Life after Disclosure: One Woman’s Decision to Fight

kathy

When Kathy Flaherty dropped her biochemistry thesis at Wellesley College due to anxiety and depression, her life took a new trajectory.

After graduation, she applied and was accepted to Harvard Law School. But it was not long into her tenure at Harvard, when her manic symptoms surfaced and she was hospitalized and given the proper diagnosis of bipolar disorder. When she got out of the hospital, she decided to disclose her condition by putting Council of Former Patients of Mclean Hospital on her resume. The public interest advising office suggested she reconsider this move but she resisted.

“As far as I was concerned, if somebody didn’t want me to work for them because of that I probably wouldn’t want to work for them anyway,” said Flaherty. “I decided to disclose because I honestly couldn’t imagine living any other way. I didn’t really put a whole lot of thought into it.”

Her third year of law school she read an article in the student newspaper about another student who was clearly stuggling with mental illness and bothering people in the dorms.

“This offended me so greatly that I wrote an op-ed in the law school newspaper and came out of the closet,” she said. “People praised me for doing it but for me it was just the right thing to do.”

While getting to live honestly about her condition, she faced her discrimination when she applied for admission to the Bar in the State of Connecticut. Already a member of the Bar in two other states, she wanted to be a member in her home state where she intended to live and practice. Her admittance to the Connecticut Bar was delayed for a year and a half. It was delayed because there was a series of questions on the application that asked about specific diagnosis and treatments within a five year period of taking the Bar.

“The discriminatory beliefs were just as pervasive in the legal community as they were in the general public.”

After a number of meetings with the local committee, she met with a group on the state level. They eventually decided to admit her to practice conditionally. This meant every six months on a certain day of the month her doctor would have to write a letter saying she was compliant with treatment. If the letter arrived late, it never did, she would get a call on the day of the month asking where it was.

“It was a very frustrating process but one I put up with because I wanted to be in the Bar. I didn’t think the questions were appropriate,” she said.

The result of a previous lawsuit, the questions used to be worse. Over time, the questions have gotton better. They focus more on conduct. “But the old questions were worded in such a way that if I answered yes that I had received mental health treatment, they made the automatic assumption that because I had a diagnosis that I was a potential danger to clients,” Flaherty said.

“Those [Bar examination] questions are detrimental because they discourage people from getting help they might need,” she said.

In 2010, the Bar changed the rule so that the questions had to be asked with compliance to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Flaherty now works at the Connecticut Legal Rights Project (CLRP) where she worked her way up from intern to Executive Director over time. CLRP Inc. came about in 1990 after settling a lawsuit brought by patients in the once three big state hospitals, two of which were closed. The patients were represented by the CT ACLU and was settled in what’s called a consent decree. As part of this decree, the state gives them money to help people who face discrimination in housing.

“This is a truly great job for me,” she said. “I get to represent people in my community. When somebody talks about being locked up against their will, when I say I understand what you feel, I actually really mean it because it happened to me.”

Flaherty also is vice chair of the CT Keep the Promise Coalition. KTP was formed after the state shut down two big hospitals and promised to reinvest the savings into community based services and never kept that promise. Flaherty spends much of her time with others lobbying the Connecticut state legislature.

Her secret to wellnes: running. She’s run 5ks, 10ks, a few half marathons, and one marathon. She participates in Run 169 Towns, where one runs a race in each town, and is two thirds of the way through Connecticut.

“I am slow but determined. If I start a race, I will get to the finish line eventually,” she said.

Author Melody Moezzi Talks about Mental Health and Muslims

First ran on the International Bipolar Foundation’s blog

I interviewed Melody Moezzi, an Iranian-American bipolar Muslim feminist activist, an attorney, a writer and author of the award-winning books War on Error: Real Stories of American Muslims and Haldol and Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life. She blogs for BP Magazine as well as the Huffington Post and Ms. We talked about Moezzi’s latest book Haldol and Hyacinths and Muslims and mental health.
AZ: Why did you write Haldol and Hyacinths?

MM: I basically wrote the book I wished existed when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The memoirs I was reading after I was diagnosed were great but most of them were written by white women and I didn’t fully relate to their experiences and I think there are a lot of us who are already living a bipolar existence culturally speaking so the diagnosis isn’t just a clinical one. For me, it was something that just became really obvious that this has been my cultural experience all along.

There’s a very clear distinction…that’s something I have always experienced and there is obviously a huge distinction when it comes to clinical bipolarity. I’m not saying my cultural experience caused my clinical one but I am saying I saw as a writer it as a metaphor that was pretty glaring that I couldn’t ignore and I didn’t want too.

I’ve been very blessed but at the same time I know most people do not have the same experiences that I do and have been lucky enough to have had.

AZ: What was your experience as an Iranian-American in the mental health system?

MM: I was lucky because both my parents were physicians so class also plays into this. I was lucky I had them stand up for me and my family support in general. My best friend growing up is a psychiatrist so I was lucky to have her. I’ve had a lot of advantages that other people don’t have yet still the experiences I had in the hospital were definitely different. I pray as a Muslim so there was one facility where every time I prayed it was a sign of hyper-religiosity. I was praying three times a day. But they kept considering it hyper-religiosity. Any Christian who is praying is not getting that. There’s data that proves faith can be incredibly helpful in recovery. For me, it wasn’t necessarily seen that way and I don’t think there was an overt discrimination on that end but it defintely colored the perception that I was overly religious because it was a religion that they didn’t understand.

