Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Anita Lock is talking with Stacy Harshman, author of Crowning Glory: An Experiment in Self-Discovery Through Disguise
FQ: It is remarkable with your various insecurities at the time and therapy sessions getting nowhere that in a moment of desperation a long flowing red wig catapults your life in a different direction. What type of budget did you keep to pay for your experiment expenses and hired helper considering that you were not working back then?
HARSHMAN: Well, luckily, I had generous dividends from stock in companies my family had founded. My Dad helped me manage my money, but I remember thinking, “I’m not going to ask, he’ll say no and this project is too important for me.” So, I just went and used my credit card. Bonnie and I fretted, occasionally, about how much we were spending. But we said, “well, it’s in the name of social science and it’s cheaper than a mental ward!” ... and hoped it would all be ok. Luckily it was. My parents realized how important having this structure and project was for me, no matter how weird it was.
FQ: You share about your 1999/2000 psychotic break, eventual hospitalization, and hellish Chicago experience as you gained seventy pounds—a result of side effects from prescribed medication. What did you do to lose the accumulated weight gain and return to your normal size?
HARSHMAN: I exercised, exercised and exercised! I also moved from Chicago and went to a language immersion program in Quebec City for the summer. I knew I had to make a radical change and be around people. There, I played soccer, went on kayak trips, jogged, and lived with a host family. The man was an amazing chef, so I ate well and healthy. It took me about three months after I left Chicago to feel somewhat attractive and healthy again. It took me about a year to lose the weight.
FQ: Just prior to your wig investments, you share your frustration with the ineffectiveness of your therapeutic sessions, even though your therapist rightly stated, "You're doing this because you need to learn something about yourself." What words of wisdom do you have for your audience, particularly those suffering from mental illness in one form or other and who are frustrated with their therapy?
HARSHMAN: I think therapy is important. I think it is very important to find someone who gets you and has a modality/way of working that is effective and safe for you. But it’s also hard to find someone or even get yourself organized enough to go to a session when you are depressed or in the middle of a manic episode.
I actually found my first therapist in New York City because the name of her therapy practice was very similar to my last name. I was manic and saw that as a “sign” and that she would save me. I can’t say that’s the best way to pick a therapist, but it gave me a place to start.
I’ve tried different therapists and different types of therapy. It can be extremely frustrating. I believe some of the therapy I’ve received actually worsened my condition. For example, my Jungian therapist invited all the voices I was hearing to come into the session with me and give them a platform. There could be a lot of value in that, but it wasn’t wise for me at the time.
Now, I’m with a therapist who specializes in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). It is very skills based, focuses on keeping you in the moment, and gives you tools to deal compassionately with your mind and emotions.
I would also suggest to bring in a trusted friend or family member to help make the therapist decision with you.
FQ: As you came to love and accept yourself, what became of your depression, hallucinations, and panic attacks?
HARSHMAN: After I completed the experiment, I started to write the book with my assistant, Bonnie, who was my spy during the entire experiment. I had gotten so close with her during the experiment so by the time it was over I didn’t want to loose our bond and her company. She was an experienced writer and agreed to help me write the book. We worked together for many years. She was my coach, friend, and cheerleader… or as she put it, “occasional crazysitter.”
Writing the book together was kind of like another experiment. We worked every weekday together, writing at different coffee shops and any other interesting place we could find in the city where we could write. Our friendship and adventures grew.
Her friendship and the work we did together really steadied me. Having her company, help and friendship and creating/producing my writing was a base which allowed me to maintain and grow my other relationships, including the one with myself. I was so much happier and had so much more confidence. I dated but I didn’t have a boyfriend, instead I had a close group of friends that meant the world to me.
I didn’t cycle back into depression/mania, hallucinate or have panic attacks (anxiety, sure, but not crippling) during all of those years – I’d say six or seven in a row. I did have some blips on the map after that. One day, my mind just opened up, back into a psychotic place, very similar to one I had been writing about from my past. I became manic and had a mini psychotic episode. Then the anxiety/panic and depression came back full force. I had to wrestle with that, but Bonnie and I kept going through it all. She stuck by me and so did my friends and family. And I got back on track.
FQ: After the experiment did you continue with therapy and medication, or were you able to find other ways to create balance for yourself, such as through diet, exercise, the creative arts, and working with people?
HARSHMAN: I still have a therapist. I find having one necessary and helpful for me. Team-Stacy needs a support crew!
