We speak with journalist and author Jaime Lowe about her remarkable memoir, Mental: Lithium, Love, and Losing My Mind. She shares and investigates her experience with mental illness and the drugs used to combat it. She was on lithium for two decades but was forced to go off it when she experienced serious kidney problems as a result of the medication. Lowe notes mental illness is still associated with social stigma despite affecting tens of millions of Americans.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: “Everyone has a brain, which plays a major role in mental illness. I think everyone is — temporarily or not — a little mentally ill.” That’s what our next guest is told by a leading psychiatrist, whom she meets in Rome, in a quest that takes her from a psychiatric ward in Los Angeles to Italy and Bolivia, as she tries to come to grips with the effects of lithium, the drug she’s prescribed when she’s diagnosed at the age of 16 with bipolar disorder. According to the American Psychiatric Association, bipolar disorders are, quote, “brain disorders that cause changes in a person’s mood, energy and ability to function.” Bipolar disorder used to be called manic depression.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, every year some 44 million Americans experience mental illness, of which almost 6 million are diagnosed as bipolar. In her remarkable memoir, titled Mental: Lithium, Love, and Losing My Mind, Jaime Lowe shares and investigates her experience with mental illness and the drugs used to combat it. She was on lithium for two decades but was forced to go off it when she experienced serious kidney problems as a result of the medication. She points to statistics published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that show the use of prescription medication for antidepressants among all ages increased nearly 400 percent over the last two decades.
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To talk more about her experience with an illness that’s still associated with social stigma despite affecting tens of millions of Americans, we’re joined now by author and journalist Jaime Lowe.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Jaime.
JAIME LOWE: Thank you so much for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: This is a profound book.
JAIME LOWE: Thanks.
AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t you start off where you first learned, where you first were diagnosed, and talk about your experience at the age of 16 in a Los Angeles psych ward?
JAIME LOWE: Well, it started a little bit before that, because I was cycling, and so I was pretty much —
NERMEEN SHAIKH: But what does that mean, “cycling”? Explain.
JAIME LOWE: So, I was on a manic high, which meant that I was hallucinating. I thought I could talk to Michael Jackson. I thought I knew secret tunnels to Neverland. I was like imagining Muppets. And some of it was very — you know, some parts of mental illness are kind of funny. Many parts are horrible. And, you know, I had accused my dad of being physically abusive. He had never been physically abusive. And at this point, you know, I was running away from him. And all of my parents — my parents are divorced. I have like a million parents. But they all had sort of seen this pattern of disarray, mental disarray, I guess. And they had figured out that the adolescent ward at UCLA was the best place for treatment, and had sort of taken me to the ER. And so, that’s where I ended up. But I had to take a lot of antipsychotics. I had to go through a lot before Dr. DeAntonio, who was the head of adolescent care there, diagnosed me. He identified it immediately, because the symptoms are so bizarre, but all similar.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And how long did you stay in that psychiatric ward?
JAIME LOWE: I was there for about three weeks, so the first three weeks of my senior year.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what was your experience there?
JAIME LOWE: It was terrible. And it was also, you know, fantastic, because I got better. So, the beginning of it, I was very resistant to medications. I was, you know, still hallucinating. I was still delusional. I thought an apocalypse was happening. I thought I was going to be going to war in Nicaragua. Like there were these enormous pipes outside the window, and it was just the generator of the hospital, but I had this idea that they were poison gas and that it was going to be like another Holocaust and we were all going to die. And that was the bad part. The good part was when I kind of came to the realization that I needed to take the medication.
AMY GOODMAN: And the medication was lithium?
JAIME LOWE: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: What was — what did it mean to you that your illness was named? And what did they tell you, at the time, that you were suffering from?
JAIME LOWE: So, that was — that’s a really good question. They told me was I was manic depressive, which was what it was called in — when I was diagnosed, in ’93. It’s now called bipolar disorder. To me, it doesn’t make a difference. I am what I am, like Popeye. But the label is just a category, and it helps to sort of identify with other people, to know that it’s not — you’re not alone in experiencing everything that’s going on, because the symptoms and what’s happening is so bizarre. I mean, there are so many things that are just beyond imaginable. And so, it’s nice to know that those things exist in other people’s world, as well.
I mean, like, one thing is extreme religiosity. I’m not a religious person at all. But when I was in the hospital, I was like saying, you know, the prayers. I had — the rabbis were visiting me. I was like, you know, really, really into being Jewish and Judaism and like superduper — like celebrating Shabbat. My family is completely not — they’re very Reform, and we’re not on that trip. But in the hospital, I was extremely religious. So that’s something that many people who are bipolar experience. You know, that was one of the few things in the book where I was trying to really find a reason for that, because the symptoms are so bizarre. But that one was sort of like, nope, they just are the symptoms that they are.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, while you were in the psychiatric ward, you were kept for a period of time in isolation.
