Author and advocate Gracelyn Guyol turns the tide on mental illness

By Faye Trafford
The New London Day • 8/17/2011

Author and activist Gracelyn Guyol founded Clean Up Sound and Harbors in the fall of 2006 because she wanted to show her gratitude to fish.

“You could say I felt a personal obligation to do something for fish,” she says, laughing. Then her smile fades a little. “The use of fish oils lifted my depression.”

Guyol’s life journey has brought her from one coast to the other, through marriage, motherhood, a successful career, and a brilliant turn in local environmental advocacy. It has also brought her through the harrowing journey of mental illness and recovery.

Though she was not diagnosed with bipolar II disorder until 1993, she traces periodic depressive episodes to her early teens. She says the disease was evident in her family, even if it wasn’t defined or openly discussed.

“My grandmother was said to be strange. She would disappear into her room for several days at a time and then emerge. No one knew we had this in our family or what it was,” she says. “My dad went through a lot that he didn’t understand, because my mom was not diagnosed until her 70s.”

Bipolar II is understood to be the somewhat milder axis of bipolar disorder. A person living with the illness experiences cycles of depression and mild euphoria, known as “hypomania,” but often not the delusional highs that characterize full-blown mania. “The depression aspect tends to be more pronounced,” she explains.

Going undiagnosed or misdiagnosed for years can be common, she says. The more modulated highs and lows can mask themselves behind the peaks and valleys of everyday life, and the brief periods of hypomania might manifest as incredible productivity or creativity, which can serve to discourage someone from seeking treatment.

Guyol says that like many people, she could always tie her emotional turbulence to a “reason,” whether that reason was a relationship or business development. “I would say, ‘I’m feeling like this because I got an account, or lost an account;’ there were a zillion things I could point to. And I was a single mom, raising a son, so take your pick.”

Still, she knew it was more than that. She owned a public relations firm that handled national campaigns for several wine brands. As the demands of business grew, she found different ways to cope with the cycles in her illness. Sometimes, unable to get anything done, she relied on her small staff to temporarily carry the load. “When I needed to, I could go into my office and shut the door,” she says. Then she would cycle upward again.

“I would have all this wonderful energy, so I would make up for what I couldn’t do when I was depressed. When your mania is mild, your imagination really isn’t held back by convention. I was very successful.”

But as she aged, she says, the depression grew more pronounced and she was burning out. In 1991, she decided to retire, and she and her husband relocated from California to Connecticut. Soon after, the marriage ran into trouble.

“Moving here was a grand adventure, but after we moved, whether it was the 24/7 togetherness…”

They found themselves in therapy, and it was their marriage counselor, she says, who picked up on the cyclical nature of their marital problems. Guyol was diagnosed and began taking antidepressants in 1993.

In 1994, cysts and tumors started appearing in her breast. They were all benign, but they kept growing back. She underwent surgery twice.

“I wanted to know how to stop them from growing. The doctors kept saying there wasn’t much they could do until a tumor became malignant. This was not logical to me,” she says.

Guyol says she knew she needed to change things, at the cellular level. She began working to identify and eliminate toxins from her diet and home. She consulted a naturopathic doctor – “I didn’t know what one was, most people don’t” – and went on a strict anti-inflammatory diet.

The changes were radical, and immediate. Within a month, she had a lot more energy. Within six weeks, she says, her arthritis pain disappeared. Within six months, she had lost 10 pounds. “I had had such severe arthritis pain, I couldn’t sleep on either side,” she says. “My father had calcification and I just accepted it as genetic. I was incensed – incensed – that ending arthritis could be so simple and people never hear that from their doctors.”

Over the next 18 months, she developed just one new breast tumor. “And the only toxin that I was knowingly consuming at that point was the anti-depressant (Wellbutrin). And I thought, ‘well, my bipolar has never been life-threatening but this could be.’ So I went off it, and within two months the tumor disappeared.” She told her psychiatrist that she would continue to see him, but would not be using medication.

By then, she says, she had amassed so much knowledge that she was confident she could find another way to “treat” her brain. She flew to the (former) Pfeiffer Treatment Center outside Chicago – a nonprofit research institute and outpatient facility which targeted the root physiological and neurological causes of cognitive, mood, and behavioral disorders — and underwent blood and hair analysis and other tests to pinpoint the genetic origins of her disorder. They treated her illness using an orthomolecular medical approach. Orthomolecular practitioners believe using the correct natural molecules can enable the body to heal itself.

“Traditional medicine is about treating symptoms, whereas this looks for what’s causing the illness,” she says.

Armed with a new regimen of vitamins, minerals and amino acids, her manic episodes receded within four months. But she still suffered from depression.

“Without the mania to relieve it, it was even worse,” she says. “I was severely depressed for about 15 months. It’s really awful to live with, for you and everyone around you. Remember depression is not just sadness, you’re talking about anger, anxiety…”

Which brings us back to the fish oil.

