You probably know Sheila Hamilton as the director and host of KINK FM’s Morning Show, on the air weekdays from 5:00 a.m. (Sheesh!) to 9:30 a.m. She’s smart. She’s witty. She has a great voice. Whether the topic is politics, culture, music, or fashion (and she’s definitely one of Portland’s most fashionable figures), Sheila knows her stuff. Oh, yeah she’s won five Emmy awards in documentary filmmaking.
Or maybe you know Sheila as a longtime liberal sparring partner with conservative radio host Lars Larson. You can find an image of the two of them playfully attempting to strangle one another on YouTube. Lars even once asked if he could get a kiss on the cheek from Sheila if a point he’d made about Medicare Part B turned out to be correct (I guess you get what you can).
In 2009, I was teaching in Croatia as a Fulbright scholar when Sheila contacted me about a book project she’d been working on. Only later did I learn that it was a memoir, All the Things We Never Knew. Now, almost seven years later, the book is out: the story of her life with a husband suffering from mental illness. It’s a remarkable book, and it expresses Sheila’s remarkable fortitude, along with her courage, her zest for life, and her capacity to face despair while still finding time to laugh, cry, love and give back.
A few weeks back, Sheila and I sat down at Portland State University’s Center for the Humanities, where we talked for two solid hours. She’s a striking figure, tall and lean and elegant, and she wore an alligator-patterned dress and magnificent spiky heels. (She jokes about her shoes fairly often—it may be a happy weakness). She apologized a bit for her fancy attire, she was the keynote speaker at a Portland literary event later that evening.
Her story began well over ten years ago, when her husband, who we’ll call David, spiraled into a series of bipolar cycles, each one more and more frightening. As his illness worsened, Sheila struggled to understand what was happening to the man she loved, just as she fought to hold her family together, to care for her young daughter, and to retain her own grip on things.
Interventions and hospitalizations followed, but the story came to its tragic end in December of 2006, when David took his life in a wooded area overlooking the Columbia River gorge. His worsening cycles, between mania and depression, had brought him back to a place he loved: the serene spaces of the natural world. There he put an end to a life that had become unbearable to him.
But that wasn’t the end.
Sheila’s anguish led her to ask why, and how, things had gone so far. As she reflected on the trauma and despair that increasingly shrouded David’s life, she started to notice clues that had been missed. She started to write about the expe- rience of David’s illness, decline, and death. The result is a beautifully written, brave, and spellbinding book—a memoir of love, mystery, loss, renewal and hope. It is a story of the pain of mental illness. But it is also a story of the redemptive power of love. It is a story Sheila Hamilton wants people to hear.