By Leslie Lindsay
A deeply profound and troubling story about one family’s struggle with their son’s devolve into a severe mental illness, and yet, it’s hopeful and unifying.
~WEDNESDAYS WITH WRITERS|ALWAYS WITH A BOOK~
Miriam Feldman, artist, a mother, writer, a mental health advocate, and so much more invites the reader into her chaotic, heart-breaking, but hugely honest and authentic life raising a son with schizophrenia in HE CAME WITH IT (Turner Publishing, June 23 2020).
I’m no stranger to mental illness. My mother died by suicide five years ago after a lifelong battle with schizoaffective disorder. I worked as a child/adolescent psychiatric R.N. and to say that I’ve seen it all would be inaccurate. Each individual and each family present differently. We’re individuals. We don’t always respond the same, even if the diagnosis–or the overall issue–is similar. That’s why so much more awareness, openness, and advocacy is needed. And that’s why we need more books like HE CAME WITH IT.
The Feldman-O’Rourke’s live in an idyllic L.A. suburb where generations of families enjoy deep roots in old homes. Miriam and Craig are both artists. Together, they have four children. But something’s ‘off,’ about Nick, and maybe always has been, but Miriam is sure she’s ‘missed the signs.’ Nick’s teenage years get off to a bumpy start–art, dark poetry, drugs–could it just be that this is simply ‘being a teenager?’ But stranger things happen still. A failed attempt at college. Violence. Cutting. Suicide attempts. Eviction. Filth. Arrests. And it’s not just Nick. His sisters struggle, too. Not with mental illness, per se, but boyfriends and illness and alcoholism. Miriam needs neck surgery and there’s a tumor in her brain, another daughter gets cancer. Meanwhile, Craig retreats to their Washington ‘farm,’ leaving Miriam to work her way through the wreckage.
HE CAME WITH IT is a tough read. It’s open, and honest, a portrait of a so-called ‘perfect’ family stripped to the studs as each of these issues are revealed. It’s not just a story about how mental illness affects one person, but how it can unspool an entire family. At the heart of the narrative is Miriam’s can-do, will-fix attitude. She dispenses her adult son’s medication daily for eight years, she cleans his roach-infested apartment, she arranges drug trials, seeks out psychiatrists, attends family group sessions, takes her son to therapy and endless lunches out. And yet, there’s a shortfall. It’s the mental health system. It’s privacy concerns.
But that’s not the focus of HE CAME WITH IT; here’s what is: finding the silver lining. Because there is one. It just might look different from what you planned. It might not be what your neighbors have or even what someone else living with mental illness experiences
Ultimately, HE CAME WITH IT is about hope, finding a good life, and allowing the mistakes and blemishes be a part of our everyday. Because, we’re all flawed.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Miriam Feldman to the author interview series.
Miriam, thank you for taking the time. This book struck me on so many levels. I know you were initially inspired to write it after cleaning out Nick’s apartment [in preparation for his move to the Washington farm] and finding his journals. You didn’t want to be privy to that information, that intimacy, but you were stunned by the things you uncovered. Can you tell us more about your ‘jumping off point’ for HE CAME WITH IT?
I had tried to keep a journal myself during those first years, but most of it ended up being horribly maudlin or just raging at the universe. Not too helpful, but it did give me something to build off of. Once I found Nick’s writing, I realized that the horror of it all was so magnified by the feeling of being entirely alone. There wasn’t a mother in sight who was going through this. I decided to write the book for two reasons: to tell my story and hopefully inspire others to do so. I also felt very strongly that I wanted create a legacy of and for Nick. I want the world to know what an extraordinary human he is. I want that on the record.
Tell us a little more about Nick. He’s in his 30s now and living independently—but near you and Craig—in Washington. What was he like as a small child? You mention feeling like you ‘missed some signs,’—how’s he doing now?
