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Flunking Sainthood

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Last month, Random House’s Three Rivers imprint released Shut Up about Your Perfect Kid: A Survival Guide for Ordinary Parents of Special Kids by Patricia (Patty) Konjoian, whose daughter has bipolar disorder, and her sister Gina Gallagher, whose daughter has Asperger’s. Both moms wanted to write about the lighter side of raising less-than-perfect kids in a society that increasingly requires perfection. Their road to Random House came by way of self-publishing, lots of speaking engagements, and one very lucky break.

(P.S. Catch Patty and her daughter tomorrow on CNN’s In Session program at 12:30 EST.)

Flunking Sainthood: Why did you write this book?

Konjoian: My sister Gina and I, even though our daughters had different diagnoses, were both experiencing similar things, the loss of the perfect dream. Our kids were struggling, and it seemed like we were both among people that were bragging about different things that their kids could do. Both of us were just trying to get our kids through the day. One thing that has sustained us both through the process has been humor, and the book reflects that.

FS: You chose to self-publish the first edition even though you had some interest from an agent. Why?

Konjoian: It was going to take 18 months to 2 years [to publish traditionally]. And we didn’t want to wait that long because our parents were getting older and we wanted to do this within their lifetime. Our attorney had suggested that we forgo the agent and just self-publish. We did that; the book came out in 2006. We both took out home equity loans and started eating a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and we hired a PR firm, Newman Communications. They were excellent. They got us in newspapers and radio stations all over the country as well as Canada. Then they got us a few local TV gigs – three in the Boston area and one in Connecticut.

FS: What else did you do to build an author platform?

Konjoian: What we didn’t anticipate when we wrote the book was that we would launch a speaking career. We kept hearing as we were first trying to get published, “Oh, you don’t have credentials,” and “You don’t have a platform.” Early on after self-publishing, we received a call from a mental health organization asking us if we could be the keynote speakers for their annual dinner. Gina and I were stunned. We were not prepared to be speakers, but we wanted to do it. This annual dinner was in front of about 250 people, and it was at that time that we realized that this “movement of imperfection” [the book’s original subtitle] was way beyond Gina and me. It was about all the parents, and all the kids who felt isolated.

FS: How did the book get picked up by Random House?

Konjoian: The first time around, Gina and I would say yes to any invitation to speak, whether we were paid or not, because we said, “Someday, someone in one of those audiences is going to be in a position to do something to help the book.” And that’s exactly how it happened. We were at a speaking event and were approached by someone who was affiliated with Random House, and she asked my sister if we were happy being self-published. My sister said, “Yes, but it’s kind of a pain to lug these books around everywhere we go!” She didn’t know who this woman was. The woman handed Gina a card and said, “I’d like to publish your book.” It was a life-changing day for us.

I think we don’t regret at all having self-published first. It was great. I credit the PR firm for building the foundation for us. That was a tremendous help in jump-starting things. Unfortunately, now with the economy, publishers often don’t have the resources. You still have to do a lot of things on your own, and that’s OK because we’re used to doing that. The big difference is in the name. It gets you more respect.

FS: Readers have resonated with some difficult experiences you have had with your middle child, Jennifer [who recently shared her story of growing up bipolar on CNN’s website].

Konjoian: Jenn at age eight started experiencing mood swings that became more severe over time. She also was depressed. I didn’t think an 8-year-old could get depressed, but she was depressed. The watershed for me was that we had taken a trip to Disneyworld with my entire family. My family is very close. Throughout the week that we were there, Jennifer was sometimes agitated, sad, a little too giddy, all within the course of a single day. I knew there was something wrong, because we were in the “happiest place on earth.”

FS: What did you do then?

Konjoian: I had said to my parents, “There’s something really wrong, and I’m going to take her to the doctor when we get back.” The first appointment was with the pediatrician, who ordered blood work and the usual tests. Then we went into Children’s for a Cat Scan and MRI. It was unnerving that they were scheduling these tests so quickly. I was worried it was a brain tumor. We were grateful these tests were negative, but it still didn’t explain her behavior. She was later diagnosed bipolar.

FS: What do you find from your readers?

Konjoian: We now have a Facebook page, and it’s great because we get direct feedback from people. We find that our message is universal. We can check the analytics and see what countries people are from. It’s fun when you have people from other countries commenting.

FS: Do you think it’s especially hard for parents to talk publicly about children’s mental illness?

Konjoian: Absolutely. I’m not trying to say that one disability is more difficult than another, but because mental illness is an invisible disability and it has such a stigma, people are very reluctant to talk about it. When we first began this whole journey, the mental health groups embraced us immediately. We were offering them such a positive thing, because when you hear about mental illness in the news, it’s almost never good.

What we didn’t anticipate is the hundreds of people we have met, people that understand each other. We support each other through laughter, through IEP meetings, through meltdowns. Our readers have become this little community. People are so uplifting and funny.

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