Podcast Interview With Mary Cregan, Author of “The Scar: A Personal History of Depression and Recovery”

Dan:

I’m Dan Lukasik. Today’s guest is Mary Cregan, author of the book The Scar: A Personal History of Depression and Recovery. Mary received her PhD from Columbia University and is a lecturer in English literature at Barnard College in New York City, where she lives with her husband and son. Welcome to the show, Mary.

Mary:

Thank you, Dan.

Dan: Mary, where does the title of the book come from?

Mary:

The title is the origin of the story, really. I have a scar from a suicide attempt I made in the very intense depressive episode that followed the death of my first child. That was when I was first diagnosed with major depression. The story that I tell in the book goes back to that scar which, of course, is with me always and is a kind of memory on my body of that experience. Because of the scar I try to return to that time to tell the story of my depression and the larger history of depression.

The Creativity Cure for Depression: An Interview with Dr. Carrie Barron

Today’s guest is Dr. Carrie Barron, a board-certified psychiatrist/psychoanalyst on the clinical faculty of the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons who also has a private practice in New York City.  She has published in peer-reviewed journals, won several academic awards, and presented original works related to creativity and self-expression at national meetings of the American Psychoanalytic Association. Along with her husband, Alton Barron, M.D., a hand and shoulder surgeon, she co-authored the book, The Creativity Cure: How to Build Happiness with Your Own Two Hands.

Dan:

Why is depression such a problem in our culture?

Carrie:

I think the level of stress has gone up enormously because we have so much to do and we’re on twenty-four hours a day. So I think because of technology, which offers us so many great things, but gives us much to do. I think that’s part of it. I also think, especially for children, we’re in a striving, ambitious, be productive all the time mentality – for children and adults. We need to play, we need to hangout, we need to have spontaneous time. I think spontaneous thought does a lot for alleviating depression and anxiety.

Dan:

We have so many different words in our culture for unpleasant experiences. We might say things like, “I’m sad,” “I’m burnt-out,” “I’m stressed-out,” or “I’m depressed.”  But what is the difference in your mind, as a clinician, between sadness, say, and depression?

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Carrie:

Sadness is a normal emotion. We don’t have to treat everything and be afraid of sadness. We don’t have to pathologize everything. There is a range. I mean, life can be very hard and it’s appropriate not only to have it, but let yourself have it. Sometimes it is actually moving towards the authentic feeling, rather than running away from it, that actually makes it go away. You first have to experience it, and then when you understand it, and you’re in it, it runs its course. Now, this is separate from a true major depression where you can’t get up in the morning. That’s another story. But sadness is a normal part of life.

Dan:

In your clinical practice, how often would you say depression has played a role in why people have come to see you?

Carrie:

I think it plays a role often. The categories that we have in the DSM-5, I think they’re useful so that clinicians can communicate with others. But nobody is fully described by a category or diagnosis. There’s a lot of overlap. When people are depressed, they’re also often anxious and also stressed, and sometimes it’s more one than the other. But depression does come up a lot for people and it’s very painful. I think not being able to get up in the morning, not feeling like doing anything, not being able to enjoy the sunny day or the view of the water, or whatever else people are getting into, it makes you feel very separate and alone when you are depressed and other people around you are not.  So it has, kind of, a trickle-down effect, too.

Dan:

Why did you write the book, The Creativity Cure? I found it such an interesting book, a fascinating read. You wrote it with your husband who is a surgeon. Can you tell our audience why you wrote it?

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Carrie:

There are two things.  I talk about this now, I didn’t talk about this in the book, when I was a kid, I had some problems. I was depressed. I was anxious. We weren’t taking meds at that time. There was some chaos in my world.  I really had to find a way to survive. When I look back on it now, all those things that I recommend in my book are things I was doing, or trying to do, like using my hands. I would cook a lot. I would take long walks.  Then, later in my practice, maybe ten years ago, patients were saying, “You know, I went home and I fixed my sink and I became euphoric! I felt great!” I started to realize that meaningful hand use has a lot to do with happiness. And yet, because so much of what we do now is accomplished with a click on a device, we’re deprived of the process. And process, being deeply immersed in making, or making music, brings with it the possibility for euphoria, and satisfaction, and feeling good about living. So creativity is really about a way to have an optimal life. How you define creativity is another matter.

