Melody Moezzi was born in Chicago but considers herself equally Iranian as American. Her parents emigrated to the United States after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. And while Moezzi was raised here and has made a life here, earning a law degree and building a career as an author and social commentator, her heart and thoughts are never far from Persia. This is evident when you read her beautiful memoir Haldol and Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life. What makes her book so original and valuable is how she examines cultural thinking about mental illness in both parts of the world. As she writes about her Iranian heritage, “My people don’t do psychotherapy. It just isn’t our style.” But it’s her style now. The story of how she got there is remarkable. We spoke with Moezzi recently about her book, her life now, and how the past keeps revisiting us, in big ways and small, whether we want it to or not.
TP: How did the writing of the book go for you? Was it painful to go back to those times of crisis in your life?
MM: I had to revisit some tough experiences, sure. I compare it to tearing off my skin and rolling around in a salt lick every day. But I found that writing about it gave me new insights into what happened. Before I started writing the book I hadn’t realized how manic I was after my first suicide attempt. I was trying to help everyone else at the hospital. I was talking a lot and fast, which I now know are symptoms of mania, but no one in the hospital seemed to catch it except other patients. It doesn’t give you a lot of trust in the system when they weren’t able to catch this. If I didn’t write about it, I don’t think I would’ve been able to figure it out myself.
TP: You didn’t have an accurate diagnosis for a while.
TP: When you were manic you were just hardly getting any sleep at all, which exacerbated things.
MM: Sleep is such a big factor. The only thing that can slow my brain down when I’m getting manic is an anti-psychotic medication. Sleeping pills won’t work for me. I do take them on occasion and they work, but not if I have racing thoughts and only if I’m in bed and about to fall asleep. Otherwise, it can be dangerous. But I guess that’s the story for most drugs if you’re not using them right.
TP: I admired how strong an advocate you were for yourself in working with doctors about about what medications you would use and what side effects you were willing to accept.
MM: I had many conversations with doctors about this, which I think they found frustrating. There are just some side effects I won’t tolerate. Like drooling, for example. I stopped one medication for that reason. No matter how well a drug works, if it makes me drool that’s it. (Laughs.) And another medication made me forget words. As a writer who does a lot of public speaking, I can’t be forgetting words.
TP: Your chapters on your hospitalization were really vivid. I was curious about how smoking almost seemed encouraged while you were in treatment.
MM: It did seem like they were totally fine with cigarettes. At one hospital if you wanted to go outside there was this enclosed atrium and you could only go out at certain specific times, or to smoke. I picked up smoking there because I wanted to go outside and see the sun. Thankfully I didn’t get addicted, but it says a lot about what’s messed up with our health care system. Providers just don’t see how the mind and body are connected. Like it’s OK to do something that everyone knows is horrible for your body if you’re in a psych ward. I found that frustrating.
TP: How has the reaction been to the book?
MM: It’s been really nice. I wasn’t sure I was going to get a lot of acceptance, given the honesty in the book. But I did. The reviews have been great, which I’m totally grateful for, but the responses that have been most heartening have been from readers who have been there, whether they have a psychiatric condition or are a family member or friend of someone who does. It helped me realize that I’m not alone.
TP: Your observations about American and Iranian views on mental illness were fascinating.
MM: It is such a narrow experience, being an Iranian-American Muslim bipolar feminist. (Laughs.) But I think a lot of people know what it’s like to feel left out. I’ve always felt left out, in different ways, whether it’s because of where my parents are from or my religion or my gender or whatever reason people would think less of me. Bipolar was just another reason to add to the list of why people might think less of me. I was raised to expect more of myself, even and especially when the rest of the world expected less of me for whatever reason. It’s hard not to internalize some of that stigma when it comes to mental illness. It was a tough position to be in but I felt well-prepared for it because of my background as a minority. I’ve dealt with stupid people before.
TP: How long has it been since you’ve felt like you might self-harm?
MM: It’s been almost a decade now since I’ve had episodes like that. But when that’s what people are reading about you, when that’s the first impression people are getting when they meet you, it can be a challenge. Some people just have a hard time understanding that mental illness is manageable, but it is, and it can be channeled. Having an extra-ordinary mind isn’t always a bad thing. I always say that sure it means we’ll have problems other people don’t, but it also means we’ll be able to see solutions where other people can’t.
TP: You feel things deeply.
MM: It’s part of my creative process. It’s fun for me to try to make something beautiful out of something hideous. Part of being an artist includes being really vulnerable and really porous, things hit you harder than they hit normal people. I feel that way. I’ve received death threats and hate mail for my writing, especially my writing about Islam and supporting LGBT rights. I consider it all a compliment. But still, it’s hard not to be affected. I recently got a tweet suggesting I commit suicide and giving specific instructions. In a way it makes me tougher. But then again, it’s hard not to internalize some of that negativity. I may not show it outwardly, but it affects me.
