66 → California, USA → Author, Voiceover Artist & MH activist → Bipolar & MS → Medication, Communication.
R: Hi Tom, tell us a little bit about yourself…
T: I’m a mental health speaker, writer and author of my memoir Escape from Myself: A Manic-Depressive’s Journey to Nowhere. I have been a professional actor on stage, screen and television. I currently do voice-over work in the Los Angeles area.
R: Where do you live?
T: Huntington Beach, CA.
R: How old are you?
R: What did you do before?
T: I earned my Master’s degree in Radio-Television-Film from the University of Kansas and worked for several years as a broadcast journalist for local stations and freelanced for National Public Radio’s popular news program “All Things Considered,” the Voice of America and ABC Radio News. I was Assistant Professor of Broadcasting at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas and later taught Technical Communication for the University of California – Berkeley School of Engineering Extension.
R: What does home life look like – family / pets?
T: I live with my wife, Noha, we have four children and seven grandchildren. Our dog Ferris is a Shiba Inu. We treat him like a son and the neurologist has ordered that he be my companion because of legal blindness and balance problems caused by progressive multiple sclerosis.
R: What makes you happy?
T: I am most happy when I am around any of my seven grandchildren. They range in age from 17 months to eight years. Four girls and three boys. It feels like I’m getting a second chance at being a father. I was terribly ill with yet-to-be diagnosed bipolar disorder when my son and daughter were children.
R: How long have you had Bipolar?
T: I was diagnosed with Bipolar in 1993.
“It literally ruined my life in so many ways before and after diagnosis. I lost an 18-year marriage and college faculty position because of a manic episode that led to me abandoning my family for a fantasy career in Hollywood.”
R: How would you describe Bipolar in your own words?
T: It literally ruined my life in so many ways before and after diagnosis. I lost an 18-year marriage and college faculty position because of a manic episode that led to me abandoning my family for a fantasy career in Hollywood. Prior to that adventure, hypersexuality, which is a bipolar disorder symptom, hurt my wife and many other women. After I was diagnosed at age 43, I had to learn I could not be stable just by taking medication. It took nearly 20 years for me to learn stability could be achieved with adequate sleep, proper nutrition, exercise and psychotherapy. Bipolar disorder causes cognitive deficit in many cases. I experienced a gradual decline of brain power from my previous baseline level of function. I was a professor, I earned a master’s degree and was working toward a Ph.D. when the mood swings became overwhelming. As a result of poor short-term memory, I could not maintain employment over those years. The cognitive limitations were further complicated by multiple sclerosis, which also affects memory and learning new skills. Untreated bipolar disorder ruined my life up until I was diagnosed and kept on burning bridges as I swung from hypomanic episodes to suicidal depression until I finally stabilised in 2010.
The most painful story I wrote about in my memoir was published today by Men's Health. It has over 8,000 readers… https://t.co/EMYw8AH4IM
— Tom Roberts (@tomspeakingout) September 12, 2016
R: How does your Bipolar interfere with a normal day?
T: Bipolar disorder interferes with an otherwise normal day when I do not six to eight hours of sleep on three consecutive nights. We call it the “three-night rule” and it can trigger either depression or a manic episode. Depression is the mood that frightens me the most because bipolar depression is worse in many ways than major depression. It is difficult to treat and in my case more dangerous. During my last bipolar depression, for instance, the suicidal ideation led me briefly slipping a plastic bag over my head one afternoon as I sat on the balcony of our Southern California home overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The contrast between natural beauty and the raging storm inside my brain could not be more striking.
“The undiagnosed bipolar disorder destroyed my first marriage and ended a seven-year relationship with another woman.”
R: Does it affect relationships with people around you?
T: Whenever my mood shifts to either depression or mania it affects my interpersonal relationships. People with bipolar over-react, for example. A mild irritation for normal people becomes harsh words, throwing something or storming out the door. This strains my relationship with my wife. The undiagnosed bipolar disorder destroyed my first marriage and ended a seven-year relationship with another woman. I try to keep my emotions under control, if possible, when in public. I’m afraid of police involvement and the misunderstanding by law enforcement of mental illness, which often leads to police officers fatally shooting the mentally ill person. Here in the United States, in fact, people with a mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by police.
Whenever I’m in the depressed mood, I am more likely to have sleep disturbances and to stay in bed most of the time. I don’t’ feel up to communicating with family or friends or participating in activities once enjoyable.
R: Do you think your life would be different without Bipolar?
