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Introduction (Excerpts)

It is estimated that more than 54 million Americans are diagnosed with a mental disorder in any given year. Of this number, more than two million are diagnosed with bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness. I am familiar with this so-called disease. In 1993, at the age of 43, I received a medical diagnosis that officially placed me among the two million with bipolar disorder.

I know there are many who cannot speak openly about their mental health issues. Our society accepts many things these days—but mental illness still carries a stigma. I was able to speak openly because I didn’t have a job, so I couldn’t be fired. I didn’t own any property where the neighbors could ostracize me. No one in my family was running for public office. I was sure that I had already been to hell and back, so I had nothing to lose by speaking about my experience with mental illness.

Wow! When I think of my life, as it was 15 or 20 years ago—when I think of the years when I was experiencing mental illness and how I was living and thinking then, it’s as if I’m thinking of someone else. I’m no longer that same person. Who was that person?


If you are reading this book because you saw one of my performances, I thank you for coming to see me. It is an honor for me to tell my story—live and in person. Performing is one of my greatest joys. The desire to perform put me on the path to recovery. I remembered something that I loved to do and I found a way to do it.

As I travel around the United States telling my story as I speak to mental health care consumers, their families and others, I am repeatedly asked two questions: 1) “What are some of the details of your story you’re not telling because of time constraints?” and 2) “What did you do to turn your life around?” This book addresses both of these questions.

Because we are all different, not all of my answers may work for you or your loved ones. However, I can assure you that just looking for answers and taking control of your situation will change your life. I hope that I will, at the very least, persuade you to take charge and assume responsibility for your own life.

When I was at my lowest, I challenged myself to look at my lifestyle, mental attitude, and my will to live a good life. I’m here today in front of you in the words on this page to tell you that lifestyle changes restored my health. I know that the specific steps I took may not be the specific steps you should take, but I am sure that positive, healthy lifestyle changes will help you (or anyone for that matter). Even if you still need traditional treatments, you will be far better off for asking questions, examining options, investigating alternative and natural therapies and taking control of your health.

I know there are people born with certain developmental issues and others who may have suffered a physical trauma that may not allow them to take full charge of their lives at this time. However, if you can read the words in this book and understand them, then I believe you can recover and heal your life—mind, body, soul and spirit. You have the power to ‘rise above’ (I did not say cure) any mental, physical or emotional challenges you have and have a joyful, peaceful and healthy life.


I know there may be some who are reading this and thinking I hope she doesn’t start with that ‘love yourself, you have the power, you are magnificent, be grateful and get over it’ crap. Or you may be thinking, ‘I hope she’s not going to tell me how we all create our own reality and that I created my life and everything in it; therefore, I created this life situation and all my life pain that I hate.’

I’m not going to start with any of that stuff. I’m going to start by sharing my story. I’m going to start by telling all of you that I was where some of you may be today. There was a time when I was angry and frustrated, depressed, and financially and spiritually broke. I remember the day I threw a book entitled Faith In The Valley by Iyanla Vanzant across my living room at the wall. I shouted to no one there, “I don’t need any positive quotes and inspirational messages! I need some food. I need a decent place to live! I need some money!”

I’m going to share with you how I rewrote the script for my life. Part of it involved tearing out pages filled with drama—that for the longest time I thought was not only important, but also necessary. Sounds funny to get rid of drama in a script. Well, drama is great for the theater, however, in real life, drama is a drain, a drag, and stressful. Drama and being a “Drama Queen” are highly overrated.

I had to fire some of the actors in my life story and rewrite my script so that I was the star. I realized I could have more control over the scenes than I thought possible. I also realized that if I did not become the producer of my own life show, someone else would produce it for me. If I did not take charge of my script, I would continue to re-act instead of act. (No pun intended). I decided I would be the one who would have the final say about my life script. I eventually found out what part a positive quote and an inspirational message can play in rewriting one’s life script.

My periods of mental instability were severe. They threatened my happiness, my family, and my life. My life was a disaster. I had doctors diagnosing me with all kinds of things. For a long time, I wasn’t even sure I wanted my life. In fact, many times I was sure that I didn’t, and I tried to end it.

However, at the last minute, someone would always save me from myself. Once, a doctor told me he didn’t know how I could still be alive. He said, “When they brought you into the hospital, there was nothing we could do. I didn’t do a thing.” He told me to thank God. God was why I was alive.

I’ll tell you the whole story later in the book, but I want to skip to the good part right now. I’m ok! And I have been for years. With a lot of work and reading and learning and trial and error, I pulled myself back from the brink. I am living proof that you can dig yourself out of an emotional hole and come back out into the light. It was sometimes challenging work, but it was worth it and I’m going to tell you how I did it, why I did it, and why it was worth it.


