Iranian-American author Melody Moezzi on her life outside of mental illness, and love for her family and writing. She spoke to Azra Thakur.
I recently read Melody Moezzi’s new memoir, Haldol and Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life. In the book, Moezzi bravely portrays her diagnosis with bipolar disorder, focusing briefly before her mental illness is diagnosed through to a point when she receives an accurate diagnosis and treatment. While much of the book hauntingly illustrates the incredible highs and lows associated with the illness, Moezzi also depicts life outside the disorder: her relationship with her supportive family, her love for her unwavering husband, and decision to pursue writing as a career as she completed her law and public health programs.
It is a full life Moezzi presents, where her cultural ties and faith also quietly inform her sense of self. Through writing about her experience, Moezzi helps to combat the stigma those with mental illnesses face. Literature is a powerful way to understand someone whose experiences differ from our own. The intersection between faith, culture, mental illness, and stigma associated with it both within and from outside one’s respective communities is one that is deserving of more research, as these authors posit in the Journal of Muslim Mental Health. In the meantime, this personal experience Moezzi relates serves as an example of some of the unique circumstances existing within the intersection.
I had the chance to ask Moezzi some questions following my read through the book.
You were diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2008. Haldol and Hyacinths looks at your life leading up to and through your diagnosis. At what point did you decide to write your memoir? What made you decide to write it? What was your process for writing the book?
I decided to write the book about a year after being released from the hospital. I met some brilliant and painfully ashamed people on locked wards, and I realised that the mentally ill are one of the most vulnerable minorities in this country silenced by fear and shame. Four of the top 10 leading causes of disability in the world are mental illnesses. This is serious stuff. We can’t just keep sweeping it under the rug. I hope by telling my story I will encourage others to do the same, for we are never going to get the funding or facilities we need if we don’t stand up and speak out as some 25 percent of the population.
The process of writing the book was painful. I compare it to tearing off my skin and rolling around on a salt lick every day. Still, breaking my silence has helped my recovery. It has brought me more healing, love and support than I ever thought possible.
There is a fleeting mention at the beginning of the book of how the act of being born in America as the daughter of Iranian immigrants may have had an impact on your mental health:
“Nor did I have a clue that just by being born in the United States with distinctly Persian DNA, I was destined for a bipolar identity and propensity over which I’d have no control. In short, I was both Westoxified (in the Ayatollah’s words) and highly inclined to lose my mind. Whether the former facilitated the latter is anyone’s guess, but if it were calculable, I suspect there’d be a statistically significant association between the two.”
As a public health person myself (and also the daughter of immigrants to the US), this idea is equally intriguing for me to consider. Why did you include this at the beginning of the book?
In no way do I want to suggest that my mental illness is somehow purely the result of being both Iranian and American. Nevertheless, I see the parallels between bipolar disorder and my experience as an Iranian-American. I consider myself fully Iranian and fully American, and yet my two homelands have been at odds since I was born. I’ve never known a time where the two governments got along – let alone weren’t the greatest of enemies. That sense of a torn identity does something to a person, and it’s at the heart of who I am in so many respects. I just couldn’t ignore its impact on my mind.
Your family, friends, and husband’s support come across as instrumental towards your treatment and management of bipolar disorder. Do you have any recommendations for how to provide support to those struggling with mental illness? Alternatively, what’s unhelpful?
My number one piece of advice for family members of people with bipolar disorder, or any illness for that matter, is take care of yourself. You cannot effectively take care of another person unless you’re of sound mind yourself. Secondly, I’d recommend setting very clear boundaries and sticking to them. Having a mental illness is not an excuse to abuse those around you, and by allowing a family member with mental illness to mistreat you in any way, you enable their illness. Again, your own health must be your top priority. You help us by helping yourself.
Constantly asking whether your family member has taken her or his medication can be really frustrating. I understand the urge, but feeling pressured or forced into taking my meds makes it far less likely that I will continue to do so. Recovery has to be a choice, and it’s a choice that only you can make for yourself. No one else can force recovery on you.
You acknowledge your faith as a Muslim woman throughout the book, at various stages of your illness. As a result of your experiences and understanding of your illness now, what did you learn about your faith and beliefs?
My faith got me through so much with respect to dealing with my mental illness. When I was manic, I fully believed I was a prophet who had a direct line to God. While I now acknowledge that I am in fact not a prophet, I’m still not willing to give up that direct line. I think all of us are capable of a deep personal relationship with the Divine, but sometimes a little madness helps. Not to minimise the clinical importance of treatment in any way, but I fully believe that my struggles have brought me closer to God.
I enjoyed reading about your ritual of celebrating Nowruz and the setting of the haft-seen, a table-spread of seven items starting with س to celebrate the coming spring. What made you decide to include the sonbol, the hyacinth from your haft-seen, in the title of your memoir?
The hyacinth represents rebirth in the haft-seen, and likewise in the book. It smells amazing and looks beautiful. Each stalk is made up of many tiny flowers and each stalk leans in whatever direction it chooses. Each tiny flower is supremely delicate on its own, yet the stalk that connects them is strong and sturdy. Such has been my experience with “recovery”. It’s not always predictable, and it requires support from friends and family, not to mention extreme flexibility.
Furthermore, the hyacinth’s beauty and fragrance speak to the potential benefits of my “disorder”. My brain can travel to places higher and lower than that of any “normal” person. As such, it gives me insights that require irrationality. It makes me a more compassionate person, a better writer and a better activist on all fronts.
George Bernard Shaw said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” I am capable of abandoning reason in a way that “normies” can’t. I mention this in the book, and I’ll paraphrase: while this ability has nearly killed me on more than occasion, it has saved – even resurrected – me on countless others. Hence the hyacinth, both with its beauty and its message of rebirth, seemed like it belonged in the title.