By Leslie Lindsay
Dyane Harwood talks about her stunning memoir on postpartum bipolar disorder, family psychiatric history, & so much more in BIRTH OF A NEW BRAIN
When I was pregnant, my husband heard on NPR that a mother’s brain drastically changes during pregnancy and then again during labor/delivery. It’s why some expecting mothers are a little flaky, a little preoccupied. And then, after the birth, a woman’s brain actually becomes better–she is able to better multitask, sense danger, and even retain more information.
But what happens when a severe mental illness is triggered? That’s what happened with Dyane Harwood. In her touching, unflinching, share-all memoir, she dives right into that abyss of madness. Having a family history of bipolar (her dad was a gifted concert violinist and suffered from regular bouts of bipolar), Dyane never thought she’d bear the brunt of the same diagnosis.
With the birth of her second daughter, Dyane slipped into a full manic episode, with the compulsive need to write (hypergraphia). She wasn’t bonding with her children (she also had a toddler), she wasn’t sleeping, and her thoughts were strung-out. She became suicidal. She was admitted to a psychiatric unit.
Through vivid, courageous, and excruciatingly honest vignettes we learn more about Dyane’s battles with medication, alternative treatments, and even her marriage. BIRTH OF A NEW BRAIN is working to lift the veil on mental illness, especially mothers with bipolar.
This is an important read for anyone. BIRTH OF A NEW BRAIN is a look at how bipolar affects not just the individual, but a family. This book should be required reading for spouses/significant others and close relatives.
I applaud Dyane’s motivation and willingness to share such sensitive topics. Please join me in welcoming her to the blog couch.
Leslie Lindsay: Dyane, I tore through the first few pages of BIRTH OF A NEW BRAIN. I was so excited and worried for you—having a baby is such a tremendous and joyous occasion and yet it’s rift with uncertainty and exhaustion. And in your case, mania. What was your inspiration for sharing such a tender piece of your life?
Dyane Harwood: I’ve been a voracious reader ever since I was a child. Books have always served as my teachers. After my postpartum bipolar disorder was activated, I searched online for a book that addressed my form of bipolar disorder. I couldn’t find anything so I did what is often done among writers—I wrote the book I had been seeking. I wanted the memoir to help other mothers as they faced this bewildering mental illness.
Ironically, my hypergraphia served as the catalyst to write BIRTH OF A NEW BRAIN—I didn’t put any thought into it. I just started writing. I had been a freelance writer for over ten years before my postpartum bipolar diagnosis and I had always wanted to write a book. However, I never could have predicted my book would be a memoir, let alone focus on a serious mood disorder.
“carried the highest risk of developing bipolar disorder in the human lifetime.”
The reasons are unknown, but it’s theorized that exhaustion, hormones, and family history may be triggers. Can you talk more about this? Have you uncovered any other information on ‘why now?’
Dyane Harwood: Currently there’s a great amount of discussion in the medical community about chronic inflammation in the body. Inflammation affects the brain in profound, sobering was and it has been linked to bipolar disorder and depression among other diseases. I have a strong feeling that chronic inflammation served as a catalyst for my mood disorder. What causes inflammation? I’m not a medical professional, but it’s commonly known that it’s generated by foods such as sugar (which has been my 5th food group throughout my life), gut bacteria, chronic stress, environmental toxins, and the disruption of circadian rhythms.
Circadian rhythms consist of the cycle that tells our bodies when to sleep, rise, and eat. It regulates many physiological processes. I [recently completed] an advanced Google search for the phrase “postpartum bipolar.” The results included a 2010 study titled “Circadian clock gene Per3 variants influence the postpartum onset of bipolar disorder.”
I’ve done this exact Google search numerous times since 2010, and I was surprised I never noticed this study pop up on my screen. In any case, I hope there will be additional research about the circadian clock and perinatal mental health since there’s a proven connection between genetics and the onset of postpartum bipolar disorder.
