29 February 2012
By Andy Behrman
Ten years ago this month, "Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania" was published by Random House. For me, it marks so much more than a book being in circulation for a decade, but "Electroboy," has become such an important part of my life. So I feel compelled this evening to write to you and tell you not just about the last ten years but also about how much further we have to go as a movement to make people aware of mental illness, eradicate stigma and make change in our mental health care system.
I originally wrote 'Electroboy' as an article which appeared in the 'Lives' section of The New York Times Magazine. It recounted my first experience with electroshock therapy (ECT). After the piece appeared, I realized that the mental health genre, with the exception of accounts by Dr. Kay Jamison and William Styron, for the most part, was "wide open." In fact, there was almost nothing I could find to read about bipolar disorder, which was still referred to as manic depression at the time. Oddly, when I was diagnosed, I didn't know anybody who suffered with manic depression and I also wasn't sure when I left the doctor's office if I would live to see my next birthday. Or who I could tell about this frightening diagnosis.
When my bipolar disorder finally stabilised years later, I knew I wanted to write a candid, honest and unsanitized account of my experience, no matter what the response would be and I was fortunate enough to have a publisher who fully supported me. I wrote 'Electroboy' as a memoir and never had any intention of it being a self-help book. But it quickly became one of the first "self-help memoirs" and I was soon traveling across the country speaking to support groups, mental health care professionals and college audiences.
I have visited 67 cities in the United States and spoken to 377 audiences in the last ten years. I've been in every major city and in small towns in America like Boone, North Carolina, Jefferson, Texas and Edwardsville, Illinois (I particularly enjoyed sharing the stage with Richard Simmons on a riverboat casino in Shreveport, Louisiana).
I've recounted the chronicle of my battle with bipolar disorder and listened to the stories of so many people, both in person and in e-mails from people who, hiding behind the stigma of mental illness, turned to me after being shunned by family and friends with no place to go to find help. I never imagined I'd become a resource for so many people or become the "poster boy" for bipolar disorder (appearing on one of the first issues of Bipolar Magazine).
I also never thought that people in the media like Rosie O'Donnell, Anderson Cooper, and Stephen Fry would take such a personal interest in mental illness, take the time to read 'Electroboy,' and include me on their shows and in their documentaries.
After all, at one time, I was "just a patient," and a very ill one at that. At one point, my parents were told by a psychiatrist that I would probably never get well and live with them for the rest of my life. They walked out of that meeting because they refused to believe her.
Along the way, I have learned quite a bit about different types of advocacy and been inspired not only by thousands of people with brain disorders, but so many people who spend their time making the public aware of mental illness, stigma, suicide and recovery.
In the last ten years, I've spoken to people about "getting well," I've spoken to mental health care professionals from the perspective of a patient so that they can better understand us and our needs, I've advocated for those of us who can't speak about our invisible illness, I've fought big pharma (the U.S. Government has finally issued a subpoena to Bristol Myers Squibb for illegally marketing and promoting Abilify), and most recently I've been involved in a NAMI grassroots effort to prevent Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles from shutting down their apparently unprofitable, and therefore unimportant psychiatric facility at the worst possible time, which will leave the community with one less quality psychiatric facility.
I've met so many people who cope with mental illness and battle the system on a daily basis: thousands of you. And I've come to know some of you very well. And I thank all of you for sharing your stories with me because you've taught me so much. Ten years later, we're still educating people about mental illness, fighting stigma and trying to change the system, but there's still so much work to be done.
Just last week, I signed an agreement with a film production company in Los Angeles to finally bring 'Electroboy' to the screen. These two young and dynamic producers, I believe, will finally convince a tentative Hollywood to successfully produce the feature film, so that millions, not just hundreds of thousands of people, around the world, will see it on the screen. They are passionate, brilliant, and moving quickly.
But my grassroots efforts will always continue - that's why on this 10th anniversary, I ask you if you know of a support group or a psychiatric hospital that would like a free copy of "Electroboy" for their library, I have a limited supply from which I can send one. Please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll take care of getting a book to the group. At the same time, if you'd like to buy a used copy (or copies) and donate one or two to one of these groups, please let me know and I can track down quite a few copies which cost less than a couple of dollars each.
Of course, you can order a paperback copy of 'Electroboy' online (and there is now a Kindle edition available) which you can pass on to a family member, a friend or a mental health care professional who you think would benefit from hearing my story click here
And finally, I must thank my family and my two young daughters who wonder what I do every day from the time I wake up until the time I go to sleep. My six year old daughter, Kate, told me that she actually knew what "Electroboy" was about. "What?," I asked her. "It's about helping people," she told me. I was both moved and inspired by her understanding and also by a quote I recently read of President Bill Clinton: "Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all."