Dan:

What’s going on in the body, in particular, the brain when someone is struggling with depression? And how does creative action interact with that?

Carrie:

I think a lot of studies have been done, and serotonin and neurotransmitters, there’s a depleted state, and that we need to boost it up with medication or activities that do the same. Vigorous exercise can create the same biological state that antidepressants can. I want to qualify this and say that one must see their physician and make an informed decision, but certainly exercise can help a lot. Also, meaningful hand use has been shown to boost mood. Dr. Kelly Lambert wrote a book, Lifting Depression: A Neuroscientist’s Hands-On Approach to Activating Your Brain’s Healing Power, and she was the one who talked a lot about how purposeful hand use can affect brain chemistry and make people feel happier.

Dan:

What would be some examples of using your hands? When we think of creativity, many people might think of painting, for example. They might say to themselves, “Well, I’m not a good painter,” or “I don’t play an instrument.” But creativity isn’t really limited to that. Can you expand on that?

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Carrie:

Sure. I am so glad you asked that. I think this is the crucial question. And I think you hit the nail on the head. A lot of people say, “I’m not creative.” Well, first of all, I think we’re all born creative. It’s a matter of finding what you can do. It can be applied to business. You can be amazing. You could be a genius at figuring out what the team needs to be. That’s very creative. You could be an amazing cook. You could have a tremendous talent for decorating. Gardening, the design of a garden. It doesn’t have to be on a professional level. It’s really a matter of figuring out what you can get into. You may find that if you put some time into mastering a skill that you find a certain pleasure and freedom with it. That could be something like painting, but it doesn’t have to be. Knitting, crafting, it could even be fixing things. All of that involves meaningful hand use.

There are many definitions of creativity.  My definition of it is allowing most natural self to emerge to make a positive contribution. It’s allowing you a freedom, a spontaneity in the way that you live, a feeling of safety that allows you to do that so you’ll throw out an idea, you’ll say something funny in conversation, so that you are just yourself and it works. That’s really optimal living.

Dan:

You talked earlier about when you were younger and growing up having some difficult childhood experiences and learning some creative coping skills.  Myself, when I think about this, I had a very difficult childhood as well with an alcoholic, abusive father. Over time, I didn’t have what I would now think of as depression as a young adult. It developed more at midlife when I turned forty.  It seems that there’s a lot of research that suggests that when people in their childhoods have difficult experiences, either emotional abuse, or physical abuse, or deprivation, there’s some kind of linkup with adult-onset depression. Have you found you found that in your experience?

Carrie:

Yea, I think so. I think because in certain ways when you’re in your twenties and your thirties and you’re striving, and you’re distracted and you have a strong goal, that, in and of itself, that kind of commitment to a goal or emotion can stave off certain aspects of your memory or your inner life and it might get triggered in your forties.  Maybe when you have a little bit more time to contemplate or think back. I will say that there are certainly ways, I just like to not be falsely optimistic, but be really optimistic and really encourage people to understand that there are ways to look into your particular history, your particular form of depression, and work with it to get to a much better place at any age.

Dan:

In your book, you talk specifically about not only being creatively engaged, but the use of one’s hands, a physical activity, and how that somehow connects to creativity, no matter your history, or the causes of your depression. This seems to work for just about anybody with depression or unhappiness. Would you say that’s the case?

Carrie:

I do. I think it’s mild or moderate depression. I think if you have a very severe depression, you might need some medical intervention or an intense therapy. But what I like to say is that if you develop a creative habit, it’s very useful to fall back on it when you are depressed. You may not be able to master a new habit when you’re severely depressed, but if you’re mild to moderate, and you work on your knitting, or you work on your painting, or you go into the kitchen and you are inventive about your cooking, it really can shift mood, but not if you’re in a very crippled state. In a crippled state, you need to get to, sort of, a better place, and then use the creativity after that.

