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“Mental” Author Jaime Lowe on Living with Bipolar Disorder, Facing Social Stigma & Finding Support

Web ExclusiveDecember 28, 2017
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We continue our interview with journalist and author Jaime Lowe about her remarkable memoir, Mental: Lithium, Love, and Losing My Mind. She shares and investigates her experience with mental illness and the drugs used to combat it. She was on lithium for two decades but was forced to go off it when she experienced serious kidney problems as a result of the medication. Lowe notes mental illness is still associated with social stigma despite affecting tens of millions of Americans.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: According to the American Psychiatric Association, bipolar disorders are, quote, “brain disorders that cause changes in a person’s mood, energy and ability to function.” Bipolar disorder used to be called manic depression. Every year some 44 million Americans experience mental illness, of which almost 6 million are diagnosed as bipolar.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, in her remarkable memoir, titled Mental: Lithium, Love, and Losing My Mind, Jaime Lowe shares and investigates her experience with mental illness and the drugs used to combat it. She was on lithium for 20 years but was forced to go off it when she experienced serious kidney problems as a result of the medication. She points to statistics published by the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control, that show the use of prescription medication for antidepressants among all ages increased nearly 400 percent over the last two decades.

In this Part 2 discussion, a web exclusive, Jaime will talk more about her experience with bipolar disorder, still associated with social stigma despite affecting tens of millions of Americans, and talk about why she chose to come out and talk about this so publicly in a memoir.

Jaime, it’s great to have you with us and to continue this conversation. In Part 1 of our discussion, you talked all about, well, being in a psychiatric ward at UCLA at the age of 16. You talked about traveling to the Bolivian salt mines, where half of the world’s lithium is found. You talked about taking lithium for 20 years and what it meant to you. Let’s start now by talking about the use of prescription medication for antidepressants among all ages increasing nearly 400 percent—over what period of time? What does this mean? Of course, it means for lithium and all other drugs.

JAIME LOWE: So, I think part of that is just that psychiatric care is in its infancy. I think that when you think about how the FDA has approved medications and how recently that’s been, lithium wasn’t approved, actually, until the early '70s. And that's—you know, very slowly thereafter, other medications have come out as being effective for depression or being effective for anxiety, being effective for insomnia. And I think, basically, the industry has grown and has been marketed, you know, exponentially. I think that that’s really excellent in some ways, because the pills can really help, and I think it’s also really detrimental in other ways, because you have this shift from analysis to, you know, basically prescription, where you have—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: What do you mean by “analysis”?

JAIME LOWE: Psychoanalysis and therapy and counseling and talking and figuring out basically why you’re in a situation that you’re in, and sort of help with that situation. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to do, you know, five days a week of Freudian analysis or Jungian theory, but I think like having a support system, somebody who’s there, who’s talking to you and who you’re talking to and who can identity when things are kind of falling apart, that outside person is a really important factor that’s completely missing from our healthcare system.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, isn’t this an absolutely critical talk—I mean, discussion? How many doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists have talked about this, where they now can only see a patient for something like 20 minutes or less, which only leaves them time to prescribe? And they desperately want to speak to the patient—they feel they are doing a disservice to their patients—to figure out all the things that you’re saying, that comes with talk therapy. But according to the medical system we have today, they’re there to simply write out prescriptions.

JAIME LOWE: And a lot of that is because that—those are GPs doing that. You have general practitioners who are writing psychiatric—you know, prescriptions for psychiatric care. And you don’t have the other side of it. You don’t have—

AMY GOODMAN: But even the psychiatrists who work in clinics—


AMY GOODMAN: —are not given the time to actually talk to their patients. And the psychiatrist with the MD being able to prescribe—


AMY GOODMAN: —they become a prescription mill, even if they don’t want to be.

JAIME LOWE: Right. I mean, I think that that makes it so that psychiatric care is socialized in a way that you have people who have enough money that can actually afford to pay for—I mean, my psychiatrist is not on my health insurance. And so, I’ve paid, I think, more than $100,000, over the time that I’ve been seeing him, just to see him. And that’s what I work for. That’s—I work so that I can pay him. He’s probably my second-biggest expense outside of my housing. And, you know, it’s well worth it. I am functional. But, you know, I say that I’m really lucky, because I can do that. I’m like in the 1 percent of, you know, the mentally ill, because so many people cannot afford to do that and could never even entertain that concept.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I mean, one of the things that you say is that there was a huge shift in public policy regarding mental health in the mid-’80s that made healthcare so much—healthcare for mental illness so much more difficult to access for so many people. So can you talk about what prompted that shift and what the effect of that has been?