AZ: How was your faith helpful in your recovery?

MM: I found faith incredibly helpful in my recovery. I’m of the belief that people with certain psychiatric conditions have a lot of problems that other people don’t have. But a lot of us are what I interrpret as being spiritually gifted. There’s a disconnect between seeing this condition of bipolar disorder type 1 as being a gift but also seeing it as a clinical curse. I treat it and I know it needs medication. I know how to treat my condition. I’ve always been the kind of person that knew where I came from and knew there was something greater than me. I’ve had two mystical experiences one was during a manic episode and the other one was during what probably was a hypomanic episode but it wasn’t diagnosed at the time. I’m really grateful for those experiences. I also see that some people can have trouble reconciling that expecially with the Western medical establishment. They have a lot of trouble accepting that something can be both clinical and spiritual. But that’s been my experience. It took me a long time to accept both sides of that because I’m science oriented. I believe in the power of medicine. I know that medication is necessary in my case but I see it as being a kind of spiritual gift as well.
AZ: What was it like writing a memoir and being vulnerable?

MM: What’s hard for me is that my first book was about young Muslim Americans and I did fear that because I had come out as I had tried to break stereotypes around what it meant to be Muslim, particularly Muslim American. I didn’t want people to think she’s Muslim so she’s crazy or she’s crazy because she’s Muslim [when writing Haldol and Hyacinths]. I wasn’t keen on this about myself as someone who has been an activist since I was a kid I couln’t really experience what I did in the hospital and see the way the American mental health system works and just be silent and not do anything aobut it. I think the best way to do something about it is to share your story. That can be scary. For me, it turned out what I needed to do and I’m glad I did it. But I don’t doubt for a second that doors have been closed because I am so public about having a mental health condition. I don’t doubt for a second that there have been doors which have opened because of it.
AZ: What mental health barriers face Muslims today?
MM: I think there is a greater stigma in the Muslim community that even if you have access to care you might not seek it. Within a lot of different faith communities there is this impression that you can pray your way out of mental illness as opposed to any other illnesses that need to be treated. There are also some people who have the perception that not only are they not like other illnesses that it is some sort of punishment or some sort of curse. Like I said, I see it as being the opposite in being a spiritual gift. Look at the mystics of the world… I’m writing a book right now about Rumi. Rumi was reciting poetry and singing out loud in public. I don’t doubt that someone like him would have been thrown in a psychiatric hospital if it were a different time and a different place. I see people who have minds who work differently as people who have access to different levels of consciousness that might not be convenient to the world we live in right now but that doesn’t make those levels of consciousness any less true.

MM: I think part of it is once you belong to any vulnerable group or a group that is often misrepresented it becomes harder to seek help. Data shows that racism and other isms affects our mental health. We need it more than ever right now yet we are least likely to seek it because of the fact we don’t want to be further discriminated against. As an Iranian American Muslim woman and a feminist, there are enough reasons for people to discriminate against me and then for me to be public about having a mental health condition gives people another reason. That is why people in the Muslim community are hesitant to seek help and within our faith community surveillance is a problem. It’s easy to say someone is paranoid but then there is the reality that the NYPD was actually infiltraiting mosques. That’s a scary reality that has been proven. It’s not paranoia when they are actually out to get you. I think that’s the position that most Muslims find themsleves in.
AZ: What would make more Muslims feel comfortable about seeking treatment?

MM: I think what have to happen is first of all it would have to come from our own communities. My hope is that more Muslims go into the fields of psychology, psychiatry and neurology. The one thing I worry about is the white savior…nobody can fix it for us. We have to do it within our own community. Not that there aren’t white Muslims but within different Muslim communities we don’t need people coming in from the outside saying this is what mental health is and this is how you treat it. I think we need to look from within. For example, the past few years I spoke at the Muslim Mental Health conference which I think is a fantastic initative that has helped enormously in getting mental health conditions more accepted in the Muslim community. Initiatives like that led by Muslim psychiatrists and psychologists then it suddenly makes a difference. You don’t feel so nervous revealing to your community that you have some sort of mental health condition when there are people who are prominent in your community who are saying not only is there nothing to be ashamed of but it’s something that you deserve to get treatment for.
AZ: What mental health issues do refugees face and how can we help them?

MM:The refugee situation and I don’t say refugee crisis because the way that we paint the picture makes a big difference. Certain members of the media has painted the picture about refugees in Europe is that there a crisis, they’re a problem. I think they are a huge opportunity. I think there are people who are desperate to get out of war torn countries, often war torn countries because Western countries have caused those problems. You can’t divorce the fact that the US and the UK have been so involved in spreading wars in the Middle East and then you have all these refugees. It’s no surprise that this would happen. I think it’s really important in terms of mental health issues to have members of the community leading effort and others being allies. It’s really important to have members of the community helping who speak the languages of the people who are refugees. I’ve seen people come in and trying to help a situation and making it worse because they don’t understand a certain culture or language.

MM: A lot people fail to understand the trauma that comes with that kind of experience. Whether someone develops PTSD or not, there’s a great deal of trauma associated with it, for even the youngest. I was born in the United States but as I watch the stories of these refugees, I relate to them in a way from a perpective of transgenerational trauma that has nothing to do with the personal experience I remember but everything to do with the personal experience my family has had while I was young. I think of those children being born in refugee camps and I wonder what there experiences will be even if they’re given asylum. They still need support and services and mental health is huge when I talk about support. Suicide is a huge risk.