Dan:

You’re living in New York City, but you’re soon to be on the move. Tell us a little bit about that.

Carrie:

I’m very excited because I am going to be moving to Austin, Texas soon.  I’m going to be involved in, and working with the great people to try to develop a creativity/wellness program together. I’m not sure exactly, I haven’t submitted a proposal to them about human flourishing and aspects of human flourishing, but from my research, I outline 10 principles that are based on scientific research, but also on ancient philosophies that really help people with optimal living. Most of those are, actually, linked to creativity and linked to better health. So I’m really excited to get to work with people there.

Dan:

You actually have a website. Where can our podcast listeners and readers find you?

Carrie:

At carriebarronmd.com and we have a pretty active Facebook page has a wide following. People make lots of comments and have lots of pretty interesting things to say on that.  So that might be a place to look. And I do have an active Psychology Today blog. I try to keep it lighter for Facebook, kind of short for my website. On Psychology Today, I try to deal with deeper, more complicated issues, but try to be useful.

Dan:

Carrie, it’s been a real pleasure speaking with you today on this very important topic of depression and what we can do about it with creativity.  And we look forward to following your future work.  I hope everybody follows Carrie on her website and reads her blogs. This is Dan Lukasik from Lawyers with Depression. Join us next week for another interesting interview.

The Neuroscience of Depression: An Interview with Dr. Alex Korb

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The following is an edited transcript of the podcast recorded interview with Dr. Alex Korb.  This transcript has not been reviewed and is not a word-by-word rendering of the entire interview.

Hi, I’m Dan Lukasik from lawyerswithdepression.com. Today’s guest is Dr. Alex Korb.  Dr. Korb is a neuroscientist, writer, and coach.  He’s studied the brain for over fifteen years, attending Brown University as an undergraduate and earning his Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA. He has over a dozen peer-reviewed journal articles on depression and is also the author of the book, The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression One Small Change at a Time. Interesting, he’s also coached the UCLA Women’s Ultimate Freesbie team for twelve seasons and is a three-time winner for Ultimate Coach of the Year.  His expertise extends into leadership and motivation, stress and anxiety, mindfulness, physical fitness, and even standup comedy. Welcome to the show.

Dr. Korb:

Thank you, great to be here.

Dan:

Let’s begin for our audience.  You’re a neuroscientist. What is neuroscience?

Dr. Korb:

Neuroscience is simply the study of the brain and nervous system. It’s a branch of biology, but it also incorporates aspects of psychology, psychiatry, and neurobiology.  It’s anything that’s going on in the brain and nervous system all under the purview of neuroscience.

Dan:

You’ve studied depression as a neuroscientist?

Dr. Korb:

Yes, that’s what I wrote my dissertation on. The aspect of neuroscience that I’m most interested in is what underlies the neural basis for our moods and emotions, behaviors, and psychiatric illnesses. Some peer-reviewed articles look at schizophrenia as well as other psychiatric disorders like depression which have a lot of basis in neuroscience and we just don’t fully understand what is happening in the brain.

Dan:

Based on your research, can you tell us what’s going on in the brain when someone is suffering from depression?

Dr. Korb:

The best way to describe it is a dysfunction in frontal-limbic communication. To simplify it, there’s a problem with the way the thinking, feeling, and action circuits in the brain are communicating with each other.  Those all have different regions of the brain that are more dedicated to each aspect of thoughts, feelings, and actions. But, normally, there’s a dynamic of how these regions are supposed to communicate with each other, and there’s something with depression that’s a little bit off.

Dan:

Can the same be said for anxiety as far as what’s going on in the brain?

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Dr. Korb:

Yes, anxiety and depression have a lot of overlap regarding the neuroscience and neurobiology behind them.  A lot of the same brain regions are involved. For example, the amygdala, which is often called the fear center of the brain, but is involved in a lot of emotional expressions, that’s one of the core emotion regions in the brain, and it plays a role in both depression and anxiety.  And there’s just a lot of overlap in brain regions, and neurochemistry that underlies these disorders and it’s one of the reasons why anxiety is one of the most common features of depression and they often co-occur together.