You might be wondering why I’m qualified to write a book about mental health issues. I will admit that I have been timid about sharing my story and discussing mental health because I’m not a doctor. However, as I have been reminded so often, I am a former patient. I know what it’s like to be shackled and put in a sheriff’s van and driven to a state mental hospital when I was not violent and my only crime was depression.

I know what it feels like when your own doctor and other caretakers will not even look at you when they speak to you, and how they can have a conversation about you while you are in the room as if you are not even there. Or, worse yet, assume that somehow my identity has merged with theirs. “How are we doing today?” “Did we sleep okay?” “Do you think we’re about ready to go home?” . . .


. . . I was in a state hospital in North Carolina. These two young college women had come in to have art therapy with us. I assumed they had come because of some college requirement. I had never seen them before.

I liked them because they were friendly, their voices were soothing and they looked at us and listened to what we had to say as if it really mattered. One of them asked, “Is anyone interested in making a key chain?” I was like a five year old. “I would like to make a key chain.”

I sat down at a table that was covered with colorful pages from magazines, a few bottles of Elmer’s glue and a few pairs of tiny round-tipped scissors like the children use in kindergarten. I found a page with a pink flower that intrigued me. When I was on a lot of medication, it was sometimes hard to keep my hands from shaking. So, this was going to be a bit of a challenge.

I slowly and carefully cut around the petals of that flower. I felt hypnotized by the flower and edging the scissors around ever so gently so as not to snip a petal too closely. I barely allowed myself to breathe. I wanted it to be perfect.

“Very nice.” One of the college students said when she saw my flower all cut out. “Would you like to glue it to this piece of wood now?”

I was ready for that task too. I concentrated. The idea was to use just the right amount of glue. Too much and the whole thing would look tacky and be ruined. I held my breath. Positioning the flower just right was very important. I had to work quickly. I didn’t want the glue to dry before I had it in just the right position.

When I was finished gluing, one of the students put a tiny chain through the hole in the wood and fastened it. She held it up so that the others could see. “What about this one? This is also a very beautiful key chain.” If I were ever to win an Academy Award, I cannot imagine feeling any prouder.

I lived through mental illness and now I tell my story to patients and professionals around the country. I am qualified to talk about mental illness because I lived it. I believe my opinion counts and yours does too.

I do not take mental health lightly, and in no way do I discount the many honorable mental health professionals out there, or anyone who may be dealing with mental health issues at this time. I just want to expand the conversation to include everyone and to include all parts of us—our whole bodies, our minds, and our spirits.

Each of us has been born with the challenge of remaining balanced and sane in an insane and unbalanced world. We live in a world of wars, hunger, inequitable laws, unenforceable laws, laws written on our behalf that we cannot interpret without paying for a lawyer’s help, an artificial calendar and manufactured time, devitalized food, impure water, prejudice, fear and anger. Wow! How does anyone remain sane, whole, happy and disease-free?

I’m not going to focus on the stigma of mental health, or why we don’t have better mental health coverage, or whether or not psychiatry is art or science. I know that as I’m writing this book, laws and systems are being put in place to deny us, or block us from having a say in the type of mental health treatments we receive. This makes it even more important for each of us to understand who we are, what we are capable of, and how innately powerful we are.

I want to focus on what we can do for our-selves. I want to focus on our individual talents and strengths and all that we have control over. Remember; do not get caught up in worrying about what is wrong with your life, the system, or the world. Focus on what is right in your life and the one thing that you can control—YOURSELF.


I have wanted to write this book for a long time. At first I wasn’t sure if I could do it—that is tell my story—and tell the truth. I know I’m totally exposing myself. This book is an example of being totally hon-est with you and myself—totally open and vulnerable. I was afraid of what the doctors might say, what the pharmaceutical companies might say, what my ex-husbands might say, what my neighbors might say and what you might say. Well, I grew past that.

Now, here is my story:


PART ONE - My Story

It’s a bit like a musical I was in, The Wiz, which is an African American version of The Wizard of Oz. Like Dorothy, the lead character, I had to travel a long road and face many challenges before I learned enough to appreciate my life and how to not just survive, but live. And like Dorothy, the greatest lesson I would learn is that I too had the silver slippers (in The Wiz they were silver), the power—the whole time, and did not realize it. I was busy searching for answers everywhere except within me.


