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WeekEND Reading: Gayle Brandeis talks about her new memoir, THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS, her mother’s suicide, the juxtaposition of life and death, mental illness, STRANGER THINGS 2, books she’s reading, and so much more

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Razor-sharp, raw, poetic memoir about mothers and daughters, suicide, mental illness, and grief.

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Gayle Brandeis’s mother disappeared shortly after Gayle gave birth to her youngest child, Asher. Several days later, her body was found hanging in the utility closet of parking garage of an apartment building for the elderly.

THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS is a gorgeous read about a less-glamorous time. Gayle is struggling with grief and heartache, as well as the soupy surreal time of postpartum. Gayle takes this dichotomy of death and birth and weaves it into a coherent, poetic narrative that brings readers into the grief experience.

What’s more is the family history surrounding a series of bizarre medical symptoms that often masked themselves as psychoses. Or was it psychosis, after all? It’s hard to say because the symptoms tend to overlap: delusions, paranoia, factitious disordersfactitious disorders; Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, porphyria. For the last few years of Gayle’s mother’s life, she was working on a documentary about these
disorders, called THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS. Gayle takes that script and braids it, along with her own feelings and experiences into the narrative. images (23)

Be sure to watch the stunning book trailer here: 

I found the writing clear and glittery, the medical mystery fascinating, but most of all–I wondered, what really happened?

From the back cover: 

“Written by a gifted stylist, THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS delves into the tangled mysteries of the disease, mental illness, and suicide, and comes out the other side with grace.”

I am so, so honored to welcome Gayle to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: Gayle, I find your story so important and so honest and I thank you for sharing it with us. Like you, I had a tumultuous relationship with my mother. Like you, I lost her to suicide a little over two years ago. I dont have to ask what was haunting you when you set out to write THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS; I know. But I am curious about what kept you going with the writing?

Gayle Brandeis: Thank you so much, Leslie—I’m so grateful for your kind words and so happy to appear on your blog. I’m sorry that you are part of this suicide loss survivor club, too—it’s not a community I’d wish on anyone, but I very much appreciate connecting with other survivors. Our stories are so often kept in the shadows, and I think when we share this complicated form of grief, we can help reduce stigma, help release shame. That was part of what drove me, but what drove me on a more personal level was the compulsion to dig and dig and dig until I could come to some place of understanding—or, if not understanding, at least a place of greater peace—with my mom, her life as well as her death. I wanted to make some kind of sense out of the chaos.

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L.L.: While THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS is as much about death as it is birth. Your youngest son, Asher was born just a week before your mother took her life. You share several beautiful passages in the narrative about Asher/Ashes/Ash/er/es []  its very poignant and also a nod to grief; I think we often grasp at small connections as our mind absorbs loss. We want to make sense of the tragedy.  You also share a really strong image of your sister carrying your mothers ashes in one hand and Asher in his car seat in another arm. Can you talk about the juxtaposition of life and death?

Gayle Brandeis: Life and death are always around us, of course—cue “The Circle of Life” music!—but losing my mom a week after giving birth drove that home in such an intense way. That moment where my sister was walking down the hall holding my baby Asher at the same times he was holding our mom’s ashes, embodies that juxtaposition so perfectly for me, the beginning and end of life in her hands (and realizing those two words—Asher, Ashes—are just one letter apart; just one breath apart, as I write in the book). Having a new baby kept me from running off the rails, I think—I’m so grateful he brought his ray of light to ground us and bring joy through that painful time. I’m very glad I took notes as it was all happening because both grief and giving birth can give one a kind of amnesia—some part of me must have known that, and took notes to guard against this double whammy. Those notes helped greatly once I was ready to write this story—they brought me right back to the intensity of the experience, of holding the reverberations of grief and birth in my body all at once.

L.L.: Shifting gears a bit to the medical side of THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSISyour mother believed she (and  your family) suffered from a couple of rare medical syndromes: Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and also porphyria. Later, theres mention of factitious disorder and malingering syndrome. You had me Googling all kinds of things! Can you break down what you understand about these illnesses, please?

Gayle Brandeis: I feel like I still don’t understand as much about Ehlers-Dalos syndrome and porphryria as my mom had wanted me to. Both are genetic disorders; Ehlers-Danlos is a connective tissue disorder which has a several manifestations—the most common seem to be the hyper mobility type, in which joints are extra loose, and the vascular type, which affects blood vessels (as well as other parts of the body) and can lead to issues like rupture of the aorta (my mom felt certain that this type ran in the family). Just in the last couple of years, several people I know have been diagnosed with EDS, or a family member has, or it’s been suspected by doctors, so it’s possible that my mom was right when she believed it’s not a rare disease, just rarely diagnosed. Porphyria is a metabolic disorder that has all sorts of physical and mental presentations, including some pretty wild ones, like a thirst for blood and “werewolfism”; it may be what drove King George “mad” (and thus helped America become America.) There is something kind of mythic about it, although of course it leads to very real suffering. As I mention in the book, I was kind of disappointed when it turned out I didn’t have porphyria, after all—if I had to be chronically ill (and of course I would rather not be!), that was an interesting illness to be associated with.

