Thursday, February 4, 2010

Tom Wootton - A Visionary Overreaches

In two of my most recent blog posts - Bipolar in Flux and Visionary or Out of Touch - I made it clear that my friend Tom Wootton’s just-released “Bipolar in Order” is the worst piece of crap ever assembled between two covers. Besides the book being extremely badly-written and a blatant advertisement for his workshops, the author displays a complete ignorance of an illness he claims an affinity to.

But my first two pieces were actually highly-complimentary, focusing on Tom as a visionary who got us thinking that our manias and depressions, with mental discipline, could be turned to our advantage.

“Normal” people don’t have a chance against us, once we get our disorder “in order.”

Love him or hate him, you really have to admire Tom for putting that thought out there. Tom is by far the best public speaker I’ve ever come across in the field of mental health, and early last year I decided to view the master at work by checking out some videos of his talk segments. Here is what he said in his intro:

Some of you are going to think I’m crazy, which is true. I’ve got bipolar I, extreme manias, totally out of control, extreme depressions, and schizophrenia ...

Schizophrenia? My brain initially didn’t process the statement. It was only a day or two later that something went off in my head: “Did Tom actually say he had schizophrenia?” No, I thought. My mind is playing tricks on me. I actually went back and replayed the thing.

Yep, Tom actually said he had schizophrenia.

When we first met in the summer of 2006, Tom had been representing himself as someone with bipolar. His book from that year, "The Bipolar Advantage," focused exclusively on mania, with a work-in-progress on depression.

In the video I viewed, Tom referred to his own delusions and psychosis and paranoia, which I have no reason to doubt. After all, many depressions and manias come preloaded with these symptoms. But schizophrenia? There is a lot more to schizophrenia than psychosis and delusions and paranoia. Psychosis gets all the attention, but a major reason antipsychotic medications are not a magic bullet for schizophrenia is they fail to address the many cognitive dysfunctions associated with the illness, as well as the “flat affect” features.

Moreover, the DSM mandates a minimum time requirement of six months. This threshold is totally arbitrary. What is important is that the experts view schizophrenia as a long-term “chronic” illness, as opposed to the “episodic” nature of mood disorders. In other words, hallucinations and other psychotic features that occasionally come and go do not rate as schizophrenia, which is a good thing as otherwise four percent of the population would be walking around with a schizophrenia label instead of just one percent.

But if Tom truly had schizophrenia, why didn’t this come out in “The Bipolar Advantage,” which was largely autobiographical? Why didn’t this come out in the numerous conversations I had with him? More important, why didn’t it come out in a workshop I saw him present in Orange County in late 2006?

I had just moved to southern California. Tom was giving the talk under the auspices of a county mental health agency and here was the catch: He couldn’t just talk about the depression and bipolar advantage. It had to be something like the mental illness advantage. His talk had to include everyone.

The organizer of the workshop proved extremely efficient in busing in a large audience comprising those using county mental health services. This was not your typical DBSA segment that Tom was used to addressing, people with an “invisible” illness who do not stand out from a crowd. Far from it.

A number of individuals wheeled in grocery carts with their possessions. A good many looked lost and disoriented, some with thousand-mile stares in their eyes. The dress code was highly eclectic, featuring thrift shop specials, often randomly arranged. No doubt, individuals with depression and bipolar were well-represented, but it was clear Tom was addressing a large number with schizophrenia.

“Hey, I’m no different than you,” Tom could have told this group of people. He could have disclosed his struggles with schizophrenia and had everyone eating out of his hand. Instead, it was clear that there was a separation between speaker and audience. Tom gave a masterful presentation, of course, but afterward he admitted to me it was the toughest audience he had ever faced.

Naturally, I concurred. After all, what could he possibly know about schizophrenia? It turns out absolutely nothing.

More to come ...


Spongedaddy said...

Worst piece of rcap between two covers? You are turning more into Larry David everytime I come here. ;-)

It was somewhat uncomfortable to read these last four posts becuase it feels like you are obsessing in on this dude and I know what that is like...thus the discomfort.

John McManamy said...

Hi, Spongedaddy. Don't worry. I'm not obsessing, but I take your point. My critique of Tom's book is longer than the actual book, itself. (Tom employs various typographical tricks such as large fonts, wide spacing, and very short chapters with lots of white space at the end of the chapters to create the impression that he has written a book of substance. Plus he indiscriminately sticks in lists obviously pulled from his workshops as fillers. And finally, some two thirds of his "book" contains promotional material advertising his workshops.) But since I was being heavily critical of Tom, I owed a duty to both him and my readers to provide context and documentation. Which meant four blog pieces instead of one. A quick superficial once-over, especially when the issues are so serious and when calling into question the credibility of the author, would have been inappropriate.

A multi-part series focusing on an individual is not new to Knowledge is Necessity. Robert Cloninger was the focus of a series on personality, Eric Kandel on brain science, and Robert Spitzer on diagnostics. These individuals - and others - have profoundly shaped the dialogue that starts with the question: Who the hell are we?

For better and worse, Tom is part of the discussion.

I hope this helps explain. :)

Spongedaddy said...

That makes sense. That question of who the hell are we is an important one...especially since, IMO, it is not a question the helping profession asks often. There is so very little, relatively speaking, that we know about things like Bipolar that some information can be dangerous even if it is well meaning.

I still think you are turning into Larry David though. ;-)

John McManamy said...

Thanks, Spongedaddy. If only I could live on Larry David's "Seinfeld" royalties. But this week I have been more like John Cleese. The other night, at a roast for the retiring ED of NAMI SD, I did a "silly walk" on stage. :)

Lori~ said...

I think it's brave of you John to call it as you see it. It angers me when I think of someone trying to capitalize insincerly, especially about something as sad, serious and misunderstood as schizophrenia. But we must realize there are those out there. It reminds me of Andy Behrman, Electroboy, or the guy who wrote Million Little Pieces, a memoir about drug use. Only to be dissappointed later that these people are sensationalizing their misfortunes and trying to get gain!

Sorry that just sits wrong with me.

John McManamy said...

Thanks, Lori. Tom is certainly giving the impression that he is trying to cash in on schizophrenia, and his recklessness in this regard is taking him down the same road as the much-discredited Andy Behrman.

I am very much aware that this sort of thing is an occupational hazard in our line of work. Initial promise breeds success breeds acclaim breeds arrogance breeds losing touch breeds contempt.

The only prevention is listening. Tom is not too late for that but he's quickly running out of time. I'm not immune, either, so never be afraid to call me out when you see fit.

Trish said...

I read Tom's book plus a lot of others. I'm sorry, I'll have to go back to Amazon to remember why I didn't order your book. Back to Tom's book. I loved the book. I even loved the large print-I didn't have to wear my reading glasses. And, frankly, I don't care why he does what he does. I care about the message. His book helped me immensely. I was diagnosed with Bipolar II. A year or so ago. I'm 45 now. I've dealt with mental illness since I was 8 or 9 years old. I didn't get help-scientist father didn't believe in it...I've noticed him stating in his videos that he has one illness then he'll change it. Has anyone asked him about it? I will I'm active on Linked In discussions with him. But, once again, I care about his message. For all I know he could be perfectly "normal" and be a mental con man. However, it doesn't change the fact that he has very good points to make about how to look and deal with mental conditions.