Thursday, November 24, 2016

The introduction to my book

This is an incomplete memoir. I won't be delving extensively into my unhappy childhood, angst-ridden adolescence, or confused young adulthood. While I'll allude to seminal events and phenomena from those days—my father dying when I was five, being bullied in elementary school, sibling rivalry, college highs and lows, ten years of aimless career surfing after graduation, being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a suicide attempt, and a dating life that makes Taylor Swift look like Gloria Estefan—I'm focusing primarily on personal and professional anecdotes from my life after I decided to become a mental health clinician in my mid-30s.

Having bipolar disorder has made me both a better and a worse clinician. On the plus side, I know many symptoms inside and out and can normalize clients' experiences very effectively. I know the side effects of many psychiatric medications because I've taken them. I can instill hope because I know treatment can work and recovery is possible.

The downside is that my own dysphoric mood and anger can impede my interpersonal effectiveness, both with clients and co-workers. I've learned that even if you're competent and creative, expressing anger or emotional chaos at work will get you fired—in my case, more than once. Behavior that appears out of control will get you dumped by even the most patient boyfriend—in my case, more than once.

While I've finally found an exceptional psychiatrist and therapist, having an excellent pit crew is only part of the battle. You won't win the race unless you hone your driving skills—you'll crash and burn. That's a NASCAR metaphor for emotional self-regulation, something I struggle with every day.

For about 10 years I wrote a blog under the pseudonym “Ayelet Survivor” that I taglined “My life as a single, Jewish mental health professional who suffers from bipolar disorder and a keen sense of irony.” I explored my experiences with graduate school, working, dating, sex, and my religious observance, which waxed, waned, then more or less collapsed. The personal anecdotes in this book are drawn from that source and from my twitter feed, which as of this day has about 230 followers. There are more than 1300 blog posts and 7000 tweets, so obviously I've picked and chosen selectively. Feel free to visit the blog (or @ayelet_survivor on twitter) for a window into my brain at any given time.

In April 2015 I was asked to contribute an article to a now defunct online e-newsletter (“CBT for schizophrenia? You don't know Jack”). After I posted it to my LinkedIn profile, I was pleased to note that more than a few people were reading it, and decided to start writing anecdotes about other clients. After about 10 posts, some of my friends started saying, “You should write a book. You're like the social work Oliver Sacks.” Well, one friend said it, and I was hugely flattered.

I was also asked to contribute to the Chronotherapy blog on, which gave me the first opportunity to merge my professional and personal writing. I detailed my experiences with insomnia and seasonal affective disorder, and also wrote about other individuals' struggle with insomnia and other circadian rhythm disorders.

I've always loved writing. My personal blog was a tremendous creative outlet for me as I adjusted to a clinical career after more than 10 years of publishing and editorial work. I wrote poetry, stories, and plays as a child and young adult, which developed both my skill with language and my conviction that my true milieu is nonfiction. Nowadays I write progress notes, employee evaluations, and reports. Occasionally I'll bust out a villanelle or free verse poem, and I'll include a few in here.

I'm also committed to advocacy. Even before I became a social worker, I've been trying to explain the reality of mental illness in order to diminish the tremendous stigma that accompanies most media depictions. For a while I wrote numerous letters to the editor, which the New York Daily News was often kind enough to publish. I've engaged with the National Alliance for Mental Illness's efforts to provide a counterbalance to stigmatizing movies, television shows, and news coverage. On my blog I tried to portray my struggles with a sense of hope that it's possible to have a decent, even good life while managing a chronic psychiatric condition.

Most recently, I've been entertaining my Facebook friends with a series of updates that explain what circumstances will cause me to reject a man's Bumble or Tinder profile. More than one has asked, “When's the book coming out?” So I decided to include those, along with other dating anecdotes from my blog.

I also learned recently that I'm a survivor of emotional incest. For most of my life I didn't know that existed or that my experience with it had traumatized me. I just knew I was an emotional mess, sometimes more than other times, and that despite psychotherapy and medication, my problems persisted. As I write this introduction, I've just started a new kind of therapy to address this aspect of my life. It's an evolving story.