Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Tom Wootton - Bipolar in Flux (This is Neither Good Nor Bad, but Hear Me Out)

My friend Tom Wootton has a new self-published book out, "Bipolar in Order: Looking at Depression, Mania, Hallucination and Delusion from the Other Side." My short review: The book sucks, don’t waste your money.

But life is seldom so simple. Some background ...

I first met Tom in late summer 2006 at a DBSA conference outside of San Francisco, where he was scheduled to present two workshops. I had just read his first book, "The Bipolar Advantage," and charitably told him it read alright. Tom is a master speaker from a corporate background who readily acknowledged writing wasn’t his forte. My website review minced no words:

Probably the worst-written book of all time by the biggest non-dictator narcissist of all time. But that is just a minor quibble. Tom convincingly argues that we should not consider ourselves disadvantaged. Rather, he lays down a convincing argument that we are wired to run rings around those who have the misfortune to be born normal. All that is holding us back is our tendency to lose control and our own misperceptions of our illness, and Tom has answers for that.

“There is no good or all bad,” Tom opened in his first workshop at the DBSA conference. He started out by having us name all the bad things about mania. That was easy. The list filled up pretty fast.

Okay. Now the good things. The creativity, the productivity … Surprisingly, this list filled up extremely fast. Tom pointed to the wall. The “good” list was longer than the “bad” list. Knock me over with a feather.

Tom zeroed in on one of the list items, racing thoughts, which can alternatively give rise to brilliant ideas or get us unstuck. Learning to focus can change this so-called “bad” trait into a “good” one, Tom pointed out. The corporate world highly values original thinkers, not the pathetic head-scratching that passes for brain-storming.

Tom’s second presentation zeroed in on what is “good” about depression, such as introspection. It was depression that made the saints become saints, Tom reminded us. Think of the long dark night of the soul. This theme would be incorporated into Tom’s second (and much better-written) book, The Depression Advantage. In our own lives, our descents into darkness can sensitize us into achieving higher awareness and superhuman insights.

My own book was due out in another month, and the title - Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder - was a dead giveaway that my thinking at the time synced with where Tom was at in 2006. But Tom was well out in front of me. He was the visionary and paradigm-shifter, and the best public speaker by far that I had run across in all my years of attending mental health conferences.

So it was a couple of months later I found myself on the road for a week in Chicago with Tom, sharing the speaking duties for some short talks he was giving to various groups in the community.

Tom was the master. I was the apprentice. By tagging along with Tom, I hoped to pick up some valuable speaking skills and overcome my phobia about breathing loud in front of people. My book was hot off the press and I had to get out there and promote it. This involved popping out of my comforting hole in the ground and doing more than look at my shadow.

Under Tom’s patient tutelage, the fearful writer cowering behind the lectern, both hands in a death grip, with his face buried in a script squeaking out as if begging for mercy was put to rest. In his place a completely unrecognizable individual strode the stage, looking his audience in the eye, and directly engaging them without notes.

I can assure you that a good many people still think, with good reason, I suck as a speaker, and I would be the last to dispute this. But what they never knew nor had cause to suspect was that they were witnesses to a miracle. Let’s put it this way: You think nothing about the driver of the car that nearly cut you off on the freeway. But your disinterest would change to amazement if you were to discover that the driver was Stevie Wonder.

The miracle bled over into my personal life. Speaking before a hundred people or more suddenly made everything else look easy. In no time, I was much more at ease in small groups and one-on-one. This led to a major healing, and Tom gets all the credit, as well as my eternal gratitude.

In our conversations, Tom indicated to me he wanted to come out with a new edition of "The Bipolar Advantage." I responded this would be a very good idea. As brilliant as Tom was, he was as good a writer as I was a speaker. I let him know that he could use a much better calling card than the current edition of his book. Whenever the time was right for him, I advised, I would be there.

I vividly recall when Tom first sat down with me to coach me. We were in the breakfast room of a cheapo hotel about an hour out of Chicago, drinking bad coffee and trying not to regurgitate from the stench of industrial strength disinfectant. The first thing I told Tom was I had left my ego outside the door and that he had license to rip me apart. For me, this is an activity that ranks right up there with having dental work with no Novocain. But this was why I was here, 700 miles from home.