Factitious disorders were a more recent discovery for me. In the book, as you know, I talk about how I prolonged my illness for a year after it went into remission when I was a teenager because I didn’t know how not to be “the sick girl”—it had become my identity. A few years ago, a friend mentioned the word “malingering” and I knew I had heard it but didn’t fully understand what it meant; when I looked it up and discovered that it meant gaining some sort of reward from pretending to be ill, I thought, well, that’s what I was doing as a teenager. I later learned, though, that those who malinger get some sort of material benefit from their charade—money, etc.—but those with factitious disorders get their reward directly from the experience of being ill and the attention it inspires. That struck home all the more. The most serious form of this is Munchausen syndrome (named for Baron von Munchausen, a character who made up outlandish tales); there’s also Munchausen by proxy, in which a person, often a mother, will make someone else, often their child, ill through a variety of means. My mom didn’t have Munchausen by proxy, but our relationship as “the sick girl” and “the mother of the sick girl” was definitely an unhealthy and co-dependent one.

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L.L.: And yet, and yet…at times your mother seemed to suffer from some kind of mental illness. As I read, several diagnoses came to mind: schizoaffective disorder, bipolar, narcissism. What do you think was really going on?

Gayle Brandeis: It is still wild and ironic to me that I went out of my way to appear ill when I wasn’t and she refused to acknowledge she had mental illness when she did. After doing my own research and interviewing psychiatrists, it seems likely that she had a paranoid delusional disorder, which is different from schizophrenia and is apparently incredibly hard to treat. Even if she had ever been properly diagnosed, it’s unlikely there would have been a medication or other therapy that could have significantly  helped. Learning this was a relief in a way—I had been beating myself up, wondering what I could have done differently, how I could have helped her more, and when a psychiatrist I interviewed said there really isn’t anything I could have done, it helped me let go of some of the guilt I had been carrying. I do think she had narcissistic personality disorder, as well—the world very much revolved around her.

L.L.: THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS teeters between time periods and also is told, in part, by letters you wrote to your mother after her death at the urging of your therapist. There are a million ways you could have structured this narrative. How is that you decided on this structure?

Gayle Brandeis: The structure evolved as I worked on the book. The letter my therapist suggested I write to my mom was something I truly had started writing for myself alone, and as I delved into my history with my mom, at some point I realized that this letter could provide a deeper context for our relationship in the book, since the present tense narration around her suicide was urgent and immediate and didn’t really allow for that kind of reflection. The film transcription came in a bit later in the process—I had decided to borrow my mom’s title but I hadn’t considered using the film itself in the memoir, mostly because I hadn’t been ready to watch it after her death. Once I did let myself view it, I realized that braiding the film into the book could give my mom a chance to speak for herself on the page. And the research elements came in naturally, too—they were part of my investigation and it made sense to weave them in. It seems fitting that the story ended up being told in a complicated, fragmented way—it mirrors how complicated grief after suicide can be (but it also allowed me to create form out of chaos in a very satisfying way.)

L.L.: There are other memoirs about mental illness and suicide; mothers and daughters, but this one is illuminating and uplifting in some regards; redeeming in others. What do you think sets THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS apart? What do you hope readers take away? And did it transform you in writing it?

Gayle Brandeis: Of course every story of suicide is unique because of the voice and vision of the person writing, but there are also important points of connection between our stories. I take a dance class called “Groove” where the guiding principle
is “unified but unique”—you are given a few simple movements to do with each song that are touchstones for everyone in the class, but then you make the movements your own, layer on your own quirky stuff. I think of my book that way—I hope people who have gone through similar experiences will find a sense of solidarity and community, that it will help them feel less alone, but I also hope that this book will offer something new—a fresh approach to form, a singular experience told through my very particular (and sometimes peculiar, as was said in a review, which I love) body and mind. I very much hope readers leave the book with a sense of hope (and perhaps some inspiration to tell their own stories.)

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Writing this book transformed me more than I could ever say. I was asked to do a self-interview for The Nervous Breakdown, and I ended up asking myself “How did writing this book change you?” eleven times, with eleven different answers, and I could have kept going. I am a different person than I was when I began writing the book—a stronger person, a braver person, a more open person. I am so deeply grateful for the journey of this book.

L.L.: Gayle, its been such a pleasure. Thank you! Is there anything I forgot to ask that I should have? Like, maybe whats on your end-of-the-year-bucket list, what are you reading, what your guilty pleasures are, or how Asher is doing?

Gayle Brandeis: Thank you so much for having me—this has been a treat! I don’t think you forgot anything at all, but I’m happy to answer these questions! Not sure I have an end-of-the year bucket list, but I do want to see the Northern Lights before I
die.
  Speaking of death, I’m reading a book that comes out next year, I AM, I AM, I AM: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell, which is a beautiful exploration of how awareness of death can help us appreciate life all the more deeply. As for guilty pleasures, hmmm…I gobbled down Stranger Things 2, but I don’t feel guilty about that at all! Hot baths are perhaps my guiltiest pleasure—guilty because I don’t like to waste water, but I sure do love a good, long, hot soak. And Asher’s doing great! It’s kind of amazing to me that he’s 8 now—he is such a barometer of how long I’ve lived without my mom. He’s just about as tall as my armpits these days. Time is so weird. Thanks for asking about my sweet boy (and thanks for all of your other great questions—so very grateful!)29906170001_4871960491001_4871918106001-vs

For more information, to connect with Gayle via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS, please see:

Gayle_Brandeis_by_Rachael WareckiABOUT THE AUTHOR: Gayle Brandeis is the author, most recently, of the memoir The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide (Beacon Press) and the poetry collection The Selfless Bliss of the Body (Finishing Line Books). Her other books include Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), and the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), which won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage (Ballantine), Delta Girls (Ballantine), and My Life with the Lincolns (Henry Holt), which received a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a state-wide read in Wisconsin. Her poetry, essays, and short fiction have been widely published and have received numerous honors, including a Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Award and a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2016. She currently teaches at Sierra Nevada College and the low residency MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these on-line platforms:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Beacon Press and used with permission. Aurora Borealis/Northern Lights image retrieved from USAToday.com, quirky carpet layers from , the world revolves around me from, Life & Death Tree from Pinterest, no source noted, reading/book image from L. Lindsay’s personal archives, all on 11.16.17] 

