Behind Joe’s Bipolar Battle: The Power of Storytelling


August 4th, 2014

A blog that I published recently entitled How Bipolar Disorder Destroyed Joe’s Life attracted more than 20,000 readers, making it one of my most popular. That’s  a testament to the power of stories told from the heart.  It’s author, Kathy Maloney, was profiled in a subsequent story.

The Story Behind the Story

By Shannon Mullen, Reporter Asubry Park Press, July 7, 2014

They say redheads shouldn’t wear pink, but Kathy Maloney has never been the type to let the theys of this world tell her what she can and cannot do. That explains why, late one Saturday afternoon in 1980, an 18-year-old Maloney ducked into the Simco shoe store in downtown West New York, determined to buy the hot pink boots that had caught her eye earlier in the day.

Her timing was terrible. She heard the door lock behind her, felt a gun at her back, and quickly deduced she’d just stumbled into an armed robbery.

Two well-dressed men led her to a back room and forced her to sit on the floor with a handful of other terrified customers and employees. Eventually, the robbers fled with a haul of cash and valuables.

You know you’ve had “an eventful life,” as Maloney describes it, when an experience like that hardly seems worth mentioning now. If someone were ever to make a movie based on Maloney’s life story, that scene might not even make the final cut.

MALONEY: Thanks for checking on me, Rose

There’s just so much other ground to cover: growing up with a suicidal mother, who’d habitually kiss her daughters goodbye in the morning, telling them she’d be dead when they came home from school; losing her sister to a fatal drug addiction, then waging an Erin Brockovich-like crusade to put the dentist who illegally provided her with painkiller prescriptions behind bars, and raising her sister’s orphaned daughter.

Then there’s her husband Joe’s tragic, eight-year battle with mental illness, which Maloney recently chronicled in “Life with Joe,” a story that quickly went viral after it was published in the Asbury Park Press May 11.

Since the story appeared, Maloney, an administrative assistant in the newspaper’s design studio, has been inundated with emails, notes and phone calls from as far away as Ireland, where she has relatives.

One of the emails came from a woman in Ireland who lost her son to suicide. “There are so many points in the article that I can relate to,” she wrote. “I think it is such a brave thing to share your experience, where I can’t approach it. I wish I could.”

Another woman called to share her own experiences with her brother, now a patient at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital. The two spoke for nearly an hour.

“I felt like I knew her. Even though this is my brother, not my husband, I felt her pain,” the woman said later.

“Life with Joe” has since been picked up by other Gannett Co. Inc. newspapers around the country, as well as The Journal, an Irish news site similar to the Huffington Post. On the Press’ website, the story has generated more page views online than many staff writers garner after months of work — quite an achievement, considering that Maloney isn’t a member of the Press’ reporting staff.

Pete Earley, a former Washington Post reporter and best-selling author whose book,“Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness” (Penguin Group, 2007), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, said his own mental health-focused blog and Facebook page both exploded after he posted a version of Maloney’s story.

Maloney has “done something incredible,” Earley said, by humanizing an issue that rarely receives media attention unless there is a shooting or some other act of violence by a mentally ill person in the news.

The story — and the family snapshots that accompanied it — resonate with readers “because that’s not the normal face you see with mental illness,” he said.

“You’re like, ‘Wow, these could be my neighbors.’ “

Maloney said she approached editors with the story idea to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Month in May. Since her husband’s death from cancer in 2011, she feels a passion to educate the public — and lawmakers, in particular — about how a disjointed mental health care system often leaves families like hers with a mentally ill loved one to fend for themselves.

“I knew it wasn’t right, what happened to Joe,” said Maloney, 52, of Howell.

In her case, her once gregarious, doting husband became increasingly erratic and verbally abusive following a devastating job loss. For years, Joe refused treatment for bipolar II disorder and the neck cancer that developed later and ultimately killed him. He was 52.

“Life with Joe” came on the heels of Maloney’s first foray onto the Press’ editorial pages in March, “My Journey of Discovery,” about her quest to rediscover her family’s roots in rural Ireland. That story, too, generated heavy web traffic and a flood of emails. It has since been re-published in The Journal and the Irish Echo, the oldest Irish-American newspaper in the U.S.

“I have just finished reading about your recent experiences in Ireland,” read one email, from an admirer in Cork, Ireland, “and I am smiling within.”

The remarkable response Maloney has received begs the question: What’s next for her?

The short answer, Maloney said, is that she’s writing a memoir and searching for an agent and publisher.

God knows there’s enough material.

Breaking the silence

In the U.S., 1 in 4 adults suffers from a diagnosable mental illness, studies show. Yet to judge by how rarely the topic is discussed, you’d think it was more like 1 in 4,000.

Maloney herself was once reticent to broach the subject. Before “Life with Joe” came out, few of her co-workers at the Press, where she has worked for the past 17 years, were aware of the gravity of her husband’s health problems.

