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)