 

WeekEND Reading: What happens when your spouse is ‘suddenly struck’ with a major mental illness? Mark Lukach talks about this, stigma, raising their son, mountain biking, and more in his memoir, MY LOVELY WIFE IN THE PSYCH WARD

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By Leslie Lindsay 

An honest and unflinching view of what it’s like to be the caregiver of someone with a serious mental illness, told with compassion and rawness. MyLovelyWifeinthePsychWard final cover

When I stumbled across MY LOVELY WIFE IN THE PSYCH WARD (Harper Wave, May 2017), I knew I had to read it. Not only does the author/husband share his name with my dad, but the strikingly similar story of a woman in the prime of her life suddenly falling victim to a strange and disorienting psychosis also rang true. Very true.

My own mother suffered a similar fate at 29, almost the very age Giulia was when psychoses came hunting her. I watched, as a child as my mother spewed delusion after delusion, her fingers blanched as she gripped the car door in protest, and then, as she attempted to exit the moving vehicle on the way to the hospital. I saw too, her mangled mind and tortured thoughts.

The difference is, I was a child. Mark is very much an adult.

I am so, so honored to have Mark on the blog couch today. The entire month of May has been Mental Health Awareness Month. We’re at the tail-end, I realize but that doesn’t negate it’s seriousness. Most everyone will come in contact with someone who has a mental illness—whether it’s a spouse, a friend, a neighbor, a colleague, and awareness is key.

Leslie Lindsay: Mark, thank you so much for popping over. I’m so in awe with this story. Not only did it take a terrible amount of courage to write, but the similarities with my mother are striking. Before we get into all of that, I’m curious what your inspiration was for writing this story? Was it really the ‘Modern Love’ column in the New York Times?

Mark Lukach:

I’d say that the motivation to write about this was two-fold: the first is personal, the second more universal.

On the personal front, after Giulia’s first episode, she and I were worlds apart. She was finally feeling better after almost a year of a mental health crisis, and she wanted nothing more than to just enjoy herself. Meanwhile, I was completely and totally wiped out by the caregiving experience, and so I slipped into my own depression a bit. She wanted to feel joyful and worry-free, and here I am dumping all of my pent-up anxiety and sadness on her. We tried talking about this, on our own and even in couple’s therapy, but we never really got anywhere and butted heads a lot.

So instead, I turned to writing. I had done so much writing over the year, almost entirely in email form to keep our families updated on what was going on, and I found the writing to be extremely helpful for me to process. So instead of write emails to our parents, I tried to reconstruct the year, in book form, Giulia as the sole audience. I needed her to be able to understand me a bit more, and as it turns out, the writing, reading, and subsequent discussions turned out to play a huge role in our ability to reconnect as a couple.  images (7)

The further I got into writing, the more I suspected that I might have something that was worth publishing, and so the Modern Love column was my way to try and get the book idea out there. That gets to the universal reason to write. As you say in your intro, mental health struggles come with surprisingly universal themes, but when Giulia was hospitalized, I felt more lonely than I’ve ever felt. It was like I was the first person to ever have to do this. I’m a history teacher, so I went online to try and find resources and narratives that could help me make sense of my experience, but I couldn’t find any, which made the loneliness even worse. I knew there were others out there like me, I just couldn’t find them, and that this book might be able to speak to people. It took us a while to decide to go for a fully published book, and in fact, it didn’t happen until well after the Modern Love column and Giulia’s subsequent hospitalizations, as well as the birth of our son, but the motivation really became about trying to help people.

L.L.: And now the similarities. My mom was 29 when this happened to her; Giulia was 27. My mom heard voices of God and the devil speaking to her. She did not want to go the hospital. She tried jumping out of a moving car. At one point, she was discharged AMA (against medical advice). It happened again and again.  My dad—also named Mark—is an avid athlete. He competed in marathons and triathlons; but we were land-locked in Missouri, so no surfing. There are differences, though. I think what this comes down to is the universality of mental illness. Can you talk about that, please?

Mark Lukach: I am constantly shocked by just how common these things are. I’ve received a humbling amount of email from readers over the years, due to the Modern Love column and also a magazine article I wrote in Pacific Standard, and at times I almost feel like I’m reading from myself. I remember speaking with one of the social workers during Giulia’s first hospitalization, and of the 30 or so people who were on the psych ward at that time with Giulia, there were several others with religious delusions that looked almost the exact same as Giulia’s. It’s remarkable. Although I have to say Leslie, your parents’ story seems to be the most similar from anyone else I’ve met. It’s so cool that we connected.

But what does this all mean? I’m not really sure. I do think it means that mental illness is more prevalent than we let on. I understand why people are hesitant to talk about it. It’s such a terrifying thing to experience, whether it’s happening to you, or to someone you love, and we don’t go around telling everyone about life’s biggest struggles. But if we could look inside the homes of all of our neighbors and coworkers, I think we’d be shocked about how many of us suffer in similar ways.

