Monday, March 24, 2014

Review: I'm Dancing As Fast As I Can by Barbara Gordon

Dear Lit Loves,
So I've finished my third manuscript and am querying agents and publishers presently.  As I tell them and  as you all know, Cheryl Strayed and Jen Lancaster have nothing on me when it comes to astonishing  and adventuresome memoirs.  When I finish a manuscript I always reward myself by buying books in the genre in which I write:  memoir.  I'm so well-acquainted with this genre that I now have medical specialists ask me if I know of a memoir about this particular medical issue or condition.  Need a book for a patient with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?  How about one regarding Anorexia?  Or maybe one about Autism?  You guessed it!  I always have a recommendation up my sleeve or in my journal. 

Most recently I read I'm Dancing As Fast As I Can by Barbara Gordon.  Now, this was an interesting memoir because it was written before memoirs became spectacularly popular in the mainstream.  Ms. Gordon's book was first published back in 1979.   This is a story about a woman who at first glance has it all:  she's a documentary filmmaker with several Emmys, she has a comfortable apartment in New York, good friends, and a devoted boyfriend.  At this point I know disaster has to strike because that's the only way I'm going to keep reading.  I knew something was up when she started popping Valium tablets like jelly beans.  Then she would have panic attacks while walking the streets of New York and could not enter stores without the potential of a full anxiety melt-down.  Her boyfriend starts showing signs of aggressive, volatile behavior.  Her therapist is not much help as he thinks all she needs is prescription meds for anxiety.  The next thing you know, Ms. Gordon decides to stop taking her anti-anxiety medication and get this, her psychiatrist endorses the notion.  This sends her into a major withdrawal at the same time that her boyfriend decides that because she's falling apart, it will destroy him too; therefore, he becomes violent, pushy, paranoid, and aggressive with her.   Let's put it this way, I was ready to drop-kick him right off the top of her apartment building by this point in the book.

Eventually, Ms. Gordon lands in one mental hospital, stays for six weeks, and is really no better off than she was when she entered.  Fortunately, her boyfriend took the hint and left.  Ms. Gordon eventually lands in a larger, higher quality mental health facility where she spends six months evaluating everything in her life:  her childhood, her relationship with her parents, her work, a divorce, an affair with a married man, and finally, the dysfunctional relationship she had with her boyfriend.  It takes five months before the woman is able to stitch together enough confidence and understanding to get reacquainted with her life on the outside of the hospital.  Fortunately, she had a top-notch therapist inside the hospital and is helped along by several patients she meets there during her stay. 

This memoir is an accurate portrayal of what happens when someone numbs themselves to their problems and anxieties via medication; it's a testament to how tricky it is to find a just right connection between a patient and therapist, it's an example of the stigma associated with mental illness and any kind of stay in a mental health facility, and it's a testament to the power a woman has to save herself not through medication, doctors,  or excessive amounts of work, but through her own best efforts to get to know herself, recognize her weaknesses, and a willingness get the help she needs to resolve her life issues and anxieties on her own.  Essentially, you are your own best advocate.

Till my next update,

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Review: Haldol And Hyacinths by Melody Moezzi

Dear Lit Loves,
Recently, I picked up the memoir entitled Haldol And Hyacinths by Melody Moezzi which is an inside look at a woman's diagnosis of and life with a diagnosis of Bipolar 1.  If you've just been diagnosed with this disorder, this book will either really resonate with you or it just might scare the hell out of you.  I've worked with people who are bipolar, have acquaintances who are diagnosed as bipolar, but I am telling you I could not be married to or dating a person with this type of roller coaster illness.  Basically, bipolarity involves the vast fluctuations in mood; going from extreme highs to trench level lows.  Initially, Ms. Moezzi had a difficult time just getting diagnosed correctly.  It wasn't until she had a full psychotic break that she eventually landed in a psychiatric ward whereby she received the correct diagnosis of Bipolar 1.  At certain times in the book, she is suicidal.   At other times I honestly thought the woman might have ingested speed or something. 

First, there is the suicidal moment.  I'm not completely sure why she decided to do this because she was living a really good life and appeared to have a fantastically supportive family and significant other.  Landing in a psychiatric care facility, she knows she doesn't have a true diagnosis of depression and one important clue that she is bipolar came when she started telling the other psychiatric patients their diagnosis and what they needed to do to heal themselves.  I started thinking, damn, this girl is seriously going to get jumped or blessed out because she is acting in a haughty fashion to people that are at the end of their rope, are on a manic high, or worse, suffering from a traumatic stress disorder.  The extreme over-confidence was my first clue that the author was probably bipolar. 

Second, no matter who I have known or read about with a diagnosis of biplarity, the person nine times out of ten will swear to Mother Mary that they don't have a problem.  It's the rest of us who should be running at ninety miles per hour with our hair on fire in order to keep up with a bipolar person.   The author definitely does a fine job of fighting the diagnosis.  When she does experience a psychotic break in which she starts hallucinating and hearing people who are not in the room, her thoughtful significant other bravely calls the police.  They take her to a counseling center where she proceeds to cause such a ruckus that when the EMTs from the psychiatric clinic arrive to collect her, she has to be placed on a gurney and in restraints.  She is isolated and threatening to sue everyone and anyone within hearing distance. 