Dan:

When I’ve tried to explain what I was suffering from, and my symptoms and I called it “depression,” most people didn’t have any frame of reference for that. They usually thought of it as “sadness.” With respect to sadness and depression, are there different areas of the brain that pertain to sadness that are different from clinical depression?

Dr. Korb:

There’s a lot of overlap between sadness and depression, but a lot of the misunderstanding that people have is that we use the term depression and sadness, “I’m feeling depressed” or, “I’m feeling sad,” we use those colloquially, very interchangeably.

But medically, or neuroscientifically, they’re very different.

Depression and the diagnosis of depression are a lot more than simple sadness.  In fact, a lot of people who suffer from depression don’t feel sad per se. They can often feel an emptiness where emotion should be.  They have a lot of other symptoms such as hopelessness and feelings of helplessness, guilt and shame, isolation, and anxiety can be a part of it.

They can have fatigue, problems falling asleep or staying asleep or even sleeping too much and, generally, the things that they used to find enjoyable they no longer find enjoyable. Everything just feels very difficult.

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It’s hard to explain to someone why it’s difficult because it seems like it shouldn’t be. It’s a much deeper feeling of being stuck than most people experience.  I think the average person if you can think of how you felt after the week of your greatest heartbreak, that sort of touches the edge of what it means to be depressed. It’s not the depth of how badly you feel, but that you can’t escape it. For example, I like to think of depression as a traffic jam.  When you enter a traffic jam, sometimes there’s an accident. The cars are stopped, and you sit there and wait.  And you don’t know how long the traffic jam is going to be. But for most people, it was just a little stoppage on their way. But for people with depression, it’s something that their brain just can’t quite escape. They can try and try, but their brain is stuck in the pattern of activity that just drags along, and the traffic jam just continues.

Dan:

That’s a great explanation of the experience of depression. Both what’s going on in the brain and psychologically. I think people want to know what are some of the causes of depression? Many people once they’ve often been diagnosed try to figure out for themselves, and people who care about them try to figure out?

Dr. Korb:

Depression can have a huge number of different causes. This is where the traffic jam analogy does a lot to help us understand depression. If you see a traffic jam, you can say, “Oh, what caused it?” Well, a traffic jam can come from any number of causes. There’s construction on the freeway, or there was an accident, there was heavy rain or fog, or it could just be that everyone decided to leave work at the same time, and there’s no specific “cause,” it’s just that the interaction – the dynamic interaction – of all those cars just reaches a tipping point.

With depression, it’s the same way. Often, it can be precipitated by a big life event such as a divorce, or breakup, or death in the family. Or smaller life events such as a perceived emotional embarrassment or you didn’t get that promotion.  But, often it’s not “caused” by anything.  It’s just the dynamic interaction of your brain circuits with each other, combined with the sum of your current life circumstances, which causes the brain to get stuck in a certain pattern of activity and reactivity.

That’s much more likely to happen for some people than others because some people’s brains are just more at risk for falling into that pattern. This can be based on the genes you got from your parents, and your early childhood experiences and the coping patterns you’ve been doing your whole life shaped the neurocircuitry and neurochemistry of your particular brain.  So, it’s not always a specifically, identifiable cause.  I think that’s one of the reasons why people, sometimes, don’t quite believe that it’s real or don’t think they should be suffering it. But, it’s very similar to that traffic analogy where it just “sort of happened” for seemingly no reason. It’s just caused by the fact that is vague, nonlinear, dynamic system.

Dan:

Why did you write the book, The Upward Spiral? There are plenty of scientists out there who study depression, but not many of them write a book for the general public on the topic.  What is it that led you to write this kind of book?

Dr. Korb:

I just realized that there was so much useful neuroscience out there that wasn’t being effectively delivered to the people who needed it most. One of the things that made me realize that is from when I was coaching Ultimate Freesbie. After a few months, one of the girls on the team revealed to me that she had been suffering from major depression and that she’d been suffering for years, and, tragically, many months later she ended up committing suicide. It was a devastating event in my life. This was back when I was still studying neuroscience, but before I had decided to go to grad school and study depression. That event led me to want to understand exactly what was going on in her brain that could lead her to do something like that. How could the brain get stuck in a disease like this?

