Mark Vonnegut, M.D. believes that life is not simple. In his late twenties, he experienced three psychotic episodes and subsequent hospitalizations—hospitalizations that would bring him to his knees. With care and over time, Mark found his path away from illness through writing and the quiet practice of landscaping. He applied, and was accepted, to Harvard Medical School. Harvard was an unexpected gift—a testament to his persistence and intellect after being rejected from 19 other medical schools.
As Mark explains it, he applied to medical school for all of the wrong reasons. “I had been locked up with no privileges,” he says. “Essentially, I had been at the wrong end of the stethoscope, and I wanted power and privilege.”
Five years into being a doctor, Mark realized the true meaning of his practice. Today, he understands that medicine is not a game to be mastered, and he always feels amused and interested as he discovers its limitations.
As a pediatrician, he asks his patients, How can I help you? And when he asks this question, he genuinely means it. As a doctor, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a painter, a writer, and a man who lives with Bipolar Disorder, Mark offers simple advice to service providers who are working in the field today. “The best thing that people can do is to be there as a human being who cares,” he says. “Anybody can be a human being who cares.”
Mark loves the unpredictable challenges of pediatrics. He goes from seeing a six-month-old with an ear infection to a high school student who wants to stop drinking, but can’t. He works with patients to find creative solutions to their challenges. Because he cares so deeply, his patients return.
Over the years, Mark’s work beyond pediatrics has also helped to shape his approach to providing good care. He recalls working with one son grieving the loss of his father. Mark had known his father through a volunteer position at a recovery center as a man who had experienced both homelessness and mental illness before ultimately committing suicide. As a very proud man, this man’s father had found it difficult to acknowledge these challenges and wanted to present himself as a responsible parent. Mark relied on his perspective as a father, a physician, and a man who has lived with mental illness to guide this young man through many years of grieving his father.
At the same time, Mark describes himself as being full of self-doubt. His profession provides him with a spiritual landscape that informs his own mental illness and keeps it at bay. He knows that he requires more reassurance than most people, and his work provides him with that.
In his memoir, Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness, Only More So, Mark discusses the loss of self-confidence that comes with experiencing the kind of mental illness that can result in lock-down, restraints, and overmedication. Going into—and returning from—mental illness has a destructive quality. The journey back from psychosis is one that, Mark explains, lasts forever. He responds to his own eroded confidence with empathy, humility, and a lifelong distrust of becoming too happy. For him, there is fear in too much happiness.
“But I can live with it, and I think there is an advantage to it. Someone who has had the ground fall out from under them will never be that confident again,” says Mark.
Mark says negative attitudes and stigma are part of the very real world of mental illness. After Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness, Only More So was published, he struggled with some of the responses he heard. While the book was well received, there were people who viewed Mark’s success as a litmus test for other people who live with Bipolar Disorder. He heard refrains such as, ‘If Mark can become a successful doctor and write books, why can’t other people with this illness do the same?’ He recalls the frustration he felt and how compelled he was to respond by explaining that not everyone becomes a doctor, period—whether or not they experience mental illness.
Mark’s family history has instilled in him something greater than a love for the arts. For him, art is a necessity. The dialogue between art and mental illness is a tool for survival—especially, he believes, for people who live with Bipolar Disorder. “With mental illness you are grasping at wood in the ocean,” he says. “I never understood the importance of art until six years ago.”
Today, he values his paintings more for what he gets “wrong” than for what he gets “right.” “[Art] gives you a connection with the world in the forward march of time that gets lost in psychosis,” he explains. “Van Gogh did not make his paintings when he was ill; he made them to fight becoming mentally ill. The disease is a seductive and worthy opponent.”
Mark talks about the challenges of recovering from his psychotic breaks. He shares that it is much harder to recover at age 38 than it is at age 20. But as he writes in Just Like Someone without Mental Illness, Only More So, “You either have, or you don’t have, the reluctance to give up on yourself. It helps a lot it if others don’t give up on you too.”
Mark concludes, “If 40 years ago, I had said I would go to medical school, write books, and have children and grandchildren, people would have thought I was delusional.” While reluctance might seem like just a small shred to hang onto, for anyone who has been broken, or on the edge of giving up, having the reluctance to not give up on yourself can go a long way.
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