Miriam, an accomplished artist and owner of a decorative painting company, was not prepared for her son’s diagnosis with schizophrenia. She writes about her family’s journey in her first book, He Came in With It: A Portrait of Motherhood and Madness.
Tell us a little about your background.
I split my time between rural Washington state, where I live with my husband of 35 years, and Los Angeles, where I keep my atelier for my painting business. I have four grown children, three daughters and my son Nick, who has schizophrenia. My husband and I are both painters and all four kids have creative careers.
I am a native Angelino, where I grew up with two parents who encouraged my artistic endeavors. My father was a furniture designer and my mother was an interior designer. Since I could hold something in my hand, it was a paintbrush. I never had any doubt that I was going to be: an artist.
I earned my MFA in Fine Arts from Otis Art Institute in L.A. and for several years worked in the film industry as a scenic artist. It was fun and fulfilling work, but when I married and began having children, the hours were prohibitive. I wanted to be around for my kids, so I started my own business, Demar Feldman Studios, a decorative art and mural company. Over the past 25 years I grew it to be one of the premier studios in L.A., employing artists and creatives to collaborate on exciting projects. We have travelled all over the world for clients including Samuel L. Jackson, Wolfgang Puck, Tony Shalhoub, Jay Leno and Patricia Heaton. I continued to do my own artwork and exhibited my work at The Hamilton Galleries.
I have loved running my own business and am so grateful that I was able to make my living painting every day. I was able to have rewarding work and be completely present for my kids as they grew up. I only worked when they were in school. In recent years, I have scaled back on Demar Feldman Studios; now I only do jobs that really excite me for people I love! How wonderful is that?
When did you start to think about making a change?
The journey that took me to writing was a long and arduous one. In 2005 my son, Nick, was diagnosed with schizophrenia. It was like a gale force hurricane blew through my life leaving anything not nailed down simply gone. The next ten years were filled with one catastrophe after another and I struggled to keep the family together. My girls were shaken and scared, my husband overwhelmed, and Nick needed more attention and care every day. It was a hard time. I started writing in a journal during those years, just to get some of the emotions out.
In 2015 my husband and I sold our house in Los Angeles and relocated to our property in Washington State where he had built us a home. Nick was stable on his medication by then and we moved him up there as well. He lives in specialty housing in the town nearby. I was still painting and doing jobs in LA, but increasingly I found myself thinking about writing a book.
Over the years I had become an activist in the mental health world. After experiencing first-hand the challenges of our broken mental health system and the nightmare of serious mental illness, I felt I had something to offer. I joined Bring Change 2 Mind, Glenn Close’s organization to fight discrimination and educate around mental illness. I am now on the Advisory Council and have a monthly blog on their website. I am a frequent guest on mental health podcasts and do speaking engagements. I also got busy on Instagram where I am working on building a community of family and loved ones dealing with serious mental illness.
One of the most terrible aspects of this situation is that you feel all alone. People do not want to talk about the subject, there is a tremendous amount of stigma and shame, so you hide things. You have this terrible secret behind your front door and meanwhile you act like everything is normal. I wondered if I could write a book to share my family’s story, somehow go back and remember everything. I knew if I had had such a book when all this began it would have made a big difference.
What is your next act?
I am the author of He Came in With It: A Portrait of Motherhood and Madness, which is being released in June 2020. Here is a description of the book:
In an idyllic Los Angeles neighborhood, where generations of families enjoy deep roots in old homes, the O’Rourke family fits right in. Miriam and Craig are both artists and their four children carry on the legacy. When their teenage son, Nick, is diagnosed with schizophrenia, a tumultuous decade ensues in which the family careens permanently off the conventional course.
Like the ten Biblical plagues, they are hit by one catastrophe after another, violence, evictions, arrests, a suicide attempt, a near-drowning…even cancer and a brain tumor…play against the backdrop of a wild teenage bacchanal of artmaking and drugs. With no time for handwringing, Miriam advances, convinced she can fix everything, while a devastated Craig retreats to their property in rural Washington State as home becomes a battlefield.
