Miriam and Craig are both artists and their four children carry on the legacy. When their teenage son, Nick, is diagnosed with schizophrenia, a tumultuous decade ensues in which the family careens permanently off the conventional course. Like the ten Biblical plagues, they are hit by one catastrophe after another; violence, evictions, arrests, a suicide attempt, a near-drowning, even cancer and a brain tumor play against the backdrop of a wild teenage bacchanal of artmaking and drugs. With no time for hand-wringing, Miriam advances, convinced she can fix everything. This is the story of how mental illness unspools an entire family. As Miriam fights to reclaim her son from the ruthless, invisible enemy, we are given an unflinching view into a world few could imagine. He Came In With It is the legacy of, and for, her son Nick. Witness the story of Miriam, Craig, Nick & their family when the unthinkable, that could happen to anyone, happens to them. Drop in to the conversation ~
Miriam Feldman is an artist, writer, and mental health activist who splits her time between her Los Angeles studio and her farm in rural Washington state. She has been married to her husband Craig O’Rourke, also an artist, for 34 years and they have four adult children. Their 33-year-old son, Nick, has schizophrenia. With an MFA in painting from Otis Art Institute, Miriam founded Demar Feldman Studios, Inc., a distinguished mural and decorative art company, in 1988. At the same time, she built a strong career as a fine artist, represented by Hamilton Galleries in Santa Monica, CA. She serves on the advisory board of Bring Change 2 Mind, the nonprofit founded by Glenn Close, and writes a monthly blog for their website. Miriam is active in leadership at NAMI Washington and writes for their newsletters. She is a frequent guest on mental health podcasts. He Came In With It is her first memoir, published in June, 2020 by Turner Publishing Company & represented by Spark Point StudioLeave a comment for radio show guests
Have you ever stopped to think about yourself and your story? If someone were to write your memoir what would it say? We all seek some level of authenticity but have trouble removing the labels and finding our whole story. Welcome to Dropping In with Diane Dewey. In this program we’ll explore diverse stories on identity to help determine what is truly yours. Now here is your host Diane Dewey.
Diane: Welcome to Dropping In everyone as we embrace our Covid confinement and try to stay buoyant about it. It is important to think about other people for whom this is an even greater disturbance and counting our blessings is a part of that. Today we speak with Miriam Feldman, author of a new memoir published by Turner Publishing called He Came In With It, a portrait of motherhood and madness. It’s a searing account of descent into schizophrenia by the author’s firstborn, her son Nick and its impact on the entire family. Everyone was triggered both positively and otherwise. Welcome Miriam.
Miriam: Thank you very much.
Diane: He Came In With It is such an accomplishment. It’s raw. It’s hip. It’s sentimental. It’s unsentimental, languorous, whiplash, all in one. There’s a long list of adjectives but most of all I felt it was a long, deep dive for you Miriam. It really feels as though you traveled back in time and relived all of the last, the years since 2004 when Nick was diagnosed. I feel as though you took yourself and even your family mentally through the therapeutic value of writing and putting words to your feelings. Can you talk to us a little bit as a visual artist? You’re an amazing painter about the process for healing that writing this book may have created for you.
Miriam: Well it’s interesting you should use the term deep dive because that’s exactly what it was and it really was kind of jumping off a cliff into unknown waters. I thought I knew this story and I knew what I wanted to say. The writing of the book was really kind of a transmigration. It was not what I expected at all. At first I just sat down and started to write. I was a little concerned how much I could remember in terms of details and things like that.
One of the interesting things I learned is that everything is right there in your head you just have to access it. As I started writing I would remember things daily or not even daily hourly and I would have, I had post-it pads next to me and every time I would remember something I would jot it down. Then at the end of the day I would arrange all the post-its on the walls and pretty soon my writing room looked like ironically the scene from A Beautiful Mind where Robert Nash’s workshop in the back where has all the papers everywhere.
Then I would start color coding things and writing and organizing things and it became very, very visual which is natural to me in the way that I do things. I didn’t even realize that when you wrote because I’m new to this. Writing a book is not just one time sitting down and writing it. I basically went through it two or three times over the year, year and a half I was writing it. The form and the content of the book changed over that time and brought me to a much clearer understanding of what the experience had been to me and certainly the other members of my family. Really what was important and what wasn’t because you have to do this culling process of throwing out what isn’t important and keeping what is important. I was surprised to learn myself things that were important that I hadn’t really paid attention to before.