Sometimes I go the way of Yossarian from Catch-22 when I think about this stuff—it’s a crazy world, so the only reasonable response is to go crazy as well, and maybe that’s why mental illness is so prevalent. The world does seem to get more and more pressured and impersonal, so maybe that’s part of it. But I only sometimes download (10)think that way. My most go-to answer is in a mantra that we say a lot in our family—“We’re all in this together.” We say it before dinner, sort of like our version of grace, and the more I connect with people about mental illness, the more I’m convinced that it’s true. We’re all in this together—in our joys and also in our struggles.

L.L.: The biggest difference in MY LOVELY WIFE IN THE PSYCH WARD and my mom’s mental illness is my parents divorced. I’m not entirely sure if it was the illness that tore them apart, or the symptoms and after-effects; or if there were issues all along. What this speaks to is the tenacity to love someone in sickness and in health. That includes mental health. I can’t imagine how challenging this must be (has been). Can you share a bit of your coping skills and marriage maintenance tips?

Mark Lukach: This really is what the book is about at its core. Giulia and I were thrown this curve ball of a major mental illness, and we responded in desperation and in survival mode. Once the dust settled, we had to re-evaluate who we were, and what our relationship looked like, so that we could continue to stay together. And that’s not an easy thing to do. Crises forced us to take a close look at our relationship, and neither of us necessarily liked what we saw all the time.

But we had this shared history of falling in love so young, and basically growing into adulthood together, and also a belief that we could make it work, so we tried to find ways to reconnect. I think one of the core things that we both had to learn to do better was to listen. I did a lot of talking at Giulia while she was sick, and acting on her behalf. I essentially managed her life for her when she was sick, because I worried so much about what she might do on her own, like hurt herself. In all of that, I didn’t really listen to her that much. What she said was so heartbreaking to her, that I ended up trying to talk her out of her feelings. It took me a while to realize this. I thought I was doing the right thing by trying to comfort her when she felt suicidal, but I realized I was actually, in a small way, denying her experience by trying to talk her out of how she felt.

Similarly, Giulia had to learn to listen to just how difficult it was for me to support her, which as I said above, we largely accomplished through the writing process. I realize looking back just how desperate I was for validation that my struggles were being acknowledged.images (8)

We try to take this lesson of listening to heart every day in our marriage. Of course, not every day is a mental health crisis, and it’s so easy to get busy multi-tasking your way into half-listening, or to shut down things that you don’t like to hear, and I think those can be so damaging to a relationship. We still make mistakes to each other, but we have this anchor now that we always return to—when things are going bad, we try and remind each other how important it is to listen, and that ends up being the first step toward reconciliation.

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L.L.: In MY LOVELY WIFE IN THE PSCYCH WARD, it’s mentioned that Giulia did not have a family history for mental illness, yet so many mental illnesses have genetic roots; they often run in families. I’m curious if you all did any more digging into her family history to find any sort of suggested mental illness?

Mark Lukach: We did do a lot of digging and asking, but Giulia is from Italy, where the conversations around mental illness are much different than they are in the US. I talked to her parents a lot about this, and they certainly didn’t know about any family members with mental illness, but over time they both admitted that just because they didn’t know about them [family members with mental illness], it didn’t mean that they didn’t exist. It just meant that they didn’t know, since this type of thing is basically never talked about over there.

L.L.: And you have a son together. How my heart broke as I read about little Jonas and his elephant costume, his mother away in psych ward, his insisting that there were monsters in the house.  How is he doing? What are some of his passions? And most importantly, can you reiterate the advice you received from your pediatrician about protecting kids in situations like this? 

Mark Lukach: Jonas is the light of our lives. I’ve wanted to be a dad for as long as I can remember, and I feel like we won the lottery with Jonas. He’s an active, curious, kind-hearted little boy. He’s just so much fun to be around. He loves books, sports, especially baseball and hockey, Star Wars, Harry Potter, legos. He’s very spiritual, and asks a lot of questions about the bigger questions in life, which I can’t help but to wonder if it’s connected somehow to his mom being hospitalized for delusions twice in his life. But I think his most telling trait is that Jonas likes to be together as a family. It seems like as long as we’re together as a family, he is up for anything. I’m hanging onto these days as tightly as I can, because I know that at some point, he’s going to grow away from always wanting his parents nearby, so I’m trying to treasure it now.

When Giulia was hospitalized for the third time, Jonas was 2 ½ years old, and his pediatrician told me that there might come a situation where I would have to choose to either protect Giulia or Jonas. For example, I knew that Giulia was really anxious to come home, and it felt like she might end up being discharged before she was ready to be around Jonas again. Jonas’ pediatrician was adamant: you have to protect your child first. He was so young, and didn’t have the words to process what he was experiencing, so I had to keep him safe and happy at all costs. Even if that meant rejecting the doctor’s recommendation that Giulia could come home, which can you imagine what that would do to my relationship with Giulia? Thankfully we didn’t have this sort of confrontation, because when Giulia came home, she was the one to realize she probably needed a few days to settle in at home before Jonas was home as well, so he stayed with my parents during that time.

When I became a parent, I never imagined that I would have to at some point crazy-love-4make a choice between my wife or my child. I didn’t know that came with part of the territory. But it’s something I think all parents have to confront at some point or another, and I honestly don’t know if there’s a harder position to be in.

L.L.: And Giulia? How does she feel about this story being out for public consumption? I ask because in the book there’s a line that says something like, “It might be your illness, but it affects us all.”

Mark Lukach: Giulia has been incredible about this. I knew that it took a lot of courage for her to share this story, but I didn’t actually realize just how much courage. Whenever you Google her name, this book comes up. She is the lovely wife, the one whose medical history is shared for anyone to read about. And she’s up for it because she thinks this book can help people, and I find that amazing.

