Liz Spikol seems to have lived many lives in one. She is currently a journalist, broadcaster and blogger, and the managing editor of the Philadelphia Weekly, one of the city’s leading independent newspapers.
She has also experienced the extremes of mood and the unreal world of psychosis, which led to her being admitted to psychiatric hospital on several occasions.
This, and the day-to-day reality of managing a chronic mental illness, inspired her to write the award-winning newspaper column The Trouble with Spikol which combines biography, commentary and humour to demystify both mental health and the vagaries of modern life.
Liz recently began the anarchic blog of the same name to continue her quest to educate and entertain. She’s also been kind enough to talk to Mind Hacks about her life and work.
In your reflective moments, how do you hope that your journalism will make a difference to the world?
Well, in my most reflective moments, I think, “Should I volunteer at an animal shelter? Should I become a teacher? Maybe I should be a social worker? Or study medicine?” I’m never satisfied with what I’m doing because journalism often feels like a one-way street. I hope I’m making a difference by being a voice for the voiceless, but sometimes I hunger to sit down across a table from another human being, and have a conversation that will help them in some pragmatic way.
Journalism can feel vague, but in my more lunatic moments of self-aggrandizement, I think, “I’m changing the way people think about mental illness. I’m showing people that there’s nothing shameful about it, and that you can be ‘normal’ while still struggling with a chronic illness. I’m expanding the dialogue. I’m erasing stigma.” And then I lose a sock or forget to lock my door and that returns me to the everyday reality of humble writing and editing.
You have experienced some unusual and, perhaps, extreme mental states in your life. What has this taught you about the mind?
It has taught me how much we don’t know. I hate to sound the same note as other people who talk on this subject, but The Mind Really Is A Mystery. I’m always amazed by the strategies my brain thinks up either to torture or to comfort me. Sometimes I have a hallucination (which unfortunately cuts through my medication) and I’m stunned: Where did that come from? A giant cockroach running across the couch? I’ll never know my own mind. Not really.
What positive things do you have in your life that you wouldn’t have gained without your experience of mental illness?
I’ve absolutely gained a sympathy for people who are, for lack of a better term, frail in some way. I have a deeper understanding of the way people arrive at undesirable places in their lives. I never look at a person and assume I know everything about them. I assume I know nothing, which means I’m not judgmental. The illness has also given me perspective.
After suffering that way and coming so close to death, nothing really bothers me. If I survived that, what can hurt me now? I feel fearless. My two mantras when I’m nervous about something are, 1) “What’s the worst that could happen?” 2) “Will I even remember this in a year?”
If you could add your own chapter to the ‘training manual’ of psychiatrists, what would it say?
Be kind. Be kind. Be kind. Be kind. Be kind. Be kind. I would just write that over and over again until it achieved a brainwashing effect.
If you hadn’t been a journalist, what would you have been?
I wanted to be a college professor and teach literature. I love books, I love language and I love teaching. It would have been perfect for me, but things took a different turn. I also would’ve liked to be a vet, because I love animals. But I have no aptitude for science.
Name three under-rated things.
Seeing a movie in a movie theater.
Philadelphia, my hometown.