Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Bipolar Disordered Celebrities

I just picked up the new People magazine yesterday (with a $1 off coupon, for those of you following my spending diet effort) and Catherine Zeta-Jones is front and center on the cover, claiming to have bipolar disorder.  The movie star, who is married to Michael Douglas, apparently has suffered from depression for years.  When Douglas recovered from stage IV throat cancer, she just wasn't bouncing back mentally the way she thought she should be.  She checked herself into some fancy, expensive mental health treatment center and then announced to the world in surprise the diagnosis:  Bipolar Disorder.

Okay, what am I missing here that bipolar is the thing for celebrities to be these days?  Since when does being depressed equal bipolar?  They said she wasn't responding well to the meds.  Well, there's a shock.  If you don't have it, the meds ain't gonna work.

Obviously I'm a little bit skeptical.  She's 41 years old and she's just now getting diagnosed?  Most people who have bipolar disorder show signs of the disease early in their lives.  Symptoms usually appear in the late teens or early 20's.  For me, I was suffering severe, suicidal depressions in my teens.  And, like Zeta-Jones, I was not diagnosed in my teens or even in my early 20's, which leaves room for the idea that it could have taken this long for her to be diagnosed. 

In my situation, it took a total mental breakdown after my last child was born (I was 34) for them to finally figure out why my moods were all over the place, I was cycling between wanting to kill myself and wanting to buy out the local clothing stores and max out my credit cards, and my anxiety level was to the point that I couldn't be in a public place without having a panic attack.  Not to mention the 30-40 page papers I was writing for school after the teacher had asked for 20 pages.  But to not be diagnosed until you are 41 years old?  I'm having some trouble with this.  I clearly had the symptoms from the time I hit puberty.  From the description of her disease in the article, she just didn't. 

It is very clear to me now how I rapid cycle and I recognize exactly what is happening.  And mental illness is not pretty or glamorous or something I think is a cool thing to try on, like the latest spring fashions.  It's ugly, it loses you friends, and it offends people.  It also scares people.  Once you've told someone you have it, you are always and forever the person with that mental illness.  If it meant having mental health, I would gladly give back whatever creativity or other gifts I have been given in the name of sanity.

I read the whole article about Zeta-Jones and the only symptoms I see are a lingering depression and anxiety about being in social situations.  I do not see any mania symptoms.  If you are going to go out on a limb and put it out there that as a famous person you have bipolar disorder and you are wanting to help destigmatize the illness, at least have the decency to have all of the symptoms.

I do give props to People for actually putting the symptoms into a side bar and for the list being accurate.  But I question the motives behind Zeta-Jones' announcement and wonder if it might be more of a publicity stunt designed to get her back in the public eye.  It's been several years since she had a movie out and is getting ready to film a new one.  Could it be that she's using this supposed illness to get her name back in the spotlight?  If not, then good for her for trying to help those with bipolar disorder.  If it's a publicity stunt, then shame on her.  If you have depression, say you have depression.  If you have bipolar, then call it bipolar.  But don't call it bipolar if it's depression.  They are not the same disease and the treatments are very, very different.

I know everyone reading this watched Charlie Sheen self-destruct his way off of his hit sitcom a couple of months ago.  There was a lot of speculation that he might be bipolar.  It seems like every time a celebrity loses his mind, the immediate thought is that they must have bipolar disorder.  Couldn't it be that the guy has a narcissistic personality disorder and delusions of grandeur?  Exactly what symptoms of bipolar was he showing?  There didn't appear to be any depression going along with all of those claims of "tiger blood" and "winning."  Sure, the wild statements would be in alignment with manic symptoms, but if Mr. Sheen does not suffer from depression, then it is possible he is just a drug addicted megalomaniac with a superiority complex.  His statement that he "knew how to mix his drugs" so that he wouldn't overdose screams drug addiction, not bipolar disorder.

I admire famous people who put themselves out there when they have a mental illness.  Kay Redfield Jamison in particular comes to mind.  She is a Ph.D. psychologist who is well known in her field for treating very mentally ill patients.  It was extremely hard for her to come out about her own Bipolar I illness because it could clearly have affected her career and she did not want to give up her work.  Much to her credit, she took the chance anyway, writing the book An Unquiet Mind.  She was incredibly nervous about how it would be received because even in the psychiatric and psychological community, there is still a tendency to make fun of the patients and a lack of compassion.  I've seen it in my own treatment.  The incidence of my suicide attempt comes to mind, when the doctor told my mother I was simply trying to get attention.  How compassionate.  Maybe there was something deeper going on there, but was he going to try to figure out what it was?  No.  I was just a stupid teenager who was having relationship problems and thought swallowing a bunch of pills would get me some attention.

I also saw it repeatedly at the psychological practice I worked for.  Of the four professionals I worked with, two of them were incredibly compassionate and would never have dreamed of judging mentally ill clients.  The other two would make snide remarks and ask that the staff schedule certain patients at certain times so they "weren't put to sleep out of boredom."  I also overheard a comment of "This is why I don't do this clinical crap."  Why go into the field if you have contempt for your patients?  Was I going to admit to these people I had bipolar disorder?  Not on your life.  They obviously knew something wasn't right and clearly I had anxiety issues.  But most of my anxiety in that job came from trying to hide the fact that I was battling a mental illness.  We become so adept at hiding our symptoms that it's scary.

The history of the arts is that mental illness is rampant in the field.  Hemingway and Plath come immediately to mind.  Also Edgar Allan Poe.  And Van Gogh.  Clearly mentally ill there, but such brilliant work.  Sometimes mental instability and brilliance go hand in hand.  But not always.  Whenever I see a big announcement that some celebrity has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I check the information thoroughly to see if the symptoms actually fit the disease.  Britney Spears?  Clearly bipolar.  Zeta-Jones?  Don't see the evidence.

Let's be clear.  I have no delusions that anything I am doing is "brilliant."  I just wish that these celebrities would get their diagnoses straight.  The article in People would have been much better if they had actually shown that Zeta-Jones truly suffers from the disorder.  Without backing up the claim with the appropriate symptoms, they left a lot of room for doubt as to whether she actually is bipolar or just wants people to go see her next movie.  And that's a shame.

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