We’ve been doing book readings here in the Bay Area, and Giulia always comes and we do a Q&A together with the audience after I’ve read some passages, and I am so blown away by how she does with the questions. I think it’s the most empowered I’ve ever seen her. It really is incredible. I have always loved and admired Giulia, but that has only grown to see her be so gracious through all of this.

L.L.:  What was the last thing you Googled?

Mark Lukach: Ha, I like this question. The last thing I Googled was for techniques to manage poison oak. I got a really bad case of the rash recently, which comes with the lifestyle of how much time I spend out on trails running and mountain biking. So I usually get poison oak a few times each year—it’s unavoidable. But I went hiking recently and saw this vine climbing up a tree, and I tried to climb up it, not realizing the vine was poison oak. The leaves were way up in the tree, so I couldn’t identify the plant, and I got the worst case of poison oak I think I’ve ever gotten. All over my face, arms, chest, everywhere. It is the worst. When I get poison oak, I race to the internet to find ways to cope with it. Granted, I already have like 50 techniques, but I hope that maybe some new trick has been discovered, and so I have been spending a lot of time trying to Google my way to some new solution that will somehow speed up the healing process. But I think I’m just stuck with it for the next two weeks, no matter how much I Google.

L.L.: What should I have asked but may have forgotten?

Mark Lukach: I’d love to talk about artistic inspiration for the book. I am an avid reader but even more than that, a fan of music, and I think that music inspired this book more than anything. I listened to Sufjan Stevens’ album “Carrie and Lowell” on repeat for much of the writing process, and I don’t mean that as an exaggeration. I would literally listen to the album 4 or 5 times a day while writing. The album is download (11)Sufjan’s way of mourning his mother, who battled mental illness as well, and I found the album helped me fully reconnect with the emotions that I wanted to embed into the book.

L.L.: Mark, thank you so very much for your words. MY LOVELY WIFE IN THE PSYCH WARD is an important read and so courageous. I applaud you for telling your story.

Mark Lukach: I really appreciate your interest in having me on your site, and for the support for the book. I’m a high school history teacher, and it’s so flattering to be included with such an impressive assortment of writers.

For more information about MY LOVELY WIFE IN THE PSYCH WARD, to connect with Mark via social media, or to purchase your own copy, please visit: 

profilepicsmall.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Lukach is a teacher and freelance writer. His work has been published in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Pacific Standard, Wired, and other publications. He is currently the ninth grade dean at The Athenian School, where he also teaches history. He lives with his wife, Giulia, and their son in the San Francisco Bay area.

Mark first wrote about Giulia in a New York Times “Modern Love” column and again in a piece for Pacific Standard Magazine, which was the magazine’s most-read article in 2015.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, through these social media sites:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Harper Wave and used with permission. Lukach family photo retrieved from Pacific Standard article/author’s personal archives. Catch-22 image retrieved from Wikipedia, “Carrie and Lowell” album cover retrieved from Wiki.en, all on 5.25.17]

Wednesdays with Writers: Natasha Tracy talks about the delicate diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder, the difference between book-ready and blog-ready, how writing is like slogging through swamps, and not sugar-coating mental illness.

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Understanding what it’s really like to live with bipolar disorder (BD) is impossible to share with someone who doesn’t have experience with serious mental illness. Natasha Tracy, a writer living with bipolar takes you under her wing and walks you through the labyrinth of questions and quandaries as if she were your cool, more experienced older sister. She gets it; she’s lived it for the last 18 years.

And we all need to care.

At some point in our lives, we will know someone with a major mental illness. It might be invisible to the naked eye; you may never see the affects, but it might still be there, lurking under the surface and it may very well be your friend, your neighbor, your spouse, your coworker. And in my case: my mother.

I was just ten years old when she had her first major manic episode. It was about the time when The Bangles song, “Just Another Manic Monday” was playing on the radio. We had a cute house in the suburbs, a so-called ‘normal’ life until one day…it wasn’t. My mom was in the throes of her first manic break and as a child, it was scary. She struggled with bipolar disorder for many years until she finally took her life about eighteen months ago.

All along, I was fascinated with psychiatry and became a child/adolescent psych R.N. My interest hasn’t ended just because I decided to pursue another dream, but instead has continued to be a strong part of my life; it’s pretty hard to sever a connection that strong.

Natasha’s writing style is accessible, easy to follow; she’s honest and maybe not always politically correct, but that’s okay; she talks about that, too. But mostly, the book is expertly researched, laid out, and was…dare I say, a joy to read. While that sounds a little over-enthusiastic, I think you get what I’m saying; there’s no gobblety-gook.

Join me as we welcome Natasha Tracy to the blog couch. She calls herself, “a professional crazy person.” She doesn’t mean to be insensitive or glib, but authentic, engaging, honest. She tells you how it is to live with bipolar and depression, she answers your most pressing questions about these serious mental illnesses, things like: How do I know if I’m hypomanic or just feeling better? What is hypersexuality all about? What should someone say (0r not) to someone with a serious disorder? What’s it *really* like in a psych ward? It’s all there and so, so much more.final_fullcover_Tweaked4a.jpg

Leslie Lindsay: Natasha, thank you so very much for being here. I am just in awe with LOST MARBLES. You spell things out so clearly, so effortlessly. Though I am sure it wasn’t exactly easy. Can you talk a bit about your inspiration for writing this book and a bit about the process?

