Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Stigmatizing Mental Illness Ought to be a Crime

Catherine Zeta Jones was outed by the National Enquirer for having sought treatment for bipolar disorder. Her response was swift, sure, and inspiring: “There is no need to suffer silently and there is no shame in seeking help.” She acknowledged that she had bipolar disorder stating, “This is a disorder that affects millions of people and I am one of them. ... If my revelation of having bipolar II has encouraged one person to seek help, then it is worth it.”

The stigmatization of the disease was responsible for the salacious interest and inquiry. The gracious and courageous response will serve to help remove the stigma for so many, including me--and maybe Charlie Sheen.

I found out I had bipolar disorder, a progressive disease that is both my greatest strength and my greatest weakness, when I was in my 20s. I had extra energy, didn’t need much sleep, and I thought I could charm and disarm judges, opposing counsel and juries. I could think on my feet at lightning speed. I had one speed: Go. I was omnipotent, winning, and death was not an option. I became anorexic, spent too much money, thought way too fast, made reckless decisions and had deep depressions. My life was a manic roller coaster. Sometimes it was great fun and was exhilarating. Often it was anything but.

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, is known as the genius disease (many of us like to think). Mark Twain had it, as did Ludwig Von Beethoven, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, Teddy Roosevelt and Vincent Van Gogh. So does Ted Turner, Jane Pauley, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and, I suspect, Charlie Sheen.

It is a disease that is characterized by shifts in mood, thinking and behavior--mania on one pole and depression on the other. One in 45 people have it, which is more than six million people. And, 20 percent of the people who have it commit suicide. But once it is diagnosed, patients can go on to live normal, fulfilling lives if they manage their medication as prescribed. 

I was fortunate to get the help needed and have had a wonderful career and life, other than one notable exception: Like Catherine Zeta-Jones, I too was outed by the press. 

I had a life-changing manic episode after being involved in a car accident last year that caused $34,000 worth of damage to my vehicle. My assistant and best friend had just died from cancer. All the witnesses said I was one-hundred percent okay before my accident and one hundred-percent not okay after. Although I wasn't charged initially, the Seattle media went after my records and printed and broadcasted one story after another. I tried to get the media blocked from getting my records because of privacy issues relating to my bipolar disorder. No one knew except me.

I didn't want my records released because of the stigma of having the disease and because of crazy things I said and did while under the influence of a full-blown manic episode. The person in the police report was a person I didn't know. The local media hired big-gun lawyers and fought me every step of the way in my case. They were like piranhas. I felt enormous shame that I had failed to properly manage my medications, inviting my mania to revisit me. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before. In the aftermath, nearly one year later, it has brutalized me.

I released my records voluntarily during the court battle and disclosed I was bipolar. I was, for all intent and purpose, outed. The stigma and lack of understanding of the disease is why I fought for my privacy and resisted disclosure of my records. I ultimately had to reveal what I never, ever wanted to do. And with that came a barrage of anonymous, undocumented comments and blogs on the Internet. They have had a field day.

I have much in common with Charlie Sheen. He is being brutalized too. I wish the media could recognize mental illness and addiction issues for what they are and not showcase Charlie as the Wild Man From Borneo. He is sick. I disagree with the portrayal of Charlie in Newsweek's March 21 article titled "Charlie Sheen Is Winning." He isn't winning. He isn't a role model or someone to emulate, despite the ever-shifting mores of our instant pop culture. He is, simply, a manic depressive like me and like Catherine. He has exhibited the best and the worst of the disease. It can be fun. It can make you crazy. And it can kill you. Anyone with bipolar disorder knows that I am right.

What about Charlie? He needs help. There are a lot of us manic depressives out there who would be happy to help him. As my psychiatrist brother said when I asked him if I would lose clients if I went public with my disease, "yes, but your new ones will be far more interesting." Until Charlie Sheen gets the help he needs, nobody is winning.

We are here. And we are pretty interesting. Yet in some ways, his touring, tweeting and interviewing has eased the stigma as well, although in a far different way than Catherine Zeta-Jones’ statements and actions could. He has shown the fun, zany, contagious part of the disease. He has shown it's appealing fun madness. And we can't get enough of it.

Three stories. Three Manics. The stigma remains but may well change in our lifetimes. Catherine Zeta-Jones' grace and humility, Charlie's controversial Torpedo of Truth/Death is not an Option tour, and the local girl-gone-bad who only sees good ahead. We all work through this crazy disease in our own ways. We are all human. We are all one of you. 

For my part, I am going to do everything in my power to help reduce the stigma. I am not from Hollywood; I am just from little old Olympia, Washington. But in this arena, I hope I can help to make a difference too. Stigmatizing mental illness ought to be a crime.


Anonymous said...

Anne, thank you for sharing this. They say that the truth will set you free, and I hope that you feel much more comfortable to be who you are. The truth is, we all hold secrets about ourselves, and it's the very light we fear being cast on those secrets that cleanses us and helps us exhale. The only way we can truly feel accepted is by disclosing what we most fear people will reject us for. When one of us tells the truth about ourselves, we open the door to everyone else to share their own truth. So thank you for your courage.

Warmly, Leslie (Salisbury) Demich

Anonymous said...

What a profound and wonderful comment Leslie!

Jolie said...

Every time someone has the courage to publicly come forward with their own personal story of dealing with a mental illness, it helps all of us who have had to deal with one become more accepting of ourselves, and others who have not, to be more understanding and compassionate of others.

Would it be acceptable to make fun of or discriminate against someone with type 1 Diabetes or other congenital illness? Why in the world should we treat people with mood disorders and other mental illnesses any different then?

