Charles Monroe-Kane hopes his memoir leaves readers a bit tired when they turn the last page.
“I wanted to write a book you could sit down with at 6:30 and finish in one sitting,” said Monroe-Kane, 47, about “Lithium Jesus: A Memoir of Mania.”
“I wanted the book to be frenetic, manic, like I am.”
The NPR producer and East Sider succeeds with his first book, a recovery memoir that falls pretty wide of self-help. “Lithium Jesus” recalls Monroe-Kane’s teen years as a faith healer and his young adulthood traveling the world, self-medicating and making occasionally disastrous decisions. All this while hearing the voices that accompany what his doctors believed was schizophrenia.
Q: Why did you write this book?
A: The biggest reason was that I have been struggling with mental illness my whole life, but I realized that really what I’ve been struggling with is the medication. The medication is such a symbol. You see these pills twice a day in your hand, and you think, “This means I’m weak.”
I took 15 years off from taking the medication. It was a crazy time. When I started taking it again, which was only about four or five years ago, I realized two things. One, suddenly my head is calmer. Two, what did it mean? All those years of struggle, what did it mean?
I remember meeting with a psychologist who said, “You talk too fast, I can’t help you. You need to slow down. The easiest way to slow down is to write.”
I sat down and started writing the book and I couldn’t do it. My thoughts were racing. Well, I’m a radio guy, so I decided to record myself telling my stories and then I would come home and transcribe them. After they were transcribed I would put them in order and look for the connective tissue to bring them together. That’s the structure of the book. It’s written the way I would speak.
I remember transcribing the story of me going into a mental hospital and taking medication when I was still at a Christian school. I remembered for the first time in years that that’s when the fissures in my relationship with God started to happen. If God is all powerful and almighty, and the gift I have from God is hearing voices, then why the hell do the voices go away just by taking pills?
That’s when I realized I had a mental illness. I wrote it to be therapeutic. I had no intention of it ever being published.
Q: You were diagnosed to schizophrenia early on, and it was eventually changed to bipolar. What did that change for you?
A: That’s a big issue. If you heard voices, you immediately got put in the schizophrenic camp, and that affects you. The medication is the same, the treatment is the same, but the stigma is significant. You can imagine being told you have bipolar — well, everybody and their brother has bipolar.
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I work for the UW and I wanted to get life insurance and at that point my diagnosis had changed to bipolar. If you’re schizophrenic you couldn’t get life insurance. That tells you how it is in society. You have to be very careful with labels. To me, that misdiagnosis was a big deal.
Q: You start each chapter with song lyrics. How did you choose those?
A: Except for the first chapter (“Lithium” by Nirvana — how could I resist?), all the others are period music. I don’t listen to the Indigo Girls now, or Stryper, but I did then. Each one of those was a favorite song of that time for me. They’re period correct. Even though some of it’s embarrassing.
Q: Where does spirituality fit in your life now?
A: The reason that I was a Christian was because of the voices. I thought the voices were angels and I thought they were speaking through me. That was a very powerful thing.
When I realized it wasn’t angels, when I realized the voices were a manifestation of mental illness, I lost my faith. My faith was based on something that wasn’t true. I realized I never believed in the first place because my belief was based on these voices that really weren’t from God. I don’t think I ever was a Christian.
Q: Any final thoughts?
A: It isn’t the mental illness that people struggle with. That’s accepted. It’s the pills that are the problem. They are signs of weakness.
I take loads of medication, twice a day. When you hold them in your hand and take them, it’s not like having your diabetes checked. You look at them and you’re like, “I’m weak. I’m not strong enough. I wouldn’t have to be depressed if I just exercised. I wouldn’t hear voices if …”
I got hit by a car five years ago. Everybody was sending me gifts, friends called, it was great. Nobody does that when you have a psychotic episode. People don’t send you flowers. It’s not fair, it’s not right. The pills are a reminder of that.
I hope people read this book and say, “OK, for us crazy people, there’s a narrative out there.” Everyone has a different arc and it’s not contrived.
Q: You keep bringing up weakness.
A: It doesn’t have to be that. Mental illness doesn’t have to be a thing you bear. It can be who you are and it can be beautiful.