How do you think your memoir, “Rambler,” will be helpful in ‘writing away the stigma’?
The stigma associated with mental illness is tricky to overcome because the symptoms involve a person’s behavior and thinking, making it difficult for people to think of the fluctuations they see in a person as an illness. Neuroscientists are making progress in diagnosing and understanding these disorders, but research is slow to affect how we think about them.
Eliminating stigma is most often achieved on a personal level, and that’s why my husband, Steve, and I feel it’s important to share our family’s story. In “Rambler,” I write openly and honestly about my experience of living with my husband’s bipolar disorder, at a time when we were raising our children. “Rambler” includes his writings, and that gives readers a more thorough picture of the experience. Hopefully this intimate, forthright telling will help others better understand the nature of mental illness, thus decreasing the stigma.
What writing secret do you have that helps you present a realistic telling for families navigating a mental illness diagnosis?
There is no “writing secret” that allows me to create a realistic telling of how to navigate a mental illness diagnosis. There are two factors, however, that contribute to my being able to write effectively about mental illness.
First, I experienced first-hand the challenges of living with my husband’s illness, who was diagnosed when he was in his mid-40s. Because I’m a writer, I naturally turned to journaling throughout the acute stage of his illness. For example, when I asked my six-year-old daughter how she knew her daddy was sick after he got home from a month-long stay in a hospital psych ward, she told me that she knew he was because he no longer remembered what day it was, a comment I recorded in my journal. These kinds of details are included in “Rambler,” making it more realistic.
Another factor in helping me write a personal narrative is that I wrote a newspaper column for almost two decades. Through years of first-person writing I developed a style in which I was able to share a personal story that has universal appeal. Specifically, “Rambler” is about our family’s struggle with mental illness, but it really speaks to anyone facing a life-altering illness.
What was the most difficult aspect of writing such a personal story? The easiest?
It was extremely difficult to present a fair and honest telling of such an emotionally charged period of our lives. It took many years for me to gain the perspective necessary to write “Rambler.” After the tumultuous decade in which Steve’s mental health problems surfaced and resettled into a manageable routine, I was exhausted and angry. I needed time to process what happened and understand the myriad aspects of the experience. That includes being able to appreciate and write about Steve’s determination to recapture a semblance of the life he’d lost to an illness; acknowledging the support of friends and family, even from those who steadfastly denied he had an illness; understanding the role Steve’s and my upbringing played in dealing with his illness; and learning to trust my intuition when responding to Steve’s manic, depressive, and psychotic episodes. I wanted “Rambler” to reflect what really happens inside a home when someone has a mental illness. That, by far, was the most challenging aspect of telling this story.
There really wasn’t anything easy about writing “Rambler,” except for the epilogue. It’s about a bicycle trip Steve and I took from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., more than a dozen years after his mood stabilized. It was in celebration of our 40th wedding anniversary. Every chapter in “Rambler” took months, some even years, before I was satisfied with them. I wrote the Epilogue in less than a week… and had fun writing it.
What inspires you as a person? As a writer?
Many things move me, both as a person and a writer. A walk in the woods. An elderly face creased with wisdom. A child’s chubby hand. Stories of people who push through and persevere. But I believe that creativity comes more from within, especially as it pertains to writing. In order to write “Rambler,” I had to learn how to look inward, to be quiet before sitting down to write. I often meditated as a way of achieving a focus that allowed me to hear the story in me.
What is the takeaway you hope readers will understand or learn after reading Rambler?
There are several takeaways from reading “Rambler,” foremost among them is that severe mental illness is treatable. Good medical care, the love and support of family and friends, and the grit and determination of the people involved—the person with the illness as well as the caregivers—are vital in recapturing a life derailed by mental illness.
Another important point in Rambler, one essential for anyone caring for a loved one with a mental illness, is to remain open to the experience. In the early stages of Steve’s illness, when he was depressed, I saw it as a weakness of character. Nothing could be further from the truth.
As an educator, I naturally sought opportunities to learn more about what was happening in our family. I attended workshops sponsored by the National Alliance on Mental Illness and went with Steve to many of his psychiatrist appointments, all while trying to wrap my mind around the baffling illness. It was a steep learning curve, one that would take years for me to work through and a lifetime to really understand. But I remained open to new ways of thinking about what was happening, which was important in facing our family challenges.