Dyane Harwood, Author of Birth of a New Brain, Q&A Session
Today, I would like you to give a warm welcome to a special guest – and new dear friend of mine, Author Dyane Harwood. Dyane took a timeout to participate in a fun Q&A session with us for her book Birth of a New Brain–Healing From Postpartum Bipolar Disorder. If you haven’t had the chance to check out my review of her book, you can do so by Clicking Here. I hope you enjoy reading Dyane’s answers as much as I enjoyed asking her the following questions.
1. What inspired you to write Birth of a New Brain—Healing from Postpartum Bipolar Disorder?
I’ve been a voracious reader ever since I was a child. Books have always served as my teachers. After my postpartum bipolar disorder was activated (which was similar to bipolar one with the exception that PPBD is triggered by childbirth) I searched online for a book that addressed my form of bipolar disorder. I couldn’t find anything so I did what is often done among writers—I wrote the book I had been seeking. I wanted my memoir to help other mothers as they faced this bewildering mental illness.
Ironically, my hypergraphia (compulsive, nonstop, extreme writing that can accompany bipolar mania) served as the catalyst to write Birth of a New Brain. I didn’t put any thought into it. I just started writing. I had been a freelance writer for over ten years before my postpartum bipolar diagnosis and I had always wanted to write a book. However, I never could have predicted my book would be a memoir, let alone focus on a serious mood disorder.
2. What does being a mental health advocate mean to you?
It means using my real name and my headshot photo when I blog, write articles, etc. It means, for me, that I’m “out” in the world about having bipolar disorder. I realize not everyone can do that; they can lose jobs, relationships and much more. Since 2007 I was in a place where I could reveal my true identity and even though sometimes it has been difficult, I thought I needed to, as the comedian Jay Mohr says, “put my name on it.” Advocacy has helped me view myself in a more positive light. I can be my socially anxious, insecure self and still be an advocate through writing, speaking on podcasts, and occasional public speaking, which I seldom do since it terrifies me! Being a mental health advocate isn’t always fun but it’s an empowering activity and I’m thankful for its place in my life.
3. Do you plan to write another book in the future?
The short answer: yes. The long answer? Here goes!
Since the book’s publication last October, I had an accident that changed my life. Last February I was walking my dog Lucy at the local high school. I tripped and fell flat on my face onto concrete and broke my jaw. I’ll be honest—I was looking at my cell phone when that happened. Suffice it to say I learned my lesson that it’s just as dangerous to text and walk as it is to text and drive! I had some downtime after my jaw repair surgery. One evening I watched a documentary called What the Health on Netflix. The film features an intrepid filmmaker named Kip Andersen. Kip uncovers the secret to preventing and even reversing chronic diseases and I promise you it’s not snake oil! He also investigates why the nation’s leading health organizations, ones I used to respect and trust, do not want people to know about it. It’s a totally life-changing film.
What the Health affected me so profoundly that I became a vegan immediately after I saw it. I had never even remotely considered being a vegan up to that point. Veganism has been a surprisingly positive force in my life. I started reading some books about veganism and learned that it’s is not the exact same diet as a whole foods plant-based (WFPB) diet.
Like veganism, a WFPD diet doesn’t include any meat, dairy, or eggs. A vegan diet is mainly defined by what it eliminates – in other words, you can be a junk food vegan and eat lots of vegan cheese and other processed foods and be unhealthy. A WFPB diet is defined also by what it encourages us to eat: a large variety of minimally processed “whole foods,” i.e. whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes – weird word, I know, but it represents beans, & seeds. You can enjoy nuts, avocados, natural sweeteners, and certain soy or wheat products that don’t contain added fat (i.e. tofu, seitan) in moderation. It will probably come as no surprise that heavily processed foods aren’t included in the WFPB diet!
Where am I going with all this? Well, I started wondering about the correlation between the vegan and WFPB forms of nutrition and mental health. I was inspired to begin writing a book proposal about nutritional psychiatry and other topics. To that end, I won a scholarship for T. Colin Campbell’s Center for Nutrition Studies Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate (an online course affiliated with Cornell University) so I can better research how the WFPB diet affects mental health.
Phew! That’s it.
4. In your book, you mentioned that you take MAOIs. For many people, myself included, this category of medications seems quite challenging. How did you deal with all the possible interactions and risks of taking an MAOI? Do you still take them?
I had no idea that monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) have been prescribed for treatment-resistant bipolar depression for literally decades (i.e. since the 1950s, I believe) until 2013 when my most recent psychiatrist mentioned them. I found it mind-boggling that no other doctor thought to suggest them since I was a textbook case of being med-resistant (I tried well over 20 drugs) plus two rounds of ECT.
You need to be very careful about other medication interactions with MAOIs, including over-the-counter & herbal supplements. I check with the pharmacist, my psychiatrist, & online drug interaction checkers (including one that checks for natural supplement interactions) & it has been easy.
