Scientist fights discrimination against mental illness
MONTREAL — Alain Amzallag is a genetic scientist, writer, painter and musician who has coped with bipolar affective disorder for almost 40 of his 63 years.
It is a disease that has allowed him to flourish as a scientist and an artist, Amzallag said.
His accomplishments include developing a general theory of cancer management that proved to be ahead of its time, and he has written seven books. The most recent, Reflections (Fondation littéraire Fleur de Lys), is a collection of essays, musings and poetry about his condition.
Bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic depression, has in the past plunged him into great depths of “anguish and anxiety,” Amzallag said. He never contemplated suicide, but the darknesses were deep and long.
“Between the two, I preferred the hypomanic phase,” admits the perfectly bilingual Amzallag, whose 2005 book, High, Flat, Down and Back Up Again! (AuthorHouse), was written as a “guide to manic-depressive illness.”
Most of his books have appeared in both French and English.
“There have been many famous people who are said to have [been] bipolar,” Amzallag said, “Churchill, Lincoln, van Gogh.
“You can tell immediately when you look at a van Gogh whether he was ‘manic’ when he painted it,” Amzallag said. “Those are the ones I do not like at all because they show a crazy man.”
Born in Morocco, Amzallag knew by age 13 that he wanted to be a scientist and by 14, after seeing an uncle die of lung cancer, that he wanted to find the “end of cancer.” Ironically, he has never been able to quit smoking himself.
After graduating with an honours degree from McGill University in 1970, Amzallag was only 21 when he entered a PhD program at New York City’s Cornell University Graduate School of Medical Sciences, Sloan-Kettering division.
The first hint of Amzallag’s bipolar disorder showed itself in New York in the fall of 1973, after a “love betrayal” triggered a severe depression, he said.
But that was followed by a “vision” of an immunology-based cancer treatment that Amzallag said he recorded in 72 hours, without sleep or food, which culminated with his “losing touch with reality” and being hospitalized for an “acute schizoid” episode.
“There is this upsurge in mental energy, the thoughts on how you can benefit humanity in so many ways, but then there is the depression,” he said.
“Nineteen seventy-four to 1976 was the worst period,” Amzallag recalled. “It was like a steam-roller.”
Amzallag considers himself luckier than many people living with a mental illness. He began to get better in 1981, he writes in his website (alainamzallag.com), “despite mood fluctuations of various intensities [including] hypomania, irritability and depression.” He raised a family with four children – he is now divorced – and has held the same job for 20 years.
But lithium, the standard treatment for bipolar disorder, seriously damaged his kidneys and he now takes quetiapine instead. Amzallag said that his background as a scientist allows him to tweak his medication, so when he senses a hypomanic episode coming on, he can nip it in the bud.
Although his bipolar episodes continued until 2002, Amzallag has been able to write, paint and become a musician, and to take more control of his life by reaching out to others and trying to remove the stigma of mental illness. That was the main point in his writing Reflections and High, Flat, Down and Back Up Again! Amzallag, who has benefited from Cummings Jewish Centre for Seniors’ mental health program, speaks periodically to Jewish audiences about his life and condition.
Asked if it has been worth it to have such wonderful creative abilities that are related to his mental illness, Amzallag is at a loss.
“I cannot answer that,” he said. “Mania is so disruptive, and depression is anguish and anxiety.
“So is it worth it? I cannot tell you.”