Diane: These are not editing issues as much as prioritizing what’s really present for you in the experience and what resonates for you in the experience. It’s a whole different journey but of course I love the idea of wallpapering with color-coded post-it notes. This sounds all too familiar to me but I of course would love to know what all the different color codes meant but I really want to just get back to the idea.
It’s clear that this is a really multi-level, multi-layered nuanced and very revelatory memoir it is your story but it’s also Nick’s. I wondered how has he responded to your telling it, how is your family who was very involved in nearly every scene, every page. How are your family supporting your writing experience and do they feel the same kind of new layer of understanding for it?
Miriam: I don’t know that they feel a new layer of understanding. I think that they’re very supportive of me. When I started writing I decided that there was no point in doing this thing if I wasn’t absolutely honest and open about it. Nobody read anything until the whole first draft was done because I decided I had to get it out in a very clear and uninterrupted way. Once I had the first draft done I gave it to everybody to read because I felt that I was talking about and telling stories that were quite revealing and intimate. I told them if there’s anything in here that you don’t want in here tell me and I’ll take it out. Nobody asked me to take anything out.
Diane: That’s so cool.
Miriam: The only interesting thing or the one interesting thing was my youngest daughter rose after she read it. She said to me there are several things in here that I remember quite differently than how you tell them but this is your story. It’s your experience of this. I would never ask you to change anything. I really appreciated that.
Diane: Totally. It’s validation and whisper down the lane. We all know we come away with different impressions from different experiences but I love…
Miriam: The only one who’s different is Nick because of Nick’s circumstance because of the schizophrenia. I mean Nick doesn’t sit around reading books and he hasn’t read the book. He knows about it and he knows what it is. I’ve told him it’s the story of our family and me and especially nick and myself and the schizophrenia. He knows all of them and he also knows that we’ve used a self-portrait that he did when he was 16 as the cover of the book.
Diane: It is stunning.
Miriam: He’s very proud about that. Occasionally he said well yes, I want to read it sometime but he hasn’t read it. I have a certain amount of conflict about the fact that I’ve written this very exposing story about Nick. There are a lot of things that aren’t in the book. There are things that I’ve experienced through this journey with him that I’ve never uttered to another human being on this planet and I never will, things that are just too tough or too private. I tell that I have to tell the story and I have to tell it honestly. I do grapple with a certain amount of an ethical question as to whether I have the right to tell this story but I’ve decided that I’ve earned this intimacy. I’m telling it as my story.
I think honestly if Nick were to wake up tomorrow and be a hundred percent better and not have schizophrenia anymore and sit down and read this book he’d probably be unhappy with me that I revealed this much about him but I decided that if he woke up tomorrow and wasn’t sick anymore that’d be good enough for me. He could be mad at me. I’ll take the mad. It was better.
Diane: We’ll take it. The cover portrait is compelling and is actually one of the reasons I wanted to invite you on right away. It reminds me of Agon, Sheila it’s a kind of a watercolor portrait but it’s beautifully emotional and just very evocative. I think that you do have to respect with memoir there’s always going to be a little bit of discomfort. If you didn’t write it and make it uncomfortable for yourself you didn’t write a good memoir. Elizabeth Gilbert talks a lot about you’re becoming naked to the public. You do have to remember which private parts do you still want to keep covered up with a little fig leaf. You’ve done that Miriam and it sounds to me that you’ve been fair and even-handed and everyone comes to it from a different level. Maybe someday Nick will take a look at it and maybe he’ll want to write something himself. Everyone does have a voice and you are very I think respectful of that.
The definition of schizophrenia, I know that everybody thinks, we all think we know what it is but I had to dig a little deeper for myself and go into the DESM which is revered and reviled in even parts. A psychotic disorder characterized by disturbances in thinking, that is cognition, emotional responses responsiveness and behavior. These include and this is what we’re more familiar with in colloquial terms hallucinations, delusions, disorganized thinking and speech, abnormal motor behavior including catatonic actions or non-actions. These signs and symptoms are associated with marked social or occupational dysfunction. Loosening of associations is one of the prime characteristics and there are subtypes, catatonic, disorganized, paranoid residual and undifferentiated.