JAIME LOWE: Yeah.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And despite what people may think of that, which is that it’s very scary or claustrophobic, it actually helped you. Explain why.
JAIME LOWE: I think that that was my breaking point. I think that, you know, in the same way that — and this sounds horrible, but the same way that you break a horse, like I think that I was just so far gone, and I had been tackled by nurses to take medication at that point. I had been like whispering all of these, you know, conspiracy theories to different patients. I was like a menace to everyone on the ward. And they kind of just put me in this box. And I think, even though it sounds terrible, I just let go of everything and kind of collapsed and realized that I needed to kind of re-evaluate. And that was a glimpse of that; I don’t think that I was like completely better and it was an “aha” moment, I was like “OK, great!” But I felt calmer. Like I have a distinct memory of like just a little taste of calm.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you, because you’re a journalist and you’ve really deeply researched all of this now and you’re so deeply informed by your own personal experience, talk about what the definition of bipolar disorder is? And then, also describe how you changed on lithium, what kind of effects it had on you and, in your research and interviews with so many other people who have experienced this, what it meant to them.
JAIME LOWE: Sure. The definition, as I understand it, for bipolar disorder would be that there is a period of manic highs followed by a cycle of depression. And it can either be long depression with one long mania, or it can be like mania, depression, mania, depression. The thing about mental illness is that it’s so individual. Everybody sort of has their own — you know, as the symptoms are very similar, but each person really — it’s the hardest thing to treat, because it’s just your own experience is slightly different from the person next to you, which is why it’s really hard to tackle as a national issue. In terms of — I’m forgetting —
AMY GOODMAN: The medication.
JAIME LOWE: Yes, the medication —
AMY GOODMAN: And explain what lithium is, and explain how — what effect it had on you and why you eventually, after decades, had to give it up.
JAIME LOWE: So, lithium is the third element on the periodic table. So, it was present in the Big Bang. It’s this kind of this amazing miracle salt. It also is a metal. It’s present everywhere on Earth, in the galaxy, in our bodies, for everyone.
So, the lithium, for me, when I took it, I didn’t actually feel that many side effects. A lot of people feel side effects. A lot of people, it doesn’t work for. For me, it was kind of seamless. And I think part of the reason it was seamless was because it had to be. I had been experiencing just so much tumult in my life that to have something that kind of evened everything out was good. And I was in my senior year, and I kind of just let go of everything else and was like, “OK, this is what’s going to work for me, and this is what I have to do. And this is what, going forward, I’m going to have to take.” That year was really hard, just because I was kind of — you know, gave up on high school and friends and everything.
But then, when I went to college, everything was great, and I didn’t really think about it. Lithium was kind of in my back pocket and worked. And then I had — it worked so well, actually, that I — with my psychiatrist, once I had moved to New York after college, we decided that I could like taper down, try life without lithium, because —
AMY GOODMAN: After how long?
JAIME LOWE: That was — I was 25, so it was about —
AMY GOODMAN: Nine years after you started it.
JAIME LOWE: Yeah. So, that was not a good idea, although who — I mean, who was to know? You know? Because it could have been an isolated incident.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, so many people describe wanting to experience the highs and lows of life, which is why they go off of it.
JAIME LOWE: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: So what did it mean to, quote, “taper down” in your life?
JAIME LOWE: So, I still experience the highs and lows in life, in a pretty hyperbolic form, even with lithium. I still get really anxious when, you know, there’s too much work on my plate. I still am really, really like excited about random things that I can’t identify. But when happiness comes, it comes, and it’s great. But when I’m not on the medication, the highs and lows are unmanageable. There are like highs that are wearing, you know, head-to-toe glitter and like 18 tutus, 16 belts, 30 necklaces and like, you know, this like crazy — and I can see it like when I’m on the subway sometimes. I’ll see someone, and I’m like, “Oh, I recognize that outfit.” Like, it looks a lot like something that I would have loved when I was not on my meds.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, one of the things that you point out — I mean, a part of the reason that this memoir is so remarkable is that, you know, there is still a lot of stigma attached to mental illness, so it took a lot of courage for you to write as you did. And similarly, it’s often very difficult for people to accept that they need medication for mental illness. You didn’t have those problems.
