Jim Stingl, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Published 11:44 a.m. CT April 23, 2019

The stunningly honest author biography of Bill Zaferos’ new novel begins this way:
“Bill Zaferos is a first-time author and writer who managed to channel his mental illness into creativity by writing ‘Poison Pen’ during a manic high.”

The words flowed out of him for three months as he huddled over a vintage Mac computer in his basement, often well into the night while self-medicating with wine and grooving to Bruce Springsteen and The Who.

Out poured the wild story of a rich and caustic game show host who hits the road to find himself and winds up in a miserable northern Wisconsin town populated by weird characters.

Did all that feverish late-night key pounding lead to a story that makes sense?

“What’s remarkable to me is that it holds together. There are parts of this that I don’t remember writing. I was a man on a mission,” said Zaferos, 60, a former newspaper reporter and public relations man who lives in Milwaukee’s Third Ward.

HenschelHaus Publishing in Milwaukee agreed with his assessment and took on the book. It will launch May 15 as a fundraiser for the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Milwaukee at the Marcus Performing Arts Center. It starts at 7 p.m., preceded by a VIP reception at 5:30. Tickets are $30.

Zaferos will read from “Poison Pen” and take questions from Marcus Center President Paul Mathews and the audience. Everyone present will receive a copy of the book, which also becomes available that day on Amazon.

Zaferos is going public with his personal pain to help lift the stigma and stereotypes of mental illness, in his case bipolar disorder. Bringing it up can make people uncomfortable and eager to change the subject. 

“I made a conscious decision that I need to tell my story because there are people out there like me who don’t know what to do. They know something is wrong, but they don’t seek help because they don’t know if that would do any good,” he told me.

A 2017 article on the NAMI website cites the work of neurologist Alice W. Flaherty that found heightened dopamine during mania stimulates creativity. This is believed to have fueled the work of many artists and writers, including Virginia Woolf, Vincent van Gogh, Richard Dreyfuss, Carrie Fisher and Kurt Cobain. 

“I’m living proof that there is an aspect of it. It’s how it manifested itself in me,” Zaferos said.

He first noticed the swings from low to high during his days studying journalism and political science at UW-Madison. He traces the first time to a rejection letter he received from the Grand Rapids newspaper during a job search.

“I just sunk into this incredible depression. This went on for years. I would sink into these horrible depressions, but I would also go through these highs where I’d just be a good time Charlie. I just figured that was me, that’s how I was,” he said.

This is what his longtime friend, Jerry Stockfisch, thought, too. “Looking back, there were a lot of hints and indications that things might not have been right with Bill. It was just Bill being Bill, but he needed help,” he said.

During one manic period in 2002, Zaferos overheated his credit card by following Springsteen to 17 shows all across the U.S. Stockfisch darkly called it the Bill Zaferos bankruptcy tour.

By then, Zaferos had already written “Poison Pen.” That happened in 2000, but he put the book on a shelf for 16 years before mustering the courage to show it to friends and fellow writers. The reaction was positive enough to send him in search of a publisher.

Zaferos saw a psychiatrist and therapists for years, but he didn’t admit to his bipolar diagnosis until sinking frighteningly low about six years ago. He found the right mix of prescription drugs to achieve the balance he craved.

“I don’t miss the highs, and I don’t miss the lows,” he said.

And he has learned that he can write without the help of manic energy. Zaferos is working full time on his second novel.

Contact Jim Stingl at (414) 224-2017 or jstingl@jrn.com. Follow him at Facebook or on Twitter @columnboy.

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