JAIME LOWE: Sure. It was actually—I think I was talking about it with you earlier, and I said mid-'80s, and I should have said early ’80s, because Carter actually had a Mental Health Systems Act that he was going to—that he had put in place, that would have had community care. It would have devoted a lot more federal funding for mental health recovery and care. The following year, in ’81, Reagan repealed the act. And that took 30 percent of federal funding away from mental illness care. So, and then, as—like from ’81 to now, like there's been a steady decrease in terms of funding and in terms of just even awareness of how much we can take care of people. We have—in 2010, I think there were 43,000 psychiatric beds in the U.S., and that was the same number that we had in 1850, which is crazy, like.

AMY GOODMAN: Repeat that.

JAIME LOWE: In 2010, we had—we have 43,000 psychiatric beds, which is the same number that we had in 1850.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to go to the actual diagnosis that you received of bipolar disorder 1. This disorder used to be called manic depression, I mean, in the period you’re speaking of where this shift occurred, in the 1980s. It was called manic depression. Now, in terms of your own experience, your own symptoms, do you think that the term “bipolar” captures something that “manic depression” did not? Why was the term changed?

JAIME LOWE: I don’t know why it was changed, because it doesn’t—I think “manic depression” actually captures what I go through perfectly. I think it was—there’s a stigma to it, and it was shifted to something else. I think Carrie Fisher has—I’m going to paraphrase her, because I can’t actually say her words perfectly, because she’s amazing, but she’s basically said “bipolar” is like a sexual bear. It’s not—like she always wanted to be called manic depressive, and that “bipolar” always sounded weird to her. I don’t like have a preference one way or the other. I know what I go through, and I know what other people go through based on that and based on what they tell me. And—

AMY GOODMAN: And describe that.

JAIME LOWE: I mean, it’s basically—it is—I mean, the way that my first psychiatrist described it was that it was like being high on cocaine, so that—it’s like 1/1,000th of that, because I—when I first tried cocaine, I was like, “This is not that exciting. This is like nothing compared to what I had experienced without being on any drugs,” which is not to say that, you know, it was a good thing, because it’s like that high, but then that destruction that comes with it. So—

AMY GOODMAN: Does it always come with it?

JAIME LOWE: Yes, I think it does. For me, it does.

AMY GOODMAN: Meaning the high and then the low.

JAIME LOWE: Yeah. I mean, I think that the high leads to poor decision-making. It leads to, you know, any number of kind of—I sent about 1,000 emails to colleagues about story ideas that were like, you know, beyond recognizable, and I would—like, writing poetry and like singing musicals that I had written in 10 minutes that I thought were amazing. And like, you know, I was very—I would talk to anyone who—like, I would say anyone who would talk to me, but it was actually I would just talk to anyone, like whether they wanted me to approach them or not. And actually, that was one of the things my mom says, is that when—for the second episode, one of the first signs that she thought that I was getting better was that—when we were in an elevator and I didn’t talk to every single person in the elevator.

AMY GOODMAN: Jaime, can you talk about what you write at the end of your book, which is, “I am lucky. Not everyone is”? There is a real spike in adolescent suicide, without even talking about suicide attempts. Can you talk about what it means for girls, for boys, for women, for men?

JAIME LOWE: I think I’m lucky in more ways than I can probably articulate, because I’m lucky in terms of my family, in that I have so much family that’s always been so supportive and kind of there to pick up the pieces. And then I’m also lucky in terms of that even when I couldn’t pay for health insurance or I couldn’t pay for therapy, that I knew that there was somebody who could. I don’t think everyone has—I know everyone doesn’t have that. I know that very few people have that. And I think that it’s a travesty, actually, that mental healthcare is a luxury item. It’s really—I just—I feel lucky that I am here. I mean, there are a lot of different ways I could have not been here. And I think that I’m lucky—


JAIME LOWE: Well, I’m lucky that the medications have worked, too, because they don’t work for a lot of people.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, one of the strange things, which you also point out, is that there’s still—despite this massive prevalence of mental illness, there’s still a kind of social stigma that’s attached to it. I mean, if someone has cancer or any other kind of physical illness, people don’t, you know, have a difficult time accepting it. But with mental illness, there is still a stigma. Why do you think that is? And how do you think people should be thinking about mental illness?