You’re not supposed to drink alcohol or eat foods rich in the amino acid tyramine (found in soy products, aged cheese, fermented foods and some other foods) or else your blood pressure can spike. Honestly, these restrictions have been no big deal! It was really good for me to have to give up alcohol – it was a huge blessing. It has been totally worth the alcohol/food restrictions because the damn bipolar depression lifted. And as long as I can still eat chocolate and drink coffee, I’m happy! I’ve read of two doctors who told their extremely depressed patients they couldn’t can’t have chocolate or coffee but that’s false. Get a new doctor!
I’ve taken the generic form of the MAOI Parnate, tranylcypromine, for the past 5 years and I’m incredibly grateful it exists. I did have a side effect of afternoon fatigue for the first few weeks, which I had read about online. I still might have this fatigue because of the meds I take (it’s hard to “blame” it on the Parnate and/or lithium because my fatigue could be caused by other things going on in my life, like having our young child wake up nightly) but again, the side effect is worth it to be bipolar depression-free at last.
5. What is one piece of advice you would give to someone who is considering taking a prescription MAOI?
I have two pieces of advice: Review the list of food restrictions so you’re familiar with it (your doctor can refer you to an accurate list) and give up the booze!
6. In your book, you talk about how ECT (Electroconvulsive Therapy) saved your life. Were you scared before your first session? What was going through your mind?
I’m the kind of person who wants to know what’s going to happen if I get a medical procedure, and with ECT I was freaking clueless. So yes, at first, I was scared before the first treatment but what overrode that fear was being in that dark place where I thought, “I don’t care anymore. I just don’t care what happens at this point.” At my other ECT treatments I was anxious before each procedure, but the fear was no longer there.
7. The thought of receiving ECT is scary for so many people, after all, we have seen the horror stories on TV and in movies. Do you have any words of encouragement or advice for people who may be thinking about receiving this kind of treatment?
For a brief article about my experience, you can visit mu HuffPost article:
ECT does not hurt at all. It can be lifesaving – it saved my life. It didn’t solve my life’s problems, but it got me out of the bottomless pit of despair in my mind. If you’re considering having a done, keep in mind that the people attracted to this medical specialty are usually deeply compassionate about mental illness. They are kind. If you’re scared, please let them know. You can just say “I’m scared.” They are there to help you!
Pee before you get your treatment! I didn’t do it one time and when I woke up, I was wearing scrubs since I had wet myself like a little baby when under anesthesia and the nurse changed me. I was embarrassed but she was very sweet about it. “Happens all the time,” she assured me. I didn’t make that mistake again.
8. Do you still receive ECT treatments?
My last ECT was in 2013.
9. What is your writing Kryptonite?
Chocolate and chai! (can it be food?) I also love having my dog Lucy near me. She sat on part of my foot for a lot of the writing of Birth of a New Brain.
10. Would you consider yourself to be more on the stable side these days? If so, how long has it taken you to get to this point?
I became stable in November of 2013 after I had ECT, started taking lithium and the MAOI, and gave up alcohol. Each year has gotten better in terms of my stability but I’m no Dalai Lama! Certain triggers – like the common cold – set me off. I can lash out in anger more than I’d like to, but I’m working on it with my therapist.
11. How do you cope with Bipolar Depression these days?
If I feel myself dipping, I have a totally different perspective on it than I used to have. I know it will pass in a day or two. The lows aren’t as low as they used to be. I used to think I’d never feel better… I do the same types of creature comforts I used to do (reading, Netflix, social media) but I don’t rake myself over the goals for retreating in that way.
12. How do you cope with Bipolar hypomania/mania these days?
I haven’t had mania or hypomania since August of 2013. That August I was at the Catamaran writing conference and I was feeling pretty heady for I had been awarded a scholarship to attend it. It was a beautiful setting in Pebble Beach with amazing people, workshops, speakers, and incredible food. I was so excited to be there that I barely slept. That’s was triggered the hypomania. Luckily, I had some emergency Seroquel with me and that kept the hypomania from becoming mania. So, if I felt another hypomanic or manic episode come on, I’d pop the Seroquel and call my psychiatrist.
13. Not saying this is possible, but if you could have prevented your Postpartum Bipolar Disorder, would you?
Absolutely. (I like that question!)
14. Do you see your Postpartum Bipolar Disorder as a blessing in disguise, or as a dreaded curse?
In 2015 I was actively blogging and I wrote a post called “Do You Think Your Bipolar Disorder Is A Gift?” That post received more responses than any of my other 440 posts! It’s a hot topic, that’s for sure. I was inspired to write my post after I read a “Freshly Pressed” post written by a man who had no children and it was all about bipolar being a gift. I wrote, “I’ve read numerous bipolar-themed memoirs and articles over the past decade. I observed in those works that a sizable portion of the writers who felt their bipolar disorder to be a gift didn’t have children. I couldn’t help but notice that the author of the Freshly Pressed blog piece doesn’t have children. I feel that if asked, most children who have been adversely affected by their parent’s bipolar disorder would not consider the mental illness as a gift.
Other people who consider their bipolar disorder to be a gift are profoundly helped by their belief. Some of these “others” are my friends or acquaintances who I admire very much. Please – I don’t mean to offend you. We can agree to disagree on this matter…” and so on.