What were the other clues to a diagnosis of Bipolar 1?  I knew she was in a manic phase when she was talking in a quick and unceasing fashion.  She wanted to write a book in a month.  She wanted to stay up all evening to teach the finer points of human rights law.  Or she would be on a trip and suddenly decide to get a tattoo, stay awake for days, and pull others into helping keep her manic phase going.  At certain points while reading the book I kept thinking, girl, you seriously need to consider taking Valium or at least trying meditation or yoga. 

Finally, after multiple hospitalizations and many psychiatrists she receives the correct diagnosis and finds a medication that works.  It additionally helps that she begins attending a day treatment program that engages her on emotional, mental, and physical levels; this is what really proves successful.  And I have to say, I've got to applaud her husband Matt because he had an endless amount of patience and calm.  There were moments when most significant others would have just thrown up their hands and walked away forever.  I think at one point the author even invited him to do this.  It was Matt, her husband, who had witnessed all the fretting, sleeplessness, pacing, incessant chatter, and agitation that would eventually lead to the author getting the correct diagnosis.  How did he do it?  He started taking notes on her behavior and reporting it.  I do have to give the author props in that she now actively monitors her behavior and takes medication when needed.  Most of the folks I know with a diagnosis of Bipolar 1 live in denial and refuse to take their medication because it slows their thinking and makes them sluggish.  Kudos to M. Moezzi.

Was there any part of the book that I didn't like?  Well, the author is Iranian-American so she could be sensitive to how people in the United States make assumptions about her and was the victim of discrimination.  My problem came when she started doing the same when it came to a person she befriended in Montana and there were several comments about students she encountered here who didn't automatically befriend her.  Also, she shouldn't automatically think that people from Kentucky and Tennessee wouldn't know a valuable Persian rug when they see it.  Those in glass houses should always be careful before casting stones at others.

Till my next review,

Friday, March 7, 2014

Review: While Still There Is Light by Nancy Shaffer

Dear Lit Loves,
Finally!  I finished my next memoir manuscript!  It's all about the experience of having been diagnosed with Meniere's disease at age eighteen.  Afterward, I started purchasing books at Amazon and several have arrived.  I finished While Still There Is Light by Nancy Shaffer published by Skinner Books just this morning.  This book was written by a Unitarian Universalist minister who began chronicling her experience of coping with a brain tumor after she was initially hospitalized with it and it was removed immediately via surgery.   Rev. Shaffer relates the year she spent recovering from having a fist-sized brain tumor removed and subsequently undergoing radiation and chemotherapy treatments.  I think what impressed me most was the author's frustration with people asking her about her prognosis; the absolute worst question you can ask of a cancer patient.  If you really want to know, google it yourself and you will get a fairly decent idea of not only the cancer a person has, but the one year, three year, and five year survival rates of a specific cancer.  Rev. Shaffer does approach the prognosis question as if she were to ask it of a person who doesn't have cancer.  Well, anyone's prognosis is really, essentially to live a well-lived life and then death. 

It has been my experience that most cancer patients, particularly those with a terminal diagnosis, at some point struggle with the notion that this isn't the way their story was to end or at least why their life should end via such a dire diagnosis.  Honestly, if a cancer patient didn't have these thoughts I might worry they were in complete denial.  Rev. Shaffer also discusses what to say and not say when speaking to a cancer patient or writing to one.  For example, don't presume you know how they are feeling; don't make the person into a heroic figure; don't begin with "I couldn't do what you're doing" because really you don't know what you are capable of handling until such a diagnosis is revealed to you; and never make a statement that makes a cancer patient feel like an outsider.  It's about embracing the cancer patient as the individual you have always known them to be and what you appreciate about their personality and life. 

The last thing a cancer patient wants brought to immediate attention is that you didn't recognize them due to all the physical changes they undergo throughout treatment.  Yes, you may notice they have lost their hair, walk more slowly, are frail, have surgical scars, are quite a bit thinner, or have swollen extremities, but don't bring this into your conversation with them.  And as the child of parent who has cancer, please don't emphasize how badly you think a relative is looking because trust me, we know what's happening.  We're very aware of how our parent, sibling, or relative is changing.  It's all quite apparent to us without anyone pointing out the obvious or emphasizing how bad the situation is.  Just be inclusive, be compassionate, and "do" nice things for a cancer patient or their family if you can't or don't think you can handle interacting in a positive, inclusive, and loving fashion.  Actions speak louder than words anyway. 

I highly recommend this book as you get to see quite readily what is going through the mind of a person with a cancer diagnosis as they continue to try and relate to others as well as their community during a very overwhelming and frustrating time in their lives. 

Till next time,