It is while cleaning out a closet, that Miriam discovers a cache of drawings and journals written by Nick throughout his spiral into schizophrenia. She begins a solitary forensic journey into the lonely labyrinth of his mind.
This is the story of how mental illness unspools an entire family. As Miriam fights to reclaim her son from the ruthless, invisible enemy, we are given an unflinching view into a world few could imagine. It exposes the shocking shortfalls of our mental health system, the destructive impact of stigma, shame and isolation, and, finally, the falsity of the notion of a perfect family. Throughout the book, it is the family’s ability to find humor in the absurdities of this life that saves them. It is a parable that illustrates the true definition of a good life, allowing for the blemishes and mistakes that are part of the universal human condition. He Came in With It is the legacy of, and for, her son Nick.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
I had written stories and essays in college, thinking I might become a writer, I knew I had a knack for it. Life had handed me a story I couldn’t adequately tell with paint, so I decided to do it with words. How hard could it be? Well, I was in for an education.
I had been talking about writing a book for a while when, one January, my husband said, “Why don’t you quit talking about it and go in your room and write it already?” So, the day after New Year’s in 2017, I began writing. I dug out my old journals, that were pretty incomplete, and I started filling in the gaps. It was a revelation. As soon as I began writing, so many explicit memories came back. I would stop and jot them down on a post-it to remember. Soon my workroom looked like guy’s office from A Beautiful Mind (ironically so) with post-its from floor to ceiling. I got up every day, sat down, and wrote for seven hours. The next morning I’d review the work from the day before, and then start again. I just let the story pour out of me. I was writing a book.
How supportive were your family?
My husband Craig, although sarcastic, was extremely supportive. He had always told me I was really a writer and was happy to see me pursuing it. My daughters are the most supportive, encouraging cheer squad a person could wish for, but I had apprehension about sharing our story with the world. Would they feel exposed? Of course, I worried about Nick foremost, but I decided that I’d just write it and figure that out later.
When it was done, I had each of them read it. I told them that I would remove anything they didn’t want known. As it turns out, no one had a problem with anything. They all told me to go for it!
What challenges did you or are you encountering?
Once I finished writing the first draft, I realized I’d better give myself a crash course on publishing. I mean, I know the art business, but this was a whole new thing. All along, I’d been warned what a difficult thing it is to…get an agent…get published…sell books.
I went online and schooled myself. The is a plethora of information out there on every aspect of getting a book published and I ate it all up.
The first challenge was finding an agent. Publishers generally will not even consider a book that doesn’t come through an agent. I knew several writers who had been trying to get signed by an agent for years. It was daunting. The tutorial said to make a list of 10-15 agents with whom you might fit, send out what is called a “query letter” and then wait to hear back. Once you do, refine your queries from the feedback you’ve gotten, and send out another batch. I put together my first queries and when I read the instructions from the different agents, they all said a variation of “if we don’t get back to you in 8-24 weeks or so, consider it a no.” I thought, wait a minute, 8-24 weeks? I’m 60 years old here, I’ve got life span issues! I can’t sit around and twiddle my thumbs for months.
So, on January 1, 2018, I sat down at my computer and started sending queries. I sent them all day, every day, for the entire month. At the end of the month I had sent out 965 query letters. I figured at my age I’d have to play the numbers. And it worked! By the end of February, I had offers from three agents, and I picked Deborah Hofmann of the David Black Agency in Brooklyn.
That was the beginning. What followed were rounds of edits, hiring a professional “book doctor”, workshopping the book for a year with a fantastic writer in Portland (Lidia Yuknavitch who founded Corporeal Writing Center),working on the pitch with my agent, pitching to publishers, negotiating a deal, creating a social media platform, and much, much more. It has been a whirlwind, and it has been fantastic!
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
Re-living some of the most traumatic events in your life can be harrowing, but it was also satisfying and affirming. I tried to be brutally honest, with myself as well as others, and it was a revelation. I was able to make peace with what had happened in a way I couldn’t before. I was able to identify patterns and behaviors that weren’t clear at the time, face up to some hard truths, and finally move on.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
Well, looking back on the story of my son’s schizophrenia, there are lots of things I’d do differently. There are so many things I missed, or misjudged, I simply didn’t know enough. That is why I feel that the book is important. It will help others just by telling the story.
