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For Iranian-American Author, Making Sense of a Bipolar Life

By Jeff Baron, Staff Writer,, Washington

This is the second article in a two-part series on Iranian-American activist and author Melody Moezzi.

Melody Moezzi's first book was an effort to introduce Americans to folks who, like her, are Muslim. Now she's working on her second book, introducing Americans to folks who, like her, happen to be bipolar.

"When people ask me, 'What is your next book about?' I say, 'Bipolar,' and they say, 'That's weird,' and then I explain."

Melody Moezzi says she has been driven by the realization, early in life, that she has a limited amount of time to accomplish what she wants to do.

The books are much the same, offering a personal perspective on a group that can be poorly understood and often stigmatized by the rest of society. Not that Islam is anything like a mental illness; in fact, for Moezzi, it's part of the treatment. An Iranian American, she was born in the United States to two Iranian physicians and has used her Muslim faith to guide her in her various roles as a lawyer, writer, speaker, activist and political volunteer.

She was working on her first book, War on Error: Real Stories of American Muslims, four years ago when her father suggested to her that the depression she had been trying to deal with since she was a teenager might instead be bipolar disorder. She didn't accept the diagnosis until, two years later, she experienced a manic episode bad enough to make her psychotic. "I was having delusions and hallucinations," she said. "I don't even drink alcohol, and I wasn't on any drugs, and I was having experiences that were very similar to if somebody were on strong amphetamines."

By that point, Moezzi had stopped eating and had not slept for three days. (It was not unusual, before her diagnosis, for her to skip sleep every other night.) She was quickly hospitalized.

Moezzi said it is hard, maybe impossible, for someone who has never had a psychotic episode to understand what it is like to reach "that level of losing touch with reality. ... But I think there's still an ability to have compassion when you don't understand something. Even though my parents, thank God, and my sister are all very healthy mentally and don't have mental illnesses, they still love me. They don't understand what's going on in my brain, although they've tried and read everything they can, and my husband is the same way - they don't understand what it's like to be inside my own brain, but they still love me regardless. ... You need to accept that you're not going to understand them fully, but that doesn't mean you're not going to love them fully."

Moezzi said she is trying to capture the experience of her illness for readers in her second book, which doesn't yet have a publisher. "It would be impossible if it weren't for the fact that my husband took copious notes while I was going manic and while I was in my most depressive states," she said. "He took them for my doctors, and he took them because he knew there was something wrong."

The detailed notes are necessary because, after psychosis, "there are certain things you won't remember and certain things you do, and you wish you didn't," Moezzi said. "The ability to see it through his eyes helps a lot."

Moezzi said she is writing the book in part to address the silence and shame often attached to mental illness in American society generally, and in the Iranian-American and Muslim communities in particular. "It's not something that's discussed," she said. "There's always, like, a weird cousin, but nobody is formally diagnosed. And it's strange, especially in a community that has lots of doctors who should know better."

When Muslims do receive treatment for mental illness, families are secretive about it, Moezzi said. And that prevents them from talking about the problem and getting support from family and friends.

Moezzi said that's not an issue in her case. For one thing, when she wrote about her illness for, she sent the piece to her mass e-mail list, so all of her parents' friends were among the half-million people who read her story. "You don't need to tell half a million people, but be able to at least tell your friends and family for that kind of support," she said.

Her family's support is crucial, and support groups for bipolar patients also play a role. "You meet people who have been living with bipolar for 50 years and you see the fact that some of them have been successful, and you learn from that," she said.

The worst times with her illness, she said, are what are called mixed episodes, when she experiences the agitation of a manic episode combined with a serious depression. "Imagine somebody turns on a chain saw inside your body. Or, inside your head, there's a fire," she said.

Treatments, usually medications, are difficult and imperfect. "There are some medications that I just refuse to take," Moezzi said. "I took one medication, I remember, that made me drool, and I don't care how well a medication works, I refuse to be in public drooling. ... I'm so vain that I refuse to try any of those drugs that cause [substantial] weight gain, which really upsets my psychiatrist, but I don't care, because it's not something I'm willing to engage in. Maybe I'll be less vain at some point."

The mood stabilizer Moezzi takes and tolerates is effective, to a point. "I still have symptoms and all of that, but it's still miraculous that I'm able to function as well as I do," she said.

She manages her illness, in part, by keeping her life in tune. "A lot of people say that having a chronic illness is the best way to stay healthy," she said. She sticks to a regular schedule for sleep, she makes sure to eat well, she exercises, she does yoga and she prays. And, she says, "for me, faith especially" is important.

Read part one of this series: "Melody Moezzi: In a Rush to Do Some Good."

About U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) engages international audiences on issues of foreign policy, society and values to help create an environment receptive to U.S. national interests.

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