Stephanie Schroeder’s memoir Beautiful Wreck: Sex Lies & Suicide will be released Monday, September 10. On the eve of the publication, I interviewed her about her captivating personal narrative of mental illness.
I can imagine that writing this book, or any book, would be especially difficult while dealing with mental health issues. How did you know that this was the right time to write your book?
I started writing Beautiful Wreck in 2004, in the middle of suicidal episodes, a bad relationship, and it was hard because I couldn’t even really deal with what was happening right under my nose. I worked on it on and off until 2008, when I became unemployed.
That’s interesting, since a lot of writers complain that the thing that is really keeping them from finishing their book is their day job.
I didn’t find that to be true. Unemployment is so stressful and chaotic, trying to figure out how to live and pay rent, that I didn’t get any writing done for two years.
When I finally got a job again, I was able to pick it up. I began writing again and started to ask friends to read it for feedback. Diana Cage actually was the person who really told me to get an editor. I did, and that really helped me put the final manuscript together and get it ready to publish.
I was crazy, and I was kind of a jerk, a lot of the time.
So you pretty much write by yourself and with an editor?
Recently, yes, but at the beginning, I did workshop it. In fact, when I was hospitalized the last time for a suicide attempt, I had begun writing some of this already, and I was in a writer’s workshop. And I had a workshop coming up and I panicked because I wasn’t going to have anything done for it. So I asked the staff for a pen and paper so I could write while I was in the hospital. They gave it to me but I had to tear the paper out of the notebook because they said I could hurt myself or someone else if I had the spiral wire, which was ridiculous and all about control. Basically every protocol I encountered in the hospitals was meant to humiliate and control the patients, not about actual healing or treatment.
That episode is in Beautiful Wreck, along with a lot of other really terrible, extremely personal stories that must have been difficult to write. How did you manage to write those episodes in a way that you felt was honest?
Well, I’m a character in the book, and I tried to treat that character almost like a protagonist in a novel. I didn’t let myself off the hook, and I allowed myself to be portrayed as someone who isn’t really the most likable person at times, which as the author I do like. Because face it, we all have those moments, and it is true.
You managed to really show yourself at your craziest moments.
I was crazy, and I was kind of a jerk, a lot of the time. Both of those things were true.
One of the episodes that really stuck with me was the stroller episode, where you are pushing this infant down the street on the upper west side, and at this point in your life you’re already very depressed, you’re in a relationship with someone who is abusive and controlling, so controlling in fact that she has forced you to raise a child with her–a child you never wanted. But now your life includes raising this kid and you talk about how upset you are because you’re being perceived as this thing that you absolutely know that you are not–a straight woman, and a mother, and you’re so furious about that and also depressed.
That’s true in that I guess I don’t want to be normal in terms of “heteronormative” queer theory stuff, but not even really normal as in “not having a mental health issue.” For me want I wanted to be was “Stephanie normal,” which I feel like I have gotten back to since I have gotten medication and had psychotherapy. I feel like I am me again, and that’s what I was struggling with at that time. I just wanted to feel like me.
In that stroller moment it’s this kind of amazing intersection of being so angry because you know people are perceiving you as a “normal” straight person, but at the same time you are going through this mental health crisis and you desperately wish that, in that way, you could feel normal.
Everybody wants to be seen. Being seen and being heard is a big issue for a lot of people, who as children often haven’t been. So in adulthood, being seen as our authentic selves is so important.
I wanted to also ask you about how the book has been received so far, both by queer audiences and mental health audiences. I imagine that the queer media has a difficult time talking about mental illness, and that perhaps the mental health community might frame queerness incorrectly.
I actually don’t know that you’re correct about that. The mental health community actually is pretty accustomed to sexual fluidity, perhaps because serotonin or dopamine disregulation lowers inhibition. I find people with lowered inhibitions experiment quite a bit more with sexuality and gender identification. I have found that queerness is much more accepted in the mental health community, and I have actually gotten more recognized in that community as word has gotten out about the book.
Within the queer community, it’s harder to discuss the mental illness aspects. I think there is a perception that if we admit that queers deal with mental illness, the argument will be that all queers are mentally ill.
Do you sense that on a wide national level, the gay lobby is more apt to ignore or deny mental illness in queer people?
Absolutely, the gay stream media doesn’t want to hear about it, they don’t want to talk about it.
What about campaigns like It Gets Better aimed at preventing suicides?
There’s that campaign and then there is also the “You Matter” project, with basically the same goals, and I hate them both. They don’t do anything to help people and it’s terrible to think about the number of hours, the money and resources that have been spent on them.
They make sense to people who aren’t suffering from mental illness, who perhaps believe that all a depressed person needs is a hug.
I attempted and survived suicide three times, and what I needed to get better was psychotherapy and medication, not a YouTube video.
There’s a lot of rhetoric about this about cancer, too, that patients need to have a positive attitude to survive. Of course these beliefs have no medical basis, but they make the people without cancer happier, so the rumors persist. So how do we figure out what people who are suffering from mental illness need?
The reality is that for each person this is going to be very different. In Beautiful Wreck I talk about my determination to stay in New York through everything. New York City was my home, even though I was born and raised in the midwest, and my parents still lived there and wanted me to come back and live with them to get better.
But I wouldn’t have gotten better there, because I wanted to be in my home, which was my apartment in New York.
It was very hard because for many years I was employed on and off and struggling with housing issues and mostly didn’t have medical insurance.
In that way this is a very New York story. As much as it is queer and about mental illness, it’s primarily a book about New York City.
The backdrop is all New York, the entire book. The apartment hunting all the time, and different periods take place in all different neighborhoods, all very specific neighborhoods. And psychotherapy is very New York City.
Overall I am confident this transcends any of those boundaries though. Depression is an epidemic and tons of people can relate to that, and I have had all sorts of people, queer people, straight people, women and men tell me that the identify with the domestic violence issues that I wrote about. So in the end it is about a life, it just happens to be my life.