No one would have guessed that the same, wise-cracking colleague who relished the give-and-take of a spirited political debate kept a baseball bat by her bed, for protection. Or that she had $3,000 in emergency cash locked in her work station’s drawer, fearing that her impulsive husband would run through every cent they had.

Also in the drawer was a sealed letter for her supervisor — to be opened in the event that Joe ever acted on his threats to hurt her, she said — explaining that she knew her husband was seriously ill, and that she had tried to get him help.

Impactful as it is, “Life with Joe” only scratches the surface of what Maloney and her daughter, Kelly, went through.

“It was a nightmare,” said Kelly Maloney, 23, of Point Pleasant. “It was worse than a scary movie, because you weren’t watching it, you were living it every day.”

This wasn’t Kathy Maloney’s first brush with mental illness.

Born Kathleen Concannon, Maloney grew up in tiny Guttenberg, a Hudson County hamlet just four blocks wide that’s considered to be the most densely populated incorporated place in the U.S.

It was only many years later, when Joe became ill, that Maloney began to fully realize that her own mother, a beautiful woman who used to wear pearls around their apartment, suffered from a condition very much like Joe’s — perhaps postpartum depression, bioplar disorder, or some combination of the two, Maloney now believes.

On a couple of occasions, Maloney said, her mother attacked her father with a kitchen knife. Afterward, they’d act as if nothing happened.

Through it all, her father, the late Edwin Concannon, provided a steadying influence, she said. A maintenance man for Western Electric, he’d get his two girls out of the house as much as possible, bringing them to Coney Island or some other fun place, she said.

“My father was everything to me,” she said. “Anything I am today is because of my father, and the love and respect and care he showed me. He really, really told me how special I was, and how smart I was, and how I could do anything.”

Strong personality

Being blessed with an indomitable personality has also served her well.

“When I say I’m going to do something,” she said, “I do it.”

A case in point: When the local police refused to investigate the dentist, a neighbor of her sister Eva’s, Maloney researched her options, contacted the state medical board, and after criminal charges were filed against the woman, went over the prosecutor’s head to ask the judge to set aside a plea deal that would have allowed the dentist to avoid jail. The judge wound up imposing a 90-day jail sentence instead.

A report card Maloney received in kindergarten is telling. While earning a good mark for “shows initiative,” she was given “N”s — for “needs improvement” — for “respects authority,” “obeys the rules” and “exerts self control.”

The swift kick she dealt the teacher, after the boy she sat next to was told to move his seat, may have had something to do with that. A snapshot of the two kindergartners, who are friendly to this day, shows a purse-lipped Maloney, hands on hips, in her patent leather shoes and fiery, red dress, with an expression that says, “Tread carefully.”

So it was all she could do, the day of the shoe store robbery, not to yield to the impulse to try to turn the tables on her two assailants.

“I saw what possibly could happen but I was able to keep calm and talk myself through it,” she said. “I think that, in my life, I’ve done that a lot.”

As it was, when the men demanded that everyone hand over their money and valuables, Maloney risked getting herself killed by furtively detaching a beloved shamrock charm from her necklace, and dropping it down her shirt.

Thirty-six years later, that shamrock still hangs from her neck.

Cruel parallels

When she met Joe, Maloney thought she had found a dependable, rock-solid man like her father. And for the first 18 years of their marriage, that’s exactly the kind of guy he was.

“They had the best marriage of anybody I’ve ever known,” said Maloney’s lifelong friend, Katie Philpott, of Livingston.

“When I married Joe I remember thinking, ‘Thank God that’s over with, and I never have to go through that again,’ ” Maloney recalled, referring to the difficulties she faced with her mother.

“It was almost cruel,” she said, “that it would happen a second time.”

There were disturbing parallels. When Maloney threatened divorce, for example, Joe responded by shutting off the power in their home, she said. Maloney said her mother used to do the same thing when she was angry with her father.

Also like Joe, Maloney’s mother remained in denial about having cancer, until it was too late. She died at age 56.

Though he never physically harmed her, Joe used to leave abusive messages on Sticky Notes for her to find, Maloney said.

Typically, there would be a dozen or more notes scattered around the house. One day, she came downstairs to find a single note, stuck to the kitchen counter.

Seized with dread, she picked up the note and read it.

“Please forgive me + help me,” it said.

Sadly, despite her best efforts, Maloney couldn’t help Joe.

Now her focus is on helping other families avoid the same fate. Her hope is that her as-yet-unfinished book, which will also cover the happier life she’s made for herself now, can reach an even wider audience, particularly in Ireland, where she said mental illness is just as pervasive as it is in the U.S., but even more stigmatized.

Moving on

Despite her grief, she’s made a concerted effort to “make myself happy.” She’s gone out on a few dates, been whale watching in Mexico, swum with sea lions, and even bought a house in County Leitrim, Ireland, where her father’s family is from.

Eventually, she plans to move there, and continue to share her story and advocate for mental health reforms.

“I believe in God, and I have to think that it happened for a reason,” she said of the hardships she’s faced.

“Maybe I’m supposed to do something about it,” she said. “So I’m open to the possibilities.”

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.