Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.
Recently, we talked to DR. MICHAEL F. MYERS, about his recently released book, Becoming a Doctors’ Doctor: A Memoir (read the review here). He is Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and recent past Vice-Chair of Education and Director of Training in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at SUNY-Downstate Health Sciences University in Brooklyn, NY. He has authored and co-authored eight other books.
DR. MICHAEL F. MYERS, author of BECOMING A DOCTORS’ DOCTOR, is Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and recent past Vice-Chair of Education and Director of Training in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at SUNY-Downstate Health Sciences University in Brooklyn, NY. He is the author or co-author of eight other books, including Why Physicians Die By Suicide, The Handbook of Physician Health and Doctors’ Marriages. His publications also include more than 150 articles covering such topics as marital therapy, men and reproductive technology, divorce, sexual assault of women and men, AIDS, the stigma of psychiatric illness, gender issues in training and medical practice, the treatment of medical students and physicians, boundary crossing in the doctor-patient relationship, and ethics in medical education and suicide. He has received multiple awards for excellence in teaching, and has served on the editorial boards of several medical journals. Along with his continuing clinical research, teaching and outreach in the field of suicide, Dr. Myers is a recent past President of the New York City Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Dr. Myers lectures widely throughout North America and beyond on these subjects.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
This process has varied with all of my books. My academic books have required hours, days and weeks spent on sites like Google Scholar and university library sites. But I begin writing from the beginning, jotting down notes, highlighting text and printed materials, composing draft outlines, beginning a prospectus and so forth. I have always tried to avoid that paralyzing place that so many authors describe of becoming obsessed with endless research and never putting pen to paper.
Do you find writing therapeutic?
A resounding and unambivalent, YES! This has rung true most recently while writing “Becoming a Doctors’ Doctor: A Memoir.” Examining, pondering, and chronicling decades of my personal and professional life has filled me with awe, expansion, and gratitude. That said, exposing oneself to the world is not without some trepidation. But at the end of the day, my goal and driving force, of explaining the humanism and
complexity of physicians and their families – and my reverence for them – eclipsed my worry about self-disclosure. Researching and writing my 2017 book “Why Physicians Die by Suicide: Lessons Learned from Their Families and Others Who Cared” was therapeutic in a different sense. Its substrate is a compilation of interviews with individuals who lost a physician family member, colleague, friend, or patient to suicide. Talking to these grieving, courageous, and generous people has been life-changing. Not only did I learn a lot and convey that to the reader but I gained so much personally, especially humility and intimacy.
How many hours a day do you write?
In some form or other I write every day. But when I’m writing a book, I try to follow a schedule, that enables my other activities and commitments. The ball park figure of actual writing is about two hours a day five days a week and more hours on the weekend. Taking breaks and exercising are essential for me and directly impact the quality of my writing.
Do you read book reviews? Do they please you or annoy you? Do you think you can learn a lot from reading criticism about your work?
Yes, I do. When they’re clearly or almost exclusively laudatory, I bask in the moment. But am I unnerved when I read ones that are critical? Of course. When the tone of criticism is professional and well-placed, I’m fine. I learn and take it to heart. It’s been thankfully rare in my case, but when the criticism is hostile or mean, I’m not so charitable. I stew for a bit, conjure up more pleasant thoughts, and move on. Being a physician, I’m hard-wired to being critiqued because it comes with the territory and begins long before medical school.
What authors do you like to read? What book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?
There are so many books, but I’ll name a few, in no particular order. Every one of psychologist and mental health advocate Kay Jamison’s books. Her writing is stunning and her prose sparkles. She has had a strong influence on my writing. “Awakenings”, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”, and “On the Move: A Life” by Oliver Sacks. “Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions” and “My Life on the Road” by Gloria Steinem. “Illness as Metaphor” and “Regarding the Pain of Others” by Susan Sontag. “Life Interrupted” by Spalding Gray. “No Time to Say Goodbye: Surviving the Suicide of a Loved One” by Carla Fine. “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness” by William Styron. “How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter” and “Lost in America: A Journey with my Father” by Sherwin Nuland. “The Noonday Demon” by Andrew Solomon. “Long Walk Out of the Woods: A Physician’s Story of Addiction, Depression, Hope, and Recovery” by Adam Hill. “The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness” by Elyn Saks.
Tell us some more about your book? Why did you write it?
I wrote this book so readers would know that doctors are human too, no different than the rest of humankind. And that they can be treated for a psychiatric illness and make 100 % improvement. My book is full of gripping stories of suffering individuals who just happen to be physicians. I want the reader to see the power of human connection and how healing works. After reading my book, readers will understand what the lives of doctors are like, how hard they work, how they selflessly ignore their own needs, and how much they can benefit from psychotherapy and other treatments. I also want readers to know how hard it is for doctors to get help in their hour of need. There are so many barriers to life-saving help, stigma being the biggest. Too many doctors are suffering needlessly. Too many doctors are giving up and dying by suicide. I hope that my book attracts young people to the field of physician health. I’m reaching out to medical students, doctors in residency training, and early career physicians. And to all the other mental health professionals who are looking to where there is a need.
Is your book of interest to the general reader, or only doctors and those who treat them?
Absolutely! I had this in mind early in its conception and from the get-go, I worked closely with my editor who agreed that this book would have universal appeal. It is jargon-free and easy to read. The subject matter is physicians and their families, but in keeping with my premise that doctors are human too, all readers can see bits of themselves in the stories. Here’s a touching anecdote. Just recently I got an email from a woman, a designer, with this note (slightly disguised): “Dr Myers, I just read your memoir. I’m not a doctor but I’ve suffered with anxiety and depression over the years and see myself in many of the cases in your book. One big ‘take away’ for me has been your role in treating people. I now understand how my therapist has been so effective in helping me. You’ve unraveled some of the mystery of how healing works and what hope is all about. Thank you.”
In your memoir, you talk about your mother’s alcoholism and your own understanding about her gradual slide into depression as she struggled to come to terms with her housewife status. Around what time did you realize that she needed empathy and understanding and not resentment and scorn?
Just a few years later, when I was in medical school, not only did I learn about alcoholism and depression in lectures, I began to see patients with these illnesses. That was a game-changer. I began to bear witness to the anguish and pain of depression, due to life circumstances, and how and why someone would turn to alcohol for some relief and escape. When the other students and I (and our supervisor) met with the family members, I could see myself in their accounts of anger, confusion, resentment, shame and so forth. I matured a lot and this changed my relationship with my mother – and my father too. Forgiveness is very freeing.
What makes your book important right now?
We’re in the midst of a world-wide pandemic and doctors (and all health professionals) are essential. They are studying the Covid-19 virus, researching and advocating safety measures, creating vaccines, and treating afflicted patients in our hospitals and clinics. Even before the pandemic, doctors were under tremendous strain, with burnout rates of over 50 percent. My book highlights their altruism, dedication, and self-sacrifice. I want them (and their worried families) to know that help is available, that it is normal and human to buckle under pressure, and that treatments work. I want employers and regulators to know this too, to fight and lobby for systemic changes to make our health care system less toxic and safer for their health workers. And I want the general reader to pause and recognize the vulnerability of their own personal physician(s) as well. We are all in this together.
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