Is there anything I’d do differently in terms of the career shift? Actually, no. I’m quite proud of the way I educated myself about writing, the publishing business and went for it. It has been exhilarating in a way I didn’t know was possible at my age. Something entirely new!
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife or later?
Quite simply: go for it! Figure out what you want to do, educate yourself on all aspects of that industry, make a plan, and then put one foot in front of the other.
Don’t be afraid to fail. No failure is permanent, they are all lessons if you keep on going.
I will turn 65 this year, and I feel like I’m just getting started. I told my doctor I need to live at least 25 more years to get everything done. Honestly, I’ve never felt so charged creatively, so full of ideas. You’d be surprised what heat lighting a small fire can generate. If you are not happy doing what you’re doing, change. It is possible.
What advice do you have for those interested in writing?
In regard to the business and logistical side of being a writer, there are many courses (online and at community colleges) on how to start a writing career. It is also really easy to just do it on your own. Start Googling! That’s what I did.
As far as the writing, I don’t know that I am expert enough to give advice, but maybe that’s the thing. The most important part was just sitting down and doing it. Day after day, for many months. It was difficult. You have to self-sustain, self-motivate. Luckily, that’s a skill I have after a lifetime of being a painter. It can be lonely. Give yourself pep-talks, write affirmations, whatever helps.
Once you have a manuscript, the second phase begins. If possible, hiring an editor can be great. There are writer’s groups in every city where people get together and critique each other’s work. There are workshops all over that you can enroll in for getting a manuscript in shape. I found the workshop environment so useful because it brought me into a community of writers who were supportive and knowledgeable.
Being a mental health advocate and activist has been extremely satisfying. I learned so much through my years with Nick, and to be able to pay that forward is so great. If you are interested in this type of activism, call the organizations that support your interests and offer to help! Ask what you can do.
What resources do you recommend?
Books on writing and publishing:
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Ann Lamott
The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr
Writing Motherhood by Lisa Garrigues
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer WIthin by Natalie Goldberg
The Elements of Style by William Strunk
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
The Writing Life by Marie Arana
On Writing Well by William Zinsser
Writing Workshops and Online Classes:
Corporeal Writing Center with Lidia Yuknavitch
Writing by Writers
Creative Writing, The Craft of Character
The Writers Studio Online
Gotham Writer’s Workshop
Writer’s Digest University
Mental Health Organizations:
NAMI National Alliance on Mental Illness
NAMI is a grassroots, national organization with local chapters in every state. Their slogan is “You are not alone” and they mean it. NAMI educates, advocates and fights stigma. They offer support for consumers (that is the term used for the person with mental illness in the vernacular), families and loved ones. When my son was first diagnosed, I was lucky to stumble on the Family to Family program. It is a 12-week, free, educational seminar that covers every aspect of dealing with mental illness.
National Institute of Mental Health
National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression
The Stanley Medical Research Institute
Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law
Treatment Advocacy Center
Bring Change 2 Mind
“Bring Change to Mind is a nonprofit organization dedicated to encouraging dialogue about mental health, and to raising awareness, understanding, and empathy. Actress and activist Glenn Close co-founded Bring Change to Mind in 2010 after her sister, Jessie Close, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and her nephew, Calen Pick, with schizoaffective disorder. Every individual who speaks out inspires another. And another. That’s how we’ll end the stigma around mental illness. That’s how we’ll Bring Change to Mind.”
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA)
American Psychiatric Association
Mental Health America
Books I adore:
The Chronology of Water: A Memoir by Lidia Yuknavitch
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous: A Novel by Ocean Vuong
There There: A Novel by Tommy Orange
We the Animals by Justin Torres
Middlesex: A Novel by Jeffrey Eugenides
What’s next for you?
I really don’t know what is next. I know I will be writing and painting for the rest of my life. One thing the last decade has taught me is that anything can happen.
Connect with Miriam Feldman:
Book: He Came in With It: A Portrait of Motherhood and Madness
Entropy Magazine Article
Pete Earley Article
Who Lives Like This?