'Scattershot' A Bipolar Family Portrait In his memoir, Scattershot, David Lovelace chronicles what he calls "the family sickness." Terri Cheney joins the discussion and shares details from Manic, a chronicle of her own struggle with bipolar disorder.
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'Scattershot' A Bipolar Family Portrait

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'Scattershot' A Bipolar Family Portrait

'Scattershot' A Bipolar Family Portrait

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This is Talk of the Nation, I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Many things run in families, eye color, voice timbre, mannerisms, creativity. All of those things are part of David Lovelace's genetic legacy, and so is madness. Bipolar disorder affected everyone in his immediate family, save one sister. David, his brother, mother and father each struggled alone and together, sometimes better, sometimes worse. One year, all the male Lovelaces were committed for treatment. Navigating the larger than life highs and lows, the many curses and occasional blessings that come with manic depression formed the subject of his new memoir. Later in the hour, we'll speak with another author who describes her bout with mental illness. Plus, we'll look ahead to tonight's speeches at the RNC.

What do you want to hear from John McCain tonight? Send us an email, talk@npr.org. But first, we want to hear from you if you suffered from a mental illness such as bipolar disorder. How did you describe that illness to others? Tell us your story. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. David Lovelace's new book is called "Scattershot: A Memoire of My Bipolar Family." He's with us today from WFCR, member station in Amherst, Massachusetts. Nice to have you on the program with us today.

Mr. DAVID LOVELACE (Author, "Scattershot: A Memoire of My Bipolar Family"): Hi, Neal. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And there's a scene you describe in your book where you're trying to get your father into a hospital for much needed treatment, and he pulls himself together to act sane in front of a police officer, and you know what he's doing because that's something you've done, too.

Mr. LOVELACE: Right. I've done it and that's really hard work. But it can be done. He - I watched him as he slowed his mind down and began - he pulled himself together and started to act reasonable in a very unreasonable situation.

CONAN: And this can sometimes - there's another - almost immediately thereafter, you go to an emergency room where you again try to get him into a - for treatment. And you're talking with various people who are supposed to be patients' advocates and he looks reasonable to them.

Mr. LOVELACE: Yeah, yeah. Well, my father is a very intelligent man. I mean, he's brilliant and he pulled it together and I think there's a shot of adrenalin that happens when you realized you're actually getting dragged into a hospital, and it just helped him pull it off. And also, I think it's very difficult, and it should be, to commit somebody, there's a lot of checkpoints and people want to make sure that it's necessary. You have to be a danger to yourself or to others and you have to demonstrate that.

CONAN: And you also - you as the person who is trying to get him some help - you have to explain to other people what's going on with him and it can be extremely difficult to get people to understand.

Mr. LOVELACE: Oh, sure. Oh, sure. It's very difficult to describe and in that kind of an emotional situation, it's very difficult to start talking about your father to strangers and such an intimate, and in a lot of ways humiliating, situation.

CONAN: Humiliation. Obviously, you're checking yourself in for treatment, you're accepting yourself as well, crazy, you know, to define the point.

Mr. LOVELACE: I've never checked myself in for treatment. I've been hospitalized twice. My father has never checked himself in for treatment. Generally, you don't want to be treated. At that point, when you're on a manic high, deep down, you know you're - you've lost it and you're crazy and you're very scared. But you're on a roller coaster and it's - it's your high, you know. It's an amazing moment and you don't want anybody to stop that. You don't want to deal with the after-effects of it either.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation.


CONAN: Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And let's begin with Brett. And Brett is calling us from Allegan in Michigan.

BRETT (Caller): Yes, hi. How are you, Neal?

Mr. LOVELACE: Hi, Brett.

CONAN: Very well. Thanks.

BRETT: That's good. Yeah, I have a lot of comments with the caller there and the writer. I suffer from manic depression, have for about 20 years. I checked myself in, had a lithium chemical imbalance and found that lithium didn't help.

Mr. LOVELACE: Oh, really? Oh.

BRETT: Yeah. And I've spent the last 20 years without treatment, just dealing with it on my own. I just -with personal knowledge and what I have in recognizing the symptoms and some of the dietary challenges that can spur and bring it on.

CONAN: Dietary challenges?

BRETT: Yeah. Something to eat and stuff like that can have an effect as to how the manic or the depressive side of it comes out in you.

CONAN: Do you find that, David?

