Barrie Miskin

On Mothering, Breaking the Stigma of Mental Illness, Starting a Book at 43, and Her Debut Memoir ‘Hell Gate Bridge’

Cover of Barrie Miskin: On Mothering, Breaking the Stigma of Mental Illness, Starting a Book at 43, and Her Debut Memoir ‘Hell Gate Bridge’

I met Barrie Miskin on good old Instagram a few years ago. She’s always complimenting my ever-changing hair, my outfits, and most apt here, my writing. She’s a mom, but she’s a cool mom, and her kid looks freakin’ awesome. She’s a mother, a teacher, a writer. As a mother, teacher, and writer, I look up to her. I, too, “heart” her stories and posts and want to keep up with her and follow her journey through this crazy thing called life. When I saw that she was publishing a memoir, I was so excited to read about all that the book promised, “Motherhood, Madness, and Hope.”

I read Hell Gate Bridge (Woodhall Press, 2024). in almost one sitting, having to pause around page 175 because of parenting duties, but otherwise, I read it in a trance. HGB reads like a fever dream, as the reader is immediately immersed into Barrie’s point of view throughout the entire book. Start to finish, we are with her. We are her. Her story had me thinking of my own mental health issues, my own labor and delivery, my own struggles and hopes and fears and dreams. 

Her story takes us from Barrie’s pregnancy with her daughter and along the ride of giving birth and then well into motherhood, all the while dealing with DPRD, Depersonalisation Derealisation Disorder. Barrie opens up about family, marriage, alcohol abuse, guilt, and her raw honesty gives readers hope that things can, and will, get better in time.

This is a book that will open conversations about mothering and mental illness. Barrie Miskin has opened that door.


Brittany Ackerman: Congrats on Hell Gate Bridge! What a stunning book. I’m so grateful for you and the telling of your story. I think it will really help a lot of people. 

People, especially writers, often go to books to feel seen and heard and understood. What were some North Star books for you on the journey to writing your memoir? Were there any styles or structures you were modeling?

BM: Hell Gate Bridge was actually the first thing I’ve ever written. I always wanted to be a writer, but it wasn’t until I gained a bit of confidence—at age 43—that I thought I might have something worth putting on a page. That is to say, I never formally studied writing and so, reading the work of others is what has always and continues to guide me. 

The books I kept close were Susannah Cahalan’s Brain on Fire, Catherine Cho’s Inferno, Suleika Jaouad’s Between Two Kingdoms and my mentor, Sarah Perry’s After the Eclipse. I needed memoirs that explored unimaginable grief and medical mysteries. There are many brilliant mental health memoirs but I was irrationally envious of people who had a “cut and dry” diagnosis with seemingly clear pathways to getting well, although logically, I knew they were dealing with a great deal of pain too. The books I kept close were the ones I felt most mirrored my experience.

BA: Speaking of books as hope, you mention Brooke Shield’s Down Came the Rain many times in your story. Have you read it? Thoughts? My mom brought it up to me recently and now I just feel like it’s a sign that I have to read it! What did it feel like for that book to keep popping up? Was it maddening or comforting?

BM: Down Came the Rain was one of the books I felt irrationally envious of! I was so jealous that she had postpartum depression and then started to get well after being put on antidepressants. I read bits and pieces but I never made it through the whole thing. 

The funny thing is, it really was the only memoir available on maternal mental health for so long. After I began to get well, I noticed a few more memoirs (like Inferno, which is so incredible) coming out. Now, post pandemic era, I feel like mental health is spoken about more openly and there has been a wealth of writing coming out that helps to connect us, to help us feel less alone. It was just a few years before, when I was struggling, that mental health—especially maternal mental health—had a fairly big shame stigma attached. I’m glad to see that lifting.

BA: The book is told in a linear fashion where we get to see you during pregnancy and then birth and then parenthood. Were there ever other versions of the book that weren’t told in this order, rather out of order? You have small flashes ahead in certain points, but otherwise it goes back to the beginning of your struggles and ends in the present.

As someone who has suffered from similar things you discuss in the writing, someone who gets flashbacks, especially when in or around a hospital, how did you spread out your story in a way that is so clear?

BM: When I began querying agents, there was this one agent whom I really admired—a long shot—and she wrote back that she wanted a full. I couldn’t have been more excited. I sent one of my earlier drafts along, as you do, and she rejected it because there were too many flashbacks and flash forwards. With my tail between my legs, I went back and revised it so the story was told in a more linear fashion.

With my current, incredible agent, JL Stermer, we sent out a polished, linear version and got (kindly) rejected by 18 different publishers. My good friend, the incredibly generous writer and editor Elizabeth Ellen then took it upon herself to read and edit the manuscript as a hail mary before we pulled the book. Her edits brought it back to a less linear narrative. This was the version that ultimately got accepted by my publisher, Woodhall Press, however, their final edits brought it back to the more linear, clear version it is today. It takes, as they say, a village.

