We are so pleased that Madeline Sharples is making a stop with us on her blog tour for her memoir Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide. She answers some of the important questions about writing a healing memoir. A memoir about the tragedy in her family’s life of mental illness and suicide is a long journey, and her story offers all of us important information about writing, society’s attitude toward mental illness, and how writing can help with the healing of heart and soul.
What does the title of the book mean?
At first I believed—my magical thinking—that if I left the hall light on, if we didn’t move away from our house, if we didn’t change our telephone number, Paul would know how to make his way back. Paul would know we were still here waiting for him. For a long time I waited for that familiar sound of his Volvo coming into the garage, the sound of the door from the garage slamming as he entered the house and went down the hall to his room, the sound of him walking around the house at night, the sound of the door opening and closing as he went in and out of the house. In fact, for a while I thought I heard those sounds. I also left most of the things in his room and closet alone for fear of removing his presence there. For a long time I refused to give away his things in case he would need them when he came back.
Once those sounds in my imagination and my magical thinking fell away, my need to keep the hall light on became another one of the things that helped me get through my grief. We left the hall light on for him when he was home. I just couldn’t break that routine.
And while that was all going on my husband Bob and I had a push-me, pull-you interaction about it. Bob had a habit of turning off all the lights before he went to bed. Since he usually went to bed after me, I would wait until he got into bed. Then I’d get up and turn on the hall light again. Sometimes we’d go back and forth on this several times in one night. If he forgot his glass of water he’d get up and turn the light off again. If he needed a certain vitamin from the kitchen cabinet, he’d get up, go into the kitchen to get what he needed, and then go down and turn the light off again on his way back to bed. And, if I fell asleep before him, I’d wake in the middle of the night and go back down to turn the light on once more.
Once in a while I’d ask him to leave it on. If he asked why, I’d give him the lame excuse that I needed a light on to guide me through the house when I left to go to the gym in the dark of the early morning. Sometimes he’d buy that. Most of the time he’d forget and turn off the light.
Gradually though, say in the last two, three years, leaving the hall light on has become less and less important. That I can leave it off night after night means I am healing and that I am over the magical thinking stage of my grieving process.
How have you seen the stigma of mental illness and suicide play out in your life?
My son was a young adult, age twenty-one, when he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. And throughout the seven years he struggled with the disease, I thoroughly believe the stigma of his mental illness stopped him from a program of treatment that might have saved him from his destiny, suicide. He was a master of hiding his illness. In fact he worked as a trouble-shooter for an Internet service provider the last two years of his life, and his co-workers had no idea he was ill.
Stigma is also rampant in my family. A few months ago my cousin came to our house to review and discuss the family history my husband had been writing. After reviewing the material he made one request—leave out the part about his father’s bipolar disorder. In fact he didn’t want to see any discussion of any of the mental illness that permeates my side of our family.
That was proof enough for me that the stigma of mental illness still exists.
Although my husband did not mention our family’s mental illness in the history, I openly discussed my grandmother’s, uncle’s, cousin’s, and mother’s mental illness in my memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On, and that I believe that their genes passed on bipolar disorder to my son. Unfortunately I learned the effects of those genes much too late because my family didn’t talk about it.
What can a person do to help and comfort a family that has experienced a suicide or other tragedy?
My greatest comfort after our son’s death came from my next-door neighbor Patty. My husband and I had her family over for dinner when they moved into their house, and we went out to dinner with her and her husband once in a while, but she and I were just a bit more than friendly acquaintances.
Yet she really came through after Paul died. She offered to put up out-of-town relatives, she brought over bagels and cream cheese in the morning, and she supplied the coffee for the open house after the funeral. She was just there in a very quiet nonintrusive way. The word “suicide” didn’t make her back off.