T: Oh my yes, indeed. I would have retired from the university where I was a faculty member for 38 years when I turned 65 last year I would still be married to my high school sweetheart. I would be more productive professionally and active in my community. I would not be grieving over estrangement from my daughter because of manic anger toward her mother. That resulted in my daughter not inviting me to her wedding and nearly missing the birth of my first granddaughter.
“I’m more creative, I think, because of bipolar.”
R: Have you found any positive aspects of Bipolar?
T: I’m more creative, I think, because of bipolar. The pain of the illness and finding stability has taught me valuable lessons I can now use to help others with the illness.
R: If you had the option to lose your bipolar, would you?
T: I identified myself for many years as “bipolar” and not as someone “with bipolar”. I stopped saying that in my fight against mental illness stigma because “bipolar” is used as a pejorative adjective instead of a noun, but I know it is who I am. Losing bipolar? No. It seems like a gift from God, as I understand God, I can use to help others who are in a lot of pain. They may be thinking about resorting to suicide and becoming one of the 42,000 suicides each year in the U.S.
“My passion for speaking and writing about mental illness stigma stems from the suicides of my brother and sister. They feared stigma and chose death instead.”
R: Tell us about your book
T: It is my story of me as a 37-year-old college professor who walked away from wife, children and students on a manic adventure be an actor in Hollywood. The real drama was within, I discovered, in identifying and recovering from a major mental illness. I should have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was a teenager instead of at 42 after losing my marriage and career. Other than many years of undiagnosed manic-depressive symptoms, it is also the story of a 20-year journey to learning how to successfully manage my illness.
R: Why did you write it?
T: As first, it was just another grandiose scheme to be famous. That was 15 years ago. The fact was that the book wasn’t finished inside of me, so I couldn’t tell the story that would help others.
“I needed to write the book to help me, too. There were too many painful memories locked up that needed to be exposed to daylight in order for me to heal.”
I needed to write the book to help me, too. There were too many painful memories locked up that needed to be exposed to daylight in order for me to heal. Those memories included witnessing domestic violence when I was a child and the sudden death of my 34-year-old mother when I was 14.
R: Have you received a good response?
T: The reviews of my book have been positive. My favourite was this one:
“This book was outstanding. To read about Mr. Roberts journey, a similar one I am on, was amazing. It helped to read that I am not alone. The way he wrote was inspiring and sad at times. I cried at times. I am happy he found his true calling. I am super glad I bought his book. I learned things that I didn’t know, but explains a lot. And I am Bipolar w/ BPD.”
"It helped to read that I am not alone. The way he wrote was inspiring and sad at times. I cried at times" https://t.co/qe3hDYDJef
— Tom Roberts (@tomspeakingout) September 9, 2016
R: Where can we buy it?
My memoir listed by the International Bipolar Foundation's list of "Books to Read"…. https://t.co/RY21YRrjXu
— Tom Roberts (@tomspeakingout) September 10, 2016
R: Tell us about tomspeaksout.com
T: I decided to call my website “Tom Speaks Out” to focus attention on my mission to end mental illness stigma. While stigma is one of many factors that may influence care seeking, it is one that has profound effects for those who suffer from mental illness. Stigma can be deadly because people fear stigma so much they do not seek psychiatric help and turn to suicide instead. My website is educational, too. I believe the more people know about mental illness and that it is nothing to be afraid of that knowledge will lessen the stigma.
My Youtube channel includes excerpts of my speeches and educational videos about bipolar disorder.
I’m very concerned that suicide is now the second leading cause of death of youth between the ages of 15 and 24 in America. It is the third leading cause of death among college students. Many schools cannot afford to hire a professional speaker and author to address mental health from the perspective of one who has a mental illness. As a result, I have started a fund-raising campaign to help me get the much-needed information to students when their schools do not have the resources to hire someone like me.
— Tom Roberts (@tomspeakingout) September 13, 2016
R: How old were you when you received the diagnosis?
T: It was just before my 65th birthday, which surprised the neuro-ophthalmologist who was treating me for vision loss in my left eye after losing vision in the right eye. He ordered an MRI to rule out the possibility of a tumour pressing on the optic nerve. The report came back with a likely diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, which was confirmed by a neurologist. The neurologist said it appeared I’ve had MS for many years, possibly since I was in my early 30’s. MS typically strikes young adult focusing first in 80% of the cases on the optic nerves. My experience was more gradual leading to trigeminal neuralgia in my mid-50’s. TN, known once as the “suicide pain” before modern medicine found a treatment and then onto a retinal detachment for no apparent reason when I was 63.