I just needed that very literal view and it contextualized a lot of the experiences that you did have with Nick such as when you went to your very touching, all of its touching but very tender mother’s day lunches where he basically wouldn’t utter a word and say thank you mom. Where are my cigarettes and off you went. I mean an inordinate amount of patience and tolerance that you developed. I don’t know if you thought, did you think of yourself as thin-skinned or thick-skinned or any of the above before all this started?
Miriam: Before it started I’ve always been a very impatient person. Now being the mother of four teaches you patience to some degree but schizophrenia really taught me patience because it’s something that is not only out of your control but in a sense out of your comprehension and not because I’m not a doctor because the doctors don’t even know. I mean schizophrenia is bespoke for each lucky recipient. It’s different in everybody and over the years over the many years because Nick’s 34 now and he was diagnosed at 20. Over the years I’ve learned to speak and read his language.
I think only the immediate members of the family, his sisters and myself and his father quite get that. I think that’s the important thing with a condition or a disease like this is that you have to meet them where they are. You have to figure out a way to understand their language and their reactions and accommodate yourself to that. That’s what over the many years I’ve done to where now he can say or do or turn his head a certain way and I know what that means. I don’t expect the same reactions from him that you would from other people but he speaks to us just as clearly in his own way.
Diane: It’s a lovely transition. I can tell you that it I can see it’s documented on the page that this was a struggle. For one thing we’re all perplexed. We can’t enter the inner psychic lives of anyone else let alone someone who is being affected by forces that we can’t comprehend as you say. Nick also has marked accelerations in certain abilities which I wondered if they were present. His spatial configuration and mathematical problem solving, also he’s very in tune intuitiveness with you. You write “his inky brown eyes meant mine. It’s okay mom. I understand. I’m just worried about you. I’ve never seen you like that.” you write, “it felt like the sprinkling of pebbles in some brook in the forest. I felt the first few drops of a great rain. I saw it then. He understood more than I did.”
It’s so interesting to me that he grasps you as well that he also had these other incredible talents which you put to good use when you were developing one of your beautiful murals. He came in and helped you to figure out the spatial relation. This scene was so interesting to me.
Miriam: When he was a little boy he was the boy that we thought this kid’s going to grow up to run the world. He was just talented and charming and smart. He was kind of the ringleader of all the kids but he always had a compassion and an understanding that seemed beyond his years. I remember once when we were little and we were with another family and we were on a camping trip and we went to a place where they had all these fish in a pond. The other little boys started doing what little boys do and they thought it was funny and they were throwing rocks at the fish because there were so many in there. They could just throw rocks at them.
Nick was maybe seven or eight. These boys were 11, 12, 13 so they were older and they were cooler but he was so upset and so appalled that they were throwing rocks at these fish. Not because the fish were dying because he and his dad fished. They go fishing but there’s a coat of ethics to fishing. He was appalled at the barbarian aspect of just the unfairness of throwing a rock at a fish. Now when I look at him at 34 and I think of who that boy was going to be. That’s a very hard thing for a mother. I mean I think as I talked to now that I’m an activist and I’m involved in advocating for the mentally ill I meet so many mothers. The things that I hear over and over again is they miss their child like where has he gone. Somebody came and took him away.
That is kind of what schizophrenia does. I look at him now and schizophrenia is arguably the worst or one of the worst mental illnesses. It’s certainly one of the most severe. It manifests and presents itself in ways that quite honestly are ugly and scary and can be violent. I mean it’s terrible. We see people on the streets screaming and yelling. I mean everybody knows what that is. I don’t think that there’s any reason to pretend otherwise. You have this disease and the thing that is most comforting to me is that my son was afflicted by this terrible disease and even this disease that could be arguably also termed evil. Even this disease that has his evil, ugly aspect to it could not touch Nick’s intrinsic goodness. He is still gentle and good and wouldn’t harm a fly and has that compassion in him though what however blunted from the disease. This disease has not changed his intrinsic goodness and that’s something that I am so proud of him and I’m so grateful for.