Mr. LOVELACE: Yeah. I mean, it's a biological disease. It's a brain disease and it responds to things you put in your body and things you do with your body. I mean, I really need to exercise. I know that. That's a part of my regimen. And my personal experience and the experience of my family is that lithium worked very well. Each person is different, but for my family, lithium was a lifesaver. But other people can't tolerate the side effects. There are other drugs that are out there that are mood stabilizers as well like Depakote and things.

CONAN: Hmm. Brett, do you - some of those are also - can be difficult, their side effects.

BRETT: Yeah. You know, like I said, the lithium did not give me any benefits that I really found that I couldn't deal with the manic depressive side of it is better on my own and...


BRETT: One thing I was curious was - if there was new advances in drugs and stuff? You know, I certainly believe that the suicide of my grandmother and my aunt were directly linked to chemical imbalances. But in those days, they didn't really have a diagnosis for this being that. You know, they both committed suicide.

Mr. LOVELACE: Yeah, yeah, that's right. I mean, I'm wondering - I'm just curious if your symptoms are - are you more on the depressive side or the manic side.

BRETT: Oh, no. No. I'm Mr. Manic.

Mr. LOVELACE: Oh, OK. OK, here's a peak. Because I think that lithium isn't as effective on the lower end. But generally, at least in my experience, it works well for the upper end. But I'm telling you, eat good food and exercise. You're lucky.

BRETT: Yeah.

Mr. LOVELACE: You figured out a way to deal with that.

BRETT: Oh, I'm a blue-collar laborer so I channel it through energy at work.

Mr. LOVELACE: Yeah, yeah.

BRETT: I turn it into money.

Mr. LOVELACE: Yeah. Well, that's good. I'm a carpenter. It helps, you know.

BRETT: Yes. Yes, it does. Physical activity does definitely help. The hard - a lot of the hard things was when I was younger and I had no idea what was going on, was reversed emotions and things like being at funerals and stuff and not understanding why you wanted to burst into laughter.

Mr. LOVELACE: Right.

BRETT: Until I knew what was going on with it, it was just really, really tough to deal with and trying to explain to anyone was just impossible.

Mr. LOVELACE: Right.

CONAN: All that inappropriate stuff, yeah.

Mr. LOVELACE: Yeah. I think that's one of the saddest things about the disease is that it generally hits when people are in their early 20's, from young adulthood. Just when you're trying to figure out what you're going to do with your life and how you're going to proceed, you get whammed with this, you know?

BRETT: Exactly.

CONAN: Brett, good luck to you.

BRETT: Well, thank you very much. Thanks for your time.

CONAN: Thanks for the call. Let's see now if we can go to - this is another David. David's with us from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

DAVID (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure, go ahead, please.

DAVID: I suffer from bipolar disorder and I'm also so schizo effective, and one thing I find interesting is that a lot of people who suffer from mental disorders are also very creative people. I myself write poetry and I draw and one thing I was afraid of when I first start seeking treatment is that I would lose that creativity.

CONAN: David Lovelace, I know that's part of your concern, too.

Mr. LOVELACE: Well, I mean, that's why I wrote the book, really. Because I - manic depression's a very treatable disease. It's - generally - it's also one of the most lethal - it is the most lethal of mental illnesses but it's the most treatable. But people shy away from treatment. They don't want to take the medicines because they're worried that it's going to cramp their creativity or kill their muse and a lot of artists are bipolar, quite a few poets actually and I think, that maybe - in my experience, that hyper - hypo-manic or manic experience of free associating and pulling things together, they don't seem like they should be together is sort of part of being a poet. You know? That's your bread and butter really.

DAVID: Yeah.

Mr. LOVELACE: And to take lithium or any mood stabilizer and squash that a bit is a profound decision. I found that I've lowered my dose to the point where I found a balance. And I sort of want to get that word out that that's possible.

CONAN: Yeah. It's a compromise then?

Mr. LOVELACE: It is a compromise. It is a bit of a balance. I can say that without lithium, I don't think I would have been able to write this book. I wouldn't have had the focus and the attention to write 300 pages. Poets are lucky in a way, they can - and I've written plenty of poetry. You can dash off a poem and then shoot off to do something else. You don't need to - that sustained focus.

DAVID: Right.

Mr. LOVELACE: You can always come back and work on it again. But you lose when you're not taking care of your bipolar illness. It can run you. But I will admit, I'm proud to be bipolar and I think it brings a lot of gifts with it as well.

CONAN: David, do you find that the same way?

DAVID: Yes, I do. I found that not only do I have the creativity, but I've also - it gives me a better understanding of other people's emotions. It makes me more empathetic towards others.