That lead me to going to grad school and doing my dissertation on depression to try and understand and share some of these things with other people. As I was doing my dissertation, I realized that, yes, it’s good to advance the science, but there was already so much good science out there that was so beneficial. I didn’t think that anyone was doing a good enough job communicating clearly exactly about what was happening in the brain in depression and about all the little life changes that you can make that have measurable effects on brain activity and brain chemistry.

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Dan:

The second part of your book is devoted to eight specific things you can do to alleviate depression. Quickly, they exercise your brain, set goals and make decisions, give your brain a rest, develop positive habits, biofeedback, develop the ‘gratitude circuit,’ the power of others, and your brain in therapy. We don’t have enough time to focus on all eight, so why don’t we focus in on one or two. What I thought was fascinating is that you give the backdrop for what is going on in the brain when you do these things.  A few things that popped into my mind were gratitude and your brain in therapy. What about gratitude? How can it help depression?

Dr. Korb:

Gratitude can have a lot of powerful effects on the brain. And one of the reasons going back to why I wrote this book, is that there are tons of books out there that will tell you different life changes that you can make that will help with depression, but I’ve found that a lot of them are unsatisfying because they don’t explain, why. Therefore, it’s not as convincing, and it’s very easy for people to dismiss.

So when I talk about gratitude and how practicing gratitude can be so powerful in overcoming depression, a lot of people can resist that idea because it sounds so hokey.  But if I can point to specific neuroscience studies that show that it has measurable effects in changing brain activity and brain chemistry, then you’re much more likely to do it and it gives you a much better understanding of what’s going on. Gratitude has been shown to, if people who keep a gratitude journal, improve the quality of their sleep, and sleep symptoms of depression are one of the causes of depression. The reason why I called my book, The Upward Spiral because depression can sort of be seen as a “downward spiral” where one symptom or one event can lead to seemingly to a whole cascade of events that keep you stuck. So, gratitude can help break the downward spiral that’s coming from sleep problems that are leading to difficulty in concentration, and that’s one place to break the loop.

Dan:

After reading the chapter on gratitude, I picked up a spiral notebook and started a gratitude list. It was more of a lifetime gratitude list. It’s amazing. I came up with eighty things. I was surprised. So often my experience with depression is that we ruminate about negative things. We just don’t take the time, or don’t have the skill to savor and reflect on the good things in our lives.  It seems what you’re saying is that this practice has effects in the brain.

Dr. Korb:

Yes, when you’re in a depressed state it’s much harder to see the positive aspects of your life. But that’s why it’s all the more important to build a habit of looking for those positive things because often the most important feature of gratitude is not finding something to be grateful for. It’s remembering to look in the first place because that activates the prefrontal cortex which is the more thinking part of the brain which helps it to regulate the emotional regions of the brain that are going haywire in depression.

And gratitude increases activity in the key region of the brain called the cingulate cortex that sits at the intersection between the emotional limbic system and the rational prefrontal cortex and helps modulate communication between those. Remembering things in your past that you are happy or grateful for actually increases the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin in that same brain region and serotonin is one of the most common targets for antidepressant medications.  Practicing gratitude is having effects in key brain regions that we know contribute to depression and in the neurotransmitter systems that are contributing to depression.

Dan:

I also found it interesting your chapter on our brains and therapy. What’s interesting is that many people who treat with a therapist find comfort and solace in going to therapy when they are struggling with depression. They walk out, and they often do feel better at times don’t’ always understand why they feel better.  Or, we know, there’s a recent study from National Institute of Mental Health, which concluded that as many as eighty percent of people in this country get no treatment for depression whether it be antidepressants or therapy.  So, why is it important, if at all, for people to go to therapy who struggle with depression?

Dr. Korb:

The chapter that I wrote on therapy encompasses not just psychotherapy – going to talk to someone – but it also includes medical therapy such as antidepressant medication or other forms of therapy like neuromodulation techniques. These have been demonstrated through rigorous, double-blind studies that show they have powerful effects on treating depression.  Going to see a professional if you think you are depressed is a hugely important step because they can put at your disposal all the advances of western medicine.