Diane: Absolutely. It’s profound that you can still see him as it were and feel his empathic nature that there’s connectivity between the two of you I think is also important and that you see his essence, the essence of him as a person. There is such a loss and there’s such a loss of expectations of what this boy will become but I think the fact that you have done this delving into where he is and coming to where he is and then speaking for others. It’s hugely important.
I wanted to just ask you we have about a minute before the break. Maybe this is something we’re going to speak about afterwards but I just want to prompt you with this idea. You were easily the emotional anchor for your family as many mothers are but you especially. You’re really kind of an earth mother, a very compassionate person yourself, very relatable. You did really your best as a mother.
In being such an emotional anchor for everyone else, I guess what I’m going to be curious about is what anchored you. There were so many times when I wondered this poor woman who’s there, who’s helping, what’s keeping you anchored. Was it your work? Was it all your friends? You have an amazing assortment of friends. I really want you to speak to that a little bit when we come back from the break because there are many mothers in your position who are experiencing a child with some form of mental illness and how to get through I think must be the essential question. Don’t go away we’re here with Miriam Feldman, author of a brilliant new memoir He Came In With It. Don’t go away. We’ll be right back on Dropping In.
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Diane: Welcome back everyone. We’re here with Miriam Feldman who’s giving us insight into how to get through it. When your son is diagnosed with schizophrenia. It didn’t happen overnight and all of your coping mechanisms didn’t appear overnight Miriam but it is the question that everyone has. In your great memoir he came in with it. You talk about how you survived, how you even learned to thrive. What are some of the ways that, your work, your anchors, your friends, what was it that really got you by?
Miriam: I had a turning point. It ties into what we were just talking about before the break about the idea of your expectation and your dreams and your hopes for your children or your particular child who gets sick. Those dreams and those imaginings become a real impediment towards acceptance and moving forward because all of a sudden in one fell swoop everything you knew to be true is gone. I always say schizophrenia or a serious mental illness it’s like a gale force hurricane that blows through your life and anything that’s not nailed down securely is just gone. You wake up in this spare, more open world where unnecessary and irrelevant and redundant. Things are gone now.
You just have the basic bones and you have to kind of rebuild the reality with that. It’s horrible and it’s tragic. Yet at the same time it’s also kind of a gift because you managed to let go of things that aren’t needed or aren’t important or don’t serve. My turning point came in the beginning, the way I honestly coped with this is I’m what I like to call pathologically functional. No matter what I always get up and make my bed and brush my teeth and do what needs to be done even if the whole world’s on fire.
For the first few years that’s what I did. I still had little kids in the house, the two girls were younger and Nick’s older sister was off in college but the two younger sisters were at home. I had little kids at home and I was trying to keep everything together. I did. I did pretty well. I thought in the daytime and then at night honestly I would drink a lot of wine. A habit that I got was once the kids were in bed I would go into the bathroom and I would run the shower. I would lay on the cold tile floor and cry hysterically because I thought nobody could hear me which wasn’t true anyway. I’ve since learned but I did a lot of hiding which is something I would not suggest to people because the kids know anyway.
One day I came out of the bathroom and after one of my crying jags and there was my youngest. I was busted. She said to me mom, you’re crying. Why are you crying? I said I’m crying because I miss your brother. She said to me what do you mean you miss Nick? Nick’s not gone. Nick’s here. I said yes, he is but he’s not who he was supposed to be. She looked at me. She’s nine maybe and she said yay, he is. It’s just not what you thought. She turned around and went into her room. I sort of plopped down into the window seat in the hallway and I just sat there and it was almost like this feeling of like all the dominoes tipping over and landing.
I thought that’s it and I’ve returned to that moment. I still do what? 15 years later that moment of he is who he is and it’s not what I thought but this is how he came to us. This is how he came and then that’s the title of the book. This is how he came to us and I damn well better readjust my expectations and be his mother. I learned that from my nine-year-old.
Diane: Out of the mouth of babies.
Miriam: You’re not kidding. I mean I still sometimes want to hit a wall sit and think about that. After that what really helped me get to it is yes of course my friends, I mean I don’t know what I would do in this life without my women friends. I have just an army of women with me. Now even more because now I consider all the moms of all the kids dealing with these illnesses as my friends too. I mean we’re I have this network of people and I know that it just even in a more sort of ethereal way we’re all there for each other but definitely pragmatically my friends. Yes my work. I mean I’m a painter. I’m a maker I’d like to say. I’m always making something. It’s a painting or it’s a book or it’s sewing something. If I’m if my hands are working I’m okay and making art though it did sort of lay fallow for a while in the worst of this I’d come back to it with a vengeance. It once again saves my life.