Natasha Tracy:Hi Leslie, thank you for inviting me onto your couch.Thirteen years ago I started writing about my own mental illness and after a year, a writer friend of mine told me that my work was saving lives. Quite frankly, I didn’t believe him. But then I got a comment from someone saying just that – my work had saved her life. It was beyond incredible to me that someone would look at work that way. Eventually, I realized people really were helped by my work and I knew a book was in me.

When it came to actually writing it, it was a matter of picking the best of what I had already written, the most powerful things for readers, and filling in the gaps where they existed. And then it was about rewriting almost everything to get it “book-ready.” Book-ready is a much higher standard than “blog-ready.” images-4

L.L.:  But you’re not a doctor. Or therapist. You’re a writer living with bipolar disorder. Can you talk a bit about the research you did for LOST MARBLES? About how much time did it take you to write it?

Natasha Tracy: You could say that LOST MARBLES took me six years or it took me six months, it sort of depends on how you look at it. Certainly, the content came about over a six-year time span but putting it together took an extremely concerted six months.

As for the research, for the technical parts of the book it was intense. I needed to get it absolutely right. I needed to help people with mental illness decide on treatment in the right way. Luckily, one of my early readers was Dr. Prakash Masand, a psychiatrist who pointed me in the right direction and suggested some research tidbits that I didn’t know about.

Although the technical research felt like slogging through a swamp at the time, now that it’s done I’m happy to have answered the question, “What medication should I take?” for many people.

L.L.: You talk about mental illness with such candor; I find it very refreshing. I feel like you are helping break that stigma of mental illness. Can you talk to that, please?

Natasha Tracy: One of my strengths, I feel, is to write about mental illness in a way that is real, honest, gritty and not sugar-coated. I say the things that people with mental illness think but don’t have the words to express. This is why people identify with my work so strongly.

I don’t believe in the concept of “stigma” per se. What I believe in fighting is prejudice and the inevitable discrimination that follows it. I believe that by making people with mental illness three-dimensional people with real emotions and real struggles, we actually start to sound just like everyone else – just amplified. And prejudice is always fueled by fear, usually fear of the unknown, so my job is to make it known.

L.L.: What advice would you give a person who has just been diagnosed with BD? How can they make sense of the diagnosis, what coping skills might help?download (31).jpg

Natasha Tracy: When you’re diagnosed with a serious mental illness like bipolar disorder it feels like the end of the world. It feels like there is no tomorrow. It feels like everything you were is gone. This is normal and natural. There are ways to work through this, though.

First off, it’s important to know that world is not ending, there will be a tomorrow and there is an innate you that will not disappear. That said, the world, the tomorrows and even you, will change in response to the illness. Again, this is normal and natural. Most people never get back to a pre-bipolar state.

But this natural. No one’s life moves backwards. Things change but this is not a negative, this is just a challenge. Every person on the planet changes every day, it just happens that bipolar disorder is a wallop of a change all at once.

There are many things a newly-diagnosed person can do. Firstly, it’s important to get the best bipolar specialist psychiatrist and therapist one can find and create a treatment plan that makes sense for the individual. Then the treatment plan must be followed. It’s also important to lean on loved ones during this time as they will connect a person to who he or she really is.

L.L.: ….And medication. Oh, I feel as I’m opening a can of worms, but how can one reconcile the high cost of medication(s); are there options/resources for lowering the cost?

Natasha Tracy: It’s an unfortunate truth that for many in the United States the cost of medication is very high. That said, the drugs, while laden with issues like side effects, save lives every day. Many people would have taken their lives without these medications. Yes, there is no doubt that they are expensive and have other associated issues, but when it comes down to life or death, a functional life or a life spent in psychosis, there is no doubt that they are still worth it.download (32).jpg

(I will say, however, that this is not such an issue in Canada where prices for drugs are regulated. This is what people in the United States should push for as well.)

L.L.: What’s the best thing a loved one/friend can do to help someone newly diagnosed?

Natasha Tracy: Learn, learn, learn. [LOST MARBLES] will tell people a lot of what it is like to live with a mental illness but it certainly should not be the entirety of the education one seeks. Books and websites, especially those written by healthcare professionals or subject matter experts who have bipolar disorder can also be invaluable. In addition to my site, 513rbp298vl-_sx334_bo1204203200_which holds many more of my writings, I also recommend psycheducation.org, which is written by Jim Phelps MD and Medscape.com for medical facts, also written by doctors for doctors. In terms of books, Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder by Julie Fast (who has bipolar disorder) and John D. Preston PsyD is great.

I always tell people you can’t fight an enemy that you don’t understand and this is as true for loved ones as it is for people with the illness.

L.L.: What’s captured your interest lately? It doesn’t have to be bipolar or literary, but if so, by all means…

Natasha Tracy: I love to cook and bake. Now that my book is published I have time for it again. I love meals you can make on a weeknight – short and to the point – like those by Judith Jones but I also love long and impossible recipes such as those by the great French chef Thomas Keller. I also love the challenge of doing things like making my own croissants (which can take days, seriously).download-30

L.L.: What question should I have asked, but may have forgotten?

Natasha Tracy: Perhaps, what it’s like to manage bipolar while writing, editing and publishing a book?

In my case this was a huge challenge and I will honestly admit that it got the better of my bipolar. The whole process, perhaps because it was so short and intense, sent me into the worst mixed mood episode of my life. In short, the cost of this book was very, very high for me but I still consider it something worth doing (and something I’m planning on doing again). That said, net time I will take better care of my health and this is what I encourage everyone to do. We all face stressors, of our own making or otherwise, but without our health, we can’t face anything.

I am pleased to say, though, that with the help of my psychiatrist and medication changes, I was able to pull out of that episode and now look at it from the other side.