JAIME LOWE: I think there’s still a stigma because it’s thought of as a type of weakness, that you can’t control yourself, that you can’t control your environment, that you can’t control the world around you, because you’re reacting in a way that is outside of your norm. And I think that you can sometimes see, from—like you can see yourself acting and say, “This is not what I would normally do, but this is what I’m doing.” I think that because it’s been thought of as a weakness, people are afraid to kind of say that they’ve experienced that, too.

AMY GOODMAN: You describe in your book about the importance of your family, like you dedicate this to all your parents. Your parents are divorced, so you say you’ve got, you know, many, many parents. But you also attack your family—right?—in the lows of and in the highs of what you experienced. You accused your father of being abusive, and you said that, in fact, he wasn’t abusive. What do you say to families of people who have manic depression, where they become the target, those that want to help the most become the target?

JAIME LOWE: I totally cop out, because it’s so hard for me to say what the people around me have experienced. I sometimes just tell them to call my mom or my dad or my stepdad or my stepmom. But I don’t know. You know? Like, I have always been the center of all of my own terrible, explosive, you know, awful episodes. And so I don’t know how I would react to me, if I were in the reverse position. Like, I think you have to have a lot of patience. I think you have to basically try, and just keep trying and keep trying, to keep that person well and there and close. But I really don’t know. Like I—

AMY GOODMAN: But you know how you want people to respond to you. So how do you want those family members to respond to you?

JAIME LOWE: So, I actually—you know, I was a real menace. I was a real—you know, you’re really like—you don’t want to talk to—you don’t want to hear any rules. You don’t want to hear anything from anybody. You just want to like—I was like chain-smoking. I was like totally a not nice person to the people around me, and I didn’t want to hear anything from them. And if any of them had said like, “Oh, you’re experiencing mania. You’re going to get better. You need to like take medication,” I would have been like, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Like you need to just like back up and stop talking to me. Like I’m going to figure this out on my own.” And there’s—you know, that’s the really scary part, I think, is when it’s just not getting through, and over and over again.

And I get a lot of letters from people who have read the book or who read the article I wrote for the Times Magazine. And I honestly—like I don’t know what can connect with someone, where they’re—that moment where you’re like, “I really do need this help. I really am destroying everything around me. I really am not functioning the way that I should be. This really isn’t like a”—

AMY GOODMAN: Can you think of a moment where someone intervened, when you were pushing them away, that made an enormous difference in your life?

JAIME LOWE: I mean, I think that they all were trying to intervene at some point. There was a moment of clarity, and I think it was only after being worn down for so long and so many times by everyone around me, that I remember—because they all—all of my parents continued working during my second episode, because they had no idea how long it was going to last, and they couldn’t afford to not work. And so, I remember it was sort of like they would rotate babysitting duties with me. And my stepdad took me to Jerry’s Deli in L.A., and he was just like, “You have no idea what you’re doing to your mom.” Like, she’s—and he was—like, I think he was at his wits’ end. And I had this moment where I was like, “I don’t have any idea. Like, you’re right.” But I kind of remember the bean soup. I remember the deli. I remember sitting there with him. And I remember thinking like, “Maybe something is wrong.”

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I think one of the reasons, as you suggest in your book, that your family was so helpful—and going back to what we were talking about with social stigma—is that they realized that what you were going through was not a choice. I mean, it was an illness that you were, you know, afflicted with, not something that you had the volition, you know, to control.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: And do you—from the people that you heard from, all the people you received letters from, after you wrote that New York Times piece, and, no doubt, after this book, as well, did many people say that those around them, those close to them, had responded in this way—in other words, thinking that they had a choice and they just had to get it together, or however people understand it?

JAIME LOWE: I think that that’s how some people see it. I think that’s definitely true. And I think that—you know, I think it’s a really similar situation to alcohol and narcotic dependency. And I think that’s why a lot of times they’re kind of like woven in together, where you’re trying to self-medicate with either, you know, drugs or booze or whatever. And I think that the thing with alcoholism and drug abuse is that you are essentially instigating and being out of control and being a different person than who you preternaturally are without those substances. And I think, with mental illness, you’re out of control and you’re this other person without the drugs that you would be taking. But it’s a similar situation, where you’re kind of—you’ve lost control, and you’re not necessarily who you are when you are functioning and waking up and who you would be at your best day.