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Down Home (Excerpt)

Life started out good for me. I had a mama, a daddy, two brothers, and a sister. My sister Roberta was the oldest. I made my entrance two years after Roberta. My mother says, before I was born, she thought she could predict whether I was going to be a boy or a girl. She predicted I would be a boy. She also thought I would be her last child. Therefore, she decided to name me after my father. I was to be John Louis Washington Jr.

After my birth at 7:51 on the morning of January 26th 1950, it was confirmed that I was a girl. However, my mother decided to just go ahead and name me John Washington anyway. She did change my middle name to Ann. My official birth records said, ‘Child’s Name: John Ann Washington.’

My brother Joel followed two years after me. My brother Justin arrived five years after Joel. We lived in a small, two-bedroom house in Greensboro, North Carolina. Greensboro is in the northeastern part of the state of North Carolina, close to the Virginia border and a few hours south of Washington, DC.

The year I was born, 1950, the price of a new car was around $1,750 and the average price of a new house was about $14,500. A loaf of bread was 14 cents and milk was 82 cents a gallon. A first class stamp was 3 cents and the minimum wage was 75 cents per hour.

This is also the year the president of the United States, Harry S. Truman, ordered the construction of the hydrogen bomb. Television was still a relatively new invention. A new table model would have cost about $200, which was a lot of money for my family. My family would not own a TV until a few years later. We also did not own a car at this time.

I have only two memories of my life between birth and first grade—and even first grade is sketchy. I remember going with my family to visit one of my father’s relatives in South Carolina and singing a song for whomever the woman was we visited.

The other memory is of me at Sunday school. I don’t know what happened, but I started to cry and I couldn’t stop. I wanted my mama. The Sunday school teacher tried to calm me down and after she realized that was not going to happen, she left the room and came back with my mama.

I wanted my mother to hug me, but instead she took me outside and said she would spank me if I did not stop crying. I managed to stop crying before she found a switch. During my elementary grades, I have some uncomfortable memories of standing by a picture window in our living room waiting for my mama to come home from her “day work,” cleaning up white people’s houses. I could see the bus stop from that window. She’d get off the bus with a bag of groceries in one arm and a pocketbook thrown over the other. I was always happy to see her come home.

If you had to sum my mother up in one word, the word would be proud. Yes, she was self-righteous and self-important. This was my mother’s answer to surviving life’s uncertain journey . . .


Hello Old Friend (Excerpt)

. . . That first night there an orderly came around with a little cup of pills. “This is your medication.” I took the tiny cup and poured the four pills in my hand and was about to throw them in my mouth. “No. No. Put the pills back.” Now, he was whispering. I was totally confused and was wondering if he was really a patient too. But I did as he said. He took the little paper cup back. He tipped the cup so that I could see inside. He pointed to each pill. He continued whispering.

“Take this one and this one. Do not take this one or this one. Put these two under your pillow and I’ll be back to get them later.” I whispered, “I thought I was supposed to take them all.” He pointed to two women that were in zombie-like states. One just stood motionless with her back against a wall, and the other woman rocked back and forth in a chair as she stared at the floor. “They take these.” He said, as he pointed again to the two pills I was to leave under my pillow. I was still confused and I wasn’t sure if I should trust him. I never took those two pills. I suppose it’s because of situations like this, that in my later hospital stays, someone would watch us take all of our medication and made sure we swallowed.

The next morning at the hospital, I woke up in great spirits and full of energy. I organized exercise classes. I helped some of the ladies fix their hair. I had conversations with the other patients, told funny stories and actually had a good time. The staff didn’t seem to mind that I was doing all of these things. It actually made their jobs easier. When medications came around, I always remembered to put those two pills under my pillow. I really wasn’t sure why I was there. I rarely thought about the suicide attempt. And going into the third day, I still hadn’t seen a doctor.

Of all of the unexplainable and unbelievable events in my life, what I’m about to share with you remains, in my opinion, right at the top. I do not even recall the details of how exactly I got this to happen. I was starting to get pretty restless on the psych ward. I was missing performing in Godspell. I don’t recall ever missing a show until this incident. Berlinda Tolbert, who would later become well know for the role of Jenny on the TV show, The Jeffersons, was covering my role.

Somehow—and I really don’t know how—who approved this—or who said what to whom—the hospital let me go do the show at night and then come back to the hospital. A man who worked at the theater would pick me up at the hospital a few hours before the show. I would leave the psych ward and go to Ford’s Theater, put on my costume and makeup, perform in the musical Godspell, take my curtain call with the rest of the cast, take my costume off and then was driven back to the DC General psych ward.

After a few nights of this, I was discharged from the hospital. However, my doctor, whom I hardly ever saw, sent me to a halfway house and insisted that this is where I should live . . .


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