What’s interesting – and it’s the last chapter in the book – and it’s funny how many comments I get because they say, “You left antidepressants to the end because it’s not that important and there are other life changes people can do.” Another psychiatrist will say to me, “Why are you so dismissive of antidepressant medication? They are hugely important in the treatment of depression.”  It’s neither of those. I agree that antidepressants and psychotherapy are extremely important in the treatment of depression, and if you think you are suffering from depression, you should go to see a health professional whether it’s just your doctor or you go to see a psychotherapist.

I just don’t think antidepressants are the entire answer.

For some people, I would say about one-third of people suffering from depression; antidepressants are the answer. You can get over your depression completely simply be taking a pill. You don’t know if you might be one of those people. So, you might as well see a doctor and find out.

For the other half or two-thirds of people, antidepressant medication can still be a huge part of the answer, even if it’s not the entire answer. Taking antidepressants can also help you make these other small life changes such as increasing exercise, or changing your sleep habits, or practicing gratitude.  As you make the other small life changes, then things can start to spiral upward.

Dan:

It’s been an informative and very interesting interview with you Dr. Korb.  I want to thank you for being on the show and I highly recommend listeners to pick up and read his book, The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression One Small Change at a Time.  Join us next week for another interesting interview at Lawyerswithdepression.com.

I encourage everyone to check out Dr. Korb’s website at alexkorbphd.com.

 

Interview with Dr. John Greden, Director of the U. of Michigan Depression Center

Today’s podcast interview is with Dr. John Greden, Professor of Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences in the Department of Psychiatry, Founder and Executive Director of the University of Michigan Depression Center, Founding Chair, National Network of Depression Centers. His research over the past 30 years has focused on studying biomarkers and developing treatment strategies to prevent recurrences of depression and bipolar disorders.

Listen to my interview with him on Itunes or Google Play.

Please note that it takes Apple and Google Play time to upload podcasts interviews. If this interview is not available, check back a little bit later.

The Ups and Downs of a Bipolar Life: An Interview with Tom Roberts

Hi, I’m Dan Lukasik from LawyersWithDepression.com.

Today’s guest is Tom Roberts. Tom is a mental health speaker and writer living in Huntington Beach, California.  He’s the author of “Escape from Myself: A Manic-Depressive’s Escape to Nowhere” Tom earned his Master’s Degree in Radio, Television, and Film from the University of Kansas. He worked for several years as a broadcast journalist for local stations and freelanced for National Public Radio’s popular newscast “All Things Considered,” “The Voice of America,” and “ABC Radio News.” Tom has been a professional actor on stage, screen, and television and currently does voice-over work in the L.A. area. He is the creator of the website Tom Speaks Out!

DL: Tom, welcome to the show.

TR:  Thank you very much, Dan. I appreciate the invitation.

DL: I think our audiences wants to know, what is bipolar disorder and how is it different from depression?

TR: Bipolar disorder is described as an affective illness. It affects your moods.  You go from deep, deep depression to manic episodes which would make you hyperactive, give you poor impulse control and a number of other things like hypersexuality. Major depression is treated quite differently than Bipolar. Depression usually responds well to antidepressants whereas bipolar you have to experiment with different medications and I always dread the worst part of bipolar disorder which is a deep, deep, deep. In fact, up to 17% of people with bipolar commit suicide.

DL: What causes bipolar depression? Previously on the show, we’ve asked other guests as to the causes or risk factors for depression.  What about bipolar disorder?

TR: With bipolar disorder, it is believed to be genetic. My dad, my brother, my sister; we all have it. So, first of all, it is genetic. But the cause of it doesn’t have to manifest itself.  Frequently, it goes along and the gene doesn’t wake up. So, there is what is called a “precipitating cause”. In my experience, I believe, the precipitating cause was the sudden death of my mother. I was 14. And then the depressions started and it really disabled me throughout college, throughout my 20’s, throughout my 30’s.  And it was only addressed as depression because that was the only way it presented itself at that time.