I have tried to go without medication and find my health and well-being through the creative arts, shamanism, meditation, yoga, Tantra, reiki, massage, past life therapy, and so many other modalities, including working with exorcists and energies from other planets and life-forms, but I always end up in trouble – very manic, very psychotic or very depressed. I don’t like labels and I wish I didn’t have to take medication, but I’ve learned my lesson, many times. I’ve accepted it.
I also want to help with the stigma, that I perceive, especially in spiritual circles, that if you are taking medication means that somehow you are not whole or spiritual enough or you are not meditating enough or yoga-ing enough or whatever enough. It’s just not true. I don’t think most of the spiritual or new age leaders that insist that one must be “happy” and chemically “pure” to be spiritual or enlightened know anything firsthand about depression or psychosis. I think those messages can be aggressive and hurtful and don’t reflect the true human experience that includes the full range of emotions.
FQ: At what point did your creative life begin to unfold—being an artist and launching Andarina Designs?
HARSHMAN: When Bonnie and I were trying to find an agent for the book, I bought an antique rug, on Ebay, of course. It didn’t work for my house, but it was really beautiful, so I re-sold it on Craigslist for more than I paid. That started my antique tribal rug business. It was so much fun for me. My customers loved it, and so did I. Having all that history and handmade beauty in my house made me happy. I felt like I was a rug match-maker.
One day, when I was in antique stores looking for rugs, I saw some vintage glass swizzle sticks, the kind you use in cocktails. The light was shining through them, and I thought, I want to make lighting out of these! And my lighting company was born. I tinkered around myself, coming up with all kinds of lighting ideas, learned how to work with glass and then brought in some professionals to help make my creations safe and workable! Bonnie worked with me on this project as well.
I called the company, “Andarina Designs” which means “little walker” in Spanish. I like the idea of honoring the child-like spirit that walks within me and sees beauty, gets excited and sparks all these ideas.
The book was kind of simmering in the background while we kept sending out queires to agents.
FQ: On your website, www.stacyharshman.com, you state, "Stacy is inspired by women all over the world, working in community partnerships to produce beautiful and sustainable work." Give examples of your community partnerships with women.
HARSHMAN: I started interning with a female Shaman who worked with women (and men) around sex, sensuality and healing. I was introduced to and helped with women’s healing circles, sensual shamanic immersions and initiations. All of your senses are enlisted in this work and creativity is manifest everywhere. I began to open more to other women and their friendship and became more at home in my body and sexuality. My home was at the center of many of these gatherings.
This work inspired me to create a monthly Art Salon series at my home which provided a safe, fun and supportive space for women and men to share their creativity. The Salons have been running for over five years. Many collaborations and creations have come from them.
Another example, which was a very powerful experience for me was working with art, handi-crafts, hand made papers, jewelry and other products made by women all over the world in sustainable collectives. These collectives have the mission to give women meaningful work, employing their skills and artistry, generating income and thus empowering the women to be more independent.
I worked with an Eco - Sustainable goods store in my neighborhood and bought these beautiful, artisanal items. I took them home and made collages with them. What happened surprised me. Each piece of art, whether it be a ring or a paper elephant, spoke to me. I could feel the energy of the collective in the material, the textures and the colors. I began to have a conversation with the materials. The women became alive and “we” created the pieces together. It was an on-going dialogue, actual voices alive in my head, telling me stories and where they thought each piece belonged in the whole. When I was debating if a piece was done or not, one voice would always say, “Well, does it speak? If it does, it is done. If it doesn’t, it is not done.”
Then, once I had a collection of these “community collages,” I displayed them at the Eco Store. My first show was titled, “Hope. Power. Play.” I explained my unusual collective process as well. The collages were beautiful, they inspired people and found new homes.
FQ: Do you foresee yourself starting any new writing projects, and if so what are you envisioning?
HARSHMAN: I feel the writing urge coming back to me, which feels amazing. I’ve been focusing on painting, which I love, but writing is deeply satisfying, as well. It also soothes my brain. What inspires me right now is connection...finding unusual ways that we can connect with and help each other. For example, I’m thinking about doing an essay on my experience posting an ad on Craigslist for a Friends With Benefits. Of course, there were the standard disgusting replies, but there was also something deeper and sweeter in the desire for connection that came through. There’s a certain tenderness and vulnerability in there that I can’t find words for, yet, but I feel it.
I’m also thinking about making a creativity journal to go along with my book Crowning Glory!