Right now he is doing well, and has been for about 2 years. Before that, he had a psychotic break and had to be hospitalized for several weeks. He lives in a supported housing apartment complex and has DHS caregivers who come daily to make sure he takes his meds and help him out. His life is solitary, he doesn’t have “friends”, the caregivers are wonderful and he’s got his father and me. His three sisters absolutely adore him, but they don’t live in WA. He was not a child who showed signs of trouble, quite the opposite. He was happy, gregarious, got good grades…all the markers. The “signs” I refer to are interesting because if you were to make a list of red-flag signs of serious mental illness, and a list of normal teenage behavior…you’d have virtually the same list! They all act nuts! They are all unpredictable, mercurial, difficult. THOSE were the signs I missed, the ones that all the other kids grew out of, but for Nick grew into schizophrenia.
Nick is hugely talented. His art work, his poetry, and writing. There’s a passage in the book—and I’m paraphrasing—but it’s along the lines of: what if those with mental illness are the gifted ones and the rest of us are just plebeians? Can you talk about that, please? That fine line between insanity and genius?
Oh, I’m pretty fixated on that line. It’s pretty much where I live. It started with a musing about the idea of Nick being not LESS THAN but MORE THAN. Probably to try and cheer myself up. But the more I live with this, the more I believe in the truth of it. Who are we to say? In ancient times, people like Nick were revered and considered visionaries. The rambling hypothoses of a brilliant scientist would sound like gibberish to me..but that says more about me than the scientist. Let’s face it, if you consider the ideas put forward by Jesus, especially in context of time, a case could be made for insanity. It is all so relative, and not linear, this has forced me to view the entire universe differently now. I used to be someone who saw things in terms of black and white, now I see everything important is in the liminal space. I hear brilliance from Nick’s mouth all the time.
Here’s a piece I love from HE CAME WITH IT, and can so identify with as I lived through my mother’s mental illness, I *know* this feeling:
“Life becomes a big laundry pile to be sorted into section. What is crazy? What is crazy with an element of reality? What is real? Which piece of insanity relates with which piece of reality? Whites or colors?”
As family members and caregivers, we’re constantly culling through these questions. How can we make sense?
I wish I had the perfect answer to that, I really do. I think, first of all, it is imperative to stop caring about other people’s opinions. Screw stigma. I’ve got to tell you, the one really great thing I’ve gotten out of being the mother of a son with schizophrenia is that I am officially embarrassment-proof. There is a great freedom in that. As far as the “sorting”, I now believe that we (the care-givers) learn a new language. We start to understand what our loved ones are communicating in their own way. These days, I can call one of my daughters and repeats something Nick said that was either funny, or profound, and we get it. If another person heard the conversation, they wouldn’t. And we have to leave room for the possibility that what we call “reality” is written in pencil, not pen. It has changed over history, through scientific discovery, and I try to leave room for an inherent “reality” with-in Nick’s insanity. Again who am I to say?
What I feel is one of the biggest messages in HE CAME WITH IT is advocacy. Being done with stigma and stereotypes. You take a NAMI Family-to-Family course (I once taught those!), you find other resources for Nick, you are persistent. What can others do? What about self-care?
Number one: educate yourself! The single most important thing. Knowledge is power, but it is also comfort and peace and holds answers. I never stop trying to get Nick to participate in group therapy, new counselors, classes, community stuff…but the truth is he’s not that into it. That another one of those things I have to accept, and respect. Just because it would make me feel better if he had a bunch of friends and went to social things doesn’t mean it would make HIM feel better. I’m not going to give up, but I am trying to respect who he is. That also bring inner peace. If you are constantly throwing yourself against that brick wall you just end up battered. Ad so that brings us to self-care. Yes, self-care is very important. For me it involves a strong yoga and meditaton practice, and if you knew me for a long time you’d know how unbelievable that is. I’m a real type A. But again, schizophrenia delivered a gift I wouldn’t have had and I am grateful for that. So self- care can be anything, yoga and all that, long baths, binge watching Netflix…just remember that you deserve to have joy in your life even tough tis unspeakable thing happened to your child. I know you would do ANYTHING to fix it, we all would. But you can’t. So withering away on the vine serves no purpose, and actually you’d better take care of yourself and stay strong because you’re going to need to be.