You don’t go to the doctor when you’re manic and go, “Doc, I feel great! What’s wrong with me?”  So, once it’s diagnosed then the correct medication can be given, the mood stabilizers. That’s what happens.

DL: You mentioned the sudden death of your mother. Can you share with our audience what happened to her?

TR: I was in ninth grade. I got into a bit of trouble with some other guys. And my mom had to get me out of it. She came to talk to the county attorney and pick me up after school. And she said, “As long as I live, I’m never going to help you out of another mess like this!”

Just after she said this, she slumped forward in deep pain. She managed to get down to her doctor’s office. I remember her saying to the doctor, “Please tell Tommy that I forgive him”. The last time I saw her alive is when they wheeled her out. What happened to her is that she had a burst brain aneurysm that she didn’t know she had. She had high blood pressure that she had been treated for. So, that’s what happened. She was 34 years old. She left three boys behind.

DL: How common is bipolar in the United States?

TR: The bipolar rate is 2.6% among the U.S. population. It’s not that common to the degree that it is so difficult to treat. 15% to 17% of the people who have it ultimately kill themselves.

DL: You mentioned earlier that your brother and sister were afflicted with bipolar. It is fair to say that genetics played a role in the development of your bipolar illness?

TR: Definitely. In my book, I say my experience in bipolar began when my mother was impregnated by me! It went through my family like a Kansas tornado. My dad had it, and refused because of his fear of stigma, to ever get help from a psychiatrist until two years before he died when he was 62.

My brother, who was 7 years younger than I am, was diagnosed with bipolar in the army and then discharged without any treatment and he was so ashamed and so afraid of the stigma that he didn’t get help and, unfortunately, committed suicide.  My surviving sister was diagnosed when she was about 35 and continues today to try to deal with it and figure out better ways to manage it as a mother of two boys.

I have a stepsister who took her life 5 years after my brother because she suffered from major depression and was addicted to prescription narcotics which she used to take out her life. In one of the chapters in my book, I write that mental illness is a family “dis-ease” and with the emphasis on “ease” because the craziness in our family mixed with untreated bipolar disorder. So, I’m so afraid of the genetics in my children and, especially, in my grandchildren. My goal is really educating them and helping them see the symptoms so they can get it treated earlier than I did.

DL: Can you share with our audience your first big experience with bipolar. What was the experience like? Try to put our listeners in your shoes.

TR: I had been struggling with depression since my mother passed. It was awful in college. In fact, it was kind of interesting in college because friends of mine, who were psychology majors, used to have me take the MMPI which is a very common test to determine personalities, especially abnormal psychology. They never told me why. I just wanted to help them out.

After I finished college and went to graduate school, and then went eventually into broadcast journalism, I thought depression might have left me. When I wasn’t depressed, I couldn’t remember a time when I was depressed.  Then when I was depressed, I couldn’t remember a time when I was ever not depressed. I call these things my “happy times” and during my happy times, my behavior was rather poor. I drank a lot, womanized a lot, and spent a lot of money, and those types of things were never, never addressed.

I went on from being a broadcast journalist to teaching broadcast journalism at a small college in Arkansas. I was miserable, in and out of major depressions, and blaming everything. I thought it was my environment, that I was in the wrong career, that I didn’t like the people and became very suspicious of other people.

Finally, in 1988, I became severely depressed after spending a year on sabbatical working on my Ph.D. I admitted myself to a psychiatric hospital to be treated for the depression. The psychiatrist there treated me for depression. He did not treat me for bipolar. So, he gave me a new antidepressant. It really sent me to the moon in about three days and, suddenly, I had this wild idea: “I know what I can do to get out of this situation. I can go to Hollywood and become a film and television actor”. It’s always been what I wanted to do. I found this other woman, in the psychiatric hospital, who believed in my dream. We planned to go to Hollywood, which we did.

That was the major, manic episode because I walked away from my wife, my two little kids, my college teaching career, to go pursue a fantasy. Then that bubble burst, as it always does, and I was back in a major depression. I tucked my tail between my legs and took a bus back to Arkansas to try to salvage everything.