L.L.: My own mother struggled for many years with bipolar disorder, among other diagnoses. For the first ten years of my life she was fairly stable. And then—crack—a fissure in our family. I’ve always worried it could be me. In fact, you share later in BIRTH OF A NEW BRAIN that Marilla (your youngest daughter) asked if she’ll be bipolar. There’s no way of knowing for sure. What do you tell your daughters about your illness?
Dyane Harwood: Both of my girls have asked me if they’ll have bipolar disorder. My answer to each of them has been based on the truth. I’ve said, “While yes, there’s a chance you could develop bipolar, if you do, we’ll know how to help you.” I tell them there are researchers working hard to find a cure. I felt compelled to give them honest answers—well, I didn’t really have a choice. My precocious girls have a sixth sense about when I’m being dishonest. (I’m also not the greatest liar!) While I’ve never wanted to give them false hope, I believed it would be helpful to emphasize that bipolar research is happening worldwide. I was most concerned that Marilla and her older sister Avonlea understood that bipolar disorder is a manageable condition.
L.L.: We see, too that there were some early indicators that maybe something was amiss. You share some candid experiences working a high-stress job in your twenties and experiencing some bad break-ups that triggered symptoms of hypomania; can you tell us more about that time—and did anyone ever suggest that maybe, maybe something ‘more’ was going on?
Dyane Harwood: Hypomania can often be quite deceptive in terms of symptoms. One can simply appear happy and not exhibit any alarming manic behavior. There can be a thin line between the two states of hypomania and mania. When I experienced hypomania after not sleeping for several nights due to work, no one took me aside and said, “Hmmm. You might want to get checked out.” Granted, the environment I was working in was total pandemonium. No one was watching me under a microscope since there was so much going on. I worked for a Silicon Valley special event company and we were setting up a 4th of July music festival attended by thousands of people.
The demise of several significant relationships made me deeply depressed. Again, no one thought my depression was bipolar-related. Everyone in my life at the time thought I was experiencing the typical despair associated with a broken heart including my parents, my godmother and my first psychiatrist.
L.L.: I want to step back a bit, and ask about your dad. He was a concert violinist and also had raging moods, would shroud himself in his bedroom with the curtains blocking the sun. What were your thoughts then? Did anyone explain what was going on?
Dyane Harwood: As a child, I never received a clear explanation about my father’s bipolar disorder [or manic depression as it used to be called]. I had no idea why he had so many little bottles on his armoire, bottles that were filled with substances I would one day take myself such as lithium and Valium. I didn’t want to know about his bottle collection—I preferred to get lost in my land of books. What I did know was that there was something, very, very wrong happening to my father. I watched him suffer and it haunted me. And this might sound a bit on the “drama queen” side, but part of me sensed that the depression I witnessed would someday be my fate.
L.L.: And you have a brother as well. How is his mental health? Are there other family members in your family tree with suspected or diagnosed mental health concerns?
Dyane Harwood: My younger brother, my only sibling, has been fortunate to bypass bipolar disorder. He takes care of himself and has a beautiful family. I’ve been certain there must be members of my family who had bipolar disorder or other mental health issues, but I don’t know any specifics. I wish I wasn’t ignorant about my family’s background because it would help in detecting potential or acute mental illnesses in our future generations.
L.L.: You’ve struggled for at least ten years with medication regimes, alternative therapy (LightBox, essential oils, exercise, and my favorite–bibliotherapy). How are you doing now? What’s been most effective for you?
Dyane Harwood: Yes, bibliotherapy remains essential and it always will be! My most effective tool has been finding the right medications. Due to my treatment-resistant bipolar depression and working with incompetent psychiatrists, it took me years to find medications that worked. In 2013, I found a compassionate psychiatrist who suggested a medication in the MAOI (monoamine oxidase inhibitor) family called Parnate. I added the MAOI to the lithium I had been taking. My depression lifted in three days. MAOI’s aren’t commonly prescribed for several reasons, including dietary restrictions, but those restrictions have been absolutely worth it.