Diane: This letting go, you felt at first that your son’s personality as you knew him had been hijacked. Your daughter Rose tunes you into an alternate reality of acceptance, of why and where and how he’s come is what we’re meant to accept and actually learn from. This stripped down idea, it also just reminds me of this pandemic where we are really just looking back now at just fundamentals what do we really need. Alarmingly it’s not too much. It’s not what we thought but we do need some time for reflection.
That’s for sure but I also wondered about the role of yoga and you took it up as a practice. Some of the more eastern philosophies are more accepting. There is an acceptance of suffering and there’s an acceptance of the idea of letting go. Did that practice also weigh in and how and if so?
Miriam: Oh very much and it was really all kind of just stumbling into it because again pathologically functional and also Type A personality would pretty much describe the first three quarters of my life where I just worked. I’m not a particularly religious person. I’m not a particularly spiritual, well I wasn’t. Very pragmatic. I liked empirical evidence or I wasn’t interested. I stumbled into the yoga studio because my other exercise that I used to do was way on the other side of town and very expensive. Once my life exploded there was just no room for that anymore and there was a yoga studio around the corner from the house. It was affordable and it was right there. I thought okay, this is after the worst of it. The worst few years where I decided I’ve got to get healthier. I’m just dying here. I decided okay exercise will help my body and my mind.
I enrolled in this yoga class and at first I went into very skeptical. Thought it was all a bunch of woo-woo stuff but I would at least get the physical benefits from it. As the weeks went on and the voices of the teachers who were by and large these young women who would be talking about the yogic sutras and the philosophies of yoga and all these different things. I would look at these young, perfect beautiful 20 something girls and I would think what do they know about suffering, what do they know about acceptance? Nothing bad has ever happened to them yet but as time went on the words started getting into my brain and into my psyche. All of a sudden they started to resonate and what started to resonate and that keys back to this thing that Rose said to me was surrender.
Now being the Type A personality I always thought that surrender was a signal of weakness and giving up and failure. You waved the white flag. You surrender. You lost the war. I came to understand surrender and acceptance in a completely different way as an indicator of strength and intelligence of knowing when you can’t change something and either moving through it or moving around it or allowing yourself to reside next to it but I was big on throwing myself up against brick walls over and over and over. I learned that surrender is strength. It’s intelligence. I live completely differently in this world now. I’m a yoga practitioner. I still 10, 15 years I still practice yoga every day and I also became a meditator which is something I never thought I would be able to do. I barely can sit still but I do that every day too. It has changed how I live in this world and in a good way.
Diane: It brings a certain wisdom and serenity. Obviously the serenity prayer but not to get preachy because as a fellow obsessive I mean being obsessive is its own brand of self-cruelty and torture. I think the book is really lavish with great detail. There’s a lot of scenes where you do come up against something insurmountable but you’re still insistent. All of us do this. There’s a kind of a an arc through the story, through the book He Came In With It by Miriam Feldman of realizing this point of truth, of peace and as you say so well as a surrender.
I really think it’s really a very exquisite well, the book is its own brand of just total immersion but it is an exquisite arc. You do talk about He Came In With It. The title of the book now you’re based in LA. I think that’s another testimony to exactly how pragmatic you are that you are empirical, fact-based. You want the evidence. This is a testament to being non-stereotypical as well but the book title comes from an astrological reading of your son’s Nick’s birth chart, the astrologer said that there was a virtual constellation of factors all pointing to schizophrenia. That he came in this way into the world.
It felt thematic to me to and maybe that sort of released a certain burden from you also because it seemed to me that there was a real theme of attribution, needing to know how this got this way. It was almost more important at times than that it got this way for Nick. I think that is the mark of a meaning maker, thinker type but how important is it to you now to know how and why this happened.