L.L.: Natasha, it’s been such a honor to connect. And insightful, too. Thank you for taking the time to chat with us.

Natasha Tracy: I truly appreciate your interest in the book. Thank you so much for having me.

headshot_bigAuthor Bio:Natasha Tracy is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. She is considered a subject matter expert in the area of bipolar disorder and has written hundreds of articles on it as well as hundreds of articles on other mental health issues. Natasha has spoken to groups from 30 to 300, from ages 12 and up across North America. She believes that education and honest, unvarnished storytelling are keys in fighting the prejudice that people with mental illness face.

Natasha’s first book, Lost Marbles, Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar, was released in October 2016 and has been ranked as a #1 Hot New Release on Amazon in the category of bipolar disorder.

Natasha currently writes the award-winning blogs Bipolar Burble on her own site and Breaking Bipolar on HealthyPlace. Her writing has also been featured on The Huffington Post, Daily Mail, PsychCentral, Sharecare and others. She has spoken at events and conferences including at the National Council’s annual conference as well as Mental Health America’s annual conference.

You can find Natasha:

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, through these social media sites:

LOVE IT? SHARE IT! 

[Cover and author images courtesy of N.Tracy. LOVING SOMEONE WITH BIPOLAR D/O retrieved from Amazon. Croissant image retrieved from, sad/diagnosis image from, medication image from psychcentral.com, all retrieved 11.27.16]

 

 

Write On, Wednesday: Interview with author Sarah Cornwell of WHAT I HAD BEFORE I HAD YOU

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By Leslie Lindsay

I am just thrilled to have Sarah Cornwell debut author of WHAT I HAD BEFORE I HAD YOU. Mothers. Daughters. Family bonds. Throw in a little bipolar and psychic action and I’m so there. A writer myself, these are often themes and questions I love to explore in my own writing, but they are tough subjects! WhatIHadBeforeIHadYou hc c

Be sure to enter for the Give-a-way copy of this lovely book!* Sarah and HarperCollins has graciously provided one copy up for grabs for TWO different readers. All you gotta do is share via social media, or comment on the blog. Let me know you shared** by dropping me an email at leslie_lindsay@hotmail.com. Okay…and now with the interview! Apraxia Monday:  He Talks Funny Author Jeanne Buesser & Give-a-Way

Leslie Lindsay: What can you tell us about the type of research you drew upon to create such a compellingly honest composition?

Sarah Cornwell: Thank you for that description! So much of the research that goes into my writing is simply lived life—observing people, pocketing details, taking on odd jobs that might grant some deeper access. For a while as I finished this book I worked part-time as a research interviewer for a psych study, interviewing mother-daughter pairs about their mental health and emotional lives—what a perfect research job that was! I steer my life toward my subject matter; I went to a range of psychics as I wrote this book, for example, to better understand how Myla might present herself in that part of her life.

For the first few years of the ten that I spent, on and off, writing this book, I had no idea that bipolar disorder would play a part in the story. Myla emerged first as a mercurial, passionate, unreliable mom with a carefully guarded past (though not the past she ended up with in the final draft!) and Olivia as a sheltered teenager experiencing an accelerated adolescence. Once I saw that their moods and behaviors pointed to a family history of bipolar disorder, I let it color the story, and then I began research to make sure I rendered that illness accurately. Concerning early onset bipolar disorder, I found much of value in ‘The Bipolar Child,’ by Demitri Papolos M.D. and Janice Papolos. I read many memoirs concerning adult and adolescent experiences of bipolar disorder, and I was grateful for candid conversations with friends with the bipolar diagnosis as well as with mental health professionals. Before publication, I had a child psychiatrist fact-check the manuscript.

L.L.: Okay—full disclosure, I am the daughter of a bipolar mother. She was no picnic to live with; even as an adult daughter I struggle with her. Do you have any personal connection to bipolar?

Sarah Cornwell:Thank you for sharing that. Some of the most meaningful responses I’ve received to the book have been from people who have bipolar disorder or who have bipolar family members. It is the highest compliment to hear that Olivia’s perspective is resonating in this personal way for readers. I am the daughter of a therapist, so I grew up very familiar with mental health issues, and I’ve always been fascinated with the mind—with the variations in how we think and perceive that make us who we are. I come from a family with its own legacy of mental health issues, both diagnosed and undiagnosed (don’t we all!)

L.L.: I find it so very creepy that Olivia has to clean the nursery of her stillborn twin sisters many years after their, uh…birth. How did you dream up this scenario? Is it part of the mother’s bipolar that commands this, or is it grief? Something Olivia senses her mother needs?

Sarah Cornwell: This was one of the very first moments, or series of mental images, from which the book sprang: the nursery, the enforced relationship between living and dead siblings. My own mother had several miscarriages before my birth, and I remember wondering, as a child, whether those were brothers and sisters I’d never know, or just myself, trying again and again to exist. This thought was the seed of the book, and when I sat down to express it, the nursery tumbled out fully formed, a physical expression of that tension between ghost and child.

The ritual of cleaning the nursery is something that Myla needs in order to keep Olivia feeling connected to her invisible sisters, as a priest might ask religious believers to make offerings in a temple—to make a daily show of faith in the unseen, and so to reinforce that faith. It is Myla asking Olivia to support and participate in her delusion—a big responsibility for a child, once she begins to realize the things her mother has told her are not entirely reliable…

L.L.: You write so eloquently about mothers and children, so I have to ask—do you have children of your own?

Sarah Cornwell: Thank you! I do not, but I’m looking forward to it!