AMY GOODMAN: Jaime Lowe, this goes to the question of social stigma, and that is, how you decided to write this book, really to come out publicly. You’re a professional journalist. You write about many different kinds of issues. And then you embark on this journey, writing Mental: Lithium, Love, and Losing My Mind. Talk about the decision you made and your concerns about it and the kind of response you’ve gotten to it.

JAIME LOWE: It’s funny, because my concerns were probably more professional than they were about being bipolar and coming out as bipolar, just because, like I said earlier, I am—I have no filter. I don’t know to be not talking about it. But I think that I didn’t want to only be a writer who was writing about myself, and I didn’t only want to be a writer who was writing about mental illness, even though the mental illness was something I was fascinated by and I wanted to know more about, and I felt like there was definitely like deep investigation to be done there, and especially because it touched me so personally. I think that that was why I ended up writing the book, was there were a lot of unanswered questions or a lot of threads to follow. And I wanted to do it in a way where it was not a traditional memoir or was only my story. I wanted to do it so that there was information woven in.

AMY GOODMAN: And have you felt any—any effects of writing this book or writing the piece you did in The New York Times, magazines, publications you’d want to write for about many different issues, raising this? Or maybe it’s much more subtle, and you’d never know.

JAIME LOWE: I think people are nicer to me. I don’t know. I mean, I have no idea. It’s the same, like I don’t have an alternative to gauge it by. So, I did it. It’s out there. I think, you know, the first book I wrote was also sort of related to mental illness, and I don’t think I realized that fully. It was about Ol’ Dirty Bastard from the Wu-Tang Clan, and he was diagnosed schizophrenic. And that was when I wanted to sort of know him more. And I did the last interview with him for The Village Voice before he passed away, and ended up feeling like that book was actually equally about mental illness as this book, but—

AMY GOODMAN: Digging for Dirt: The Life and Death of ODB.


AMY GOODMAN: And then, we met you not through anything to do with this. We had you on Democracy Now! because you wrote this piece for The New York Times, “The Incarcerated Women Who Fight California’s Wildfires.”

JAIME LOWE: Right, right. And that—you know, I think that that—if I was like looking for a thread through whatever work I was doing, I think it’s just curiosity about a human and a person and what they’re like. And so, that, the inmate firefighters, was—like, I wanted to write about that because of a woman who had died while fighting the fires.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this amazing story of prisoners, side by side with professional firefighters, so they had been trained—


AMY GOODMAN: —who are fighting the fires and being paid almost nothing—


AMY GOODMAN: —risking their lives and, as you said, dying.

JAIME LOWE: Yeah. And it’s also—I mean, it’s like they are paid almost nothing, and then they’re trained. They actually, like a lot of the women I talked to, love doing the training. But they have no way of bridging the gap between when they’re released and actually working for CAL FIRE, like there’s no job afterwards. There’s no—you know, there’s like—this program could be an amazing program if it was like a halfway house and if they were paid the right amount, if they were paid like, you know, what CAL FIRE makes, or at least seasonal employees. But there were these like small parts of it that didn’t work, and among them was like people dying. You know, two men died this year who were inmate firefighters.

But that story came about mostly because I was fascinated by that program and by the fact that it existed, because I grew up in California and just had no idea that that was 40 percent of our firefighting brigade, is from inmate firefighters. But it was also that this woman, who had died while fighting the fire—while fighting fires, was not a fully realized person, in the way that she was talked about. She was just kind of honored, but not—there was no sense of who she was. And so I just really wanted to know more about who she was. And I think that’s kind of the bottom line for all of these things, you know.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The work that you’ve done.


AMY GOODMAN: And why did you call your book Mental?

JAIME LOWE: I actually wanted to call it Grand Delusions, but everyone, my editor and agents, all said that it sounded like a book about magic, because it could be Grand Illusions. I thought people could figure that out. But no.

I thought that Mental—I wanted to reclaim that word, because I think that, like you’ve both said, there’s a huge stigma about mental illness, and I don’t think there needs to be. I think everybody is a little bit mentally ill. I think that what Dr. Angst said in the, you know, conference in Rome—he’s this like wonderful Austrian psychiatrist who like was there when bipolar was defined, was there with testing lithium in the '50s and ’60s, and still active in the psychiatric community. He said that. He just said, you know, “I think everyone experiences a little bit of mental illness.” And I think that that's true. I think that’s why it’s, you know, mental.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much for being with us, Jaime Lowe, author and journalist. Her latest book, Mental: Lithium, Love, and Losing My Mind.

To see Part 1 of the conversation, you can go to I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks so much for joining us.

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