TP: People don’t always understand that successful, impressive, outwardly confident people can be struggling.
MM: Exactly. I was at this Iranian women’s conference sitting with another author, and there were posters about my book that clearly indicate I have a mental illness, and I just watched this woman look at the poster and me and then back and forth. I was putting all these thought bubbles over her head about what she was thinking. You could just tell she was somewhat confused by it all and I couldn’t help feeling a little embarrassed, even though I knew I had no reason to be.
TP: You write about how much pressure you put on yourself as a member of a minority community.
MM: In a lot of minority communities you try to be perfect so you can be an example of your community. It can be hard to talk about your imperfections when you’re part of a population like that. I did worry that since my first book was about Islam especially, people might think “She’s crazy cause she’s Muslim” or “She’s Muslim cause she’s crazy.” But I ended up getting a much better response than I expected, because there are so many people in every community with mental illness. It doesn’t discriminate and we need to be talking about it, especially in marginalized communities.
TP: You’re interested in what traits we inherit, in ways we may not even know.
MM: There’s absolutely something to be said about the power of ancestral trauma. People don’t talk about it a lot. There are a lot of things in my life that affected me, but I didn’t know why for the longest time. Simple things. I remember once when I had traveled back to Iran as a kid, I was in the bathroom when the electricity went out. Everyone in the house was freaking out because they thought Iraq was bombing. The war was long over, but they thought the bombing was still happening. I guess during the bombing they cut electricity. Everyone in the house was running around, frantically praying. I didn’t even remember that experience until 10 years later. I was in a restaurant in Connecticut and I’m in the bathroom and the lights went out and I freaked out and thought we were being bombed. Part of my body was like, “Oh my god there’s a bomb!” I didn’t know where that was coming from. There are certain things you don’t think about or even remember but they affect you. I’m working on a project now and thinking a lot about that. I think that if there’s such a thing as ancestral trauma, there must also be such a thing as ancestral healing, in terms of the healing you can get from going back to the art, the culture, the literature of your own roots. If your culture can lead to trauma, it must lead to healing too.
TP: You write about opening yourself to traditions and treatments from western medicine while also embracing the spiritual and the mystical elements of Iran and other cultures.
MM: There’s a power in it, not to say that it can replace western medicine or anything. I still take my medication. But going back to the poets of my own roots, going back to Rumi, reading Hafiz, these great Sufi poets, going back to the poetry my father recited to me as a child, it has been healing. I had taken it for granted. You know when something becomes so familiar to you that it becomes foreign because you think you already know it. Reading these great Sufi poets, I’m sure plenty of them would be hospitalized now. Rumi was known for reciting poetry and spinning in these ecstatic states, which could likely today be considered a mental illness. For the longest time I denied that parts of my manic experience were mystical as well, that there was a true spiritual value to them. Modern medicine encouraged me to deny that. I don’t anymore.
TP: In your book you have that great section about the mystical experience you had when you arrived in Montana and saw all that beauty.
MM: It was immediate and so powerful. Writing the book, I’d convinced myself it was the only mystical experience I’d ever had. It was too messy to accept that any part of my later manic experience had been mystical as well, which it had. It seemed too dangerous to admit that. Now I’m realizing that it could be part of the healing process, that experiences can be both highly spiritual and highly clinical. I think there’s a way of talking about it responsibly, and I feel like a lot of people talk about mental illness and spirituality and romanticize things in a way that is dangerous for people who are struggling with mental illnesses. There’s got to be a balance.
TP: It took a while for you to find a comfortable fit with a clinician but it eventually happened.
MM: I was really lucky when I moved to North Carolina because I found a doctor in Chapel Hill who does both therapy and medication. When I first met him I didn’t want to do talk therapy. It hadn’t really worked for me and I thought I might just be sort of culturally immune to it. But when I met him and we began to talk, I saw that we could work together. And there was a sign for me. His father just happened to have published my first piece ever (“Half a Pancreas Later, Some Things Are Still Hard to Digest”) in The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine. In publishing that piece his father had helped me reclaim my own story in relation to my so-called physical illness, which was a benign pancreatic tumor. His father was a gastroenterologist and now here was his son, a psychiatrist. I thought this was no coincidence. Because his father had helped me so much in coping with my pancreatic condition, his son might be the one to help me deal with my psychiatric condition. I wrote a piece about it for the New York Times last year. He’s been great. I’ve been doing therapy once a week with him for more than two years now, and it has helped me in ways I never anticipated.
— This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.