L.L.: Psychics have long been a topic that fascinate and bemuse me. In some ways I feel there’s a little psychic action driving the beast under our writerly pursuits. How did this piece drift into your novel?

Sarah Cornwell: This story is so much about the space between what is real and what is unreal. Psychic ability falls into this space for me—I want to believe in it, and other people promise they have seen convincing proof, yet I have not. I am fascinated by that sort of fundamentally human longing for magical explanations for life’s mysteries. The mind is a meaning-making machine; it will sew up holes and ignore fuzzy logic in order to see what it wants to see. As I wrote this book, Myla’s psychic ability bled together with her bipolar disorder in a way that felt meaningful—her unique and special powers come only with the destructive force of her mania. Whether or not you believe, as you read, that she truly has psychic powers, it’s that wedding of identity and talent to unmedicated mania that interested me—she believes in her powers because they make her who she is, and they make her bipolar disorder a source of strength, whereas many people in her early life treated her as a compromised person (as you find out through revelations that come late in the book!)

L.L.: Moving on to the craft of writing, can you give us a glimpse into a typical writing day for you?

Sarah Cornwell: I work best in the morning after a good night’s sleep. Beyond that, I’m completely inconsistent! I don’t write every day, and I’m always irked by the blanket statements you’ll hear that every writer must—we’re all different and we conjure different magic through different means!

My days vary quite a bit depending on where I am in a project, and depending on the form in which I’m writing. Right now, for instance, I am working exclusively on screenwriting projects and I’m under deadline, so I often spend a good four or five hour chunk in a coffee shop in the morning (where the presence of other people working hard keeps me honest), go home for lunch, and spend the rest of the day trying desperately to reach that morning-session level of productivity, failing, forgiving myself, and then cooking dinner. Rinse and repeat.

When I am brainstorming or outlining, though (which I only do preliminarily in screenwriting—in fiction I outline only when I’m already deeply into a project) my days often consist of wandering around, staring out windows, doing other jobs, puttering, complaining… I’ll spend a whole day like that, feeling miserably unproductive, and then a lightbulb will blink on and I’ll realize that I was working that whole time, in a back burner kind of way, and that I’ve accomplished a very necessary step. It has taken me years to get comfortable with handing the reins over to the unconscious part of my mind in that way. And even though I know now that it’s an indispensable part of my process, it’s always uncomfortable.

L.L.: Many of our readers are interested in agents. Can you shed a little light into the agent-getting game, what you felt you did right—and maybe some pointers as to how you would do it differently?

Sarah Cornwell: I didn’t reach out to agents until my novel was finished, in 2012, nine years after I started it and two years after it served as my graduate thesis at UT-Austin’s Michener Center for Writers. I knew that thesis draft wasn’t the best I could do (in fact the missing puzzle piece ended up being the whole present-tense timeline, which flowed out of me in months once that particular lightbulb blinked on). By the time I did turn out a draft I felt satisfied with, I had a few agents checking in routinely, who had reached out to me after reading my short fiction in literary magazines, and I had recommendations of good agent matches from writing mentors I met in graduate school. These connections are so valuable, and not in a shmoozy way—I hate shmoozy—it’s about finding allies and mentors in your own education as a writer, however you go about it, and then sharing resources so that writing you love and respect can find its audience.

I believe strongly in waiting until a piece of writing is as good as I can possibly make it before asking an agent or an editor to invest their time in it, and I think that philosophy served me well. I chose two agents to submit the manuscript to and picked the one whose vision for selling it felt right to me.

L.L.:What’s next? Will we be hearing more from you in the future?

Sarah Cornwell: Right now I am having a great time getting things up and running in my Hollywood screenwriting career. My first movie will be produced this summer by David S. Goyer, a horror movie called THE FOREST. Next, I am adapting Jennifer Percy’s amazing work of nonfiction, ‘Demon Camp,’ into a supernatural thriller for Paramount Pictures. I hope to start another novel within the next year.

Sarah Cornwell WHAT I HAD...Bio: Sarah Cornwell grew up in Narberth, Pennsylvania. Her debut novel, What I Had Before I Had You, was published by HarperCollins in January 2014, and received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in publications including the 2013 Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Missouri Review, Mid-American Review, Gulf Coast, Hunger Mountain, and Alaska Quarterly Review, and has been honored with a Pushcart Prize, the 2008 Gulf Coast Fiction Prize, and finalist honors for the Keene Prize for Literature. In 2010, her screenwriting was recognized with the Humanitas Student Drama Fellowship. A former Michener Fellow at UT-Austin, Sara was the Spring 2012 Writer-in-Residence at Interlochen Arts Academy and a 2011 Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation Creative Fellow for Pennsylvania State. Sarah has worked as an investigator of police misconduct, a writer in the schools, an MCAT tutor, a psychological research interviewer, a toy seller, and a screenwriter. She lives in Los Angeles.Apraxia Monday:  He Talks Funny Author Jeanne Buesser & Give-a-Way

**The Fine Print for Giveaway: Two hardcover copies of WHAT I HAD BEFORE I HAD YOU are being provided by HarperCollins, one for each of 2 winners. Contest runs from today, 4.23.14 thru Wednesday 4.30.14. You must share this link via social media of your choice and then email “I shared” to leslie_lindsay@hotmail to be entered in giveaway. Your name will be selected at random on 4.23.14. You will be contacted via email if you are the winner; please check your junk/spam folder for notification. Books will be mailed to you by HarperCollins. Please be patient while you await the arrival of your complimentary book. Good luck!

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Courtesy of HarperCollins