Q&A: Melody Moezzi

Melody Moezzi is the author of Haldol and Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life, a beautiful, bold memoir about navigating her bipolar disorder and Iranian American identity, the ways love–of her parents, of her community, of her husband–helped her spirit soar, and her path to becoming a very public advocate for a disease many communities would prefer to keep private.

Melody was kind enough to answer Jennifer’s questions for story and chai and share an excerpt from her memoir, below.

Jennifer: In Haldol and Hyacinths, you state that, “[t]he stigma surrounding mental illness in the States is bad, but it is beyond measure in Iran.” How do you think the Muslim community in America does in terms of dealing with mental illness? What has the reaction from American Muslims been to your book?

Melody: I think we in the Muslim community need to take a long hard look at how we view mental illness. There’s still a ton of stigma, and this sort of “pray it away” attitude, which honestly I think happens in pretty much every religion. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s okay. I think we have a special opportunity here though, in light of the history of the Islamic Renaissance and the scientific advances that came with it. There is a great sense of respect for science in the Muslim community, and as such, I think we could do a lot by just educating ourselves and our communities on the science behind mental illness. Once we’re able to recognize these illnesses as “real”—as opposed to some moral failing—then I feel like we’ll be able to change.

As for the reaction of American Muslims to the book, it has been overwhelmingly positive. Because my first book was about Muslim Americans, it’s something that was really important to me, and I had no idea what the response would be.

Jennifer: You write boldly and bravely about so many issues in your memoir. Could you talk a little bit about where that courage comes from?

Melody: It’s funny, I hear this word “courage” a lot, and I take it as a compliment for sure, but the truth is, it’s more a matter of duty. I’ve been blessed with so many advantages that the vast majority of people illness simply don’t get: a supportive family full of doctors who were willing to educate themselves even more on my particular illness, a husband who recognized the signs when I couldn’t, financial resources, health insurance and so much more. We have criminalized mental illness in this country today, so much so that the three largest mental health facilities in this country are prisons. That’s outrageous. If I didn’t have the family and resources that I have, then I have no doubt that I’d be either homeless or in prison. So my “courage” comes from a sense of obligation. I have been blessed in so many ways, and as such, I feel required (and privileged) to give back. Writing this book, trying to break the silence, shame and stigma surrounding mental illness–especially in my respective Muslim and Iranian communities–is my way of doing that.

Jennifer: Mental illness may be stigmatized among Muslims, but often–at least by strict or conservative Muslims–so are women who step outside of “prescribed” ways of behaving. Was it harder to write openly about your mental illness, or about things like your relationship with your husband before you were married?

Melody: My family’s Islam, shared by many other Iranians I think, has more to do with love than anything else. Hafiz and Rumi and the other Sufi poets are considered the greatest interpreters of the Qur’an for us, and again, for many Iranians. I learned about Islam as a child through these poems, not through the Qur’an. My Islam has some serious Zoroastrian influences as well. Point being, I never experienced such a strict or conservative community growing up. For me and for my parents and husband, the most powerful and important Islamic act and concept is love. It’s one thing to worship God. It’s quite another to be in love with and feel loved by God.

All this to say, any hesitation I had about writing about mental illness had nothing to do with my Islamic upbringing and everything to do with my Iranian one. Basically, I feared gossip and shaming my family…but clearly not enough to shut me up. It turns out though that after my book came out, my large Iranian community—really family—was incredibly supportive. They took my willingness to be honest as an invitation to them to do the same, and so many of them shared their own struggles with mental illness with me after that. Instead of gossiping about me, they thanked me. Sometimes we project these judgments about ourselves onto other people, when really, they’re internal. And the truth is, I’ve always been a lot more judgmental toward myself than anyone else has ever been. I’m working on that.

Jennifer: What advice do you have for people from any conservative or traditional community, especially Muslim women, who want to explore their experience honestly in creative nonfiction, but are afraid of community/parental/public reaction?

Melody: Speak your truth no matter your trepidation. Courage is acting in spite of fear, not because you don’t have any. Fear is a powerful thing. It can paralyze you, and it will if you let it. But there’s something amazing that happens when you confront your fears and face them head on. They lose their power over you and ultimately, you are set free from chains you may not have known were there to begin with, chains you may have been born with or acquired so early in life that you just assumed they were just part of your skin, your soul. Lies and secrets keep us sick—spiritually, physically and emotionally. I also think that they keep us from creating worthwhile art, for as far as I’m concerned at least, all good art comes from truth.

Also, as I mentioned above, you may well be surprised by the amount of support you receive once you gather the courage to share your truth. With respect to those who judge or criticize your truth, pray for them, for they are the ones who need it the most. Should they continue to stand in your way, then leave them behind. This can be painful, but that’s what it means to be well—and not so incidentally, what it takes to survive as an artist. If you expect to survive and thrive as such, then you should expect to sacrifice some things. You should expect pain.

You should also, however, expect joy. Sharing your truth through art—whether it’s creative nonfiction or anything else—is a way of communing with the Divine, and there is no other feeling quite like it. It can become addictive. I guess you can consider that both a call and a warning.

