Emory Public Health: Melody's Story (Interview by Pam Auchmutey)

The Dairy Queen in Canada, just over the border from Glacier National Park in Montana, has special significance for Melody Moezzi 06L/06MPH. She visited there several times a week while working at the park during summer break from college in 1999. Each time, she ordered a large chocolate M&M Blizzard but ate just a few bites.

"You'd think after the 10th Blizzard or so, I'd start ordering small, but no. I had to have more than I could eat," writes Moezzi in her book Haldol and Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life, published in 2013. "That's what mania is all about. Too much. Of everything."

Throughout that summer, Moezzi enjoyed the park's beautiful scenery, helped customers in the lodge gift shop where she worked, made several new friends, and deepened her spirituality as an Iranian-American by learning to pray properly as a Muslim. Her friends often teased her to slow down — her mind, speech, and movements raced along in high gear. And she stopped sleeping. Though Moezzi didn't realize it then, her Montana summer marked her formal entry into the world of clinical bipolarity at age 20.

Nearly a decade would pass before she would receive a proper diagnosis and learn how to manage her disorder. Until then, Moezzi cycled through depression, mania, hallucinations, psychosis, an attempted suicide, medications, psychiatric therapy, and the stigma often associated with mental illness.

Now 34, Moezzi is an attorney, writer, and activist on mental health, disability rights, Islam, Iran, and women's rights. Her first book, War on Error: Real Stories of American Muslims (2007), garnered a Georgia Author of the Year Award and a Gustavus Myers Center for Bigotry and Human Rights Honorable Mention. Moezzi and her sister, Romana, grew up in Ohio under the loving care of physician parents from Iran. She now lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her husband, Matthew. Moezzi credits her family with helping her come to terms with her bipolar disorder, which she discusses in the following Q&A.

Q: Why did you write Haldol and Hyacinths?

A. I'm an Iranian-American Muslim woman, and after 9/11, I realized I had entered this new minority. I realized there was much more stigma, fear, and silence than I had known before. The same is true for people with mental illness. They are part of a minority surrounded by a lot of stigma. To keep quiet about it wasn't my style. The book is a way to draw attention to an issue that's important to me.

Q. What is the significance behind your book's title?

A. Haldol was the first antipsychotic I was ever administered. I was injected with it at the emergency room at DeKalb Medical Center, and it helped bring me back from acute mania and psychosis. Hyacinths are part of the traditional spread (or haft-seen) for the Persian New Year, which falls on the first day of spring. They represent rebirth.

Q. When did you first realize you suffered from bipolar disorder?

A. I had my first bout of depression in high school. I had my first full-blown hallucination when I was in college. One night, a day-glow spider whispered to me while spinning a web made out of grape bubble gum. It wasn't a dream. I was wide-awake.

Q. During your last semester at Emory, you tried to commit suicide. What led to that?

A. At that time, I was being treated for unipolar depression, and because of my misdiagnosis, I was prescribed medications that actually made my symptoms worse.

Q. What happened next?

A. I spent nearly two weeks in a psychiatric hospital. I left without an accurate diagnosis or a proper treatment plan. Nobody at school knew where I'd been. I was so ashamed about it—to the point that when I heard about a rumor that I'd been in jail, I was relieved. I figured that was less stigmatizing than the truth.

Q. How did your symptoms and treatment progress?

A. Between periods of "normalcy," whatever that is, I continued to experience deeper depressions and worsening symptoms of mania. To raise awareness about the conflict between the United States and Iran, I hula-hooped for six hours straight at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. I was convinced that I could prevent war by hula-hooping. After I returned home, I fell into a depression, which one night just lifted out of thin air. It's called a "switch." And suddenly I was acutely manic and eventually psychotic. I thought I landed a nonexistent job at the Travel Channel and had to move to Rome. I believed I had won the lottery and was dying, and eventually I believed I was a prophet and could fly. By November, I was in a psychiatric hospital in Atlanta and finally had a correct diagnosis of bipolar disorder, type 1.

Q. Your family has stood by you throughout your illness. They made sure you received the care you needed. Is that usually the case for people who have a mental illness?

A. I have had a lot of advantages that others don't always have. I put my family through a lot. Many others like me have much less support from family, and even if they have that support, treatment is ridiculously expensive, and not everyone has insurance.

Q. What is your treatment like now?

A. I take a mood stabilizer every day and an "emergency" antipsychotic a few times a year when my manic symptoms get bad. There is no cure for this.

Q: You've published two books. You've written and provided commentary for CNN, NPR, and The New York Times. You're scheduled to speak about your illness and recovery in Atlanta in May. What else lies ahead for you?

A. I have no idea where I'll be in the future, but in my experience, God has put me where I need to be when I need to be there. I trust in that. For the longest time, I didn't get it, but there is an advantage to having a brain that works differently. It means that you're capable of things that others aren't, but you're also prone to difficulties that others don't have. There is something valuable about the way my mind works. I would never want to "cure" that. It's part of who I am.