“Captivating, moving, and masterfully wrought, Miriam Feldman’s story invites us inside the most intimate of worlds: a family’s heart and soul. While our journey is not without discomfort, it is also full of humor, joy, love, and inspiration. I marvel at the resiliency of the human spirit revealed in this brilliant memoir; He Came In With It is a redemption story for the ages.”
– GARTH STEIN, NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN
And yet…we struggle. We’re human, after all. You are so brave, so honest when you tell us about all the ways you felt you failed. Why do we need to hear this?
Because it’s part of the picture. In this social media look-at-my-perfect-life world we live in now, especially. And I don’t feel particularly brave, I’m just a good mother. Isn’t that kind of the baseline, when you decide to bring a child into the world. I mean, there’s a moral contract with the universe, I think. As far as honest, well that was the only way to go, anything else would have been pointless. And you know why we need to hear this? When I was a young mother with a gaggle of perfect kids I used to see these moms wheeling a child with cerebral palsy or something like that around in their wheelchairs. I’d look at them and think, oh my god, I could NEVER do that. How do they do that? Well you know what? Of course I could do that. Just like she does it. You take care of your kid. And all the failures and all the triumphs are part of the job.
Miriam, I’ve enjoyed this so much. It’s a great unifier to chat with someone who has had similar experiences. What might I have asked, but forgot?
I have been overwhelmed with the response I’ve gotten from others with similar experiences, which I think points to how much we need to keep the dialogue going.
Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Join me on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay.
For more information, to connect with Miriam Feldman via social media, or to purchase a copy of HE CAME WITH IT, please visit:
You might also enjoy Kay Redfield Jamison‘s work, Terri Cheney’s books (THE DARK SIDE OF INNOCENCE and MANIC), MY LOVELY WIFE IN THE PSYCH WARD (Mark Lukach), NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE (Ron Powers). And…though it’s not about mental illness, I found some similarities between this title and HOUSE LESSONS (Erica Bauermeister) in terms of Washington state, old homes, and art
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Miriam Feldman is an artist, writer, and mental health activist who splits her time between her Los Angeles studio and her farm in rural Washington state. She has been married to her husband Craig O’Rourke, also an artist, for 34 years and they have four adult children. Their 33-year-old son, Nick, has schizophrenia.
With an MFA in painting from Otis Art Institute, Miriam founded Demar Feldman Studios, Inc., a distinguished mural and decorative art company, in 1988. At the same time, she built a strong career as a fine artist, represented by Hamilton Galleries in Santa Monica, CA.
When Nick was diagnosed in 2004, Miriam became an activist and a writer. With first-hand knowledge of our mental health system, she decided to be an advocate for those who have no voice. She serves on the advisory board of Bring Change 2 Mind, the non-profit founded by Glenn Close, and writes a monthly blog for their website. Miriam is active in leadership at NAMI Washington and writes for their newsletters. She is a frequent guest on mental health podcasts and is active on Instagram, where she has created a community of family and loved ones dealing with mental illness
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA (Woodbine House, 2012). Her work has been published in Pithead Chapel, Common Ground Review, Cleaver Magazine (craft and CNF), The Awakenings Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Ruminate’s The Waking, Brave Voices Literary Magazine, Manifest-Station, and others. Forthcoming cover art to be featured on Up the Staircase Quarterly, other images to appear in Another Chicago Magazine (AJM) and Brushfire Literature & Arts Journal this summer; poetry in The Coffin Bell Journal, and CNF in Semicolon Literary Journal. Leslie has been awarded as one of the top 1% reviewers on GoodReads and recognized by Jane Friedman as one of the most influential book reviewers. Since 2013, Leslie has interviewed over 700 bestselling and debut authors on her author interview series. Follow her bookstagram posts @leslielindsay1.
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[Cover and author image courtesy of Turner Publications and used with permission in conjunction with SparkPoint Studios. Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Join me on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay1]