Before the first Thanksgiving after Paul’s death, Patty left a basket on my doorstep. Her note said that she dreaded the holidays after her mother died, so she gathered—“harvested” was the word she used – a few things to ease the holiday season for me. As I read her note and looked through the basket, I cried, not only out of the dread of being without Paul on Thanksgiving, Hanukah, and his New Year’s Eve birthday, but for the generosity and caring of a person I hardly knew. In such a quiet and unassuming way, she showed me real human compassion and understanding. She never asked me a lot of questions, and she didn’t intrude on my privacy. She just let me know she was there for me if I needed her.
Among the items inside—each one separately wrapped—was a poetry book about coping with the loss of a love—she knew I wrote poetry. She also included a journal, a sweet smelling candle, a box of absolutely delicious chocolate covered graham crackers, and a smooth gray stone.
This stone became my biggest comfort. Just large enough to fit in the palm of my hand, it feels the perfect size when I close my hand around it. One edge is round and the other is triangular. One side is plain; the other has the word “son” carved into it. Right after Patty left the basket on my doorstep, my little stone became my nighttime friend.
I got into the habit of going to bed with it. Once settled, I held it on my chest just between my breasts. I liked its coldness on my aching heart. It helped me relax. Holding it in my hand and reading the word with my thumb also helped. I carried it around in my pocket for a while. I wanted to feel it there for me. Then, I began to wonder about my own sanity. Was I trying to exchange my son for a stone?
When I got myself more together and began to feel better, I let go of it and let it rest on another item from that basket—a little, silk-covered, sachet pillow that smells of lavender with butterflies and the word “heal” painted on the silk. These two gifts from Patty are still there on my bedside table after all these years.
Who should read your book?
I’ve included a few testimonials that speak of the benefits better than I could:
“Anyone who wants to learn how to live with children or adults with bipolar disorder, must read this book.”
“I could imagine that this book might be helpful for those dealing with bipolar disease or suicide in the family, but for those of us fortunate enough not to have yet experienced those problems, it also provides a very real look into how good but human people deal with the cruelty of fate.”
“I am still struggling with the passing of my son, Justin, 34 weeks ago and this book offered me hope that my grief can soften and my life can continue on.”
“As the mother of a suicide I can relate to so many of her comments. I hope her book will become a source for others who are attempting to cope with bipolar disorder and what suicide does to the family left behind….”
“I highly recommend this to anyone who is ready to explore their deepest feelings.”
“The book is incredibly moving and has much to teach anyone grieving the loss of a loved one. Or suffering any kind of loss—what she learns along the way can be applied to so much that people go through.
What was it like to write your book—how long did it take?
My memoir evolved in part from the journal entries I started writing when my son was first diagnosed as bipolar. That was in Spring 1993. I wrote in spiral notebooks, and when I began to think that about creating a book from that material, I began to highlight the relevant text and then type it into my computer – a long arduous job.
I also wrote pieces that eventually emerged in my memoir as early as 1995 in a creative writing class at the UCLA Extension Writer’s Program and at “Writing About Our Lives” and poetry workshops at Esalen in Big Sur, CA. Then, in January 2000, just four months after my son died I started attending Jack Grapes’ (Los Angeles Poets and Writers Collective) method writing class. He and my workshop-mates were very forgiving about my endless pieces about my grief and my son’s death. During this time I put together a poetry manuscript of about forty poems all related to my son’s death and its aftermath.
In 2002 I met a young woman – a former literary agent – who read my poetry and some of my prose and suggested I organize a book based on the sequence of my poems. For a while she gave me advice and writing prompts – all useful to the content of my book. When I finally had a book together with each chapter starting with a poem, I hired an editor, a writing teacher, who first read and gave me comments chapter by chapter. Then once I integrated her comments she read the book as a whole and made comments that I integrated again. I sent out that completed draft when a prospective agent or publisher asked to see my manuscript during my two-year querying process.
When I finally had a publishing contract I hadn’t read my manuscript in over two years. The first thing I did before embarking on the hordes of revisions I promised my publisher I would do was read my memoir front to back, noting typos, repeats, inconsistencies, and most important of all, places where the information was outdated. It took me five months to complete the revisions. I knew I was finally finished when I stopped thinking about what more I could do to it and when I felt comfortable letting it go.