Miriam: It sure would be nice to know but I also am aware now that it really is unknowable. I’ll never know. I mean in my bad moments I still lie in bed at night and relive and re-enact every moment of his life trying to figure out what it was. I mean I think that when you grow a human being in your belly there’s a certain intrinsic responsibility that you’ll never shake. I grew up. I did something but that’s in my gut and in my psyche.
In my head it doesn’t matter. I mean this is what it is. I’m much more interested in finding out at this point what I can do, what we can do to improve his life. It happened. He’s 34 years old. He’s halfway through his life. I’m not going to reverse it. I don’t fixate on that anymore.
Diane: Good and a sense of forgiveness for yourself and I hope that that worms its way into Miriam. You’ve been such an incredibly attentive mother. You went to extraordinary lengths and the dumpster dive. I mean that scene it just stuck with me. Where you were cleaning out Nick’s apartment and moving him upstate to Washington and the state of Washington to your farm or nearby. You needed his driver’s license and in the process of cleaning he allowed you to sweep it up and put it in the trash. Apparently we may never know. You spent this entire evening going through the trash in the dumpster. It’s really nightmarish but I do hope that you’ll offer yourself a lot of generosity and forgiveness for being really I think an extraordinary mother.
There is of course always this idea of why and the stress diathesis model was that at work because everyone has a proclivity for a disease. Then there’s maybe exacerbated by stressors but at the end I think you did a lovely job in the book. There’s not going to be any spoiler alerts here. You have to read the book. There’s a really a lot of thoughtfulness that goes into your own understanding of the origins of this and how it might have been a part of Nick’s adolescence and a process that he was going through but you’ve done a lot of heavy lifting. I really think that each of us is challenged in ways that we need to learn things. I think the word obsession came to mind so often in reading your book. I think that this overcoming that was absolutely astounding and astonishing of an evolution for you.
When we come back from the break we have a couple minutes left. We’ll give you the real firm facts about who Miriam Feldman is but if you really want to know who you are or who she is read the book He Came In With It: A Portrait of Motherhood and Madness. There is just a whole quintessential conversation about motherhood Miriam. I think that I’m going to read a passage from the book a little bit later but in the beginning it seemed to be equated with protection. You were protecting Nick. You were protecting others from knowing everything about what was going on with Nick. You were protecting yourself a bit. You really felt to me like a fortress almost. At the end I would say is there an evolution for you towards becoming more open, having a little bit more honesty and integrity with your relationships and becoming more porous.
Miriam: Oh absolutely. One thing I just wanted to say thank you very much for all the accolades about being an extraordinary mom but I really feel strongly about this. I don’t think I’m an extraordinary mom. I just think I’m a good mom. I think that if you’re going to be a mother that’s the baseline. You better be at least a good mom. I’m just doing what any mom should do. It’s not anything that’s special. I used to look at when my kids were younger and I had four perfect beautiful little kids and I would see sometimes these mothers with a child in a wheelchair with MS or Parkinson’s or one of these genetic diseases. I would look at them with these kids and I would think I couldn’t do that. How did they do it? How did they do it?
Then Nick got sick and now I realize well of course I would do it. Of course you just do it. It’s your kid and you just do it. You don’t necessarily deserve any big brownie points for it. It’s your job and you do it. I think that most mothers would. I think that it’s important to give moms credit. I don’t think that I’m doing anything more than any other mom would do. That trash incident actually was quite transcendent but it brought me to a good place.
Diane: I mean it’s very cool. Of course very true what you say Miriam, the baseline of being a good mother. There’s so much involved with that and to the credit of all mothers everywhere. I just wondered after the break whether you thought the job had evolved for you as it always does. Don’t go away we’re here with Miriam Feldman who wrote the memoir He Came In With It. It’s a pretty damn honest book. You’ll get a lot of good insight from it on how to live, how to be a mother, how to be a person. Don’t go away. We’ll be right back on Dropping In.
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Diane: Welcome back everyone. We’re sitting with Miriam Feldman who wrote a newly released memoir He Came In With It: A Portrait of Motherhood and Madness. It’s published by Turner. It’s something that you would want to get your hands on if you just wanted to try to figure out anything because there’s a real dance around, denial of issues, facing issues. There’s a real arc toward becoming accepting. It’s a real exercise in problem solving which is what I’ve often thought art is, artists of which Miriam Feldman is a very accomplished one.
