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Old School Hollywood Manic Depression

Posted Jul 21 2008 10:07am

I’m not sure how I feel about people writing about their mental illnesses, or how helpful it is in getting other people to understand these conditions. The trouble is that everyday mental illness - the kind that most mentally ill people suffer from - just isn’t very exciting. Sure the lows can be real low and suicide attempts make for drama, but the everyday life of a depressive mostly revolves around building up the energy to get dressed. Hypomania can lead to some good stories; delusions ironically don’t - describing irrational thoughts is a bit like describing a dream, you kind of have an idea of what was going on, but every story ends with “What was I thinking?” Substance abuse has its moments of intrigue. Waking up in a pool of your own vomit with no memory of the previous night and a vague realisation that your blood-alcohol content was on the cusp of being fatal is reasonably interesting. That was my thing and it happened a few times, but I get the feeling most drunks don’t follow this pattern. For every time you pass out on a beach in the middle of December and somehow avoid dying of hypothermia, there’s fifty times you pass out in front of the TV with a half-eaten take-away going cold on a plate on the floor.

Which is a long way round of introducing my thoughts about‘If you’re manic depressive, Hollywood is a good place to hide’, a piece about Terri Chaney, author ofManicin the Daily Mail. Obviously the Mail is picking out the more sensational bits and I haven’t read the book itself. But it’s fairly obvious that she’s not a typical manic depressive.

Terri Cheney has lived with manic depression since she was 16. Her memoir, Manic, is at times so emotionally lacerating that you can’t help but wonder how she has managed to survive. She very nearly didn’t: she made countless suicide attempts, went through painful electroconvulsive therapy and suffered a brutal rape. Perhaps most incredibly of all, she managed to keep her condition a secret as she held down a high-powered job with a top Beverly Hills law firm.

Yes, people with manic depression sometiems have high powered careers. Most don’t, because, well… they have manic depreesion and it gets in the way of things like studying and working and so on. I guess her depressive phase didn’t hit while she was taking her LSATs or her bar exams.

For the past five years she has been on medication that keeps her illness at bay – a cocktail of around 25 pills a day, ‘which I assume I’ll be on for the rest of my life’. To Terri ‘the pills are a gift. People tell me that I’m on more of an even keel. My depressions don’t last as long. I haven’t been manic in five years, and I don’t even entertain the notion of suicide.’

I’m not sure I could even name 25 medications for mental illness. The medications aren’t named in the article (though presumably they are in the book). But I’m curious, so let’s try to work out what this cocktail of substances could be. Let’s be generous and assume that she’s taking a couple of pills per substance, which leaves us with 12 different medications. Lithium plus another mood stabiliser is a popular combination, so that’s two. Let’s add an antipsychotic for three. Add in a couple of anti-depressants (mitazepine is a popular add-on to other SSRI’s) and we’re up to five. One benzodiazepine for anxiety and another for sleep makes seven. Let’s give her some more anxiolytics ‘taken as needed’ for eight. Maybe she takes vitamin B and omega-3 as is the fashion these days. That’s ten. And we’re still two short.

If anyone’s read the book and wants to tell me what these medications really are, I’m intrigued.

Suffice to say that very few people with manic depression take this amount of medication. I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t a my-meds-are-bigger-than-your-meds thing.

At Vassar, Terri also developed an eating disorder which continued for many years. ‘When I’m manic, I don’t eat anything for days, but when I’m depressed, the hunger just can’t be sated. I would eat anything – packets of instant iced coffee, baking soda, artificial sweetener – to keep the void filled.’ She recently underwent an operation to remove most of her colon as it had stopped functioning properly. ‘I still have trouble with food and I have to eat very small amounts at a time.’

Baking soda? How many people with eating disorders eatbaking soda? That’s not being hungry - that’s pretty muchPica. And while this kind of behaviour linked to depressionisn’t unique, I think it’s fair to say that it’s completely atypical of both bipolar disorder and eating disorders.

See, this is why I think these mental-illness memoirs are so useless at educating people about the conditions involved. Bipolar disorder is always presented as having the most extreme highs “a huge manic episode of about four weeks where I barely slept, and shopped so much I had nothing left in my savings account” and the most extreme lows “she made countless suicide attempts, went through painful electroconvulsive therapy and suffered a brutal rape”. Because the everyday experience of living with any of these mental illnesses doesn’t sell books, but casting yourself as some kind of Byronic hero does.

And now people are going to read this - both the article and the book - and think that four week shopping sprees and eating baking soda and ending up on twenty five different medications are what you should expect with bipolar disorder. And sure, some people do the massive financial disinhibition thing, and there’s probably at least one other manic depressive out there whose depressive phase involve pica, but it’s at the far end of the scale. towards. I don’t know exactly what a typical manic depressive looks like, but I’m certain it’s not Terri Chaney. Generally, think mental illness blogs are better at avoiding some of the self-dramatisation that these misery-memoirs gravitate towards. It’s no insult to say that they (and I include my own blog here) capture some of the everyday dullness of mental illness (because mental illness often means sitting in your flat alone all day and wondering if you can be bothered to switch the TV on). And high powered lawyers engaging in multiple suicide attempts while mingling with the beautiful people of Hollywood is entertaining, but it’s a world away from most people’s experience of mental illness.

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