Activist Melody Moezzi’s The Rumi Prescription a timely tour de force

I interviewed Melody Moezzi a few years ago after I finished her first and second books War on Error and Haldol and Hyacinths. Melody, who is Iranian-American, is an activist, lawyer, writer. She also happens to be diagnosed bipolar 1. As I read her newest book The Rumi Prescription: How an Ancient Mystic Poet Changed My Modern Manic Life, I couldn’t help but feel this book is timely both personally and collectively.

Melody explores Rumi guided by her father. She was trying to overcome writers block. The book is broken down into different diagnoses: wanting, isolation, haste, depression, distraction, anxiety, anger, fear, disappointment and pride. Through the use of narrative storytelling and Rumi’s poetry weaved throughout each chapter, Melody guides us on a tour de force journey into our collective ailments. The book is a roadmap to getting through dark times with spiritual grace. It is something readers will treasure and refer to again and again in these times we find ourselves in now.

She writes about her bipolar recovery, race, class and gender, the current political administration, teaching writing on a locked psych unit, getting her first teaching job, her families’ trip to Istambul. Melody likes her books to become obsolete after awhile—proving that society has learned the lessons they teach. It will take years for this timely book to do that. Hopefully, we can all learn a lot from Rumi’s wisdom.

Like Dani Shapiro’s Devotion and Kay Redfield Jamison’s span of volumes, Melody’s journey with Rumi goes beyond diagnosis to show us how to be human and to really live.

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I emailed Melody a few questions about The Rumi Prescription. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation.

This book is a sort of journey into who you are beyond your diagnosis of bipolar. You use Rumi’s poetry as a way to understand your life, as an answer. Tell me what is this answer you sought through exploring Rumi with your father?

MM: More than a specific answer, I sought a cure for all the more mundane forms of insanity that we don’t recognize as clinical mental illness. Each chapter is broken down into a different diagnosis and series of poetic prescriptions. While it’s a narrative memoir, it’s also an ode to self-care that includes new original translations of Rumi’s poetry presented as prescriptions for some of the most annoying forms of everyday madness. These include fear, distraction, anger, isolation, and more. The world often labels those of us living with mental health conditions “crazy,” but I’ve encountered a lot more insanity (and in some ways, a lot more intractable insanity) within the so-called “sane” world than outside of it. This book is my effort to address that kind of insanity for myself, for my readers, and for the crazy world we all happen to be living in right now.

My favorite poem of Rumi is the Guest House. I am sure it is most beautiful and poignant in the native tongue. What is your favorite lines/poem from RumiI? and Why?

MM: A few of my favorites: You went out in search of gold far and wide, but all along, you were gold on the inside. Also: You already own all the sustenance you seek. If only you’d wake up and take a peek. Also: Why seek pilgrimage at some distant shore when the Beloved is right next door. These poems serve as reminders that divinity rests within each of us and that we don’t need to hop a flight or catch a train to find it. We simply need to connect with the Beloved within ourselves and those around us.

Each one of your books is different yet carries some underlying themes to how Muslims are treated in society, in the mental health system. War on Error is a group of profiles of young Muslims written to change minds. Haldol and Hyacinths is a memoir of your experience with bipolar disorder. How has your writing grown from book to book?

MM: I’m an activist. I write to change hearts and minds, because I believe in the power of personal narratives to do that in ways that statistics and dry reporting just can’t. I wrote Haldol and Hyacinths to fight the stigma and discrimination around mental health conditions; I wrote War on Error to fight Islamophobia, and I wrote The Rumi Prescription to fight both. I also wrote The Rumi Prescription as a kind of call to recognize self-care as a revolutionary act. As an activist, I’ve experienced burnout, and I know I’m not alone. We need to take care of ourselves if we want to be effective in our battles against injustice, and part of that is recognizing that love is a much stronger weapon in our arsenal against injustice than anger.

You teach at University. What advice would you give people about writing creative nonfiction?

MM: Quit wasting time seeking advice from other writers and just do the work.

If you could describe your new book in three words, what would they be?

MM: Love. Hope. Surrender.

New Literary Works on Mental Illness and Beyond

 

The Collected Schizophrenias: essays is perhaps writer Esme Weijun Wang’s tour de force through life with schizoaffective disorder. This personal essay collection positions Wang into the world of literary nonfiction as she is the novelist of the Border of Paradise. Wang uses fashion motifs to talk about her high-functioning mental illness. She includes essays on schizophrenia in television and cinema. She talks about her experience volunteering at a camp for children with mental illness and how this affected her decision to have children of her own. This work is both a memoir narrative and a work of literary journalism. Wang weaves scientific studies and historical facts throughout her essays skillfully. Wang attended Yale and Stanford, has an MFA in Writing from the University of Michigan and includes an essay on her college experiences. Diagnosed with bipolar in her late teens, Wang was later re-diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. She also writes about the connection between autoimmune disorders and mental illness as Wang has late-stage Lyme disease as well. Wang has held residencies at Hedgebrook, Yaddo and other artist colonies. She will be giving an Instagram talk in April for This is My Brave. Check out their web site and/or Instagram for more information. Her web site is www.esmewang.com.

 

 
Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir is Sarah Fawn Montgomery’s eloquent exploration into the treatment of her own anxiety and of other mental health conditions. Approaching her narrative from the vantage point as someone struggling with OCD, PTSD, and anxiety, she explores how gender, class, and history treats people with mental illness. She weaves journalistic studies and historical facts into her story to create a work that documents an epidemic of our age. She strongly critiques psychotherapy from all angles. She includes an interlude about her husband’s bipolar disorder and how she deals with it as a spouse. Through examining the history of mental illness treatment, she challenges the modern narrative about mental health. She makes an important statement about the dangers of diagnosis and the complicated nature of sanity. At times her narrative is a bit unwieldy and some parts of her own story might have been better edited for more cohesion. Overall, I enjoyed her take on mental health in America, especially her feminist slant. Her web site is www.sarahfawnmontgomery.com.

 

 
I was gifted with writer Dani Shapiro’s new memoir Inheritance. It came with a tote bag advertising her new podcast “Family Secrets” directly from the publisher. Apparently, I had signed up for a contest they were having on her web site. In this fifth memoir, Shapiro discovers her father is not her biological father through DNA testing. Shapiro is the author of four other memoirs Slow Motion, Devotion, Still Writing and Hourglass. She artfully conducts an investigation into her parent’s secret—that they went to a fertility clinic to have her. Her investigation in this is not unlike her journalistic exploration in her article “The Secret Wife” in the New Yorker in 1998. “The Secret Wife” was about her father’s first marriage before her mother that no one in her family talked about. Inheritance traces Dani’s journey through fertility clinics to the trauma of finding her biological father eloquently through storyteller form. Although, kind of heavy, I highly recommend this mysterious book as a good beach read. Shapiro’s web site is www.danishapiro.com.

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.