Posted on March 9, 2011
In the second of Fountain House’s book readings, best-selling author Mark Vonnegut interspersed passages from his extraordinary memoir, Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So, with insightful questions from award-winning journalist Jacki Lyden. Their thoughtful and lively discussion covered a lot of ground - from the connection between the arts and mental illness to the evils of third-party insurance to living life while hearing voices.
The book, Mr. Vonnegut’s second, chronicles his struggle with bipolar disorder. In his early 20s, he experienced three psychiatric breaks in rapid succession. When asked by Ms. Lyden, herself the daughter of a woman living with bipolar disorder, how he recovered, he answered, “I was convinced if I could remember the feelings and tell the truth about them, I could survive.”
And tell the truth he has, with a clear-eyed humor and compassion that inspires. Now a renowned pediatrician in private practice, Mr. Vonnegut spoke about his admission to Harvard Medical School (“After being sick I wanted to prove I wasn’t broken.”), his psychotic break 14 years after his initial diagnosis (“I had to run full barrel at the window to prove to God I was worth not giving up on. I ended up in the same hospital where I had been teaching emergency procedures the week before.”), and his struggle with substance abuse (“A lot of manic-depressives drink to be normal. You feel superior to everyone else who is just drinking to be drunk.”)
His willingness to write and to speak about his journey stems from a couple of thoughts he kept coming back to. “People with mental illness can get better, and if they don’t, how you treat them makes a big difference in the kind of world we live in.” and “The difference between me and crazy people who have not done well is not much.” Clearly, his own resilience has played a large role in his recovery and success, but he also spoke about the importance of a supportive community and access to ample resources.
Long-time friends of Fountain House Ines Elskop and Carmel Fromson joined forces with the Council for Training, Education and Advocacy to produce the event. The program was preceded by a reception at Fountain Gallery, in recognition of the crucial role art plays in Mr. Vonnegut’s efforts to keep himself well. Fountain Gallery artist Anupama Annam was deeply touched by Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So, and she first reached out to the Vonneguts on behalf of Fountain House. At the reception, she offered this tribute, “He really depicts the loneliness of being mentally ill well. It's a strange thing to have such extreme experiences, and to live without being able to tell anyone. This book made me less lonely.”
Photos by Michael Loccisano