I only wish I could have returned the favor. That somewhere down the line we could have reversed roles. But for that to have occurred, Tom would have had to face me across the table and tell me he left his ego outside the door. It never happened.

Much more to come ...


Shirley U Gest said...

Having not read his book myself, it sounds as if his mania is much more fun than mine. My manic and depressed mind spins in review of bad memories and anger.
For my 60th birthday I weaned myself from all psychiatric drugs and found I was doing much better within a month. Found low vitamin D levels, got new doctor for physical pain issues. It has been almost a year now and I have lost weight and become better able to know my moods as not such permanent states of mental illness as they felt before. I re-read lots of Kurt Vonnegut and found solace in his Badly Made Human Brain Theory, which seems pretty true and a lighter load to carry.
A great friend died recently at 93 and her advice to "always look forward" is recalled when I start to go loco. I also use Byron Katie's "work" to do reality checks...it takes some tricks and lots of effort but at this time my home made approach works better than the drugs. My psychiatrist has been happy for me and it is good to know the medicines are there if I need them again.
As a non-functioning novelist (I find it difficult to write well anymore) I know the frustration in seeing even self published books selling that are written poorly. But non writers seem much more forgiving of flaws in that regard.
I have a thick journal of notes on different concepts regarding SUICIDAL THINKING and how to reason with it, all written during manic or depressed phases. I wish I could put it into a blog, or share it somehow, but it is tainted by the fear any new thinking on the subject would fail the smell test having no educational degree or "legitimate" qualifications to have an opinion. I wonder how much new helpful thought on mental illness is lost because people feel inadequately qualified to speak, or are poor writers?
I adore public speaking and wish I could organize my ideas enough to even speak to my small local mental health group, but it is all tainted with the fear it is useless due to its origins in the suicidal state itself.
You have a natural talent for writing and a grand wit. I'm sure an editor would have helped the fellow, but I admire his ability to Damn the Torpedoes and plunging into presenting his thoughts, especially if doing it poorly.
Glad you are still here!

Willa Goodfellow said...

Off topic, but re: public speaking -- My best trick is to pause before beginning, look at the crowd, and love them. Yes, I know that sometimes that's a challenge, because I practice this practice.

John McManamy said...

Thanks, Sureley U Gest. Thanks for bringing this up. Re self-publish - yes, we do allow for a lot of forgiveness here. I certainly did. He had a great thesis, badly presented. But people who read his book first tended to be turned off by it (a lot of empty bragging and tasteless comments) and thus decided not to attend his workshops.

There is also another factor in play: If the book is bad, then the workshops have to be bad, right? As potential paying customers we make these kind of judgments all the time. And vice-versa. People are more inclined to buy Apple products these days because they had a good experience with the iPod.

So, yes. Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead is a good start. But then there comes a time to make a major course correction. The book was hurting Tom. It was his choice, but it was a bad one. You don't deliberately stick to an inferior product if you have the means to put out a superior one.

Re professional qualifications - call me Jackie Robinson. To my knowledge, I'm the first patient to publish a book on the clinical and scientific issues of a mental illness. Patients who write books typical do memoirs or they focus on a certain area of their acnowledged expertise, such as yoga.

I was acutely conscious at the time that my lack of professional qualifications made getting my book published a long-shot. Fortunately, I found an enlightened editor in Sarah Durand who turned out to be Branch Rickey to my Jackie Robinson.

Please do not hesitate to take the plunge. Blogging is a very good place to start. You find yourself improving as you go along, and you benefit from reader feedback. Over time, your ideas seem to organize themselves.

Also remember - your point of view is unique and valuable and that you will certainly help people in ways you can never begin to imagine. Please - go for it.

John McManamy said...

Hey, Willa. Speaking of which ... 18 months ago I was doing a Q and A for a local NAMI group. Right in the middle of it, I just happened to burst out with, "I love this audience." The tension broke, the audience was with me.

Developing a connection with your audience is essential. Tom taught me that the gold standard is to ask three questions at the beginning. The questions can be very basic, such as "How many of you are from around here?" as long as they lead to an "I'm from around here, too," response from you, "and you know what ..."

Suddenly, you're not a stranger talking to strangers.