A Conversation With Jersey Shore Patch Editor Tom Davis About Overcoming 'A Legacy of Madness'

I sat down with Davis, author of mental health memoir "A Legacy of Madness" for a forthright conversation about what it was like to grow up with his mother's undiagnosed mental illness, and what he did to change the course of history in his family.
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Tom Davis is not only regional editor of Jersey Shore Patch and an adjunct professor of journalism at Rutgers University, he is author of the poignant new memoir, A Legacy of Madness: Recovering My Family from Generations of Mental Illness.

Davis, a Jersey Shore native, was a recipient of a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism, and received a ringing endorsement for the book from the former First Lady.

"A Legacy of Madness breaks down the barriers of silence that shroud mental illnesses within families for generations," Carter wrote. "By sharing the story of his family history and his own personal journey, Tom Davis provides hope and inspiration to others."

I sat down with Davis for a forthright conversation about what it was like to grow up with his mother's undiagnosed mental illness, and what he did to change the course of history in his family. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Christine A. Scheller: Why did you write A Legacy of Madness?

Tom Davis: It was a book I had in my mind for a really long time. I didn't write it to make money, that's for sure. I wanted to share with people the idea that we all maybe have a little something about ourselves that may be different from everybody else, but we should try not to feel defeated. That's a hard impulse to control, but at the same time there are ways to work through whatever hardships you go through.

If the book appears on some library shelf, maybe down the road like 10 or 20 years from now or even five months from now and someone happens to find it and maybe looks at it and says, "Hey, that's something that I can relate to," maybe they can read it and mirror some of the coping strategies that I've developed over time in trying to bring a family back together and keep a family together and keep myself together.

There are things that happen in families that are unpredictable, particularly when it comes to mental health. Who would have thought of a male going through eating disorders. I certainly didn't, even when I was going through it.

What are the eating disorder statistics for men versus women?

The most updated statistics I got were probably seven years ago when I first started talking and writing about this for my Bergen Record column. It was something like 10-to-one of reported cases of female-to-male reported cases -- not necessarily actual cases, but reported cases.

How old were you when you first developed bulimia?

I've always worried about my stomach and about being fat. That goes back to before I was 10. I used to look at my waist all the time and be obsessive about it, but for me it wasn't so much a vanity issue as it was wanting to feel good about myself, to feel good internally, and feel good physically. I would worry and obsess over weight, like I was going to hurt myself or kill myself if I got fat or if I ate the wrong things. That started to become more pronounced when I was 15. I was running cross country for Point Pleasant Borough and I really started to worry about how I was feeling during cross country meets. I was worried about getting sick at cross country meets.

Was anyone else on the team struggling with the same sort of thing or aware of your struggle?

Nobody was really aware at the time. It was much more hidden then than it was when I was in college. Nobody seemed to be dealing with issues that I was going through. Other people seemed to be running on automatic.

You said in the book that you continued to struggle with bulimia into your 20s and that your wife pressed you to get help. What kinds of things have helped you to manage your symptoms?

Medication was very helpful. I try not to think of it as a cure, but as something that helps me manage symptoms.

What did medication do for you?

It allowed me to eat normally again. I was going through a three or four month stretch when I was starting to worry about what I was eating like I had in college. I was basically having a nervous breakdown. I had just turned 40. I was starting to teach a summer class at Rutgers and had started graduate school and was busy at work. I was driving to Trenton to get some documents for a story and I was fussing over myself and feeling awful. I wanted to drive my car into the Delaware River. I wasn't going to actually do it, but I felt like if my car fell off the bridge I wouldn't be upset. I pulled off to the side and called my wife. She got the doctor and the doctor gave me a prescription for Xanax and then for Lexapro. After I took it, I was literally sitting there and I actually went to a pretzel bag and started eating pretzels. I realized I was eating pretzels.

Did you go through therapy as well?

