Memoir Done Right: Writing Without Judgement

Memoir Done Right: Writing Without Judgement

Guest post by Sheila Hamilton

I’m an investigative reporter, trained to be alert to things that don’t seem right. And yet I missed much of the unfolding of my husband’s mental illness. By the time I’d pieced together the puzzle of who David was, he was falling apart. My once brilliant, intense, and hilarious partner was dead within six weeks of a formal diagnosis of bipolar disorder, leaving my nine-year-old daughter and me without as much as a note to understand his decision. He’d left us hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, with no plan for helping us recover from the profound grief of his suicide.

All The Things We Never Knew is the story of the last three months of my husband’s life and the year after he died. It is an unsettling descent from ordinary life into the world of mental illness, and an examination of the fragile line between reality and madness.

I wrote the memoir portion of the book in 2007, just a few months after David died. I had no choice but to recount the trauma. At the time, I was getting up at 3 a.m. for my job as News Director/Host at Kink radio in Portland, Oregon. I would come home from work, sit at my computer and let the story move through me.

I wrote memories without concern or judgment regarding the quality of the sentences. I didn’t care whether memories were coming in chronological order—in fact; I allowed those experiences with emotional “heat” to dictate. I didn’t attempt to edit or graph the pages; I simply let the emotions of disappointment, shame, grief and humiliation wash over me. It was a raw, grueling and ultimately, healing experience.

Mary Karr says, “Memoir done right is like knocking yourself out with your own fist.” She’s exactly right. I wrote of the marital isolation that forced my secrecy, and my decision to stay in a loveless marriage so that my daughter could be with her father every day. As it happened, even in the final months of Michael’s life, at the time when doctors described him as “decompensating,” he loved our little girl. The distance between us, however, was desolate. We were roommates, not lovers, co-parents, not husband and wife. In my memoir, I share some of the touch points that prompted me to attempt to leave a decade-long marriage.

I’d like to say the process was as effective as therapy. I viewed it instead as an opening to therapy. I walked into my therapist’s office with page after page of questions. Why did I compartmentalize? What was I afraid of? Who was this person and what should she have done differently? I took the punches Mary Karr described and continued despite coming face to face with the darkest parts of myself.

It was only after I slogged through every category of grief–denial, anger, bargaining, acceptance, etc., that I found the most helpful impulse in dealing with David’s decision–forgiveness. When I finally forgave David for his decision to end his life, I was able to forgive myself.

After finishing the memoir, (and editing it over the course of seven different passes), I shelved the manuscript to attempt to get some objectivity on the state of the mental health system. David’s experience in lock-up psychiatric care was so negative it contributed to his state of anguish, his hopelessness, and ultimately, his death.

I researched mental health policy, the origins of illness, and the history of psychiatry in the United States. I found care lacking and inaccessible. Any person who is having a psychiatric episode needs two things above all– compassion and competence. Both were in short supply in David’s care. I went to work to find out what IS working in America’s mental health system.

I included those findings as inserts in between the narrative of the book. My hope is that another woman desperate for answers about the behavior of her significant other will find the book to be a helpful resource.

 

All The Things We Never Knew is my attempt to shed light on the cruel impact mental illness has on an entire family— not just the sufferer. And how, even though Bipolar Disorder is an “illness” with some similarities to physical diseases, illnesses with behavioral components destroy more than one individual. The qualities of rage, despair, duplicity, promiscuity, unpredictability and cruelty were all part of his illness—and yet, even after the diagnosis confirmed his condition, I felt I had to leave him.  After a decade of feeling unloved, and unappreciated, I was desperate for change.

The book explores the surprisingly parallel emotions of grief and joy; both occupy huge spaces in my heart and brain. It also provides one example of how to survive the aftermath of a loved one’s suicide.

After David’s death, I did not have the luxury to “check out” or spend months off work recovering from the trauma. Fearing both financial and emotional devastation, I worked harder to make sure our daughter was safe. I also explored the origin of suicide, modern-day views toward suicide, and read everything I could get my hands on regarding the inherited genetic predisposition toward mental illness and suicide. I had missed visible signs of the illness in my husband. I will be more vigilant with my daughter.

Through writing this book, I’ve painted a picture that illuminates many of the signs and much of the foreshadowing of serious mental illness. I’m hoping that my choice to share this personal journey might encourage those at risk to seek treatment before depression or substance abuse takes away that option. I’m also hoping it provides encouragement to other families to go on; to talk to others about their loss, and to live and love more authentically.

Sheila Hamilton is a five-time Emmy Award winning journalist and the author of All The Things We Never Knew. Sheila’s storytelling resume runs through film, commercial television, radio and print. She began her career as an Associate Producer for public broadcasting, and then anchored and reported commercial television news for KTVX in Salt Lake City, Utah and KATU in Portland, Oregon. Sheila currently hosts the Kink morning show in Portland, Oregon where she was recently voted Oregon’s Best Radio Personality.