Today I have the honor of interviewing Shannon Flynn, who works at the National Institute of Mental Health with adults with schizophrenia.
She has degrees in psychology, art therapy, and counseling, and has just released her memoir, called Spin Between Never and Ever, a story about her journey as someone who has suffered from bipolar disorder (also known as manic depression).
1. What advice do you have for other couples in which both have a mood disorder?
Shannon: My husband, who also has bipolar disorder, and I discussed this question together and we agree that mutual love and tolerance plus open communication is very important. I tend to get a little paranoid when I get depressed, and want to spend money when I’m a little manic; whereas he tends more toward long spells of depression, including seasonal depression, during which he sleeps a lot and withdraws to some degree. Both of us have had to adjust to these tendencies in each other, and I think (and he agrees) that we’ve learned to do a fairly good job with this. He’s invested in a sunlamp to treat the seasonal depression, which has done wonders; I try my darndest to combat my paranoid tendencies through discussing what I can do differently in psychotherapy.
2. How do you make your dual role as mental health consumer and mental health professional work in daily life?
Shannon: Because I truly know the emotional territory my clients are coming from, I find that empathy and understanding and the capacity to carefully listen come naturally to me when I’m working with people with mood disorders, and with other psychiatric issues as well. In fact, sometimes it’s all too easy to identify with others I am working with and I run the risk of tearing up (though never to the extent of “losing it.”) I’m learning, with the assistance of a remarkable supervisor, how to keep that tendency to let my own past wounds well up to the surface, under control so that I can keep my focus on the client’s pain and how I can best help them instead. Still, I give thanks that I’ve been blessed with the ability to empathize with others because it keeps me genuine in this work of helping people heal through art therapy and counseling, which I see as my calling.
3. How does art and art therapy work to treat depression and bipolar disorder?
Shannon: Art, as well as its instrumental workings through art therapy, is a wonderful means of activating the parts of the brain, heart, and soul involved in healing, from mood disorders and from many other vagaries of the human condition. In the memoir I’ve recently published, “Spin Between Never and Ever,” I describe my earliest dealings with creating and reflecting on art, up to my formal training in art therapy at George Washington University and through my practicing art therapy with clients with mental illness at various hospitals and consumer-run wellness centers in the Washington, D.C. area.
Art gives us a way to express, modulate, and even transform our emotions when no words are possible to make sense of our lives. This is true not only for those of us dealing with mood disorders or psychiatric conditions, but simply for all of us at one time or another.
4. Finally, can you tell us a little more about your book, “Spin Between Never and Ever?”
Shannon: My memoir had been brewing in my heart and mind for a long time before I sat down to write a couple of years ago. “Spin” invites the reader along on a journey that begins in a troubled childhood marked by depression – not due to family conditions, because I grew up in a loving family where my intelligence and creativity were treasured, but probably due to my oversensitive personality and genetics. As an adolescent, I excelled in school and had friends, but grew ever more deeply depressed. I put on my usual pressure to achieve straight A’s, apply to top colleges, and hold up under the strain, but simply was unable to withstand the suffocating depression that stifled me. I was hospitalized, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and put on medications. I took the rest of my senior year off, then restarted it with much greater success.
Eventually I earned several degrees, all the while working full-time in schizophrenia research/recruitment, and part-time as an art therapist and counselor — which I continue to do today. But those are just the bare bones of the story; to flesh out this narrative I include chapters on the insidious side effects of the medications I’ve taken; my wishes to get married and have children and the way I’ve reconciled myself to not realizing the entire dream; and my advice to other people like myself trying to make the best of living with mood disorders. It is ultimately a book about hope.