We are fortunate to live in a time where there is better, easier medical treatment for mental illness and where public awareness and acceptance continues to grow.

Thank you very much for sharing your story, Anne.

(btw, your list mentioning some famous people with bipolar disease left off one of my favorite authors, an actress/celebrity well known for her struggles with bipolar disease and wielding humor as one of the effective weapons in dealing with it--Carrie Fisher.)

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Diane Fanning said...

Bravo, Anne! Thank you for striking a blow against the stigma felt by people with mental illness.

Sharlene Martin said...

Anne- This piece is so articulate and insightful. Congrats on having the guts to share your story from the heart.

cheryl said...

Thank you Anne. It seems sometimes that the only times the general non bi-polar public think about bi-polar is because they hear about our disorder in a sensational news story.

Ever since I was diagnosed in my late 20's, I have been acutely aware of the impact of my disease upon my loved ones. I have never knowingly or willfully hurt anyone, yet because of the stigma associated with BPD I am constantly looked upon with suspicion.

Anonymous said...

What wonderful comments!! Leslie, Diane, Sharlene, Cheryl, and Jolie have all made such excellent comments!!

Bluewaters said...

Thanks Anne for going forth with this as it will likely help others. I am sorry to hear about your best friend and assistant.

Cathy Scott said...

I second the bravo, Anne!

Anonymous said...

I have been overwhelmed by the support I have received from those who read this article. I have heard from so many. I am so thankful to you are wonderful; to Jolie for your excellent and insightful comments; Sharelene, you are a dear; Bluewaters I thank you; Diane, Cheryl and Cathy- bless you. Sharing this with such a heart-warming response was more than I could ever have hoped for. We will remove the stigma in our lifetimes. I know it. Thank you!!!

Anne Bremner

DrGina said...

I've heard it said bi-polar people created America. Who else would have the energy, fearlessness, creativity and genius to risk life and limb to create a new country? Thank you for talking about an issue I care about deeply. The stigma often prevents people from seeking early treatment that can save them a lot of pain and suffering. Great post Anne!

Anonymous said...

Such a personal essay - demonstrating both vulnerability and strength- you definitely opened some eyes today. Sorry to hear of the invasion of your personal privacy that you so courageously endured. Best wishes, Jeanette LeBlanc

Anonymous said...

Dr Gina, I loved your comment. Many thought that Merriweather Lewis was bipolar as was the creator of our national parks. I Loved what you said as I believe it whole-heartedly. And Jeanette, thank you for your heartfelt comments. And to all, I finally believe for the first time that we can beat this stigma. I really went through the ringer but maybe my plight was a blessing in disguise. Thank you!



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Peggy Ganong said...

Thanks for helping to make a serious and rational discussion of bipolar disorder possible, Anne.
It is not a crime to be bipolar; the crime is stigmatizing those who happen to be bipolar. The media's manic obsession with Charlie Sheen and the outing of Catherine Zeta Jones say more about the media's inability to focus on deeper issues than anything else. Instead of following Charlie Sheen around with a camera, why not an in-depth story on the difficulty of getting healthcare coverage for the treatment of bona fide mental disorders?

You describe the "ups and ups" of mania very well. They can be frightening and bewildering for family and friends, but there is humor too. You capture it perfectly.
Peggy Ganong

Anonymous said...

Peggy - your post was perfect. I can't begin to thank you enough. I am speechless - for once. Thank you thank you thank you!!!!!

Best always,

Anne (Bremner)

Anonymous said...

several years ago, I attended a CLE you taught for young lawyers. I remember so vividly your entrance into the room - you had electrifying presence and more glamour than any lawyer I had ever seen. I was amazed - it was like you had just stepped out of the TV. If I could have adopted even a fraction of your persuasive power, I would have counted myself a success as a lawyer. I hadn't the least idea of how to emulate your personal style, but, oh, did I ever want to. I thought to myself "this is how to be a woman and a lawyer and unafraid." You were a powerful role model for me.
Now I have one more reason to think you are a good role model. This is how to be a woman and a lawyer and deal with mental health issues. Thank you for being strong and brave and coming out with this. Maybe, some day, I won't have to make excuses about why I go see a psychologist every week, and I won't feel that I have a dirty secret to be hidden.
Well, I just wanted to let you know I have always admired you, and now I admire you even more.

Anonymous said...

Hi Anne, Thank You for this article for in writing it, you have gifted me with that final boost of strength and courage to speak up loud enough about my own diagnoses.
For years it was enough to share articles and lift others in support while attempting to keep my personal diagnosis (Bipolar II w/Hypomania) a bit closer to the closet door.
Last year I was asked by my former Case Manager about becoming a Peer-to-Peer Specialist. I wasn't ready then yet I am so much stronger and ready now.
I have journeyed a great distance and experienced monumental healing from a past scarred with abuses.
I will continue extending my hand to others yet on a greater level sharing my strength and Hope:)
God Bless You!

Anonymous said...

Dear Anne,
You are a beacon of light guiding us all towards compassion and understanding towards those with mental illness. Bravo for writing such an honest and insightful piece.
Love you,

Anonymous said...

What I read: blah blah blah I'm a crazy self centered bitch who can do no wrong with a huge ego and I think I'm so important my doodoo smells like flowers and I am entitled to everything on a silver platter. Your problem isn't a stigma for being bipolar, your problem is your attitude and personality. Get over yourself & stop whining. Also, stop posting your high school yearbook photos online. High school was a long long long time ago Anne. We know what you really look like.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous:
You are obviously a projectionist. There are no HS pictures and Anne appears on TV regularly so of course people know what she looks the present.
Hoping you get the help you clearly need.......