But, it was all gone.

It destroyed everything I had.

DL:

That’s a very powerful story. When you say it “destroyed everything,” that must have been very difficult to cope with. Did it intensify your depression? What was your reaction and behavior after all that and coming to terms with it?

TR: It intensified my depression for five years. I was doing menial jobs. I was a hospital emergency room janitor, just trying to get a little money, living in an unheated cabin in the country. Two years before, I was a college professor and had my own home and my family. That was quite a shock living that way. I was depressed more and more and I became more preoccupied with suicidal ideation during that period of time. I never attempted suicide, but I thought about it a lot.

I was finally diagnosed with bipolar, actually came from an orthopedic physician I worked for. He gave me a job of videotaping research and producing videos for his patients. About a year into the job, I was in the operating room during surgery and talking non-stop. The doctor stopped the surgery and said, “I want to see you outside”.  We went back to the surgeon’s dressing room and sat down on a bench. He said, “Tom, you’re acting kind of crazy. And you’re scaring the staff. I think you may have bipolar disorder and I do not want you to come back to work until you’ve seen a psychiatrist.”

Five days later, I was in the psychiatrist’s office talking non-stop for an hour. “Without a doubt,” he said, “Mr. Roberts you have bipolar disorder. I’m putting you on this medication that I want you to take immediately”. This was the beginning of an awareness that I had to learn to manage my illness.

DL: How long ago was that experience?

TR: I was diagnosed in 1993. It was a year after my brother’s suicide. Had I been diagnosed before that I could have talked to my brother about it and gotten him some help. But it was 1993 and I was under the assumption because my psychiatrist did not tell me what I needed to do to manage this illness. He told me if I just took a pill, I would be okay. That’s not true. Medication compliance is important, but I had to learn how to manage my life; my stressors, my sleep patterns, my nutrition.

That took twenty years to learn and, unfortunately, I left a lot of wreckage behind.

DL: Tell us some of the things that you’ve learned over the years to manage your bipolar?

TR: I think, first and foremost, besides medication compliance, is a good sleep pattern. It’s called “sleep hygiene”. Sleep problems are usually an indication of the onset of a mood change: if you miss sleep, or can’t sleep. Six to seven hours of sleep is what I need every night to stay even. Exercise. Personally, I have a dog. The exercise, the clean air, that’s terrific.

The other thing that has helped me so much, is that I remarried in 2010, and it was just having a family, having loved ones. My two adult children went through difficult times with me, but we’re very close. And being a grandfather. And being very, very grateful and having to stop, at times, and say thank you to my higher power that I am here. It took a long time, but I put the pieces together. I see a psychotherapist when I need to. Those are my management tips.

DL: You’ve also written a book, “A Manic-Depressives Journey to Nowhere”. Tell us a little bit about the book and why you wrote it.

TR: The book is my memoir and I’ve been struggling with the idea of a memoir for 10 years. But I wasn’t ready yet – probably because I wasn’t stable yet. If I had done it earlier, it would have been grandiose. This time, a year ago, I was asked to give a webinar for the International Bipolar Foundation. It was a long presentation and I thought this would be a great outline for a memoir. All I have to do is flesh it out a little more. I found a publisher and I wrote it.

I have to tell you that I wrote it with many tears reliving some of these experiences. Especially, my brother’s death.

But it was cathartic and by the time I finished it and published, that is what I needed.  Then I realized in the process of writing, I love what Abraham Lincoln said, “Writing is man’s greatest invention. It allows the dead to speak to the living or those yet to be born.” I thought, wow, my grandchildren can pick this book up one of these days and it will help them.

Listen to the remainder of the interview as a podcast on Apple iTunes or Goggle Play and hear Tom talk about the stigma surrounding mental illness.

Further reading:

7 Tools for Overcoming Impulse Control Issues by Eric Johnson

Surrender, Acceptance, and Living with Bipolar Disorder by Karl Shallowhorn

My Bipolar Brain: Constant Conversations in My Head by Dave Mowry

Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance website

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