David Fitzpatrick’s memoir, Sharp, shows amazing clarity and honesty about his 20-year battle with bipolar disorder and self-mutilation. His courage will move and inspire you—just as they did bestselling author Wally Lamb, when David wrote him a note 20 years ago. Here’s more from David:
Jennifer Haupt: Wally Lamb was your first major supporter in the publishing world, encouraging you to write your memoir. What was it about Wally’s heroine in She’s Come Undone that moved you to write to him?
David Fitzpatrick: I loved Delores’ feistiness, her fight, the way she was battered around by the world, but still had room inside her, for joy and love. That great scene at the end where she tries to drown herself beside the beached whale, but then bubbles up, and she rises to the surface and sucks in her breath, I cannot tell you how much that scene meant to me back then when I was in so stuck in my own ragged, despair. If this girl can do it, maybe I can, too, I thought. And the ending where she finds love, and spots a breaching whale, felt nothing short of profound.
JH: How has Wally’s support enabled you to pursue writing your own memoir about your struggles with bipolar disorder and cutting?
DF: I ended up keeping maybe forty journals throughout my struggles, just writing and writing and not knowing if any of it was worth saving, if I was worth saving. To have Wally take an interest in me, it just propelled me and I started to believe in the word “maybe” again. As in, maybe I do have something to give in this world, maybe I do have qualities that others would enjoy, maybe I’m not such a rotten piece of crap. I think that’s how I’d put it.
Wally helped me believe in maybe’s, and then it took off and flowered from there.
JH: What was the most difficult part of telling this story?
DF: The most difficult part was immersing myself into the state of mind when I first broke down. I had my journals, and then I had family feedback of how they struggled with my illness, and when I heard one or two details of that night in June of 1989 at home, it came back to me. Whole scenes of madness that I thought were lost, were suddenly accessible. But again, it was the journals and my family’s honest and hard, at times, feedback, that helped place me back inside the malaise.
JH: Many people don’t understand the addictive high of cutting. Was it surprising to you, when this harrowing habit became such a big part of your life?
DF: It was. I was so used to being stoned and high with college roommates, that this new endorphin rush, felt like a gift to me. It was like I’d found the ideal pharmaceutical and it lay inside me, without paranoia. Now of course, that high only lasts for a short time, and when I was done, intense shame and self-loathing rushed in to beat me up over and over again. It all snowballed so rapidly that it became an accepted part of my mental health repertoire, and didn’t seem so strange. I know that’s hard to believe, but I thought I was the one who saw truth, and the rest of the world—their non-understanding of self-injury—was not something I needed to concern myself with. The world turned upside- down so rapidly.
JH: What was the turning point when you began making the journey back from the hell of being addicted to self-mutilation? And, was it always a hellish place to be, or was there a time when it didn’t strike you as such a bad existence?
DF: The turning point was Halloween, 2005, when I burnt myself for the final time. As soon as I felt the burn of the cigarette, I thought, “I don’t want to live my life as an ashtray anymore.”
And yes, for the longest time, the self-injury gave me an identity that I had a terribly hard time saying goodbye to. I met wonderful, broken women, mostly in my cutting therapy groups, and they helped me a great deal. They were my connection, and they were stuck in their own hell. As anybody could tell you, it’s better to be stuck in hell with some friends. Again, for me, the lifestyle of a mentally ill cutter gave me an identity. It gave me peers and a home. I didn’t want to leave that home for the longest time.
JH: What do you do now, instead of cutting yourself? Have you found a healthier rush?
DF: Now life is wide open and I can see a movie, fool around with my wife, visit with my family, and write stories. Life is so much better, and the rushes are more whole, more nuanced. Not that I don’t still struggle once in a while with bipolar and even hurting myself, but now the coping tools that I spent 20 years working on slip right into my head and save me repeatedly. I high recommend finding someone healthy and falling in love with them.
JH: What’s the one true thing that you learned from writing your story and having it so enthusiastically accepted in the world?
DF: That each of us can make a difference in life. And that there’s a lot of hurting folks in the world. That knowledge, which can be depressing, can also be a great opportunity to reach out, to merge and connect with others in that boat. I know that sounds a little too perfect or pie-in-the-sky, but we are not alone. We have each other—aside from any religious belief, which can help, too. The truth is: we have one another.
David Fitzpatrick was born in Dearborn, Michigan, grew up in Connecticut, graduated from Skidmore College, and earned his MFA degree from Fairfield University in 2011. A writer, he works at an auto dealership and is married to writer and graphic designer Amy Holmes. They live in Middletown, Connecticut.