Susan Sofayov said that her debut novel “Defective,” published by Black Opal Books in 2014, was “the first thing I wrote in my life other than a grant proposal.”
Sofayov, a Mt. Lebanon resident, who is a realtor by day, majored in English literature in college, but said she “never expected to write a book.” Her novel came about almost by accident, after Sofayov left her job as vice president of a childcare nonprofit, burned out by the work. While searching for a new job at home and waiting for her husband to return from a trip to Israel, there was a massive snowstorm — the proverbial perfect storm, if you like.
Bored and housebound, Sofayov signed up for an online class on a whim, and then another. She said that by the time she completed the second course, she had written a quarter of what was to become her first-ever novel. It all came about because of “boredom and trying to refocus my life.”
For Sofayov, the subject of the novel was never a question. At 46, she had just been diagnosed with bipolar II disorder, which is characterized by mood swings between depression and manic, or elated, states. Bipolar II is a less severe form of bipolar I, with those afflicted not exhibiting any psychotic symptoms.
She knew the story should revolve around that, around a person coming to grips with such a diagnosis. From what Sofayov could see, the perception of mentally ill people in the media and popular culture was awful, with those affected often portrayed as violent or unhinged. Sadly, this experience is nothing new. A 2000 study conducted for the British Journal of Psychiatry found that the most commonly held misconception about the mentally ill was that they were uncontrollable and dangerous.
Sofayov wanted to take back the narrative and “write a book of hope,” something that a recently diagnosed person could find to help them come to terms with their condition, a chance to give them a character who wasn’t dangerous. She wanted people to know that “the average mentally ill person looks a lot like me.” Indeed, 2.6 percent of the adult population of the United States has bipolar disorder: that’s 5.7 million Americans, according to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance.
Sofayov found that when she began to read up on her condition: many of the resources were “about the illness, not about the person who has the illness. We are not just a diagnosis.” She wasn’t the only one to feel marginalized because of her mental illness. Time to Change, a campaign in England that aims to help end the stigma associated with mental health, estimates that up to 90 percent of people with mental health disorders experienced “some form of discrimination” due to their condition. The book was her way of working to destigmatize mental illness.
The novel follows Maggie Hovis, a University of Pittsburgh law student who is diagnosed with bipolar II disorder and her discovery of a great-aunt Ella, who lived in a mental institution and is never discussed by Maggie’s family. Sofayov said she drew from a lot of personal experiences when writing the book: she too discovered a hushed-up great-aunt who lived in a mental institution, and many of Maggie’s experiences and struggles mirror her own. To be able to present an accurate picture of the disorder, Sofayov said she needed to inhabit that headspace again, to examine those feelings she’d had. “I’m not going to lie: it was tough going back,” she said.
But Sofayov had just been diagnosed when she began writing. “I got it down [when] I could still feel every ounce of pain. I couldn’t write that book today. It’s not fresh anymore.”
For Sofayov, writing Maggie meant thinking about her college years, when she once spent five straight days in bed. It meant looking back and realizing that she had been diagnosable since 5 or 6. And it meant remembering how she used to view herself: “That God made one mistake, and it was me. It was so ugly inside my head.” But it also meant that she had the chance to ruminate on her diagnosis, “a miracle that happened by accident.”
She and her husband went to marriage counseling together, and Sofayov said that after about 10 minutes, the therapist told them, “You have no marriage problems: she’s bipolar.”
After the book was published, the emails started to arrive. Some were from people like Sofayov, who struggled with their mental health, and others were from friends or family members of the mentally ill. One woman wrote that, after reading the novel, she came to a sudden realization about her husband, who’d been suicidal and struggling with alcoholism for years. They went to a psychiatrist, and her husband began to receive the help he needed. Sofayov said that the couple is now expecting their second child and that the email made her “tough Israeli husband” start to cry.
Sofayov has already finished her second novel, “The Kiddush Ladies,” which she describes as “the darker Jewish ‘Steel Magnolias,’” which will be published in December. But “Defective” is still on her mind and close to her heart. “It will never be a bestseller, but the new friends have made it all worthwhile,” she said. “I think when I was pounding at the keys on those cold winter nights, that is what I dreamed of: that somewhere, somebody would be helped by this and not have to suffer like I did.”
Looking back now at her years before the diagnosis, Sofayov admits that she remembers little of the day to day, though she remains unsure of whether that’s due to her condition or her brain’s way of protecting her.
But there is one memory that, she said, she can recall perfectly: the moment she knew that she would, finally, be OK.
“I was mopping my kitchen floor and the sun was shining,” she said. “I was looking outside, and it was like somebody just lifted this gray fog off my eyes. And that moment, I picked up the phone and I called my husband, and I said, ‘I can see the leaves — all of them.’ Next to having my children, it was the greatest moment of my life, standing there holding the mop and thinking, ‘Who just turned on the lights?’”
>> “Defective” can be purchased on Amazon or Barnes and Noble, or at Amazing Books in Squirrel Hill.
Masha Shollar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.