After all these years, my long-ago High Point Road neighbor Pegeen Gaherin remembers many details about our youth.
The gang of kids riding bikes everywhere. Pool-hopping at night. She even recalls my dog’s name: Taffy.
After graduating from Staples High School in 1972, Pegeen remembers fun times waitressing at Viva Zapata, and partying to great music at Players’ Tavern.
But there were darker moments too. Suddenly in 1977, her world crashed down. Manic depression struck. Pegeen’s life has never been the same.
“One day the sun was out. The next day I felt as if the shades were drawn shut, without a glimmer of light peeking through,” she says.
Her first onset of depression lasted 4 months, followed by a long manic episode laced with heavy drug use.
After a major psychotic break in Hawaii, she worked hard to regain her life. She moved in with her parents on Cape Cod.
“I couldn’t even tie my shoes,” Pegeen says. “My mother nursed me back to health.”
(Her father, John Gaherin, was a well-known negotiator. He represented New York newspaper publishers and Major League Baseball owners in the 1960’s and 70’s, and helped write baseball’s first labor contracts and pension plan.)
A year later, Pegeen felt better. As is sometimes the case with mental illness, she stopped taking medication. She began drinking a bit, and smoking some weed.
Another psychotic break in Miami followed. She pulled herself together again. She took classes at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, but another major dissociative episode followed, in Cambridge.
After trying to work in New York, and living again with her parents on the Cape, Pegeen moved back to Westport. Once again, she drank.
Alcohol and manic depression form a lethal combination. “I knew they’d be fatal,” she says. “I’d end up as a Jane Doe.”
In 1987 she found AA. She’s been sober — “one day at a time” — ever since.
“Medication clears up my mental illness,” Pegeen notes. “But I had to learn to live again. AA gave me that.”
She loved her Westport AA group. Yet when she moved back to Cape Cod in 2003, her experience was different.
They said, “you’re not sober if you’re taking meds. They shunned me.” She is grateful these days for Westport’s AA meetings, which she attends via Zoom. She is grateful too for lithium, which she calls “a miracle drug.”
While still living here in 1998, she took a writing class with David Wiltse. She hung out with a group of writers, who encouraged her to tell her story.
It was not easy. The stigma of mental illness is strong. “Coming out against AA is countercultural” too, she notes.
She finished her book in 2010. But she held on to it for a decade. Over the past few months, she felt compelled to publish.
The other day, “Getting Past Madness: A Young Woman’s Journey from Mental Illness to Mental Health” was published. (Her author’s nom de plume, Pegeen Keenan-O’Brien, is a combination of her 2 grandmothers’ names.)
Pegeen says, “I wanted to stop the judgment that often comes with mental illness. Even in the most healing of environments, there is far less understanding than I would like to see.
“I told my story the best way I could. I’m so glad I started it so long ago. If I can help just one person, that would be great.”
(To order “Getting Past Madness,” and for more information, click here. Hat tip: Kathleen Kiley)
Great for you to write this wonderfully compassionate piece Dan and for this remarkable woman sharing her trials. This is all around us, and for all the discussion that mental challenges can “now come out of the closet ” it is far from true…behind so many well trimmed hedges and Maserati’s is suffering quietly and very actively occurring. In reading Elton John’s recent bio he said three words saved his life: “I need help”. I think that this one article will get at least one person to say so and begin their journey to recovery. Kudos to you both.
I would hate to see this article leave the impression that 12 Step groups have a “standard” policy to shun those treating mental illness with medications. One of the main pillars of 12 Step is anonymity and autonomy of each group. I have family members whose lives have been saved by the gifts of their 12 Step groups – and they have all been treating mental illness with therapy, group meetings, and medications. Their journeys have been an inspiration to me as they hit their highs, and their bottoms, all through using the support of their “family” in 12 Step.
Well done Pegeen! Stay well. I’m going to buy a copy of your book.
Thank you Dan.
Pegeen, Congratulations and good luck on your new book. I just ordered it and can’t wait to read it. I miss you! I’m in AZ now. xox
Love this article. Thanks, Dan!
Congrats Pegeen!! And thanks Dan for a great piece.
Great write up Dan! And what a story of recovery. Mental illness/addiction can still be shameful. Thank god for 12-step program and like anything, each group, area has its own culture, rules, etc. Thank for sharing your story Peegen. Stories are powerful in how they can change our lives.
Thanks so much for doing this I so appreciate it !
I am a psychologist, father of a daughter with bipolar disorder, son of a mother with bipolar disorder, and led seminars over the last 15 years for over 30,000 mental health professionals. I have a certification in Psychoactive Substance Abuse Disorders from APA. Whew! I just wanted to say that taking non-addictive drugs for bipolar disorder is like taking insulin for diabetes. I hope that most 12 step programs realize this by now. Otherwise, it encourages people to get that manic high, which can be addictive.I have the highest regard for 12 step programs and a low regard for ignorance.
It is incorrect to say that Aa shuns people on medication. That is just not true.
Furthermore, AA members have a policy of anonimity at the level of press, radio etc. She knows that. It is a big violation of AA principles
Congratulations and the best of luck on your new, Pegeen. I just ordered it and can’t wait to read it. Love the article! I miss you. I’m living in AZ now. Deanna BS xox
I am the oldest sister to whom Pegeen gives reference in her book. It was so painful to read her story. To think that, in Honolulu, my beautiful younger sister was going through the torment of the damned and I didn’t know it! We could have lost her there! Over the years her life has not been easy coping with this chemical imbalance illness. I am struck by her courage, her goodness and, her persistence. To think she has ben sober all these years. Of course, I like others, was unable to put the book down!
And, Dan..to me you were “Danny” Woog. I loved your parents and; that Woog house. Thank you for recognizing the value in Pegeen’s story.
Thanks, Pam. Your sister is very courageous, and your family rocks!