Why did you write Haldol and Hyacinths?
Shocked to find there wasn’t another Iranian-American Muslim bipolar feminist memoir on the market, I just had to fill the void in the literature. Seriously though, I’m a human rights activist. I’ve fought for the rights of Iranians, Muslims, women, the LGBT community and other marginalized groups for years. After being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I suddenly became part of this new wildly persecuted and painfully silent minority, and for the first time in my life, I was ashamed of a piece of my identity. I was brought up to be proud of who I am and never hide my background, no matter how unpopular it might make me. But now everyone was telling me to be quiet, and while I may have been ashamed and afraid at the time, I’ve never been the quiet type—particularly where injustice is concerned. Soon enough, the activist in me came out, and I spoke up. After writing commentaries for NPR, CNN and other media outlets about my mental illness, I received hundreds of messages of support encouraging me to continue writing and speaking about the issue. I promised my readers and myself that I would, and Haldol and Hyacinths is my fulfillment of that promise. I pray this book will help chip away at the shame, fear and stigma that so many people living with mental illness face on a daily basis.
When were you first diagnosed, and how did you react?
I was diagnosed in late 2008, thanks to an acute manic episode. Being manic, psychotic and confined to a hospital isolation room at the time, my first reaction was to call my captors crazy. I was convinced that none of my recent beliefs or behaviors was remotely strange, let alone mad. Not disrobing in public, not announcing I was a prophet, not threatening to fight strangers or spending hundreds of dollars on Doritos, Oreos, ice cream and candy bars. It wasn’t until the Haldol started to kick in when I realized that I might have been a little—okay, a lot—crazy.
How did your family react?
Unlike me, they accepted the diagnosis right away. My husband is the smartest and most rational person I know. My parents and my sister are pretty sharp too and happen to be physicians. They all immediately acknowledged and respected the science. I got lucky there. Still, it took them time to get over the stigma, as they consistently encouraged me to keep my illness a secret. Thankfully, however, they got over that shortly after I did. Having a bright and supportive family has been a huge blessing. None of them has ever suggested that I could pray this away or that I was making it up or that I was possessed by demons or Smurfs or some other nonsense. Sadly, that’s a privilege few people with mental illness can claim. You wouldn’t believe the stories I’ve heard from people with family members who, bless their obtuse hearts, just don’t get it.
How do you treat/manage your bipolar disorder?
I take a mood stabilizer and an antidepressant daily. I try to eat well, exercise and maintain a fairly regular sleep schedule. I take an antipsychotic on the rare occasions when I start hearing or seeing things that aren’t there, or when my thoughts start racing fast enough to render my speech unintelligible.
You discuss your religious and activist beliefs in the book. Do you see similarities in religion and activism?
To me, religion and activism are one and the same. This book is an expression of my personal jihad—that is, my struggle to fight oppression. In this case, that oppression manifests itself as discrimination, fear, stigma and shame, and as a Muslim, it’s my moral duty to stand against it. That’s what I’m doing with this book. I didn’t particularly want to share my story. I didn’t particularly want to put all my crazy out there for the world to see and judge. I didn’t particularly want to relive all that trauma and madness. But silence is its own form of oppression, and I don’t particularly want to be a coward either.