Yes, but I almost felt like I was going through self-taught behavior modification for years. I'm not trying to say the pill was some sort of a miracle cure. It was almost like the missing piece. It's almost like it's given me the ability to think things through. In the four years that I've been taking medication, I don't feel like I've ever had a situation where I felt helpless about controlling my body. I've never had the feeling of wanting to drive my car into a river.

It sounded like having children was part of what motivated you to get and stay healthy.

Yes, that and my mother starting to really show symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder. I didn't feel any sense of normality in my life up until that point. Talk about a moment of clarity! Her diagnosis gave me a little bit more power in a way. I could actually step outside myself, step outside the family, and see what this was.

You wrote that your mother spent hours in the bathroom washing her hands. Did she also have an eating disorder?

No, not as far as I know. She would spend her time in the bathroom washing her hands. You would hear the water running constantly. I don't want to be a pop psychologist making a pop diagnosis here, but after she quit smoking in the early 70s and injured her knee, she gained weight and then basically stopped eating. She would eat only garbage: potato chips and beer and cake. That went on probably the last 30 years of her life.

A clear family history of obsessive compulsive disorder emerges in the narrative. What can you tell me about that?

We knew there was some issue going on with my mother for the longest time, but we didn't know what it was until she was diagnosed in 1998. Up until I saw a movie about Howard Hughes when I was a kid, I thought it was part of a normal lifestyle and that she was just different. When I saw that movie, the way it was portrayed was that this was something a little more dramatic. It was more different and maybe even hurtful, especially the way my father reacted to it. I knew of the obsessive behavior before that and thought it was weird, but I didn't necessarily think it was problematic.

OCD wasn't really on anybody's radar until the Howard Hughes story came to light. I think that's when people started to realize that people do things like wash their hands until they're red and flaky. People repeat over and over again and are afraid of germs.

When I was three, I asked, "Mommy, why do you repeat?" They almost feel like they have to have some genuine assurance that everything is going to be OK. They need that sort of security and they have a hard time self-regulating their own security. I still do it from time to time. I feel like I need to run things by my wife to make sure I'm going to be OK.

Your mother was diagnosed and first offered medication in 1998?

She never went anywhere near a psychologist or psychiatrist before that. We were actually stunned when it did happen because we never thought my father would actually do it. It was forced because she had started to talk about suicide. I think it was more of a cry for help than anything, but you obviously still have to take it seriously. My father took her to Kimball and she was committed over night. She was hospitalized repeatedly after that.

What do psychiatrists say is the genesis of OCD?

They're not really sure, but mental illness is an evolving field. It's evolving much more rapidly than the study of physical illnesses, I think largely because it was so underfunded for so long. People who had issues were sent to asylums. Now they're starting to do studies and they're finding that some of these behaviors are linked to others.

How did you work through the challenges of exposing your family's pain?

By being open and honest with them. Not treating it like a "tell all" and springing it on them before they had a chance to review it and maybe even edit it.

It sounded like writing the book created an opportunity for your family to talk about the things you had been through together.

When I actually sat down and had interviews with people, I thought maybe I would get some resistance and actually what I got was a lot of openness. Every time I sat down with them, they'd open up and talk for hours and hours. One thing I'll say about my father and mother, they were loving parents. They didn't always show it or they showed it in ways that were not necessarily Brady Bunch-like, but I think that was the thing that bound us together.

You've been successful in your career and still are. Were you concerned about career ramifications when you decided to write the book?

Yes, a little bit. My wife was more so. The funny thing was we didn't initially think this book would ever be published. We actually thought people wouldn't take to it. Then when I was applying for jobs right out of graduate school, I had actually been a finalist for nine different professor positions and each one of them I didn't get. I started to have doubts and to think maybe I shouldn't have done this, but it didn't change my overall feeling about it.

When I think back on it now, I think the issue was that I didn't have a doctorate. I decided to go ahead with it because I felt as though I had a really important thing to talk about, and if it meant moving to Utah, living more cheaply, and working for a small paper, then that was fine. We would find a way to adjust.

This column originally appeared at Manasquan-BelmarPatch and is reprinted with permission.

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