Beyond Blue

liz spikol .jpg
This interview is from November, 2007.

Thanks to both Larry Parker, who now has a blog, and Lilit Marcus for directing me toward Liz Spikol’s mental health blog, “The Trouble With Spikol.” I have so enjoyed following her blog because (not totally unlike me) she is brutally honest. A woman who tells it like it is … that’s Liz. And I love that about her.

Liz is senior contributing editor of “Philadelphia Weekly.” She writes the award-winning column “The Trouble With Spikol,” which began as a chronicle of her struggle with mental illness, and has since expanded into humorous musings on everything from graphic novels to how to use a mop. She also writes the paper’s book review column, Lit Gloss. Her blog — named one of the Top 10 Bipolar Blogs of 2007 by PsychCentral — is about mental illness policy, news, personal journeys and more.

You can check out Liz’s video blogs by clicking here.

1) For your Nov. 21, 2005 post, you wrote:

I write a column called “The Trouble With Spikol” for Philadelphia Weekly. It’s often about my struggles with mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder and OCD. I was also diagnosed with dissociative disorder N.O.S.–which means I suffer from intermittent depersonalization and derealization. Blah, blah, blah–check the DSM-IV for more.

Here are the meds I take: Seroquel, Lamictal, Ativan, plus Melatonin for sleep. The meds have saved my life, though I need to add an antidepressant to the mix soon.
I want to write here in a quirky and penetrating way about what’s going on with mental health in this country: medication issues, insurance coverage, stigma, prejudice, stereotypes, substance abuse, co-occuring disorders, diagnosis problems, legislation, psychiatry vs. psychology, electric shock therapy, new treatment options, and more. I’ll also chronicle my own experience.

How did you arrive at that mission? Anger? Frustration? Desperation? What gave you the courage to “come out” publicly. I know from personal experience it’s not easy, especially when you’re surrounded by Tom Cruisish friends and family trying to persuade you that your meds are toxic. Was there one moment that you said to yourself, “the hell with it, I’m going to tell it the way it is.”

It was inadvertent, really. I was working part-time as a proofreader at “Philadelphia Weekly,” trying to do something to get back into the working world after having been on disability. While there, I was given an opportunity to write a teeny little blurb about having an Easy Bake oven as a kid. The editor of the paper, Tim Whitaker, loved the blurb. He thought it showed great promise, even though it was about 150 words. He asked if I wanted to write a column. Every week. About myself. Um, okay. Give it a try, he said. Write about Liz. The life of Liz. Little did he know the life of Liz was seriously pathetic at that time.

So I wrote a bunch of samples that had nothing to do with the real me but that nicely obscured the fact that I’d been struggling with a mental illness for the past seven years or so. I brought the samples with me to coffee with Sara Kelly, Philadelphia Weekly’s executive editor, and she was lukewarm about them.

Finally, I just told her the truth. “The reason I don’t have anything to write about it is because I’ve been struggling with a mental illness for the past few years and haven’t had a life. So I don’t even know where to begin in terms of being a normal person.” Sara said, “That’s your column, right there.”

And thus “The Trouble With Spikol” was born, as a newspaper column. (The blog came several years later.) I was lucky in that my parents were very supportive. They always told me to write my life as I knew it, as honestly as I could. My dad was a writer and editor when I was growing up, so it was the family trade. My parents were thrilled, and they never ask me to censor anything.

2) In my humble opinion, I think what makes your blog top-notch is the combination of valuable resources you give your readers, your commentary on pop culture regarding mental illness and its stigma in this country and around the world, and your own very dramatic and interesting personal experience. Plus, of course, your writing skills. But few people who have been as disabled by a mood disorder as you have–eventually seeking relief in ECT–can function so well on a professional level. I’m amazed. What’s your secret? (Not that this is “Parade” magazine.) If you had to name three things that you remember or do everyday to keep you out of the hospital, what would they be?

1. Take my meds.
2. Take my meds.
3. Take my meds.

Le me elaborate. Every person is different, so it’s unfair to say that taking medication is the answer for everyone. For me, the medication is the foundation of my sanity. Without the medication, everything else falls apart. But let’s say we’re taking the medication for granted. Here are the additional things that keep me out of the hospital:

1. See my psychiatrist every two weeks.
2. Never drink alcohol or use recreational drugs.
3. Get enough sleep.
4. Stick close to a daily routine that involves seeing other people who are expecting to see me, so I feel like I exist.

