In 1999, I was hospitalized at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute for severe depression. It was a grueling experience, not only because of my own condition, but because I came to care deeply about the other patients, and I couldn’t stand to see them suffer.
Even the brightest, most impressive patients struggled, often in tears, to describe their pain. The less advantaged simply lapsed into a zombie-like silence. I felt suffocated by all the things that weren’t being said, especially by me.
I grew angry, first at the illness, then at the doctors, then at the patients themselves. Just spit it out! I wanted to say. Then it finally dawned on me: it wasn’t their fault. The patients simply didn’t have a vocabulary for their illness. Why should they? Mania, suicide, psychosis – such things were hardly the stuff of polite conversation. None of us knew how to express ourselves, because madness was one long, inarticulate howl. It needed a voice. It needed words.
And so I started to write. I wrote down everything I knew about bipolar disorder: the symptoms, the treatment, the various theories of origin. I read everything I could lay my hands on, even attended Grand Rounds lectures at UCLA. It wasn’t enough. I was finding words to describe the disease, but the words were borrowed. The clinical jargon was only one truth. It wasn’t my own.
I set aside everything I’d written, and started again. This time I focused on my own experience, on what bipolar disorder felt like inside my own body. I shared what I’d written with the other patients. To my surprise, they were interested. They even shared their own stories with me.
The depression slowly lifted. But I had seen depressions lift before. I waited for the shame and despair to return. When it didn’t, I kept writing. Seven years later, in the process of saving myself, I found that I had written a book.