establish the truth: A Nigerian millionaire wanted to transfer his savings to my bank account, an offer for discounted natural Cialis, a reminder to get my tires rotated ...

But no. I got it right the first time.

Calmly, coolly, I did another re-read, then another.

Only after the fourth reading did I let out an exultant whoop and leap toward the ceiling. Then I brought myself back to earth. This couldn’t be right, I decided. I called the person listed on the contact information to set me straight.

“I’m afraid so,” she said. (Actually, I’m making this part up.) “Unfortunately, it’s true.”

Okay, false modesty is as bad as empty bragging. The truth is I had busted my ass getting out current and accurate information to patients and their loved ones. No one did it better than me. The first 18 months I didn’t make a dime. By the time I landed in southern CA, I was making about $8.00 an hour putting in 60-hour weeks.

My email Newsletter was a free service, so was my website. You could read my blog for free, and my book only set you back $15. From my reader feedback, I know I had helped thousands help themselves to better lives. In the entire mental health industry, there was no better value for your money. So, if anyone deserved this Award it was me.

But hard-scrabble journalists like me never get awards. Hence the surprise.

Paradoxically, one of my initial reactions was this would be a good time to get out of the business, such as it was. Before I ran out of gas. My book had been out for four months, now this Award. My tank was on empty. Maybe now was the time to walk away from it all, at the top of my game. It was a liberating thought.

But no, the Award spurred me to redouble my efforts. I banged out a batch of Newsletters that featured highly-complex, impossible-to-write pieces on brain science. I gave talks. I went on the road a lot.

My first road trip that year nearly ended in a disaster. This involved a 12-day tour back east that included stops in four states and the District of Columbia. I trundled into Reagan National with my three bags only to encounter the return flight from hell. Some of the airline’s ticketing computers were down, and lines were everywhere. People were missing their flights, and my fragile psyche was absorbing all the anxiety and hostility in the terminal.

I got into Philly and casually grabbed a bite to eat, then strolled to the very end of C Terminal only to find I had 15 minutes to run to the other end of the airport to catch my flight at A Terminal. I got there to find the plane was an hour late. Oh-oh. This is too close for comfort for my connection at Las Vegas.

The plane spent nearly an hour on the runway. Naturally I missed my connecting flight in Vegas to San Diego. I felt control over my brain slipping away, I was dehydrated and disoriented and my jaw was throbbing in acute pain. I lost my way more than once negotiating my way to the right ticket counter, and I sensed myself asking for directions with far too much aggression in my voice. By the time I get into the right line, I was on the verge of panic. It was 1:00 in the morning Vegas time, which equated to 4:00 in the morning east coast time.

I knew the airlines would put me on another flight, but would they put me up in a hotel?

I was at very high risk if I didn’t get in some serious horizontal time right then and there. The line was moving at the same speed as those terra-cotta Chinese warriors that were buried for thousands of years and the ticket agents were as animated as Rip Van Winkle. I felt my sanity slipping away.

“Look!” I wanted to shout. “I have a chronic medical illness and I need attention RIGHT NOW!”

An airport is the last place you want to lose it. I could see it now: “Agents Subdue Crazed ‘Living Well’ Author.”

Breathe! I told myself. Breathe. One’s breath is the best emergency stress-buster there is. Be nice! I told myself. Whatever happens, be nice to the agent who deals with me. Anger is the ticket to flipping out. Breathe, be nice, no anger.

Soon an agent was handling my case. A ticket for a morning flight. A voucher for a hotel. I would have four hours of precious sleep. The crisis was over. But this was way too close for comfort.

To be continued ...

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