It took me literally from 1993 to 2011 to create the final version of my book.
When you got discouraged, what helped you to keep going?
When I was at the height of my frustration about getting rejected from one agent after the other, I decided to take a break from my memoir and attend a workshop called Writing Your First Novel. I was very nervous about that because fiction wasn’t normally my forte. However I had an idea that my workshop group and instructor liked. And surprise, surprise they were also very encouraging about my fiction writing. After the workshop I wrote at least 300 words a day for several months until I got my publishing contract. I picked it up again after I completed my memoir revisions. I also took an online novel writing class with the same instructor. It’s back on the shelf again until I come up for air after all the book touring and marketing. Right now I have something written for every scene (about 90,000 words), but it needs quite a bit of fleshing out and a major edit.
Did you have a coach or support system?
Even though writing is a lonely business, a village of resources helped and nurtured me from the time I started writing my memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On. I started with journaling, at first sporadically and later, after reading and doing the exercises in The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron (Putnam’s Sons, 1992), I wrote my morning pages, not missing a day of keeping my fingers moving across the page.
After amassing about three years worth of journal entries I began to think about turning them into a book. But, I was not a creative writer. My writing experience consisted of writing, editing, and training engineers on reports and proposals in the aerospace industry. So I went back to school to learn.
I took fiction, essay, and memoir writing classes through UCLA Extension Writer’s Program. The people from my first fiction class formed a writing group, meeting monthly, sharing and gently critiquing each other’s writing. Unfortunately our group disbanded when my son who was bipolar took his life. But, one of the pieces from that first class ended up in my memoir.
A member of that group spoke lovingly about Jack Grapes of the Los Angeles Poet’s and Writer’s Collective, who taught classes in the living room of his family home. Three months after Paul died I enrolled in Jack’s level one method writing class, and for five years I worked my way up the level ladder, ending with a poetry editing class. Many of the poems I wrote in the Grapes class are also in my memoir.
The prompts in Mourning & Mitzvah—A Guided Journal for Walking the Mourner’s Path Through Grief to Healing (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1992) also kept me sane. However, I keep returning to Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California – my healing and writing place. Early on I discovered Ellen Bass’ “Writing About Our Lives” workshop and almost immediately poems started to flow from my pen. I still attend poetry workshops there with many of the people I’ve written with at Esalen for years.
Once I amassed enough material, I had no idea how to put it together. Luckily my son Ben introduced me to a former literary agent who reviewed my work, gave me writing prompts, and suggested I structure my book based on the sequence of poems in my poetry manuscript. Though the book went through several changes later on, her suggestions formed my book’s organization. Because I based my book on my list of poems I was adamant that my poems appear in the book. Luckily my publisher agreed and even asked me to add more.
Once I had a draft manuscript – edited by a woman referred to me by one of my memoir-writing instructors – I started querying. Again through an introduction from Ben, a CEO of a small press critiqued and advised me on my query letter and book proposal – I used How to Write a Book Proposal by Michael Larsen (Writer’s Digest Books, 1997). And once I found my publisher, I spent months revising my book. I relied on techniques I learned while working on proposals in the aerospace industry and the generous help from a group of readers, editors, and reviewers who worked with me until my book was published.
My village was my support system in every way in the writing and revising of my book.
Madeline Sharples’ memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide, was released in 2011, and has just been released in paperback and as an eBook edition by Dream of Things, a small publisher. She chronicles the path back to her own life after the loss of her son to suicide. She wants to inspire others to heal their own tragic experiences.
She also co-authored Blue-Collar Women: Trailblazing Women Take on Men-Only Jobs (New Horizon Press, 1994), co-edited the poetry anthology, The Great American Poetry Show, Volumes 1 and 2. Madeline’s articles appear in Naturally Savvy and PsychAlive. Madeline’s mission since the death of her son is to raise awareness, educate, and erase the stigma of mental illness and suicide in hopes of saving lives. Madeline and her husband live in Manhattan Beach, California. Her younger son Ben lives in Santa Monica, California with his wife.