By Mehwish Qureshi, CHAI Book Club Coordinator
“Courageous” is the word that came to my mind when I read Melody Moezzi’s novel. On January 26, 2014, CHAI, co-sponsored by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), held its quarterly book club meeting at the East Columbia Branch Library, to discuss “Haldol and Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life” by Melody Moezzi. For this specific book club meeting, we had the luxury of having the author Skyping in to meet us and talk about the book.
There was a diverse group of twelve attendees at the meeting. The crowd was comprised of various backgrounds and experiences, including South Asians, Caucasians, and Asian Americans. Several attendees have a family member with a mental health illness, or are involved in mental health through their professions or volunteer work. We had a lively discussion of our thoughts, opinions, and reactions. We discussed Melody being diagnosed with bipolar and also being bicultural, and how it might be similar to or different from our own experiences. We also discussed our concerns with the mental health care system, and how we felt about the humor she used while telling her story.
We discussed how difficult it must have been for Melody to navigate being Iranian- Muslim and having the bipolar diagnosis at the same time. Attendees also explored the struggle in finding acceptance and dealing with the stigma coming from the family and community. Some of the NAMI attendees discussed the stigma and shame that is a common concern across many different cultures. Everyone agreed that the book told a powerful story, and exposed readers to the difficulty of those with a different backgrounds dealing with a mental illness.
One of the members later pointed out the inadequacies in the mental health care system. We talked about how it can be difficult in finding the right diagnosis for mentally ill individuals, and how sometimes the system does not serve the patient well. One attendee shared that having people at the meeting who were in the mental health care profession gave her a different outlook. For example, a psychiatrist at the meeting talked about how misdiagnosis can occur, as well as the gaps in the mental health care system.
In Melody’s case, she was misdiagnosed for 10 years, despite having treatment at the best psychiatric hospitals. It was surprising to the attendees that it took 10 years for the doctors to diagnose her with Bipolar Disorder. One of the things that emerged from the discussion was gaining the client or patient’s trust in bringing in family members to the therapy sessions. This was critical to gain multiple perspectives about the person’s behavior to better inform the mental health professional. A person with bipolar disorder might not see a therapist when they are in a manic episode, and as a result the therapist will not see that side of the disorder, and may only see the depressive side.
Additionally, members discussed the idea of Melody using humor throughout the book. We explored how this was her way of healing and possibly just her personality. While some attendees pointed out that not everyone is comfortable with having these topics discussed in a humorous manner, others swayed towards explaining that sometimes it may just come naturally to them. When Melody Skyped in, we all immediately felt that she simply just had a humorous personality. However, she did admit that she uses her humor as a defense mechanism and it was something she needed to work on. We all enjoyed having her at the meeting and were delighted to see the work she has accomplished. It was great to hear that she took on this advocacy role to help others dealing with similar mental health illnesses. When asked “What tools or strategies do you use to manage your illness?” she answered “love.”
Moreover, Melody talked about the difficulty in dealing with being bicultural and bipolar, and how, initially, she did not receive much support from her family and community. However, later on in her life, others in her community have reached out to her for support and guidance as they have had similar experiences, but never spoke up.
I felt Melody’s honest personality allowed her to open up doors that remained shut in her community and family for years. Personally, I find that in the Pakistani Muslim community, conversations around mental health illnesses remain difficult, as there is a lack of education as well as cultural barriers. I find it very courageous to take the first step in opening up taboo topics. Melody has taken on an advocacy role that will help others to find their personal route to recovery.
We want thank NAMI for co-sponsoring this event with us and look forward to future collaborations together. We loved having regular book club members and new enthusiastic voices who joined us for this discussion and contributed to this important dialogue. It is inspirational to know others dedicate their careers to helping those with mental illnesses.
Intrigued by our discussion? Want to join the conversation? Please join us for the next CHAI Book Club Meeting in April (place is TBD). The book up for discussion is “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain. The novel explores how modern Western Culture does not value the qualities and capabilities of introverted people resulting in “a colossal waste of talent, energy and happiness.”
Stay tuned for more details!