Guyol had elected to be listed as a reference for potential Pfeiffer center patients. Out of the blue, she got a call from a stranger in Kentucky.

“His wife was stuck in mania, and he wanted to know if I had experienced success with Pfeiffer. And I told him, yes, they did end my mania but the depression was hanging on.”

The caller told her about new research on the use of fish oil to treat depression. Guyol was already taking 1,000 mg supplements as part of her anti-inflammatory diet. She decided to increase her dose to 3,000 mg. “I got off the phone and went straight to the fridge,” she laughs. Forty-eight hours later, her depression had lifted. That was in 2002. She says it hasn’t been back since.

Inspired by her experience, Guyol began compiling her personal research and collecting stories of recovery for her first book, “Healing Depression & Bipolar Disorder Without Drugs,” published in 2006. She founded CUSH the same year, and in May of 2007 it became an official nonprofit. In 2010, she published “Who’s Crazy Here?” an abridged guide to nine different mental disorders. A condensed version of her first book, it omits patient histories and other anecdotes, and gets straight to the symptoms and their possible causes. It was the second-place winner in the instructional book category in the Connecticut Press Club’s 2011 awards.

Guyol calls the parallel efforts of environmental and mental health advocacy “part of her healing process.”

“The personal education that evolved while I was trying to figure out my health problems caused me to become an ardent environmentalist,” she says.

CUSH conducts grant-funded water quality monitoring from the Thames River to the Rhode Island border, to pinpoint causes of pollution and storm-related problems, and uses the data to educate the public about how the things they do on land can affect the water they swim and boat in and fish from.

In five years, the group has swelled to more than 150 members, a 10-person board of directors, and expanded its mission to include the cleanup and protection of Fishers Island Sound.

Robert Snyder, Jr., managing member of Dodson Boatyard, LLC in Stonington Borough calls the influence of CUSH “profound.” The family-run company was the first working boatyard in the state to become a Department of Environmental Protection-certified “Clean Marina” in 2004.

Dodson was also one of the first corporate sponsors of CUSH, and donated $35,000 toward a storm-drain filter project to prevent roadway contaminants from entering the harbor.

“You know that song, ‘You Dropped a Bomb on Me?'” Snyder asks. “Gracelyn is the bomb. She’s a doer, not a talker. She makes it happen.”

Guyol herself calls the group’s phenomenal growth “a complete surprise” and says she is grateful that people realize that they can effect meaningful change on a local level.

“I never expected such strong community support. Ocean pollution is a severe problem, bigger than any of us, so what do you do?”

Guyol says that when each person attacks a problem in their own backyard, change can occur worldwide.

This approach is a hallmark of Guyol’s life, says Carolyn Boger of Michigan, a close friend of Guyol’s since 1969.

“She’s a very vibrant, can-do person,” Boger says. “She sees a situation, says ‘this isn’t right,’ figures out what to do and then lines people up and gets them excited and involved.”

“What she has accomplished is just amazing. She just digs and digs until she finds answers,” she adds.

Boger, who collaborated with Guyol on a gardening guide, also had warm words for her friend’s writing.

“After she moved [from Michigan to California] she’d send me these amazing, long letters. They were so well-written, I would share them with friends. Everyone would be asking me — ‘do you have another letter?'”

Authorship, advocacy, and a thriving environmental group — is there is a downside to reaching her goals?

Definitely, Guyol says.

“CUSH has taken over my life. I never intended it to become a full-time career.”

And now, in retirement, she finds herself with two full-time jobs.

But not for long. Guyol has high words for CUSH’s “amazing” board of directors and says that a succession plan is in the works.

“There’s no specific timetable, but when we find the talent and structure to ensure a solid future, I’ll step down as president and become a consulting board member,” she says.

In her daily life, Guyol fields calls from all over the world, from people desperate for mental health answers and relief. “I don’t tell people how to heal themselves,” she says. “I don’t practice medicine. I try to be a consumer resource, and point people in the right direction.”

She emphasizes that although recovery is a unique process for each person, people in general aren’t getting the nutrition they need, and that is exacerbating the problem.

“We’re finally waking up to the fact that we’ve been existing on nutrient-devoid diets of sugars, simple carbs; frankenfoods that are beyond processed. Fake foods that have fake fats and fake sugars – chemicals that the body doesn’t know how to process. It’s literally causing people to not be able to think.”

Jane Percy, founding director of the Riverlight Wellness Center in Stonington, agrees, saying that it’s important that people know there are a variety of ways to heal. She’s known Guyol for roughly 10 years, and she describes their friendship as “mutual cheerleading” for each other’s work. Riverlight sees clients in the areas of brain-training and brain optimization.

“Each piece of food, every chemical or vitamin that you put into your mouth has repercussions. Not all are negative. And really, we’re all different. Herbal remedies work great for some people but not others.”

“One thing that I’ve learned,” Percy says, “is that we have to fight for our health. It’s not a given, and it’s often not our heritage, unfortunately.”

It’s a fight Guyol plans to see to the end.