Finally! Here is the final interview from my Author Interview Series. Hilary T. Smith, who wrote Welcome to the Jungle was kind enough to answer a few questions. Please also check out her latest work, here.
1. I love what you say about the acceptance of meds. Here’s an excerpt that stands out to me;
“Ideally, the purpose of medication is to bring you back to a normal, familiar state of mind—back to your baseline mood. The purpose of medication isn’t to change your personality or turn you into someone you’re not, but allow you to be your fullest, happiest self without malfunctioning brain cells getting in the way. The perfect combination of meds should get you to a place where you sigh with relief and say, “I finally feel like myself again!”
In my opinion, the issue of medication is extremely controversial and is one of the many misunderstood aspects of bipolar disorder. In your experience, what is the most misunderstood aspect of bipolarity?
I’d like to start by saying that I wrote Welcome to the Jungle when I was twenty-three, and my understanding of mental illness and its treatment has shifted somewhat since then. Subjects like medication are much more complex than I presented them in WTTJ; although it would be nice to have a medication that eased your mania/depression while leaving every other aspect of yourself completely intact, that’s not how it tends to work.
With that in mind, I think the most widespread misunderstanding about mental illness in our culture right now is that it is a purely biological problem (those malfunctioning brain cells!) with little or no importance given to culture, family, lifestyle, environmental issues, and one’s own beliefs about oneself and the universe. In our rush to prescribe medication to make the bad feelings and behaviors go away, we leave the context unexamined and unquestioned.
For example, many people take sleeping pills because they can’t otherwise fall asleep at the “proper” time and are in danger of falling behind at their jobs. We have a (societally-produced) expectation that every person should sleep in a single eight hour block and get up for work at the same time each day. In a culture that valued working and resting at one’s own pace, would those people still need medication? Is the insomniac the one with a problem, or is it our industrialized society?
I won’t rant at you too long (oh wait, I already have!). Suffice to say, I think that context is crucial when discussing mental illness of any type.
2. I was diagnosed over eleven years ago, and have researched bipolar disorder extensively as well as am living it myself, and I find your book, Welcome to the Jungle, encouraging and enlightening. (Not to mention, I laughed out loud at your sarcasm and wit.) For example, “You didn’t get diagnosed with bipolar because you’re ugly or because the doctor doesn’t like you. Let’s face it— he’s uglier and his personality needs improving”
If you knew then—at your own diagnosis, what you know now, what piece of advice would you give your newly-diagnosed-self?
To be easier on myself.
Even now, I sometimes feel guilty and stressed that I can’t keep the same pace of life as “normal” people. If I have trouble sleeping for a few nights and lose a day or two of productivity, I feel bad about that–holding myself to a modern, industrialized standard I don’t even believe in–when what I ought to do is accept myself and know that I’m okay.
You’re not “bad” if you can’t work at 9-5 job, or if you need more sleep than other people, or if you don’t live the fast-paced life that seems so normal in our culture. You’re just you. I still need to tell myself that all the time.
3. What is the most important thing you want readers to get from your book, Welcome to the Jungle?
I want readers to feel like they have permission to question things and arrive at their own understanding of what is happening to them–and frankly, to use their imaginations. A mental illness diagnosis can be a devastating and disempowering experience, and it takes a long time to unpack it and figure things out. I want readers to have the critical tools necessary to make good decisions about things like medication and lifestyle changes–to least start that conversation.
4. Tell me about what helps you gain a healthy perspective in your day-to-day life?
Nature is an incredible friend. A few hours in the forest is a great way to get perspective on life. When you’re walking in the woods, everyday concerns start to look really superficial.
5. Tell about a time when the stigma of mental illness affected you.
Recently I was house hunting on craigslist, and was shocked to see roommate posts with comments like “no dogs, couples, or anti-depressants” and “we are a vegetarian, pharmaceutical-free household.” This is insulting whether or not you are taking psychiatric medication. It implies that people who are living under the label of bipolar or depression are necessarily going to be troublesome roommates, or are somehow inferior to their “pharmaceutical-free” counterparts.
Our current housing laws make it very hard for people living with serious mental illnesses to find safe, stable shelter. We’ve made it practically illegal to live on a low income; there is far too little affordable housing, and you can’t pitch a tent in the woods without getting harrassed. People who could otherwise find ways to cope and live with dignity are criminalized. If you can’t or won’t play by the rules of industrialization, there’s no place for you. That’s a tragedy.
6. Who inspires you (and why)?
I’m inspired by anyone who lives with compassion for all people.
7. What does STABILITY mean to you?
Stability means living in right relation to your values; knowing where you stand; not chasing after all the “shoulds” society pressures you to pursue; flowing with changes; feeling love for yourself and all others. For me, that has nothing to do with bipolar.
Thanks again to all of the authors who participated and worked with me!