CONAN: Well, David, good luck with your poetry.

DAVID: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate the phone call.


Mr. LOVELACE: Thanks, David.

CONAN: We're going to take a short break. We're talking with David Lovelace about his family's experience with bipolar disorder and about his memoir "Scattershot." Up next to hear another story of coping with manic depression while climbing to the top of her profession, Terri Cheney will join us, and more of your calls, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We're also going to be talking later about what you'd like to hear in John McCain's speech tonight. You can send us email on that as well. Again, the address is talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In David Lovelace's family, they call the uneasy pendulum of mood swings the whim whams. He's our guest today. You can read more about David's family and how they've coped with bipolar disorder in an excerpt from his book, "Scattershot" at our website npr.org/talk. We also want to hear from you, if you've suffered a mental illness such as bipolar disorder, how did you describe that illness to others? Tell us your story. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Let's bring another voice into the conversation, too. Terri Cheney has struggled with and written about bipolar disorder. Her book is called, "Manic," and she joined us by phone from Los Angeles today. Thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. TERRI CHENEY (Author, "Manic"): Oh, thank you, Neal. Forgive my voice. I have a little cold.

CONAN: Well, I hope you feel better but thanks for taking the time to speak with us when you get a voice. You were extremely successful. You're an agent and...

Ms. CHENEY: I was an entertainment litigator.

CONAN: Entertainment litigator, and represented some very high powered clients. You were able to function - well sometimes a very debilitating disease.

Ms. CHENEY: What people don't realize that there are periods of normalcy in manic depression. You're not always manic or depressed. There is in fact a state called, hypo-mania where you're very creative and very functional, very productive. So, I lived in that state a lot of the times, thank God.

CONAN: And how did you live in context of your family as we're talking with David Lovelace about his family?

Ms. CHENEY: Well, my - there doesn't seem to be a history of bipolar disorder that's known in my family. Certainly my - I have an older brother, he seems relatively sane and my parents were sane. So, it's unclear for me where it came from.

CONAN: Have you come to terms with your illness? Do you accept it?

Ms. CHENEY: Do I accept it? I would say that I've come to an uneasy truth with it. I don't, you know, I'm not happy about the depressions because they're just debilitating and devastating and no one should have to suffer like that. But there are, as David was saying, there were a lot of highs to be had and you cherish those.

CONAN: I wonder and I'd like to ask you both about this, did writing about it and describing it, did that help at all? And Terri, let's hear first from you.

Ms. CHENEY: Oh, for me it was incredibly cathartic and very difficult as well. Describing the depressions in particular were very hard. You simply don't have words for that state of mind, but it was a great relief but it was - it was a great relief and it gave me a lot of clarity, I think.

CONAN: David, what about you?

Mr. LOVELACE: Hi, Terri.

Ms. CHENEY: Hi, David.

Mr. LOVELACE: Yeah, I've got a cold too actually.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LOVELACE: I - right after I hospitalized my father, this was in 2005, I went through a real ringer and I wrote a poem about it, a long poem and I read it at a reading and it didn't have the punch it needed. It didn't have that cathartic whack that I needed it to have. So then I sat down and just started writing. I said, all right, well, I've been writing about this obliquely in poetry for years and years - now I'm just going to face it head on and just describe it. And it was great. I mean, it was really helpful for me and I agree. I had a harder time writing about the depression than the mania. The mania is, you know, snap pop. There's a lot of drama in it and the depression, there's just - just this dull pain, you know.

CONAN: I wonder, did you read other people's memoirs about - or other people's descriptions of bipolar disorder?

Ms. CHENEY: Well, I assume one has read Kay Redfield Jameson, she's sort of the guru of manic depression.

Mr. LOVELACE: Absolutely.

Ms. CHENEY: But I believe - relied more on my own experiences that I did on other people's account.

CONAN: I wonder, David, also, you're describing your family members. What's their reaction to your description of not only your illness but theirs?

Mr. LOVELACE: That was the most interesting part of writing this book. My brother and both my brother and sister are very supportive and you know, I showed them drafts as we went and they added stories and a lot of back and forth and it, it drew us closer. My parents, I went back and forth with my dad about it some and he gave me some stories I didn't know. But he grew increasingly anxious about the topic. It's not something that my family's ever really spoken about openly or frankly. And we...

CONAN: That euphemism you were - you, yourself were - the whim whams.

Mr. LOVELACE: Absolutely, it was the whim whams, was either sort of shunted into a spiritual frame or it was the whim wham.

