May is Mental Health Awareness Month.
A perfect time to spotlight author Lisbeth Coiman’s memoir, I Asked the Blue Heron.
Lisbeth’s new memoir is described as covering the trauma of abuse, the joys of motherhood, and the challenges of immigration alongside the vagaries of mental illness — and the power of a friendship that saw her through it all. I Asked the Blue Heron begins with a simple sentence:
I was 16 when my mother chased me with a hammer.
Q. Did you always know that this would be the beginning line of your book?
A. No. I didn’t know that was the beginning of the book. When I started writing my story, my writing teacher at the time, Theo Pauline Nestor, suggested to start there, but I contradicted her and decided I didn’t want to make my book about my childhood experiences. Instead, I wanted to honor my friend for guiding me for most of my adult life. With that in mind I started the book with the moment I met Zoe Graves.
I finished my manuscript, revised it the best I could, and started sending it out to publishers. A year later, I was disappointed and frustrated with the rejections, and vented on Facebook. I was extremely lucky. Out of the blue, a Los Angeles poet I admire, Ashaki Jackson, offered to have a look at my book. On the first note she wrote, “move this line to the opening page.” Still I refused. She said, “mine are only suggestions. This is your book.”
Many more hours of editing down the road, I started looking for other writers to blurb my book. I reached out to Suzanne Finnamore, author of Split. The same night she received the manuscript she wrote me back a beautiful email that I will keep in safe box for the rest of my life. She started saying, “your book starts with this line. This is your voice.”
It was the third time somebody pointed it out to me, so it was time to pay attention. It took a while to rewrite the first chapter, but I kept an eye on my schedule and worked night and day to do it. It changed the focus of the book completely, but I hope my story still honors my mentor and best friend.
Q. How have you promoted I Asked the Blue Heron.
A. I have found that book promotion is the hardest part of self-publishing. I still don’t have it under control.
I network a lot, and I’m grateful to several reading series in Los Angeles for inviting me to read from my book. I have promoted online, through social media, and through my blog. I’m constantly speaking about “I Asked the Blue Heron” to anybody I meet. For that purpose I carry it in the trunk of my car.
I will have more time this summer for book promotion, and plan to travel to a few cities in the US and Canada to promote my memoir. I have been lucky. People keep inviting me to events. This week, for instance, I will attend a meeting in Torrance, CA to tell my story and bring my memoir with me.
In July, I will speak to the congregation of a Unitarian Church in Redondo Beach. Little by little, by word of mouth, one book at the time, I continue to sell it.
Q. You’ve bravely shared your experience with mental illness. Can you give a few tips for others experiencing mental illness?
A. Stay on top of symptoms. If I tell my doctor, “I’m fine,” and I look fine, the doctor doesn’t have any way to know I am spiraling down (or up). I can’t wait until I believe helicopters with cameras are chasing me on the street to get the doctor’s attention, say, on a psychotic episode. Those things don’t start full-blown. Subtle symptoms show up before a crisis, and if treated on time, I can prevent crisis. Catching my symptoms requires honesty and understanding of my condition. If I know that I have a tendency to become paranoid, and I feel that NPR is talking about me, I have to tell my doctor as soon as possible. I’ll require smaller doses of medication to treat mild symptoms than those required to treat a full-blown mental crisis.
B. Work or volunteer. I have to do something that requires to wear clothes other than pajamas during the day, and get out of my house early in the morning. A well-earned pay check at the end of the month feels much better than medication, and doesn’t have side effects.
When I couldn’t find a job because I didn’t have a specific certificate, I went back to school to get the certificate. When I wasn’t able to work because of my immigration status, I volunteered. I shelved books in my son’s school library, planted flowers in a public garden, gave water to runners in 5K events, or taught English As a Second Language free. I kept myself busy to change the focus of my thoughts. Human beings need to feel useful and appreciated. I suffer from a mental condition that makes me feel like crap, and if I don’t find a reason to get out of my bed, I feel worse. Apart from money, satisfaction, and a sense purpose, volunteer or paid job also provides me with a starting point to become part of a community.
C. Structure. Structure helps me live through my days with a sense of normalcy. People who do not understand my condition may think I am fastidious, or compulsively organized. I’m neither, but I want to prevent crisis. I prepare the entire wardrobe to wear each day of the week on Sundays because I freak out and cry if I don’t know what to wear in a hurry (which looks like Monday morning for every other woman I know, only they don’t become paralyzed.) I do shopping lists even to buy underwear because I can’t decide and get frustrated. I take pictures of where I park my car and where I enter malls because I get lost and panic. I have a large planner and know exactly what I will do every hour of the day. If I don’t, I literally walk around in circles. I write to do lists every day. Most importantly, because I live alone, and I’m responsible for my life, I have a Safety Plan posted on the refrigerator door, above my bed, and above my desk. If I start considering to harm myself, I have a plan to safe myself from harm. Nobody is with me to watch over me.
Still, there are things that are beyond my control, but I keep working on them. Self-destructive thoughts and unpredictable reactions when I am extremely frustrated continued to be a challenge for me.