Competitive golf and stellar academics weren’t enough to save Michelle Hiskey from a nervous breakdown during her freshman year in college. Raised by pro golfer Jim Hiskey, she pushed herself to excel until she couldn’t anymore. In a 2007 piece for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the first time she openly discussed her mental health problems, she wrote, “I saw success as my ticket to acceptance in my family. But if I could never do enough, why keep on trying? Failing seemed like the only way out.”
Hiskey spent several months hospitalized for bipolar disorder. After college, she built a successful career as a journalist in Atlanta and raised two daughters. Her suffering, she says, has enhanced her empathy and understanding for others who suffer and has helped her be more authentic in her writing. Hiskey spoke with HealthCentral on how her illness informs everything in her life, including her career and motherhood, and how managing her diagnosis is a part of daily life.
HealthCentral: You’ve managed bipolar disorder for more than 30 years. What would you say is most helpful in keeping your symptoms under control?
Michelle Hiskey: Changing the script in my head. When I was the sickest, I suffered from terrible black-and-white thinking. For example, I thought that because I wasn't succeeding, I must be failing horribly. That thinking was killing me. To survive, I started a daily list. Sometimes the only thing to note was that I was still alive—but it was something. Most nights, as I tried to fall asleep, terrifying waves of dissociation came over me. I learned to accept these unwanted visitors and tell myself I was okay. Today, I try to stay aware of the all-or-nothing perspective, anxiety, and other signs that I am not well. I adjust my expectations of myself and seek help before things get worse. Friends are super important to my mental health.
HC: You’ve mentioned that your daughter now has a diagnosis of bipolar. How have you been able to pass on what you’ve learned to her? Do you think she has more hope knowing that her mother leads a successful life despite the same diagnosis?
Hiskey: Seeing her suffer has been more difficult than my own diagnosis. I would never say, "I know how you feel," because I absolutely despised hearing people say that to me. Same with "you have a lot of work to do." I mistakenly thought that I could spare her some suffering by sharing my story, parenting with compassion, and taking care of myself. If there's one thing I can give her, it's getting up every day and facing what needs to be faced.
My familiarity with the behavioral health system helps me advocate for her. Also, research into our family medical history shows that our people push through this and pursue lives worth living. I wish my illness gave me infinite patience and understanding, but living with someone who is bipolar is hard every day. I fall so short of unconditional love, and that is humbling. God bless our loved ones and us caregivers.
HC: Your dad was a pro golfer and you said you pushed yourself to excel in golf, too. How did perfectionism and your drive for success contribute to your illness?
Hiskey: In golf, the winner shoots the lowest score, which means he or she made the fewest mistakes. There's always something more you can do to score lower next time. That's why it attracts very driven people like my dad. When you don't or can't define "enough," the result is intense psychological pressure. Everyone has a breaking point, and mine was in college. One morning I was supposed to leave for a tournament, and I couldn't get out of bed. I had pushed myself too far, and I crashed.
HC: You mentioned that knitting and crafts have helped you stay sane. Can you describe which crafts you do and how they help?
Hiskey: My family traveled by car across country to see family and for golf tournaments, so I had many hours to fill. I always have loved making things with my hands, and I learned early to crochet and sew. My mind is both focused and at rest when I am stitching. It’s a wonderful flow state, expressive instead of competitive. I've made a lot of loyal friendships through quilting, too.
HC: You have been a successful journalist. How have you been able to manage your work responsibilities with your illness? Do you feel like your manic depression has worked for or against you as a writer?
Hiskey: Writing and journalism saved me by allowing me to separate psychologically from my family and become my own person. Telling a story absorbs me completely—it's not work, and my illness helped me feel comfortable interviewing people about difficult emotional topics. On 9/11, however, watching people falling from the twin towers triggered flashbacks and nightmares. I had promised myself to seek treatment for such symptoms, and soon began seeing a therapist who came to the newspaper weekly. He helped me stay healthy, keep writing, and explore my family story.
HC: If you were to give one piece of advice to the person newly diagnosed with bipolar, what would it be?
Hiskey: Communicate to people who are safe, and do this as much as possible. Giving voice to your story can make it more manageable. It may seem like you don't even know how to fight for yourself, and it may take time to find the best way to do that. Life is worth it.