An interview with Willa Goodfellow, author of Prozac Monologues: A Voice from the Edge
“You are so frank about your experiences of mental illness! Does it ever give you pause to share all that with your readers?”
My interviewer and I are preparing questions for the launch of my memoir, Prozac Monologues: A Voice from the Edge. With the first page I dive into my subject, my experience of mental illness: a disturbing thought about a nail file on my way into my doctor’s office, followed hard by paranoia, thought broadcasting, depersonalization, derealization, trouble with reality testing—all these are words provided by my therapist years later when I asked for her most clinical description of the scene. So, my interviewer asks, “Did it ever give you pause to share all that?” That, naturally, is the first question she and my friends at the launch will have.
But I wonder what she means by it.
I remember Kay Jamison, founder of the Affective Disorders Clinic at UCLA, Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and famously, the author of her own bipolar disorder memoir, An Unquiet Mind. She reports that shortly after its publication, she attended a professional conference. Her colleagues expected her to be embarrassed by the book’s publication and her self-disclosure of her illness and manic episodes. When she wasn’t, they were embarrassed for her.
Is that what waits for me? Will my friends be embarrassed for me?
You know, it is one thing to sit in one’s office, fan twirling in the summer heat, coffee cup on the side, typing memories into a laptop. The mind can go wherever it wants. The author can delight in just the right word to carve out an experience, so that the reader can dive as deep as the author, see it, hear it, feel the point of that nail file even. It is another to have a second person read it, the unknown copy editor, the mysterious Kirkus reviewer. And it is yet another thing to stand before one’s friends and family, telling all the secrets that were so carefully kept at the time.
My sisters will be there! Not just the sister who only ever wants to wrap her arms around me, but the prickly one too, who seems to need to take me down. I am giving her ammunition.
Why am I doing this? Why did I write this book?
Ah, but I know why I wrote it.
I was diagnosed and treated for major depression for five years, a disastrous series of antidepressants in a process I call “the chemistry experiment.” But I didn’t have major depression. I had, I have bipolar disorder. And the treatments I received provoked one mixed episode after another, each time driving me closer to the edge and nearly over it.
Mixed episodes combine depression with symptoms of mania: agitation, irritability, sleep disturbance, racing thoughts, poor concentration, pressured speech. It is a dangerous combination. 63% of the people who attempt suicide do so while experiencing a combination of depression and manic symptoms. And giving antidepressants to somebody who has unrecognized bipolarity is a sure way to provoke a mixed episode. That’s what the warning labels warn about, the suicidal thoughts that sometimes appear or increase when a person starts taking an antidepressant.
That was my life for five years. People with bipolar go an average of 7.5 years from symptom onset to receiving a correct diagnosis. A third of them go ten years or more.
I was one of the lucky ones. Researching the memoir of what I thought was my depression, I stumbled upon information that led me to my diagnosis in only five years.
I was lucky also because, driven to the edge, I never went over it. Others were not so lucky.
In the course of my writing I read Sheila Hamilton’s memoir, All the Things We Never Knew. Sheila’s husband pretty clearly had bipolar, but after a less than thorough investigation was diagnosed with major depression and given antidepressants. In short order, he was manic and hospitalized where his bipolar disorder was diagnosed—too late. He died by suicide days after his hospital release.
Then I met Karen Meadows. Karen’s memoir, Searching for Normal, tells of her daughter Sadie. Many doctors don’t like to diagnose children or teens with bipolar, thinking they shouldn’t saddle a child with such a heavy diagnosis. [Oncologists manage to suck it up and deliver heavy diagnoses—but I digress.] Instead they gave her “less stigmatizing” diagnoses with treatments that made her condition worse. Sadie died by suicide at age eighteen. Years later, you can still see it in her mother’s face.
Yes, I was lucky.
Sheila’s and Karen’s stories reminded me that I lived to tell my own story. So, I have to tell it. There are others out there like me, diagnosed with major depression who dutifully “keep trying” one antidepressant after another. And they aren’t getting better. They are getting worse. There are mothers and wives and friends out there who worry about their loved ones.
And there are better answers out there too.
I didn’t want bipolar disorder. It sounds so—embarrassing? But you know what’s worse than a diagnosis of bipolar? It’s having bipolar but being treated for something else. That can kill you.
So, at my book’s launch, I will take a deep breath. I will remember the others. And I will share my story.
Willa Goodfellow is the author of Prozac Monologues: A
Voice from the Edge (Aug. 25, 2020, She Writes Press).
Her early work with troubled teens as an Episcopal priest
shaped an edgy perspective and preaching style. A
bachelor’s degree from Reed College and a master’s from
Yale gave her the intellectual chops to read and
comprehend scientific research about mental illness—and
her life mileage taught her to recognize and call out the
So she set out to turn her own misbegotten sojourn in the
land of antidepressants into a writing career. Her journalism has attracted the attention of leading psychiatrists who worked on the DSM-5. She is certified in Mental Health First Aid, graduated from NAMI’s Peer-to-Peer program, and has presented on mental health recovery at NAMI events and Carver College of Medicine, University of Iowa.
Today she hikes, travels, plans seven-course dinner menus, works on her next writing project, “Bar Tales of Costa Rica,” and stirs up trouble. She lives with her wife, Helen, in Central Oregon, sometimes Costa Rica, and still misses her dog, Mazie. Connect with Willa online at:
and on Twitter @WillaGoodfellow