Sharp: A Memoir is the beautifully written, harrowing story of David Fitzpatrick and his 20-year struggle with bipolar disorder and self-mutilation. One of five children, Fitzpatrick endured regular bullying from his older brother and later was tormented daily by his college roommates. He began cutting in his early 20s, steeped in self-loathing and spending years in psychiatric hospitals.
While Sharp is an intense and raw read — and may be triggering for some — it’s ultimately a hopeful and inspiring story. It’s a story of a man who gets caught up in the mental health system but finally finds himself, as well as a fulfilling life.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Fitzpatrick about his powerful book. Below, Fitzpatrick reveals what inspired him to pen Sharp, what it was like reopening old wounds, what helped him lift the veil of mental illness, how he maintains recovery today and much more.
1. What inspired you to write your memoir — in other words, why did you have to share your story?
A: For a long, long time, a little over a decade and a half, I couldn’t function in the world. Writing my story down, even as it was happening, gave me an outlet. Now granted, I wrote a lot of terrible, bloody prose, rehashed nightmarish events, and still ended up hurting myself repeatedly, but in the end, I think I got interested in writing my rage on the page.
And that simple act started to pick up momentum, and I was challenged by that (How close to the bone can writing be – how do I get inside my old head? To bring the reader deep inside me – and not have him or her turn away and say, “God, this guy’s a little much,” or, “I don’t want to read this crap,” etc.)
The challenge of writing well and not boring everyone to tears took over my brain. And when I started to really shape stories and tell tales with an arc, a beginning, middle, and end, I think I realized it’s about time that I get better. Of course, it took 17 years, but more than anything, save my family and doctors and peers, my writing stood by me. Kept me company, challenged me and, I think, kept me alive.
2. The book is raw and honest. It’s evident that you didn’t hold anything back. What was it like digging so deep, reopening painful memories and old wounds when you’re in a better place?
A: It was both thrilling and frightening. Initially, once I had a contract, the hard part was to dig, and dig, and discover where all those thoughts, where all those raw wounds had run off to. First I asked my family what some of their memories of those times were, and they disliked that in a big way.
But reading their trauma, really, because they experienced it, too, in a way, I gained access to openings in the story where I could really immerse myself. Plus an old therapist had three or four of my old journals still sitting in his office, and that felt like a gold mine for me. And then the more I read of a journal entry in Christmas of 1991 in the hospital, when I was watching the movie “Harold and Maude” (not exactly the number one Christmas movie)–memories started returning.
I couldn’t have done this book when I first got out of the group home in 2007. It was only after getting my MFA degree at Fairfield University, that I thought I’ve got a shot at this now, and took it very seriously, and it turned out pretty well.
3. Throughout the book you describe an overwhelming need to cut and burn yourself. But you finally reach a point when you don’t have this need. What was the turning point?
A: I think there’s just so many times I sat in an ambulance rushing to a hospital, or later on, when the self-injuring was very superficial, with the sirens turned off, and then sitting in a godforsaken psych ER with the same nursing and doctor staff, and also sometimes, the exact same patients as well. I found myself repeatedly cutting, just for the brief rush of adrenalin – but it was long gone by then. I felt so far away from myself, my family, old friends. It was lonely, hurting yourself brings only loneliness in the end, if not worse.
The last time was next to an old graveyard, across the street from the Yale Law School. It was Halloween morning, 2005. I burned for the final time – and I knew, I just knew it was the final time, could feel it as I watched the blisters form. I’m done being an ashtray, I thought to myself. I really think I’m done.
4. In the book you describe your depression as a veil of gauzy fabric that hovers in front of you. In the last pages, you write, “The veil, the damp, gauzy veil that had separated me from the rest of world forever was disappearing. I could feel and see parts of it still hanging around the fringe but it was leaving. It was going away.” What do you think contributed to that veil lifting?
A: I think the veil lifting was hope settling in around me, finding a space inside a really depressed guy’s body, and asserting itself. Also, honesty was a huge component – to admit that I was 40 years old, and did I really want to be hurting myself, and have that veil around me for the rest of my life? The veil lifted when I started to believe in my possibility of a decent life for me, even a hopeful one. Being honest about what I really wanted (a good life) helped melt away the veil.
5. You also struggled with severe self-loathing, describing a kind of blackness that used to live inside you. What has helped you in overcoming such profound self-hatred?
