Joan Liman’s Story

Some people seem to have it all—going through life with luck on their side, having good things seemingly come to them without effort. Most of us don’t have it that easy, of course, but neither do we have to deal with major obstacles at a young age, only to have more problems pile on top of those. Joan Liman has had to deal with mental and physical illnesses simultaneously. She’s had marital problems. She lost a job. But one word that isn’t in her vocabulary is “insurmountable.” Not only did she make it through medical school, she found a creative outlet for expressing her life’s dramatic challenges via the magic of theater. As Joan relates her story, one can’t help but hear the hope and humor through all of the layers of turmoil. Although for much of her life, she has been arm wrestling with life’s challenges, Joan explains how, through perseverance, attitude and humor, she was able to gain the upper hand and deal with things that might have devastated mere mortals.

“I was 26 when I had my first battle with depression. I was hospitalized. Depression ran in my family. I had my ECT—electro-convulsive therapy—in 1977. It worked. I had recovered from my depression, but I wasn’t really happy being just a stay-at-home housewife and mother—doing laundry, and that kind of thing. So I decided to apply to medical school. I was accepted. I had been pre-med in college, but I abandoned it when my daughter was born. I loved medical school. I really felt I had found my niche.

At the end of my second year, I was diagnosed with lymphoma. It was stage four, which meant it had spread. I was given two years to live. I developed depression again at the end of my third year of medical school. People told me, “You have cancer—of course you’re going to be depressed.” But it was more than that—the deep depression had returned. My marriage was on shaky ground. Not only did my husband have to deal with a wife with a mental disease but now also a very serious physical illness. So I had fallen into a very serious depression. This time, I was hospitalized for four weeks in a residential facility. I had taken a leave of my medical residency when that happened. I figured my marriage was going to fall apart, and I knew the courts weren’t so kind to people with mental illness back then. I wasn’t even sure I could return to my residency. At this point, I was a non-practicing physician.

The depression episode was kind of an “aha” moment for me. I decided I was going to keep my family together and was very fortunate to find a position in medical school administration. I joked that I used to feel like a Jewish mother who had 500 kids. People there were going through all sorts of things I had gone through, like depression and cancer. It was a 9-to-5 kind of job, as opposed to the hours I would have had to work as a doctor.

I defied the odds with my lymphoma—everything was great. Then, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. On top of that, a new dean came in to the medical school where I worked. They wound up letting a lot of people go—and I was one of them. I got a severance package from the school, which I really had to fight for. I went through chemo and had a double mastectomy. I suffered from another phase of depression, but it was nothing like before. At this point, I had been on an effective antidepressant for a number of years.

I realized after being laid off that being involved in theater was something I could put my energy into. I heard an interview on NPR about this small theater I had never heard of. This theater company celebrated the minority perspective. It really appealed to me because I came of age in the sixties, during the civil rights movement. At the end of the radio interview, they said they needed volunteers. I decided to volunteer for the theater, and ended up taking a course in producing—and I began to produce plays.

Someone once told me, “You have had such an interesting life—you should really write a book about it.” I’ve always wanted to write, but if I wanted to write at all it would be a play because I love theater, and it would be a musical because I love musicals. So I came up with “A Limanade Life,” which is a play on words of the old expression, “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Well, my name is Liman, so it makes Limanade! Basically, the play tells in song and narrative what I just told you. It’s been performed mainly for fundraisers for The American Cancer Society. I’ve also had it performed in a theater festival, where I was a semi-finalist; and I just submitted it to another theater festival. It’s opening up there at the end of August. It was one of ten plays chosen, and it’s the only musical. Hopefully, it will keep having a life of its own.

I’m a two-time cancer-survivor. I’ve been depression-free and mania-free for 20 years. My mantra is that when tragedy strikes, don’t be defined by it—find the divine in it. I’m a person who happens to have cancer—it doesn’t define who I am. My career path took so many twists and turns. No one knows why bad things happen to good people. The question is what happens after bad things happen to good people? I have a good sense of humor. That’s what got me through it. The message of my play is that if you have obstacles, you can overcome them. I have, and you can too!”