I consider postpartum bipolar disorder to be nothing but evil. It almost killed me. It took years from my life. It traumatized my girls and my husband. It killed my friend Ulla. It messed up my father and our family.
15. What are 5 things that help keep you stable?
My meds, enough sleep, my family (which includes my furbaby Lucy), reading, my social media friends & IRL friends (I only have a few but they’re precious!) Can I add a 6th? Okay, thanks! My psychiatrist!
16. What would you tell a new mom going through a Postpartum Mood Disorder?
Get support (from family, friends) and get medical help right away. This mental illness is as serious as cancer or heart attack. Don’t, as my dad used to say, “fart around” with this!!! You deserve support. You can also, for free, call an amazing hotline called the Postpartum Support International Helpline:
Call the PSI HelpLine at 1-800-944-4773(4PPD)
Text Support: send a message to our Helpline at 503-894-9453
- The PSI HelpLine is a toll-free telephone number anyone can call to get basic information, support, and resources.
- Dial extension 1 for Spanish and extension 2 for English.
- The HelpLine messages are returned every day of the week. You are welcome to leave a confidential message any time, and one of the HelpLine volunteers will return your call as soon as possible. If you are not able to talk when the volunteer calls you, you can arrange another time to connect. The volunteer will give you information, encouragement, and names of resources near you.
If you’re feeling suicidal, which many new moms feel, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255 – they can help you!
17. What is the earliest experience when you learned that language had power?
As a little girl reading books and also listening to my parents fight. They were not quiet.
18. As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
A dolphin! I’ve always loved dolphins. One of my favorite authors is Madeleine L’Engle who is best known for her book A Wrinkle In Time. L’Engle’s lesser-known YA book A Ring of Endless Light is a beautiful story of Vicky, a young woman who’s spending the summer with her dying grandfather. Dolphins are a major part of the story and they represent hope, love, and other positive elements. I wanted to learn about dolphins after reading that book.
19. Was there anything that you edited out of Birth of a New Brain that you wish you would have kept?
I cut 60-70 pages and now I regret it. I had an editor but she wasn’t a content or developmental editor. She didn’t suggest cutting anything out. So you can imagine she was a little surprised when I told her I cut out those pages but I had made up my mind. Some of the material was about a solo trip I took to Australia and New Zealand when I was twenty-four and it was an amazing trip, but it didn’t seem right for the book. Another section was about my day spent with the late actor/writer Spalding Gray. I should’ve kept that chapter.
20. What are 5 things you are grateful for?
My family, music, my dog, food, nature, books (sorry I had to add a 6th thing again!)
21. What are 3 things that keep you going when you are feeling down?
Escape: to movies, books, crying into Lucy’s soft fur (it’s super-thick!)
22. In your book, you talk a lot about trying different supplements for your bipolar disorder. Which ones were an epic fail, and which ones genuinely helped you – if any?
I think the Holy Basil did help lift my mood. The fish oil – total bust. And since then, I’ve found out during my classes with the Center for Nutrition Studies that omega-3 products are not all they’re cracked up to be! If anyone wants more information on that I encourage you to read the eye-opening article at this link: https://nutritionstudies.org/to-take-or-not-to-take-fish-oil/
written by the brilliant Dr. T. Colin Campbell.
I’m so glad I read found out about this topic because I’m saving a ton of money from not buying (vegan) omega-3 oils anymore.
23. In your book, you talk about trying to taper off of medications several times. Is this still a goal for you, and why?
I’ll relapse if I try tapering off my meds–that’s what happened twice before and it got pretty old, as you know from reading the book. I’m waiting for a cure!
24. Do you Google yourself?
Ha ha! Great question. I do because sometimes my name comes up in an article or blog post I didn’t know about and it turns out to be a helpful connection. I also Google “Birth of a New Brain” and “postpartum bipolar disorder.” I also Google some of my competition’s book titles and see where they’ve gotten reviews, podcast appearances, and the like….and sometimes I go after those same things myself!
25. What is the best thing that came out of writing Birth of a New Brain?
I can’t limit it to just one thing! How about three things, please? LOL!
- My confidence in myself as a writer.
- I can work extremely hard under pressure and not fall apart.
- My book has helped bring a little comfort to readers.
26. Can you offer a piece of inspiration or hope to those who of us who deal with mental illness in our everyday lives?
Please don’t give up. I know it’s hard but reach out to someone you know who you feel could provide empathy, or call a suicide hotline or crisis line (you can find phone numbers doing a simple online search) or go online and ask for support on Twitter, or Facebook, or whatever you’re used to using. Your life can change more than you ever think it could.
Please…. ask for help. Give yourself permission to ask. You do not need to suffer alone anymore. I send anyone reading this who feels down a huge ((((hug))))
Thank you, my wonderful friend Samantha, for asking awesome questions and giving me this opportunity!
Samantha is the author of "My Bipolar Mind: You're not alone," she is also a freelance writer, blogger, and mental health advocate who runs and manages her own mental health blog MyBipolarMind.com.