BA: I love the phrase you have in the book, “riding the loop.” It feels so true. It reminds me of Matthew McConaughey as Rust Cohle in Season 1 of True Detective, the infamous line, Time is a flat circle.

“I only continued riding the loop that ran through my mind.” 

“We were caught back inside my repetitive loops, my catastrophic prophesies. Underneath the heaviness of our dread.” 

What does “riding the loop’ mean for you? Where did that phrase come from?

BM: I think in the book, I describe my thought process during the time I was very sick as a tangle of threads at the bottom of a sewing kit. I kept feeling like, if I can just pull out the right thread, I could solve this whole mystery of why I lost my mind. 

The loops were just this exhausting circle of my thoughts that I was unable to extricate myself from. The whole time, it felt like there was some sort of answer that was just out of reach and I kept grasping for it but it would slip through my fingers.

BA: I’ve never heard anyone talk about that goddamn catheter bag during labor. What the hell? Birth is so weird, and haunting, traumatizing! You write a lot about these mom-accounts online and trying to act “as if” and be like them to prove to the world you’re okay. But there is so much about pregnancy and birth and motherhood left unsaid, left a mystery, by these perfect looking lives. 

I also feel like if we just sat around and talked about how horrible being pregnant is and how traumatic birth can be, it would scare people away from having kids. Yes, the above is all true, or can be true, but the prize of creating a life is all worth it in the end. And it’s true, a lot of the pain becomes memory becomes blurry and fades and we can move on.

How do you feel about this conundrum, the wanting to be honest but also not being overly negative about the whole experience? I didn’t feel you shift too far on either end of the spectrum, and I’m baffled by how you accomplished that. So, how did you do it?

BM: The actual act of giving birth—even with the induction and the weird catheter bag and the epidural that didn’t work—was one of the best parts of the experience for me. I felt like a warrior. I felt like I had done something right. And when I held Nora for the first time, I just loved her so much. I always keep that with me. Even in a situation as bizarre and horrific as mine was, there were still many spots of joy and feelings of accomplishment. There truly was and is a balance.

BA: “A sense of spiritual mysticism enshrouds the moment Nora was born, for Patrick and I both. I had the sensation that we were floating within a starlit planetarium, inside the hazy nebula of the Big Bang. Patrick, who had watched Nora’s head emerge, was consumed by the notion that appears in almost all religions, legends, and myths: that he had witnessed god create life out of clay.”

Such a gorgeous moment, one that comes subsequent to the utter chaos of being in labor. There’s so much cliché around writing about birth that we don’t feel in your description here. How did you find language to nuance this experience? 

BM: That particular scene was actually something Patrick and I had spoken aloud to one another many times. Since it was one of the moments of joy during our harrowing journey, it became a story we told to one another as well as to family and friends. The words were already there.

In writing about mental illness, you have to use a lot of figurative language and turns of phrase. There was a lot of reading pieces of the manuscript aloud and asking people, “does this make sense?”

BA: You’re a mom and a teacher and a writer, all the things! How does one “hat” inform the other? What’s the most challenging hat to wear, the most fun, the most rewarding?

BM: Oh man. I always say that my life is like the whack-a-mole game at the carnival. Whenever one thing is going well, another thing pops up. I think I had this fantasy that with all we had been through, once I recovered, life would be perfect. And getting to publish a book about the experience! What a perfect bow on the package. 

I forgot that life isn’t like that. Nora is seven now and has her own life and her own needs and her own strong Aries fire child persona. That being said, motherhood definitely takes up the majority of my time at the moment – and is the most fun, most challenging and most rewarding hat.

I was a classroom teacher for seventeen years, but when I began writing and thought it might actually be something I was good at, that I could really do, I changed jobs within the education field that gives me more flexibility so that I could write. I love working in a school, but also love the emotional freedom that being out of the classroom gives me. 

And writing, I can’t believe that it belongs to me now. It’s almost like this mystical gift. It is stressful in a way because I’m currently unable to carve out the time to write daily, but I try to at least “touch” it each day. During the summers I have more flexibility to really dive in and I hope that the coming summer is a fruitful time for me.

BA: I’d love to close on something cliché, and I hope you’re down for it. What advice do you give to people struggling with mental illness who also want to have children, or to parents with kids who are still facing challenges in this new realm? What’s something that kept you going and kept you afloat that you can share?

BM: It’s all so personal. I’m very open with the fact that I got pregnant again after Nora and we decided not to have a second child because we were scared of what might happen if I were to go off certain medications and become sick again. However, I have friends who live with mental illnesses and manage them and have two or more children. 

What keeps me afloat are my husband and friends and continuing to connect with writers and readers. I do have a lot of love in my life and I know I’m lucky in that way. 

As far as advice, I would say find a doctor you trust, never Google anything medical and never, ever go on a mommy message board.



Barrie Miskin‘s writing has appeared in Hobart, Narratively, Expat Press and elsewhere. Her interviews can be found in Write or Die magazine, where she is a regular contributor. Barrie is also a teacher in Astoria, New York, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Hell Gate Bridge is her first book.

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