After she gave birth to stillborn twins, Flaherty became manic, producing numerous books and even writing up and down her arms. In time, she came to feel that her recently diagnosed bipolar disorder helped her understand her patients. She says,
What made me empathic was my depressions. People's emotions were pounding me in the face. The mania is like wasps under the skin, like my head's going to explode with ideas. But the depressions help the doctor aspect of me.
Rose Styron, wife of Flaherty's patient, the late writer William Styron, agrees:
Doctors tend to see patients with an overtone of category. Alice never did. She understood Bill's depression and his movement problems. But she really understood his needs, appetites, moods, guilts, sadnesses and potential pleasures.
Now Flaherty works with deep brain stimulation, a technique used for Parkinson's disease and other movement disorders, as well as for depression. The stimulation process can have psychological side effects, and Alice is especially adept at dealing with these. "Neurology and psychiatry should be treating the same organ," she says. Especially in light of new research suggesting that medical school actually makes people less empathetic, she is extraordinary.
Flaherty's empathy seems to come both from her experiences as a patient with a difficult condition and from her bipolar disorder itself, from the "emotions pounding her in the face." Both mania and depression can be extremely hard to live with. Still, Flaherty feels her condition has helped give her skills she might not otherwise possess. This is in line with her holistic view of bipolar: "It was always alienating when people said, 'Oh, that's just bipolar illness talking.' No, hello - that's me." And while some may find comfort through separating the disorder from their sense of self, it's interesting that Flaherty prefers to think of mental illness as part of her, a characteristic with advantages and drawbacks. It's not a model for every patient, or for every disease, but it's easy to see why, for some, it might be very appealing.
From Bipolar Darkness, The Empathy To Be A Doctor [New York Times]