JAIME LOWE: That’s true. I can see the stigma, and I understand it, and I see it with other people. For me, I come from like — I think I just have never really had a filter. I don’t — like I haven’t — the courage part didn’t really even occur to me, because I don’t — I’ve always talked a lot about being bipolar. And maybe that’s because I was diagnosed when I was 16, and it’s always been kind of a part of who I am. And describing it is not something that I feel bad about myself for. There are moments, though, when I’m like, “Please, I don’t want to think about medication anymore. Like, I don’t want to do this to rest my life. I don’t want to have to.” And I think that that is like a totally natural reaction that everyone who suffers from mental illness sort of has to deal with.
AMY GOODMAN: I don’t think you described that point where you tapered off and what it meant in terms of what happened to you.
JAIME LOWE: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: And then when you ultimately had to go off it, which is more recent, because of kidney trouble.
JAIME LOWE: Right. So, the tapering off was in 2001. It was in January of 2001. And actually, it was earlier than that, and the manic episode that followed was that winter. And that was like, I just started acting really weird. And I was actually living only a few blocks from your studio, which was really funny, because I just walked by my old apartment. And I started — I like was — I quit my job. I was freelancing. I was getting — I had a job offer. I was like, “I don’t want to work anymore. I’m going to barter for things. I’m going to just like buy brussels sprouts and, like, squash.” And like, I was sending like $700 of squash to neighbors.
And one of the things that triggered the really, really bad parts of that episode is that — when I was on one of the job interviews that I went on for — I think it was Blender magazine, which is this music magazine published by Maxim and stuff, and my apartment burned down. And it was like horrifying and just like this thing that made everything a billion times worse. And it just triggered this really, really intense — it was probably a good six months where I was back and forth between New York and LA, because I wouldn’t stay in LA, where my parents were trying to like help me get better. They didn’t want to put me into an adult psychiatric care, because it was like the circumstances of that are just way beyond getting better even. So, I then ended up in LA for three months with my family and then came back here and was like pretty depressed for six months. It was really, really hard.
AMY GOODMAN: And were you self-aware? I mean, since you were working with a doctor, you knew you were tapering down. Did you understand you were in a full manic phase, that this was the effect?
JAIME LOWE: No. So, I mean, I — no, I didn’t want to know that I was in a manic phase. I was basically like, “I’m fine. This is amazing. Everything that’s happening is the way it should be. And you guys are all crazy.”
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion with Jaime Lowe. She’s an author and journalist. Her latest book is just out; it’s titled Mental: Lithium, Love, and Losing My Mind. When we come back, we’ll go from that UCLA adolescent psych ward to the salt flats of Bolivia, where so much of lithium is. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Hungry Ghost” by Alynda Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff, performing here in our Democracy Now! studio. To see her full performances and interview, go to democracynow.org. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Our guest is Jaime Lowe, author of Mental: Lithium, Love, and Losing My Mind. It’s a memoir. Nermeen?
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Before we go to your trip to Bolivia, which is where most — half of the world’s lithium is found, I wanted to talk about the fact that, in your book, you raise the question of the two different traumas that you experienced that, what you say, triggered your bipolar disorder. Now, there’s a lot of debate within the psychiatric community about to what extent this disorder, which used to be known as manic depression, is caused by a chemical imbalance and what’s caused by environmental factors. So can you say what role you think trauma plays in this?
JAIME LOWE: It’s a really good question, because it is controversial and totally unknowable, in some ways. I think that it’s a factor of both environment and genetics. I think that my family definitely has a history of mental illness. My grandfather on my mom’s side comes from a family that has some mental illness in it, and he was sort of late. He was — as an elder person, he sort of had a bout of depression that was pretty serious.
But I was molested when I was 13. And I think that a lot of — you know, there was this comprehensive study of research from the past 40 years that basically said that sexual assault victims are associated with mental illness. Now, it doesn’t necessarily mean it triggers it or that it causes it, but that there is this link between the two things. And I think that there’s almost — you know, when I think about my episodes, they sometimes revolve around those types of — like that trauma is involved in some of my hallucinations. They were involved in some of the things that were kind of the outlandish parts of the way I was behaving, were like manifestations of having been assaulted.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: In what sense, though? In what sense would you say that’s the case?
JAIME LOWE: I think that, you know, identifying male figures in my life, like my dad, and saying that he had abused me, and that that abuse actually was coming from somewhere else. Like, he has never abused me. He’s been a loving father my entire life and very supportive and trying to understand what all of this is, as all my parents have always tried to do, because it’s not easy. I think like when somebody loses their mind and loses who they are and can’t function the way that you know them to function on a daily basis, it’s really hard to understand that that’s not who they are.