L.L.: How about Marilla and Avonlea? They are absolutely darling! Can you give us a little glimpse as to what they enjoy doing and what kind of young girls they are growing into?
Dyane Harwood: I could go on and on with this question, Leslie, and since you’re also the mother of two similar-aged girls, I know you can understand my temptation. I’ll try to keep it to a paragraph. Thank you so much for the kind words about my girls! I’m incredibly thankful they’re doing well despite the traumatic environment they grew up in, i.e. having their mother hospitalized numerous times. Our daughters grapple with some moderate anxiety and behavioral issues. My husband Craig and I sought professional counseling for them so they’d have a helpful, objective outlet.
It’s always incredible to see how certain interests/talents are passed down in a family. Avonlea is artistic and she loves to cook sophisticated dishes for a young girl. Art and gourmet cooking were two of my father’s favorite pastimes. She even loves the same foods he did, like high-end cheeses, avocados, salmon, pesto—all of those were foods I loathed as a child! Marilla is a born writer and avid reader. She sold books at my author events like a pro! Who knows? Maybe I’ll be doing the same task for her at her author events someday…
L.L.: In terms of writing, what challenges did bipolar disorder present as you worked through BIRTH OF A NEW BRAIN?
Dyane Harwood: It took me a decade to write, secure a publisher, and go through the editing process. During those ten years, there were literally years when I didn’t write at all. My commitment to seeing the book through to completion began in late 2013, when I found the lithium/MAOI combo. It was at that point I finally had the motivation, energy, and ability to write the proposal and go from there.
There were many times I wanted to give up my project. Many times! But it felt the book had value because even if it wasn’t anywhere near Kay Redfield Jamison-caliber (Dr. Jamison is author of one of the most acclaimed bipolar memoirs, An Unquiet Mind) no one had written this type of book. I knew the book could help moms who wanted to read about the perinatal mood and anxiety disorder they lived with.
L.L.: What’s the best thing a mother can do if she has bipolar?
Dyane Harwood: Be open to pursuing and receiving treatment, whether that’s with traditional professionals, alternative practitioners or both types, especially if she finds herself slipping in terms of her mood.
L.L.: I could probably ask questions all day, Dyane. But I won’t. Is there anything you’d like to share that I forgot to ask about?
Dyane Harwood: Oh Leslie, you asked such fantastic questions; very astute ones! Your background with your mother’s bipolar disorder, and your work as a psychiatric nurse have given you a depth of perception, knowledge, and empathy that’s rare in terms of interviewers. I couldn’t ask for better, more interesting and relevant questions. I know bipolar disorder isn’t easy to think about or read about, so I appreciate your doing both of those things in regard to BIRTH OF A NEW BRAIN.
L.L.: Dyane, it’s been lovely. Thank you!
Dyane Harwood: Thank you, Leslie! I’m truly honored to be a part of this amazing series! I look forward to reading your memoir Model Home as well!
For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of BIRTH OF A NEW BRAIN, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dyane Harwood holds a B.A. in English and American Literature from the University of California at Santa Cruz. A freelance writer for over two decades, she has interviewed bestselling authors including Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, Anthony Bourdain, and SARK. Dyane founded a chapter of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) and facilitated free
support groups for women with mood disorders. She is the author of the Amazon bestselling memoir “Birth of a New Brain – Healing from Postpartum
Bipolar Disorder” (Post Hill Press) with a foreword by Dr. Carol Henshaw.
Dyane has written for numerous publications including SELF Magazine,
BP/Bipolar Magazine, Psych Central, Buddy Lit Zine, The Huffington Post,
The Mighty, The International Bipolar Foundation, MOODS Magazine, Anchor
Magazine, Stigma Fighters: Anthology, and Postpartum Support
International. Dyane lives in the beautiful Santa Cruz Mountains of
California with her husband, two daughters, and Lucy, their Scotch Collie.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Cover, author image, and family photos courtesy of D. Harwood and used with permission.]