A: I think just trusting my doctor, listening to family and friends, who affirmed me over the long haul that I was worth a lot more than just “a useless piece of flesh” (as I used to say when I glanced in the mirror.) Also, a realization that to ache, to feel despair and sorrow and rage, didn’t just belong to folks in mental hospitals. But all around, were wounded souls, family, friends – that aided me, I think. To consider that everyone hurts, and there’s a way to bridge that divide when you talk or write about it.
6. What do you do today to maintain your recovery?
A: I surround myself with people who love me, who believe in me: family, skilled doctors, and former patients. I realized about five months ago after coming back from my Irish honeymoon with Amy that I wasn’t done with the illness. It was a humbling thing, to realize that bipolar will be with me for my whole life, but it can be managed, it can be worked on and get extra help when you’re stressed out of your head.
Everybody can improve in some fashion, and everyone falls back a little during the tough times. But that didn’t mean that I had to pick up a razor or if you drink, pick up the bottle, or coke or meth or whatever the substance is. The capacity for resiliency is shaped inside us, and I hope we can each get through it.
7. You’ve said that Sharp is also a story of how you “got stuck in the sticky, psychic tendrils of the mental health system, before finding expert counseling from doctors…” Can you offer suggestions to readers struggling with mental illness on how to find the right experts or not get stuck in the system in general?
A: That’s really a hard question because when someone is in the throes of the anguish and sadness, it’s hard to hear people, hard to work with them, when all you might want to do is lie down, take a long nap, etc. Everyone has a capacity for growth, maybe you feel so low you don’t want to move. I used to get so annoyed at my father when he would tell me to go for a short walk, just little steps, little achievements.
Maybe it’s a big thing, a job interview and you’re afraid to talk about the “missing time” where you were in a hospital, or maybe it’s tiny, like you’re afraid of going outside to get the mail, to walk all the way down your long driveway.
Take little steps – my therapist would constantly talk about dipping my toes into the great big ocean (the real world) but before I got there, it was a big deal for me to walk across the street to sit in a bookstore at a café. Don’t worry if what you’re doing feels like a cliché – those old sayings have a lot of practical wisdom. One day at a time, one hour at a time, take it easy on yourself, fake it ‘til you make it. Stay grounded, and life can improve. Maybe not a lot at first, but it will. It can. You will.
8. What message do you want readers to take away from Sharp?
A: Living doesn’t have to be painful all the time – life can be a good thing for you, not something you fear, or something you want to run away from. Please don’t read my book as a how to screw up. Read it as a way to say, “God, if this guy can make it, if this schmuck of a guy can survive, maybe I can too.”
I know that’s expecting a lot, but I hope the book can help readers feel hope, feel like they’ve got a shot at life, that it’s not over at 13 or 20 or 36 or 73 or any age. Believe, not necessarily in a religious redemption (but that’s helpful), but believe that you have a spot in the world, and that you are going to make people sit up and say, “God, I didn’t think Harold or Amy or Hillary had it in her to turn their life around. Show people what you can really do.”
9. What would you like people struggling with self-injury to know, especially cutters?
A: As I say in the book, it only leads to loneliness and feeling so very isolated from the world. It’s not worth it – believe me – find something inside you, or outside you, that makes you feel so very alive, for real.
It could be a God, a book, a great CD or song, or it could be the ocean, the forest. I know that sounds a little goofy but truly, life is not meant to waste. Believe me, I’ve been there, and I’ve wasted so many damn nights and weeks, years in thinking the act of hurting myself would deliver me someplace grand.
It didn’t – it didn’t. Use a hotline, or talk to a friend, parent, priest, rabbi, talk to anyone, but don’t go down the road of self-destruction. There’s nothing redemptive in it, not a thing. Life is so much more exciting.
10. Anything else you’d like readers to know about Sharp, your story or mental illness in general?
A: Don’t give up, that’s really what I’d say. People get a lot better, and they’re doing it all the time in this world. Also, try your hand at journaling some of the anger and frustration and sadness and ouch-ness of mental illness. Take it out on a notebook, or a punching bag, or a gym, just keep believing and reaching out. Things will improve, hope is there somewhere. And thanks for reading my book, I really appreciate it.
More About David Fitzpatrick
David Fitzpatrick was born in Dearborn, Michigan and grew up in Connecticut. He graduated from Skidmore College and earned his MFA degree from Fairfield University in 2011. He works part-time at an auto dealership and is married to a graphic designer and fellow writer, Amy Holmes. The New Haven Review, Barely South Review, and the now-defunct Fiction Weekly have published his works. He is currently at work on a novel and lives in Middletown, Connecticut.