Oops – that’s four. But what’s number 5? Be nice to myself, and forgiving!

3) I’m also curious as to how you and your psychiatrist decided on ECT (electroconvulsive therapy). I almost went that route after 22 medication combinations failed. Luckily for me, the 23rd was the ticket! How many medication combinations did you try before ending up on the gurney? Or were you so suicidal that you didn’t have time to wait to see if the next combination would work?

Ah, the med-combo roulette. Lovely, isn’t it? I never stopped to count, but it was years and years. I had tried everything.

I was so suicidal for so long, I simply couldn’t bear it any longer. I was ready to die. I had been in and out of the hospital, had attempted suicide, had been officially labeled “treatment-resistant,” which after a few years felt the same as having “hopeless” stamped on my forehead. I was desperate. I told my mother I’d kill myself if I couldn’t try ECT. She had no choice but to agree. ECT was misrepresented as a sort of last-resort treatment, which suggested it might work for more than, say, four weeks. It didn’t. Oh, and no one mentioned my memory would be shot, and I’d lose cognitive functioning.

Later, when I was writing an article about ECT, I called the doctor who’d performed the procedure on me years before. I called him as a journalist, not as a former patient. I asked, “What happens to a patient with dissociative symptoms who gets ECT?” He said, “A patient with dissociative symptoms should never be given ECT.” I said, “But I got it, even though I had those symptoms.” He quickly ended our phone call. Suffice to say, ECT wasn’t a positive experience for me. But I know for others, it’s been life-saving. I just wish people knew more about before they went into it.

4) I’ve watched a few of your video blogs and you look so comfortable in front of a camera. Move over “Lonely Girl.” Personally I’ve struggled a bit with video blogs because they have been one more level of self-disclosure. As you know, it feels a bit like stripping in front of your readers (not that I have experience stripping). How has it been for you? Is it more challenging and time-consuming than writing? Why did you decide to do it?

I’ve always been a bit of a ham. I was one of those kids who loved to be in plays in musicals in school, starting in kindergarten. If I could be onstage, I would. It didn’t matter if I was just playing the triangle, I wanted to be up there. I’ve always felt more comfortable doing public speaking than chatting one on one at a party. Give me a lecture hall with 300 people and I’m completely at ease, even if I’m talking about very personal things. Self-disclosure doesn’t scare me. Hiding scares me. I hid what was wrong and ugly about myself for so long, and it almost killed me to be alone with all that pain. I want to live in the light now. How can people help you and love you if they don’t know you?

5) One of your videos was on weight gain. And you raised some excellent points. At the time you taped that segment (a year ago, I think?), you were feeling really depressed but you didn’t want to go up on your Effexor because of weight gain. I can empathize. I, too, was on Zyprexa for a month and managed to gain 20 pounds in that time. I said to my psychiatrist that, as a person with an eating disorder in her past, I’d take suicidal thoughts over the fifty additional pounds I was about to gain. It’s such a fine line. Any words of wisdom to the depressive who has packed on the pounds to stay sane?

If you ask me, this is the worst thing about dealing with psych illnesses (other than the madness itself): the weight gain. Zyprexa? Oh my god. I gained so much weight on Zyprexa. Right now I’m on Topomax to bring my appetite under control because I did have to increase the Effexor. I mean, ultimately, it’s impossible to live with suicidal depression. It’s easier–though just barely–to live with extra weight. But I have no words of wisdom. I struggle with this every day. It makes me angry and miserable. I play the piano and that’s very important to me. Yet if you told me that, for one pinkie finger, I could stay at a perfect weight for the rest of my life and never have to worry, I would not hesitate. Isn’t that twisted? So yeah, no wisdom here.

6) One more question. What’s gives you the most joy in your life? I realize that I sound like Oprah here. But seriously, what motivates you to get out of bed on the hard days?

Cute If nothing else, I have to see what the daily cuteness is on that website.

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