Image of author Melody Moezzi standing in front of a grafittied wall; image via http://www.penguinspeakersbureau.com/speakers/page/melody_moezzi

“We cannot talk about mental health without talking about prisons”: A Conversation with Melody Moezzi

Human rights activist, attorney, writer, Iranian American, and Muslim American feminist: Melody Moezzi is all of these. She is the award-winning author of War on Error: Real Stories of American Muslims and published her memoir Haldol and Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life last September. She also blogs for the Huffington Post, Ms., and BP Magazine and has provided commentary for CNN, NPR, and BBC, among others. Her memoir is a frank account of her journey with bipolar disorder, her times in and out of mental health care facilities, as well as her life as an Iranian-American woman in Middle America and the South. Written with grace and often hilarious, Moezzi’s book fills a gap in mental illness memoirs, in that is told from her perspective as a Muslim American feminist activist and attorney.

Her memoir opens with her first stay at a psychiatric institution after an attempted suicide in her psychiatrist’s office, and from then on recounts the journey to her diagnosis as bipolar and the road to recovery. Interweaving her experiences of growing up as an Iranian-American woman in the Midwest and southern United States, Melody gives the reader a candid look into her life with both clinical and cultural bipolarity. Oftentimes, her book is laugh-out-loud funny, and it is a rousing call to action to fight both the stigma of mental illness, and for better treatment options for those of us living with a mental illness.

I spoke with the author from her home in Raleigh, North Carolina, via Skype, to discuss her book and its reception. The following are excerpts from our conversation, which covered topics from isolation units to current trends in medication. It was one of the most enjoyable interviews I have had to date, and it was an honor to speak with such a dedicated activist.

Well, to start, how are you, Melody?

I’m doing well, how are you? And thank you for waking up so early!

Of course! And I am well, thanks. So let’s get down to business. First, congratulations on your book.

Thank you!

What has the response to your book been so far?

All of [the reviews] have been positive. It’s been beautiful since I am not getting death threats like with my last one [War on Error]. Part of that had to do with the fact that I’d written about a friend who founded the largest LGBT Muslim organization in the world, the Al-Fatiha [Foundation]. I was working to dispel stereotypes about Muslims, and I was scared and all [because of death threats]. So the reaction to this book has been pretty refreshing by comparison. There hasn’t been a single bad review by a publication, though there are a few pretty hilarious ones on Amazon.  There’s one negative reader review that I particularly appreciated having to do with my “foul language.”

There was a gap in the bipolar memoir market and as an Iranian-American Muslim bipolar feminist I felt I needed to fill that void. [Laughs] Seriously, though, it was important to me to include my experience as a minority, particularly given my inherently “bipolar” cultural background as an Iranian-American who has never known a time when her two homelands were friendly.

That was part of the reason I responded so strongly to your book. I remember when I was first diagnosed, my psychiatrist recommended reading Kay Redfield Jamison’s memoir An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness. I really liked that book, but I did not necessarily relate to it, because at one point of the book she makes a comment about enjoying the company of the nonpolitical folks she meets in the 1960s and 1970s.

That one is a classic and almost like required reading when you are first diagnosed. I totally understand where you are coming from.

The second time you were committed to a mental hospital you were put into solitary confinement, which is a human rights violation.

We cannot talk about mental health without talking about prisons. Never mind the fact that the U.S. prison population is the largest in the world; they [prisons] are also the largest mental institutions in the U.S.  The use of isolation units is a human rights violation and if you aren’t already crazy when you go in, studies show that solitary can actually induce mental illness. I guess I understand why they wouldn’t let me read a book [in isolation] because I would have thought I was receiving messages [from God through magazine articles and music], or even listening to music. But, even if they just put a clock in there it would have made a huge difference, since there appears to be no push on the part of prisons to stop isolation units. Isolation is a form of torture.

That affected me a lot while I was in lockdown and after. We have to discuss the dangers of solitary and torture when we’re talking mental health. There are also dangers in interpreting everything a symptom. I love to dance, for example, but in the hospital, my dancing was simply a manic symptom, not a release and form of creative expression, which it was for me. Same with prayer—that was a symptom too, especially given how foreign I knew my form of prayer was to them. I dealt with a lot of micro-aggression in hospitals. …Mental health reform needs to be approached from a patient perspective, a bottom up model for change.

You also are quite frank about your auditory and visual hallucinations, which began when you were in undergrad.

 Writing about my hallucinations was tough. When I tell people about having hallucinations, I feel like they suddenly look at me differently, like I’m now really crazy. I deal with hallucinations every now and then, and I take the anti-psychotic Zyprexa on an as-needed basis. But, we need to be more educated regarding all medications, especially antipsychotics. Just because you’re being given a medication by a white coat doesn’t mean that it is always good for you. But, I do think that not being medicated can be dangerous too. We as patients just really need to be better advocates for ourselves.

One of the things I most enjoyed about your book was your sense of humor throughout the entire thing. I mean parts that could have been so tragic were often quite funny. Has there been any sort of reaction to your use of humor? How does it tie in with your activism in general?

Oh yes! My sense of humor is morbid. It is a defense mechanism, but it’s also saved me in a lot ways. When I’m speaking I have to really feel out an audience, and sometimes, people are just too uncomfortable to laugh until you make it okay by laughing at yourself, which do, a lot. I remember once speaking at an Amnesty International conference on the Arab Spring and someone asked a question about how one avoids burning out as an activist, and I replied that one doesn’t, but mental hospitals can help, half joking. No one really laughed at that. Honestly, I feel like you have to be a little crazy to be an activist and to genuinely try to change the world. Just the conviction that one person can change the world, well it’s pretty delusional, but I still believe it. And I’m grateful that I can be that delusional. It helps me in my work, both as a writer and an activist. I’m not promoting it on a large scale, but there it is.

George Bernard Shaw said that all progress depends on the unreasonable man because he adapts himself to the world, whereas the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Certainly, the same applies to women, and I have no shame in admitting that I’m a highly unreasonable woman.

Haldol & Hyacinth: A Bipolar Life is available from Penguin Books.