Let me give you the nuts and bolts here. Miriam Feldman is an artist, writer and mental health advocate who splits her time between Los Angeles where she has a studio and her farm in rural Washington State. She has been married to her husband Craig O’Rourke, also an artist for 34 years. They have four adult children. Their 33 year old son Nick has schizophrenia. With an MFA in painting from Otis Art Institute Miriam founded Demar Feldman Studios, a distinguished mural and decorative arts company in 1988. At the same time she built a strong career as a fine artist represented by Hamilton Galleries in Santa Monica.
When Nick was diagnosed in 2004 Miriam became an activist and writer. With first-hand knowledge of our mental health system she decided to be an advocate for those who have no voice. She serves on the advisory board of Bring Change to Mind, the non-for-profit founded by Glenn Close. She writes a monthly blog for their website. Miriam is active in the leadership of NAMI Washington and writes for their newsletter. She’s a frequent guest on mental health podcasts. Active on Instagram where she’s created a community of family and loved ones dealing with mental illness. You can visit her on her website miriam-feldman.com or Instagram. What a great outreach you’ve done Miriam. This new circle, this community that you created is going to get larger now with the book. I think you realized that.
Miriam: I hope so.
Diane: That’s the biggest outreach yet. It’s something where you talk about this. I want to give people just a little flavor for the book. Here’s a quote. “All I knew was fear. My entire world was a rickety house of cards like the kind I used to build with my cousins as a kid and instead of figuring out what was wrong I just kept adding more cards like it wasn’t going to fall.” here’s Miriam stripped away yourself. You don’t glamorize yourself, your role but as a mother did your perception of it change over time?
Miriam: Oh completely. I’m a completely different person now than I was 20 years ago. I mean I never in a million years would have chosen to do this obviously at the cost of my son’s sanity but this whole experience has turned me into a much better person. Not only a better person but like I said better in how I move through the world. When I was a younger adult and raising my family and I lived in kind of a middle class neighborhood in LA and there’s a lot of fancy people. We didn’t actually really even belong in the neighborhood but there we were. I spent a lot of time trying to keep up this facade and feel like I belonged there.
The truth is I think as an artist and kind of a misfit I always felt like an outlier. When Nick got sick. It was just like I threw a band into the wind. Not right away but eventually that’s what it did for me. Now I live in a much more authentic way. I don’t really think about how I look from the outside or what the facade doesn’t matter to me anymore once my whole life was blown up. Again like I was saying that’s the freedom, that’s the gift of something like this happening is you rebuild your life in a different way.
I’m a much more matter of fact honest kind of person. The other thing I feel like once you have one of the perks of having a kid with schizophrenia is you become officially embarrassment proof. Once you’ve had the police on your front porch numerous times and taking your screaming kid down the street and God knows what else happening. You really are beyond embarrassment. There’s a real freedom on not worrying about those things anymore. Just again you focus on what really matters.
Diane: Absolutely. I found it somewhat coincidental when I looked at your website, Demar-Feldman part where you were a muralist that there was a lot of Trompe-l’œil. When you’re talking about façade and it’s working through me. At one point you did a lot of Trompe-l’œil, the trick of the eye. It somehow coincided with this arc of becoming more authentic and less aspirational and less caring of what other people think. I think the fact that you work now as a community activist, bring change to mind the mission of this is that actress and activist Glenn Close co-founded Bring Change to Mind in 2010 after her sister Jessie Close was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and her nephew Calen Pick was diagnosed with a schizoaffective disorder.
They say every individual who speaks out inspires another and another. That’s how we’ll end the stigma around mental illness. That’s how we will bring change to mind. I wondered is that partly what you had in mind when you wrote this book Miriam or why now. Why do it now?
Miriam: Well that’s exactly. I mean it’s very intuitive and also I really appreciate you recognizing the irony and the significance of the fact that I spent my days doing Trompe-l’œil and then going home to the life that I was trying to create a large Trompe-l’œil on the front of my house but it didn’t really work. There was an irony there. I think that you’re exactly right. There is such a need for people to tell their stories. When this first happened then I remember sitting in my living room looking at my big plate glass window at the street and feeling like I was all alone in the world. That outside was this plethora of healthy, happy people and families and behind my door was this dark, ugly secret.