“It was an overwhelming shock to hear the words multiple sclerosis. I knew it was a disease of the central nervous system that could lead to immobility was terrifying.”
R: Was it a shock to receive the diagnosis?
T: It was an overwhelming shock to hear the words multiple sclerosis. I knew it was a disease of the central nervous system that could lead to immobility was terrifying. I was initially treated for the more common “Relapsing” MS characterised by clearly defined attacks of new or increasing neurologic symptoms, but my neurologist later determined I had the more serious “Progressive” MS”, which is a worsening of neurologic function (accumulation of disability) over time.
R: How does it interfere with daily life?
T: I am legally blind and have been unable to drive a car for the past four years. It limits me in terms of going to doctor’s appointments on my own or go grocery shopping for wife. One of the Progressive MS symptoms is loss of balance. I have to use a cane to help prevent falls. I often forget to take one with me when I go out to walk my dog, but soon regret it when negotiating a high curb or stairs.
“MS could depress me, so I just keep busy every day writing or planning my schedule or helping my wife around the house. Adequate sleep is good for MS and bipolar disorder, of course.”
R: How are you managing/coping?
T: I wear a patch over my right eye because there is no longer a lens in it and all I see is what appears to be shattered glass. That contributes to imbalance. MS could depress me, so I just keep busy every day writing or planning my schedule or helping my wife around the house. Adequate sleep is good for MS and bipolar disorder, of course.
R: Have you been officially diagnosed by a health professional for Bipolar?
T:Yes. I was diagnosed by a psychiatrist on Good Friday 1993. It was a day I’ll never forget. I was forced to go there by my employer, a surgeon, or I would lose my job. My boss suggested I might have bipolar since, in his words, I was “acting kinda’ crazy’ and scaring the staff”.
“I was prescribed the new antidepressant Prozac and it turned out to be the worst anti-depressant for a yet undiagnosed manic-depressive”
R: Did they prescribe medication?
T: Yes. The psychiatrist prescribed lithium, which is the usual medication for bipolar. It took some time to get used to side effects such as hand trembling, increased thirst and weight gain. I did not feel the full therapeutic effect of lithium for several weeks.
R: Do you / Did you take medication?
T: Yes. I have been medication-compliant since 1993. It is the foundation of my recovery.
R: Have you seen a therapist?
Yes. Psychotherapy is critical for getting through the occasional crisis that may trigger a manic or depressive episode. Stress is the primary trigger for me.
R: If so, did therapy help?
“I must have six to eight hours of sleep per night; otherwise, I am in danger of a mood shift and it most likely for me is depression. Daily exercise is an easy discipline because I have a dog who needs a walk”
R: How do you best manage Bipolar? (medication, meditation, yoga, alternative medicines, or something else)
T: Medication-compliance is the foundation of my management of bipolar. I know there may be a need to take a different medication whenever necessary because one medication that helped in the past may no longer be effective; i.e., lithium, which I took for 10 years. I’ve taken Depakote since 2003 and my dosage was increased recently because there was a drop in my therapeutic blood level. It is the mood-stabiliser. I have to take an anti-depressant, not recommended for all manic-depressive’s because it can kick one into a manic episode. Wellbutrin works for me at present. The second most critical maintenance factor is sleep. I must have six to eight hours of sleep per night; otherwise, I am in danger of a mood shift and it most likely for me is depression. Daily exercise is an easy discipline because I have a dog who needs a walk and nutrition is much easier since I remarried nearly seven years ago. My wife is Egyptian and is an excellent cook of Middle Eastern dishes, which are quite healthy.
R: Do you feel as if you’re in control of Bipolar now?
T: Yes, but as Muslims say, “Inshallah’, “God willing.”
R: If you could go back and give your younger self some advice about your mental health, what would you say? What would you do differently?
T: I would go back to when I was 14. It was 1964 and my mother died of a ruptured brain aneurysm a week before Christmas. My dad blamed me for her attack believed a stroke at the time because I had gotten into some trouble with a few other boys. We chopped down a tall pine tree in the middle of the street leading into an affluent residential neighbourhood in our little Arkansas town. We were each fined $75, which in today’s currency is around $575.00. Mom picked me up from my high school after she paid the fine at the City Attorney’s office the day after I told my parents what I did. When I got into the car, she said “As long as I live I will never help you out of another mess like this! Do you hear me?” She groaned and slumped over the steering wheel. Fortunately, mom was able to drive a few blocks to our doctor’s office. Dr. Hathcock took one look at her and had his secretary call an ambulance. While she was in the doctor’s examination room, I heard her say “Tell, Tommy I forgive him.” I last saw her alive as she was wheeled on a stretcher out the door to an ambulance. She died the next day.
