Pamela Holberton is a soft-spoken woman in her 50s, a poet and an artist that works as a house assistant at Strathmore. She does not look like someone who has waged a war.
But she did for more than 25 years. It was a war within. In December 2014, she published “A Phoenix from the Abyss: A Life Such as This,” a book about her long struggle.
Holberton began battling manic depression in April 1978, and she was diagnosed with it in January 1979 when she was a junior at Ithaca College. What first presented itself as a pleasurable high, motivating Holberton to leave college and work as an au pair in Germany before embarking alone on a 1600-mile, 10 week and 10 country bicycle journey across Europe, soon worsened. Manic episodes became more dangerous as she lost touch with reality, and depressive periods made it difficult for her to function.
“It’s life and death,” Holberton said of manic depression, otherwise known as bipolar disorder. “It’s that serious. You have to keep the faith that you will get well.”
In her quarter-century of fighting the disease, she knew many who were not able to keep that faith. Suicides and suicide attempts were common among people she knew. Some studies estimate the 25 to 50 percent of those diagnosed with bipolar disorder will attempt suicide.
Bipolar disorder is described as a severe mental illness, one for which there is no cure, but Holberton is a success story. When she was near death in the hospital in June 2003, suffering from bronchitis, pneumonia and kidney failure from the wrong medications, she was re-diagnosed with bipolar disorder and put on a new medication, Abilify. Within weeks that summer, she returned to the healthy self she had known as a child and teen.
After seven years of adjusting to life outside of a group home—years that saw her finish her college education and attain a degree from Earlham College, learn how to drive and purchase a car, buy a condo in Kentlands, volunteer and then accept a salaried position with Strathmore—Holberton decided to share her story. Beyond the dark struggle that included three hospitalizations at Taylor Manor (now Sheppard-Pratt) and 14 years of outpatient therapy with Montgomery General Hospital, Holberton said that she wrote the book to share that “hope and faith and the resilience of the human spirit can help you to overcome anything.”
Told in poetry and with Holberton’s own watercolor and pen-and-ink illustrations, the book takes you from initial diagnosis and resistance to it through numerous hospitalizations, family issues and lack of emotional support. Remarkable is Holberton’s sustained fight to retain her sense of self. She describes this as her “inner eye” that somehow allowed her to hover above her illness and keep some perspective on it.
In the end, Holberton credits faith and science with her recovery. Abilify today enables her to live a healthy life, but it was her faith in life—that later became faith in God—that got her through the dark days of her illness. “There’s a book of real hope here,” she said.
More recently, Holberton wrote a book for children, “The Story of Little Clam Foot,” about a clam that discovers that he has a foot and goes in search of a friend. Holberton wrote the book, now for sale on Amazon, for ages 4 to 9 in rhyming couplets and illustrated it herself. “This teaches that it’s always worthwhile to come out of your shell and make friends,” she said.
Holberton doesn’t downplay the challenge of this. Little Clam Foot tries with Big Fish who ignores him; Hermit Crab who attacks him; Sponge who drains his energy, and finally, a smaller clam who needs his help. He discovers that “a friend in need is a friend indeed.”
Holberton said that she experienced a different feeling from writing a book for children. “It is not about me,” she said, but recognized that Little Clam Foot was perhaps inspired by her own experience. “This is me right now,” she said. “I’m coming out of my shell, learning to make friends.”
She is already at work on her second book for children, this one geared toward 10- to 13-year-olds. “The concept is a boy who is raised to squelch his feelings, but then he falls through a mirror and finds feelings in the new world.”
For more information on “A Phoenix from the Abyss: A Life Such as This,” visit http://www.amazon.com/Phoenix-Abyss-Life-Such-This-ebook/dp/B00P9DW6I2.