Woog’s World: Staples grad helps break the silence surrounding mental illness
In a world filled with tweets, blogs and YouTube cat videos, longform writing might seem an anachronism.
But in 2013, when Ginny Levy graduated from Chatham University in Pittsburgh with a master’s of fine arts, that’s exactly what she and her partner Matt Bohn — whom she met in the program — wanted to do.
The freshly minted grads created an online literary magazine. Limehawk —the name comes from a radiant, intricate moth — is a forum for writers and artists to express themselves on social and environmental issues important to them. Limehawk also publishes old-fashioned, dead-tree books.
Levy grew up in Westport. A Staples High School Class of 2004 graduate, who sang with Orphenians and acted in Players’ productions like “City of Angels,” “Music Man” and “Merrily We Roll Along,” she had given little thought to mental illness. But around the time she and Bohn founded Limehawk, someone close to them was diagnosed with a severe mental disorder. As the distraught couple tried to figure out how to help — and with recovery seeming “so far away” — they realized the subject was surrounded by silence.
Fortunately, Levy and Bohn found the National Alliance on Mental Illness. A NAMI-sponsored support group in Fairfield transformed the way the couple thought. “I realized talk could lead to progress and healing,” she says.
That fall, they put out a nationwide call for submissions. Contributors were invited to discuss mental illness from any perspective: diagnosis, medication, recovery, hopes and fears.
More than 120 essays poured in. Levy and Bohn read them all. They winnowed the pile down to the 18 that best represented the broad scope of mental illness in America today. The result is “Parts Unbound: Narratives on Mental Illness & Health.” Limehawk’s first book was published in October, on National Mental Health Day.
Contributors include a doctor recalling the abysmal treatment he observed on a psychiatric ward in 1973; the mother of a 6-year-old with childhood bipolar disorder, and a woman with psychosis who came within seconds of committing suicide. One of the most moving essays is by a mother whose son was diagnosed with ADHD in the early 1990s. He became dependent on the drugs he was prescribed. Four months after she sent Levy her submission, he died of a heroin overdose. “Parts Unbound” is dedicated to him.
Though a few of the writers have senses of humor, the essays are “not light,” Levy says. All, however, are “very real.”
As they edited and ordered the stories, Levy and Bohn were very conscious of the range of emotions in the stories. “There was no way to wrap this up tightly,” she notes. “There is still so much that needs to be done to eradicate the stigma of mental illness.”
Yet, she adds, the collection has a definite arc. The latter essays are more self-reflective than earlier ones, and speak more to the recovery process. The final story ends with a plea for acceptance.
Working with the writers of “Parts Unbound” has been gratifying, Levy says. “I give a lot of credit to them, for sharing their stories — first with me, then with the whole world. They trusted me with their words, and I appreciate that very much.” She calls each essay “a piece of art.”
Mental illness is “more in the conversation” today than just two years ago, Levy says. Part of that conversation stems from the recent spate of mass shootings. However, Levy says, “I hesitate to connect those events with mental illness in general. Violence is not generally a symptom of mental illness. People with mental disorders are far more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than the perpetrator.”
What is happening, she notes, is that people are now speaking more openly about their thoughts and feelings. And as scientists make more discoveries about the brain, and the genes that can switch on or off to cause mental illness, the subject has moved out of the darkness and into the light.
As she speaks about her book — most recently, to Westport’s Sunrise Rotary earlier this month — she strikes a chord with listeners. Strangers approach her afterward, sharing stories of the effect of mental illness on loved ones’ lives — or their own.
So what has Levy learned, during the two-year process from her book’s conception to publication?
“From my own limited perspective, reading all the stories and seeing how people can function in society with what seem like debilitating symptoms, that’s very powerful.”
Limehawk’s next project is a bit less heavy. “Trailhead” is a chapbook of fiction, non-fiction and poetry about the great outdoors. She hopes to release it by summer.
(“Parts Unbound: Narratives on Mental Illness & Health” is available at www.limehawk.org, and on Amazon.)