CONAN: Yeah. Your dad was a minister and a religious historian.

Mr. LOVELACE: Yeah. yeah, he is. So, I sat down with my mom about halfway through it just said, well, mom, - she suffers from quite a bit of anxiety. She really wrestles with depression. And I said, well mom, it's a loving book but it's honest and it looks a really difficult stuff and you know, read it if you want but it's OK if you don't read it. And she was fine with that. She's decided not read it. My father has decided not to talk about it. So, that's where it stands now. We'll see what happens.

CONAN: Terri Cheney, did your family read your book?

Ms. CHENEY: Yes. I sound a little luckier than David. It was the beginning of a dialogue for us, because nobody - I didn't tell anyone a lot of the things that had happened to me, the suicide attempts, the you know, going to jail, the things that happened in my manic phases. So they - my family was just finding out about a lot of this for the first time and they've been very supportive. Very surprisingly supportive and I think upset that they weren't told before. We could deal with it earlier.

CONAN: Now, let's get another caller on the line. This is another, David, a lot of Davids today. David from San Francisco.

DAVID (Caller): Yeah. I just - my mother is a bipolar manic depressive and she was a single mother and because of her episodes, essentially my sister and I were placed in foster home or eventually split up across the country and you know, during our adolescence - that grew this deep resentment for my mother, for the illness and I just wanted to comment on that. That portion I think, you know both my sister and I don't have the illness but, it deeply affected us, you know. I think that people don't realize when parents have manic depression and they're single parents, you know. It really kind of tears apart a family.

CONAN: Oh, I can understand that.

Mr. LOVELACE: Absolutely.

Ms. CHENEY: There's a terrific organization called NAMI, N-A-M-I, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. For it's a family based organization and it deals with people who've had parents who are mentally ill or loved ones and I really strongly recommend people to get in touch with it because there's a lot of healing that goes on there.

DAVID: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And thanks for the call, David. And David Lovelace, I wanted to ask you, when you first started to realize that you were getting like your mother, I mean, it opened just a well of emotion in you.

Mr. LOVELACE: Yeah. A well of fear. I experienced my first hard-core clinical depression when I was 16 and boy, it was brutal. And when I finally just did my time and pulled out of it, there wasn't any talk of a psychiatry or medicine. And when I got out of that, I began to fear sadness. I didn't want to experience sadness. So, I sort of constructed my life in ways - I tried as best I could to avoid that emotion and that's a really - well, it's a sad thing.

CONAN: The tension - it's not easy either.

Mr. LOVELACE: No. It's not easy. It's impossible but I think that that's one of the challenges in being bipolar is that you have to learn to trust yourself, to trust your emotions but also, to be able to gauge them and find that balance.

CONAN: Terri, I wondered, do you worry every time you start to feel good or start to feel bad that it's just going to start another rundown to roller coaster.

Ms. CHENEY: Absolutely. There's a chapter in my book about the terror of being happy. It's very difficult to feel happy without feeling like OK, here we go again. And that can be, as David said, you just, you really need to be monitoring yourself all the time, which takes you away, you know, out of yourself.


Ms. CHENEY: So that's the delicate balance to tread.

CONAN: OK, Kevin on the line and Kevin with us from Flint, Michigan.

KEVIN (Caller): Hello, how are you?

CONAN: I'm good. Thanks.

KEVIN: As I was telling the young lady before, I am on my way to try to help my brother. I'm a tax accountant. I have a very busy schedule. The last six days, my brother has tried to commit suicide six times.


KEVIN: He's done it, in and out of the ER. He's been prescribed Prozac, which I won't go off on, this isn't a manifesto against pharmaceuticals. He has been interviewed by a case manager, three staff psychiatrists, a physician, over and over, and no one seems to realize how taxing it is on the family members. You get a call that one of your family members are in trouble, and when you get there, they're calm. I know the organizations and stuff that are out there, and quite frankly, how could a person who is experiencing a bipolar episode, a manic episode, manic depressive episode, whatever the title is, how could they actually say, I think I'm going to go to Borders or Barnes & Noble, and pick up a book to monitor myself. I don't understand, I really don't. And that's my comment, and I'll let you folks comment.

CONAN: Well, what do you think, David?

Mr. LOVELACE: I think that when you were - when a person is in throes of crisis, when they're danger to themselves, as clearly your brother is, they - you know, the people who around him should get him in a safe place. I don't quite understand how that's working. But as far as going into Barnes & Noble and buying a book to sort of learn about the disease, I think that you can't do much learning when you are in the thick, when you're at one of the poles. But as Terri said, there's a lot of time when you're perfectly OK, you're fine. And that's the time that's really important to come to terms with it.