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An Excerpt from Chapter One

There are plenty of respectable reasons to kill yourself, but I’ve never had any. I’ve never been in constant uncontrollable pain. I’ve never lost a child. I’ve never killed or irreparably harmed anyone with fewer than six legs. I’ve never fought in a war or witnessed a massacre. I’ve never irretrievably lost my mind. And I’ve never been raped.

I can’t say the same for the bulk of my former companions on the Stillbrook Institute’s women’s psych unit. If I gained anything from my first inpatient psychiatric stay, it was a deep appreciation for the potential morality of murder. After hearing countless women share their excruciating experiences being tortured and violated, most often as children and by family members, I gained a new appreciation for my legal education. Instead of spending group sessions contemplating my own despair and the pathetic suicide attempt that had landed me in a room full of rape victims, manic-depressives, anorexics, bulimics, schizophrenics, drug addicts and self-mutilators, I spent those sessions contemplating ways to get away with murder. I’m confident that no responsible mental health professional would endorse homicidal ideations as an acceptable cure for suicidal ones, but I’m equally confident that my budding interest in killing rapists drastically curtailed my interest in killing myself. Nevertheless, I’d attempted suicide less than a week before, so I couldn’t be trusted. Hence my residence at Stillbrook.

Despite our differences, my fellow prisoners and I had a great deal in common. We were all seriously ill; we all desperately needed help; and we all resented the fact that we needed it. What’s more, we were all acutely aware of the classified nature of our conditions and whereabouts. This wasn’t paranoia. It was self-preservation. People tend to look unfavorably upon the mentally ill, especially those of us who’ve been hospitalized.

Losing your mind is indeed traumatizing, but doing so in front of a supposedly sane audience is mortifying. It’s not like getting cancer. No one rallies around you or shaves her head in solidarity or brings you sweets. “Normals” (or “normies,” as some of us “crazies” affectionately refer to them) feel uneasy around those of us who’ve lost a grip on reality. Perhaps they’re afraid we might attack them or drool on them or, worse yet, suck them into our alternate universe where slitting your wrists and talking to phantoms seem perfectly rational. Lucky for me, my initial audience was limited to my husband, my psychiatrist and a few strangers in the latter’s waiting room.

As an Iranian-American Muslim in the buckle of the Bible Belt at the start of the twenty-first century, I’ve been intimately acquainted with stigma, scorn and isolation for quite some time—long before and since Stillbrook. But this was different. This stigma was far more suffocating, this scorn more subtle, this isolation more literal. A brutal species of shame set in, so vicious and  insidious it easily could have starred in its own series on Animal Planet. Shark Week would pale by comparison.

I’ve never been ashamed of my background, and I’ve never tried to hide it. I’m proud of where I’m from. But I wasn’t proud of where I’d arrived. There’s no pride in being a mental patient. We have no especially loud and high-profile advocates. No Michael J. Foxes, no Christopher Reeves, no Lance Armstrongs. No pink boas or bracelets or ribbons or T-shirts. Silence and humiliation rule our playing fields. While others down performance-enhancing drugs and play on grass or Astroturf, we down antipsychotics and play on quicksand.

I  wasn’t diagnosed with bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression or manic-depressive illness, until years after leaving Stillbrook. Failing to recognize my propensity for mania, the folks at Stillbrook, like so many before and after them, misdiagnosed me with standard major “unipolar” depression. I never questioned them.

With bipolar disorder, it’s mildly common to jump from depression to mania after a suicide attempt. I vaulted…

…In my mind, I was a burgeoning guru, a mystic full of purpose and pristine judgment. In my mind, it had been a lifetime since I’d been on suicide watch. In my mind, I was put on that ward by God Himself to guide those broken women, my future disciples, toward the land of enlightenment: the Persian Dalai Lama of Stillbrook.

In reality, where time and the Divine aren’t nearly as foolish or forgiving, I was just another floundering psych patient. Perhaps I would’ve taken my comrades’ diagnosis more seriously had a doctor shared their concerns, but I doubt it. I’ve always been exceptionally gifted in the delusion department, and the idea of having bipolar disorder doesn’t sit well with my classically bipolar delusions of grandeur. Still, by that point, I’d been living with the brilliant highs and debilitating lows of the illness for well over a decade. It was my normal.

*

Reprinted by arrangement with AVERY, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © MELODY MOEZZI, 2013

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Melody Moezzi is a writer, attorney, activist, and award-winning author. She is a blogger for the Huffington Post and Ms. Magazine, and a columnist for bp Magazine. Moezzi’s writing has appeared in many outlets, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and The Christian Science Monitor. She has also appeared on many radio and television programs, including NPR, CNN and BBC. Moezzi is a graduate of Wesleyan University and the Emory University School of Law, as well as the Emory University Rollins School of Public Health. She lives in Raleigh, NC with her husband, Matthew, and their cats, Keshmesh and Nazanin.

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