If I had been able to pick up a book like mine and read it at that point it would have changed everything just to know I wasn’t some kind of a freak or there wasn’t something just awful and abhorrent happening behind my door. Now I realize everybody has some sort of connection to mental illness, mental health issues and we need to tell our stories. If we don’t talk about it everybody will continue to feel alone. If one mom can accidentally stumble over my book at the point I was in the beginning and find some solace and find a portal to moving into and through this experience that’s what I want.
Diane: I love the word portal. I love that you’re giving people a portal and that’s the best kind of reason to write a book I think. This offering of yourself as a connection. You also talk about how men and women being mothers and fathers respond differently to the stigma and shame of having a son with mental illness because you say that your husband and I know this very well through my own family that the father often will project himself onto the son. It’s almost a more narcissistic referential association that the father is failing because the son is somehow failing. None of which is true but it is the burden that that people take on.
I wondered with your husband you have this very catchy kind of hip and very close relationship. It’s something that you renewed I think through this experience. Throughout your story uh you maintained your sense of humor. Some people might find that implausible but it’s absolutely true. He came in with it as one of the most readable books ever. You somehow link, it feels almost ancient Miriam that this tragedy comedy link that you’re able to keep your humor. I just want people to actually hear a gorgeous example of this writing.
Here’s Miriam Feldman from He Came In With It. “The summer was crushing in Los Angeles. The nights held the heat making it impossible to sleep. I decided to escape to Washington for a while. We’d put in a garden and the vegetables would be coming in about now. Craig worked on the house and I painted and did thousand piece jigsaw puzzles.” another metaphor. “It was kind of horrible. Nowhere to look but at the truth and at the trees. I might as well have stayed in therapy. One day in mid-august the constant harbiture of happiness and woe rang. That’s the phone. Ma, it’s Lucy. Guess what? You thought does my blood run cold or do I jump for joy?”
I love this Miriam it’s how human can you get. Your humor through your humor we feel your vulnerability. Do you think that your humor was also a way of coping and getting yourself through mentally whole?
Miriam: Oh yeah. I mean my whole life not just this event. I mean I had a very funny father. Father who was a good joke teller and anecdote storyteller. It’s the key to survival you know what I mean. It’s like in any bad situation if you can find some gallows humor it saves you and it’s certainly what holds my husband and myself together is the ability in the worst of situations to be able to laugh.
For example in the book when Nick has his first hospitalization and all this was so new to us then I mean now I understand how all this works but back then this was I’d never imagined a thing like this when they took him in the hospital. Then when we went to visit him and he had no shoelaces in his shoes and he said yes, they took away my shoelaces. Yes they thought I’d hang myself. We were making jokes about that and laughing.
I realized looking back on it boy, that’s kind of chilling but to us it was like it was just too awful to even imagine and the key to coming together and finding the connection with each other is always humor. Even now Nick still can laugh. He still gets jokes. He still makes jokes and gets jokes which is really good.
Diane: It is good. It’s the healthiest thing possible because also even with the anger and I think you touched on this the mother love coursing through your veins all the while that anger is one of the big indicators of how much we care and therefore anger is a sign of love as David White says. Your work in the field of advocacy it feels like this is also a flashpoint time to be dealing with mental health issues. I really just say to you congratulations. We’re losing our time here but you are someone who is going to make the world better I think through this. Has it changed in the one minute we have left, has it changed for the better sort of yes or no?
Miriam: Oh yes. I love life. We have a good life and we have a happy, strong family and this is just part of our story.
Diane: Wonderful and I think too this is part of your story that it’s strengthened you. I can feel it. I can hear it in your voice. This is Miriam Feldman. The book is He Came In With It. The best way to reach you Miriam, MiriamFeldman.com or on Instagram. You can buy the book at local indie bookstore or on MiriamFeldman.com. Remember everyone mental health issues are silent and often invisible. Treat one another with respect, kindness and compassion and remember to count your blessings. Till next week stay safe everyone. Thank you to our engineers and producer and most of all to you our listeners thank you for dropping in. thank you Miriam Feldman.
Thank you so much for dropping in. Please join Diane Dewey again next Friday at 8 AM Pacific Time and 11 AM Eastern Time on the Voice America Variety Channel. We’ll see you then.