CONAN: Kevin, let me...

Mr. LOVELACE: Instead of just...

KEVIN: They don't hospitalize them unless they are, you know - it's very frustrating because unless he is an endangerment to himself, which obviously he is, I cannot think of anymore endangerment to one's person than saying I'm going to end my life at a given moment.

CONAN: I want...

KEVIN: And then they're released immediately. If there's no physical marks, it's just very frustrating. I'm not downgrading or trying to be negative or anything, it's just, I heard...

Mr. LOVELACE: Oh no.

CONAN: Yeah.

KEVIN: You know, and we throw out the word crazy. I used the word crazy seven days ago, probably every other sentence.

Mr. LOVELACE: Right.

KEVIN: And now, I'm ashamed to even have those words utter out of my mouth now.

CONAN: Are you doing something to try to understand your brother's condition, too?

KEVIN: I am because, basically, you know, everyone can talk, everyone can hear, but listening is the key. But if you're not skilled, OK - you're not a therapist, you're not psychologist, you're not psychiatrist - and you take your brother to the psychiatric evaluation area, usually an ER in most hospitals. And they come in and do the evaluation and they say, are you going to hurt yourself? Nope, not anymore. OK. You should get into day therapy, which is great. But how do you get the person into day therapy when he wants to jump off the roof? And by the time you get there to talk him off the roof, he's wondering, you know, what he's going to have for breakfast. And he's - you know what I'm saying?

Mr. LOVELACE: Yeah. Well, I've been there. I - in fact - well, the first chapter of the book at the end of it. I almost punch out a social worker at ER because I couldn't get my father in there.

KEVIN: Right.

Mr. LOVELACE: It took me three days to get him in there, and my mother was intense - in intensive care because he had left her on floor for a week. So, you know, I don't know what it takes. It's a bureaucracy and there's a lot of safeguards against people trying to stick away their relatives who don't need it.

KEVIN: Absolutely. You have to prove that they're in danger - you know, like you said, this is another frustrating point.

CONAN: You have to prove that they're...

KEVIN: I'm taking him to the physician on Wednesday, the family doctor.

CONAN: Kevin, excuse me. Kevin, I just have to stop to say that you're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

KEVIN: I'm sorry.

CONAN: Go ahead, Kevin. I apologize.

KEVIN: I take him to the physician and I'm doing a tax audit, which is - maybe I am the one who needs to be medicated, you know, on funny note right there. But I take him to the physician, and the next thing you know it, getting my prescription Prozac, generic form, OK, whatever, that's not the issue. So, to try to respect this individual's right, you don't want to coddle him as a five, six year old or whatever, this man is in his 40's. He reads the side effect on - you know...

CONAN: On the bottle, yeah.

KEVIN: And it says, may cause suicidal, you know, tendencies. I am stuck, I really am. I'm frustrated and I don't understand. I really don't.

CONAN: Kevin, we wish you and your brother - I know this is a small comfort - but we wish you the best of luck.

KEVIN: Thank you, fellows.

Mr. LOVELACE: Good luck.

CONAN: We just have a minute or so left and I wanted to ask both of you. What you would hope people would take away from your books, from your conversations? Let's start with Terri Cheney.

Ms. CHENEY: Well, I hope they would understand by the end of reading my book that bipolar disorder isn't volitional. It isn't something you want or something you are trying to do to people. It really is out of your control. It's biological and needs to be treated like any other disease. That's the bottom line. That's where stigma begins and ends.

CONAN: David Lovelace.

Mr. LOVELACE: Well, I'd agree. It's not a moral failing and somehow it often - people look at it - creeps that way. What I'd like to people to come away from my book with is, is a knowledge that there's a balance, a balance can be struck between wellness and inspiration between creativity and medicine.

CONAN: David Lovelace, thanks very much for your time.

Mr. LOVELACE: Thank you.

CONAN: David Lovelace, the author of "Scattershot." You could read an excerpt from the book at npr.org. He joined us from the studios of member station WFCR in Amherst, and thanks again. Terri Cheney, we hope your cold gets better.

Ms. CHENEY: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Terri Cheney is the author of "Manic," a memoir about her life with bipolar disorder, joining us by phone today from her home in Los Angeles. Up next, as John McCain gets ready to accept his party's nomination in St. Paul, what will you be listening for in his speech tonight? 800-989-8255. Email us talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan, it's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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