Interview With Julie Hersh

 

Julie Hersh is the author of Struck By Living, a book that describes her years dealing with depression and three suicide attempts. She is the mother of two children and she has been spending much time speaking to audiences about mental health issues and suicide prevention. 

Julie was recently visiting Atlanta to attend the Decatur Book Festival and she was gracious enough to take time out of her busy schedule to meet with me so that I could interview her for The Women's Book Reviews.


Hello, Julie. Welcome to the Women's Book Reviews!


You are currently married and have 2 children, Andrew and Becka. How old are your children now? Where are you currently living?

My children are now 14 and 16 years of age and we currently live in Dallas, Texas.

I know you moved around a lot. Please tell me a little bit about your childhood and the various cities that you lived in. Did you find moving around easy because it was a natural event for your family, or did you find this stressful?

I lived in 6 cities before my 7th birthday. My family resided in the Washington, D.C, area between the 2nd and 10th grades. After that, we moved (kicking and screaming ) to Harrisonburg, Virginia, which was a very small town. My father retired from the military at that time and started to teach at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA.  I went to the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. I moved to California after that. I don’t recall being stressed by all the moves, but remember, most of the moves occurred before I was 7 years old. While I don’t remember being stressed, I believe that my mother must have been very stressed, as she had to move 5 children from city to city very often. In retrospect, it is possible that I did pick up on my mother’s stress as a child.

I know that major depressive symptoms showed up in college, but did you have any indication as a child that you were suffering from depression?

 I was thinking about this the other day. I did actually cry a lot and got in trouble for crying at school. I never considered myself a depressed kid. I did like to spend a lot of time by myself. I liked to spend time in the woods, but I never thought of it as a depressed time. After reading about depression as an adult, I think back and maybe I was exhibiting signs of depression at that early age.

Where and when did you meet your husband? Did you confide in him about your problem?

We met in California at a Halloween party in 1988. The only major depressive episode up until then was in college and I didn’t think of myself as having depression at that point so I didn’t even think to tell him.

You had a high-level job in Silicon Valley which you left to have your first child. It was your decision not to go back to work once Andrew arrived. A lot of mothers have a similar choice to make. Was this a difficult decision for you? Do you think it set in motion the depression that led to a suicide attempt?

I think leaving the working world completely was not a very good decision for me. I did try to work for a little bit, but I have never been good at pacing myself and couldn’t figure out how to be a part-time worker. I think The lack of intellectual stimulation  was a big factor in my depression. I don’t think it was the only thing, but I missed the intellectual stimulation. If I had to do it all over again, I would have forced myself to figure out a way to work and have the children. Staying at home full time was not a healthy situation for me.

You tried to commit suicide 3 times. Can you briefly tell me when and how these attempts took place?

The first one was in the spring of 2001 and I wrote a suicide note. I took a knife and went into back yard and meant to slit my wrists. I was sitting there thinking that this was really going to hurt and wondered if it really was going to work when my husband found me staring at the knife and at my wrists. This led to my first visit to a psychiatric ward.

The second time I was very methodical. I got a baby sitter and drove to the Santa Fe Ski basin where I hiked a steep trail. When I got to the top and I looked down. I realized that I probably wouldn’t die if I jumped --- only become incapacitated or paralyzed from hitting all the rocks on the way down. This made me stop. You would have thought that the images of my 5 and 7-year-old children would have made me stop, but this was not the case; it was the thought of becoming incapacitated. This is convoluted thinking but this is how a suicidal person thinks. It was almost mechanized and logical.

The third time, I drove my car into the garage and let the engine run for 90 minutes. This was the first chapter in the book. The roof in the garage is kind of a dormer roof so the structure of the garage prevented the carbon monoxide from building up so it didn’t work.

You mention that ECT helped you to get your life back. ECT has such a horrible connotation, yet it obviously does help people. Did you see an improvement right away? In what way? What negative impact did ECT have --- memory loss? Do the memories lost ever come back?

Yes, I saw an immediate response. Usually an individual gets 6 ECT treatments during a treatment protocol. The morning after the first treatment, I read my journal and thought “who is this person; I have become so negative.” That is what solidified for me that what I was dealing with was a true illness. Nothing else had changed other than the fact that I had had 1 ECT treatment, yet I felt so differently.

ECT came into existence because doctors noticed epileptics who suffered from depression were much improved after they had a grand mal seizure. They are not sure why. They believe that there is one area of the brain that gets “locked” in a loop and ECT releases the lock and allows the brain to reset. It is similar to shutting off and rebooting a computer.

It is almost criminal that ECT has gotten such a terrible reputation. It is effective in 80% of all cases which is much higher than the effectiveness of antidepressants. If someone is suicidal, antidepressants take a long time to work. For me ECT was absolutely life saving. I call ECT “a triple bypass of mental health.“

For me, the drawback of ECT was some short-term memory loss and loss of specific memories. In my case, after about 6 weeks short-term memory issues ceased to be a problem. In terms of memories permanently lost, pockets of memories from about 2 weeks before and 2 weeks after the ECT treatment were lost. Not days of memory, but an hour or so in intermittent spots.  Lots of times people’s promptings helped the memories to return. There are a few memories (hour or so increments around ECT). however, that have been lost forever.  When you have a triple bypass, you have a scar after the fact. With ECT, I lost some memories from the 2 weeks before and after ECT forever - that is my "scar."  But like a triple bypass, ECT saved my life - so the scar is worth the result.  Now I sometimes joke when I forget things, and I call it an “ECT moment” but it is most likely due to my age!

In your book, you are very candid about how you felt, family dynamics, and what “professionals” did you to you. I am sure that it was difficult to “reveal” yourself to the world. Why did you decide to write the book in spite of this?