And I think that the — so, I think the sexual assault actually is part of it. And I think that then each episode is also a trauma in itself, because they’re really, really intense, really, really kind of — they sort of shift the way your life moves, and it’s like a different narrative then. You know, as if there was a parallel one, what would have happened? Like, I have no idea. Like, this is who I am. This is the way that my life played out. But I think like each time something happens, there’s like a little bit — a part of you kind of shifts with it.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what happened after 20 years, when your kidneys were affected and you had to completely go off of lithium? Your fears at the time?
JAIME LOWE: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: And what you went on to?
JAIME LOWE: So, I — that was what basically brought on this book, is that I had realized that I had this almost love affair with lithium, like this relationship with lithium, that it really helped me function for two decades in a way that I never would have had, and that the minute that I had this physical like reminder that it wasn’t actually 100 percent good for me or that it was, you know, eating away at my kidneys — which is not a technical term — that I had to know more about it. Like, I didn’t know more about it. I didn’t know anything about it as a medication. I didn’t really know much about it in its place in the world. And the minute I started investigating it, it was like this miracle drug. Nobody really still knows how it works. And it’s been used for millennia. How it felt, for me, personally, was like nothing but distraught and just like complete fear that I would end up manic again, because another medication wouldn’t work.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, what did they give you?
JAIME LOWE: So, the first time I tried Depakote, it was just — the side effects were really, really intense, and I like was crying all the time, and it was a mess. And this was like the thing I had not experienced with lithium when I was first prescribed it. A lot of people don’t react well to medications. It’s why mental illness is really hard to treat also. It’s why it’s hard to get mentally ill people to stay on medications, as the side effects can be really severe. So, I was on Depakote. It was really, really hard. I got off of it because I just couldn’t deal with it. And I ended up taking another medication, Tegretol, which then, it turned out, was toxic for my liver, which was a like sort of a random thing that my general practitioner found at a routine physical, thank goodness, or not, whatever.
Then, I was sort of out of the really good medications for mania. The rest of the medications are more for depression, and I suffer more from mania. So, my psychiatrist and I decided that I would try Depakote again. And I tried it, and it was actually like way better. It worked out way better. I was feeling fine. It was OK. And all of the side effects I had felt initially were like there, but way less. So I just sort of assumed they were psychosomatic.
AMY GOODMAN: Before we go, we wanted to talk about Bolivia just for a moment.
JAIME LOWE: Oh, OK.
AMY GOODMAN: We only have two minutes. So, can you talk about the journey you took to the place, the land of lithium —
JAIME LOWE: The Salar.
AMY GOODMAN: — where half of lithium is found in?
JAIME LOWE: Yes. The journey, I mean, it’s like — it’s a magical place, for me, like I — and, I think, for anyone who’s there, because it has this kind of moonscape. It feels like you’re in a completely different universe, where everything is kind of this crystalline green and you can kind of feel the salt crawling up your body and sort of immersing itself in your pores. And it was like I wanted to just roll around in it and kind of pay homage to this thing that had helped me for so long. They have these little salt hotels. You can stay in the middle of the Salar. And they’re not really hotels. They’re like a cot where you stay near springs that you can soak in, and the water is like really laden with lithium, and you can just sit there with like the steam rising up. And it’s a really kind of magical place, I guess, for lack of —
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, one of the things that you say, in terms of the extent to which lithium is prescribed, is that it’s not a patented drug.
JAIME LOWE: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: So what does that mean in terms of people’s access to lithium?
JAIME LOWE: So it’s really cheap. People aren’t — like, psychiatrists don’t prescribe it as much, because it’s not as marketed by pharmaceutical companies. But lithium is — the problem is, is that there aren’t more tests done on lithium for other applications, because there isn’t a market for it. Like there’s no money to be made.
AMY GOODMAN: Because it’s generic.
JAIME LOWE: Right. So, there are studies that have said that it’s good for Parkinson’s, it’s good for ALS, that it’s good in a lot of different ways for brain function, besides just treating bipolar disorder.
AMY GOODMAN: We have 20 seconds.
JAIME LOWE: OK.
AMY GOODMAN: With the millions of people expected to fall off healthcare, are you concerned about the mentally ill in this country?
JAIME LOWE: I’m always concerned about the mentally ill in this country, because the healthcare doesn’t even cover enough mental illness coverage. Like, it’s just there are — you know, 30 percent of people in homeless shelters are mentally ill. Twenty-four percent of people in state prisons are mentally ill. You know, there’s a lot of — there are a lot of people to be concerned about.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you for being with us, Jaime —
JAIME LOWE: Thank you so much.
AMY GOODMAN: — and for writing this book, Mental: Lithium, Love, and Losing My Mind.