Dad apologised to me for blaming me. “I was just shocked and grieving, son,” he said. “It wasn’t your fault. It was her time to die.” The apology did not help lift the burden of guilt off my shoulders. I grieved for the next 40 years.
“Mental illness stigma was as rampant in those days as it is now, so I couldn’t tell Dad because he used derogatory terms whenever he learned someone was mentally ill.”
The first major depression struck a few months after Mom died. I had no one to turn to for help. Mental illness stigma was as rampant in those days as it is now, so I couldn’t tell Dad because he used derogatory terms whenever he learned someone was mentally ill. One of them was his older sister’s son who had untreated schizophrenia.
I would have told myself to be candid about my depression and see my school counsellor, a favourite teacher or my doctor. The major depressions returned time and again through high school and hit especially hard in college. Suicidal ideation started my freshman year and then an attempted suicide soon after I married my first wife my junior year.
R: The link between family and mental illness is quite clear in your diagnosis? Is that only for Bipolar? Or MS too?
T: To the best of my knowledge, I am the only member of my family of origin with MS. While MS is not hereditary, having a first-degree relative such as a parent or sibling with MS does significantly increase an individual’s risk of developing the disease.
R: How do you educate yourself on management and resources? Do you read specific blogs, magazines or news articles?
R: Have you read any great books about Bipolar? Or seen any movies?
T: My favourite book about bipolar is and always will be the first book I read after I was diagnosed. It is the late Patty Duke’s A Brilliant Madness.
Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison’s books, especially An Unquiet Mind, were most helpful in understanding more about my illness from the perspective of a psychiatrist who has bipolar disorder, too.
R: Where can we read/see/watch your advocacy on mental health?
T: My Youtube channel includes excerpts of my speeches and full speeches I’ve given, as well as educational videos I’ve produced about mental illness and stigma.
R: Can you recommend any therapists / doctors / specialists / coaches / mentors / clinics / foundations?
T: Yes. I would recommend Helen M. Farrell, M.D. She is a Harvard Psychiatrist & Forensic Psychiatrist, and a media resource on mental health issues. Dr. Farrell is based in Boston, MA.
Amanda Itzkoff, M. D. is a New York City psychiatrist specialising in adolescent therapy and adult therapy for all psychiatric conditions including bipolar disorder.
Carole Lieberman, M.D. media psychiatrist based in Beverly Hills, CA. She is author of four books including Bad Girls: Why Men Love Them & How Good Girls Can Learn Their Secrets. I was one of the men interviewed for the book. She changed my name to “Sean” to keep anonymity for the “bad girls” I had known when undiagnosed with bipolar.
R: What’s on your horizon for 2016?
T: I am writing blog posts and articles about bipolar disorder. I’m awaiting responses to queries I’ve made to two major newspapers, BP Magazine and Psychcentral.
I am also raising funds that will cover expenses for speaking to high school and college students whose school do not have funding for a professional speaker and writer to talk about mental illness and stigma. I want to speak at more major universities such as the two where I once spoke the University of North Carolina and Duke University.
I believe our youth in high school and college face a major crisis with undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. An illnesses such as bipolar disorder and major depression can limit their academic performance and ultimately career success and interpersonal relationships
“I believe our youth in high school and college face a major crisis with undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. An illnesses such as bipolar disorder and major depression can limit their academic performance and ultimately career success and interpersonal relationships”
R: What next for Bipolar?
T: Scientists are narrowing the genetic risk to just a few suspect pathways. They hope to find clues to shared mechanisms, more accurate diagnosis and, ultimately, more effective treatments.
R: Anything else you’d like to add?
T: I believe our youth in high school and college face a major crisis with undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. An illnesses such as bipolar disorder and major depression can limit their academic performance and ultimately career success and interpersonal relationships. That’s why I call my talk “The Missed Lecture: What Students Do Not Learn that Could Kill Them”. Had I learned what I now know when I was an undergraduate or before, the course of my life would have been entirely different.
Voice over artist: tom5677.wixsite.com/tomrobertsvodemo
R: Thank you Tom!
Q: Rodger Hoefel
A: Tom Roberts
Images supplied by Tom Roberts, or from Tom’s Twitter