The big thing for me was 33,000 people annually die from suicide in the US. That is about how many people die of breast cancer every year. We have NBA players wearing pink for breast cancer, but the awareness for suicide is just not there. Money for research is not there. People are not aware of the treatment options that are out there. That is why I felt like I wanted to write this book--- to raise awareness.

You mention often that grey, gloomy days seemed to spur on depressive periods in your life. Do you consciously try to counteract this? If so, how can this be done? Are there other things that you consciously do to avoid repeat depressive episodes?

Yes, I actually take a supplement of vitamin D. Many studies show that a lack of vitamin D (Vitamin D is derived from sunlight) and depression are highly correlated. I have my Struck by Living Top Six which I try to do to stay well. You can find my Struck by Living Top Six on my website:www.struckbyliving.com.  My formula is not necessarily the correct formula for everyone else. I tell people to come up with their own list with 3 or 4 entries. I exercise regularly, I try to eat well, I monitor my sleep and I take my antidepressant.

In 2005 I went off my antidepressant, very common for people with mental illness who are feeling well. I stress to people not to do this, because it did cause a relapse in my case. I did spend a year in gray weather in London without any problems, but I made sure to take my supplement and my antidepressant as scheduled.

You married a Jewish man and decided to raise your children Jewish. I am sure this was a difficult decision for you to make since you are not Jewish. Did this add to your depressive tendency?

Yes in a way, probably in a way different than you might think. I was raised Catholic and went to church every Sunday. I stopped going to church for 8 years prior to meeting my husband because I got angry with the Catholic Church. I believe all religions are good so it didn’t matter that the children were to be raised Jewish. What I didn’t consider was the culture. Now I will often go to an Episcopal church by myself. I really like our rabbi, and I would be happy to go to synagogue instead of the church, but my husband doesn't feel compelled to go to synagogue except on the High Holy Days. I guess I could go by myself!

Your mother had psychological issues that she was dealing with and you mention in the book that your sister suffered from depression, so it does appear that depression runs in families. It would seem that there is a genetic factor in this. Are you concerned that your children will be prone to this disease? Is there any type of testing that can be done at a young age?

I think there is definitely a genetic component to mental illness. So far my children haven’t shown any symptoms, but I hadn’t at their age either. There is some genetic testing that can be done these days. A gene has been associated with suicide, a gene that creates a genetic tendency towards suicide, but doesn’t necessarily mean you will commit suicide. A genetic predisposition is not a death sentence by any means.   Just like any illness, a genetic propensity just creates a need for awareness. When Andrew was 8 he asked me if, when I was depressed, did I think about suicide. I told him that I did. Then he said, “So in the Great Depression, did everyone try to commit suicide?” So, the children actually have a good attitude about depression. Becka’s class was having a talk about mental illness and Becka said she told everyone that her mother had a mental illness and had electroshock therapy! Hopefully, if my children do suffer from mental illness, they will take action.

You decided to publish a book. How do you do that?

The publishing world is changing by the nanosecond. Last August I penned a deal with a publisher. In June of that year, I really felt I had three choices: self publish, use a developmental publisher, or use a large publisher.

With a large publisher, rights are sold to the publisher for an advance. I would have to relinquish control of the content. I was concerned since ECT had a terrible reputation the publisher might try to sensationalize ECT. After all, sensationalism often sells books. Also, imagine a publisher does a first run of 10,000 books and they sell out.  The publisher can decide not to do a reprint.  Also most publishers provide no support for first-time authors.  I figured I was going to have to do the marketing myself anyway. 

A self publisher publishes anything; a person pays and the self-publisher prints.  It is also less expensive than another option that I call "developmental publishing."  The current distribution channel - bookstores, Amazon, etc., will not typically work with self-published authors of paper or hardback self-published books.  Today, books are sold on consignment, typically through a large distributor (e.g., Ingram).  If the books don't sell, the distribution channel returns the books to the wholesaler, who returns them to the publisher.  The distribution channel has no desire to work with thousands of self-published authors for book returns.  If a writer plans to sell exclusively through speaking engagements and not engage the distribution channel - self publishing could work.  I've found to this point speaking engagements is the best way to sell my book.  I'm hoping this will change, however, and as Struck By Living becomes better known - people will buy my book without hearing me speak.  I haven't reached that point yet - but maybe your blog will help!

I decided to use a developmental publisher. This means that I had to finance the publishing of the book by myself. In return, I retained rights to my book and obtain a higher royalty on each book sold.  Developmental publishers select books they feel will sell, but the author pays for the publishing of the books.  I was in a financial position to be able to do this. That being said, unless you get on Oprah you are not going to make a lot of money by publishing a book!

So, I paid for publishing and traveling and I partner with mental health non-profit organizations for my speaking engagements. These non-profit organizations often ask me for a donation so it is quite difficult to actually realize a profit.  I am willing to take a year promoting this book to try to make a profit. The profits from the book will go towards research for mental illness.

Do you think you will write another book?

Actually, I would like to write another book and call it “The Adventures of the Kosher Shiksa.” It would be a collection of short stories regarding events that occur in the life of an interfaith marriage.

Is there any kind of message you would like to leave with the readers of Women’s Book Reviews?

Struck By Living iis a hopeful book about triumph over depression, but it is also a book about a woman's search for identity in the modern world.  Women of all ages - as young as 16 and as old as 91 have been deeply moved by the book.  Men, too.  I think this is because this search for identity is a universal human issue.  My hope is I've created a book that is a good read that creates awareness about the importance of mental health in our lives.  Help and options are there, but people have to reach out for help.   There is a 27/7 national suicide prevention hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).  If things are dire, that's a good place to start.  Hopefully, my book will inspire people to get help earlier, before suicidal thoughts are even considered.  Mental health is critical to overall health.

Julie Hersh and Debbie Weiss

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