Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Guest Blog - Where Did All the Bipolar Stigma Go?

No one better describes the follicle-tingling fear of a mood about to run away than Terri Cheney. Her book, Manic: A Memoir, published early last year, instantly hit the New York Times best-seller list and soon after was optioned as an HBO drama. Two weeks ago, Manic came out in paperback. Warm congratulations on the success of your great book, Terri. Take it away ...

Thank you, John.

I have had bipolar disorder my whole life, I think. And I have hidden my bipolar disorder practically that whole time. I wasn’t properly diagnosed until I was thirty-four years old (I’m forty-nine now). Although I finally had a name for what was wrong with me, it was a name I dared not speak.

For most of my adult life, I was a very successful entertainment lawyer, representing the likes of Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, major motion picture studios, etc. In the small and insular world that is entertainment litigation, reputation is key. Upheavals are common, and clients want to know, will you be around tomorrow? Can I trust you with my life? I knew a lawyer who was shunned because she had breast cancer, for example, even though it was eminently treatable. Another man I know lost all his big ticket clients because a rumor went around that he had AIDS. As a young associate, I watched these events with wide eyes and an impressionable mind.

I was very sick while I was practicing law. Stress inevitably exacerbates my mood swings, and the constant deadlines, office politics, and multi-million dollar stakes of a high-profile practice were like venom to my system. When I was manic, of course, I functioned like a dynamo. My pressured speech, exuberant schemes, and frenetic activity went unnoticed in the madness that is Hollywood. But always, inevitably, my mood would switch and I’d collapse into paralysis. Papers piled up on my desk, phone calls went unanswered, and it was not uncommon for me to simply lock my office door and crawl under my desk to cry. When the depression got really severe, I had to stay home, under the covers, immobilized.

Which meant I had to call in sick – but sick with what? It never once occurred to me to tell the truth. No one could possibly want a mentally ill lawyer as their fiduciary, I thought. So I made up dozens of excuses, each one more carefully crafted than the last but none so dire as to raise any real alarms. I had the flu an awful lot, and massive dental problems, and more bouts of food poisoning than the average person could experience in a lifetime. But these were innocuous illnesses, nothing like the horrid truth.

Because I could turn to no one else, I finally turned to the page. In 1999, during a secret hospitalization for suicidal depression, I began writing about my bipolar disorder. And writing. And writing. Seven years later, I found myself with a book, which to my everlasting surprise, HarperCollins wanted to publish.

The night before Manic: A Memoir was to be released, I nearly called my editor at midnight to tell her I’d changed my mind. I wasn’t practicing law anymore, but I was sure I would be ostracized by the entire world once it found out the truth. All these years, I’d been so careful. I’d erected an impeccable fa├žade: you never saw me with a hair out of place. I hid my demons out of sight, behind a career, a lifestyle, a precise and cautious lie of a life.

Manic changed all that. It hit the New York Times bestseller list a month after its release, and now everyone knew my story: the suicide attempts, the nights in jail, the manic infidelities. I was terrified at my first reading, which all my friends attended. What would they think? How would they treat me now? But the response was astonishing, and it remains astonishing. Almost without exception, I’ve been showered with acceptance. Strangers write me daily, from all corners of the world, thanking me for my honesty. People I used to work with email me, telling me how brave I am. My friendships are deeper now, richer because they are real. What’s even more surprising to me is how many “normal” people have openly identified with my story. They may not have faced the extremes I wrote about, but everyone knows the edge.

All of which makes me wonder: where did the bipolar stigma go? Is it possible that it was always mostly in my head? I doubt that, but still . . . If I had told the truth all those years ago, what kind of life could I have lived? If I had trusted people with my despair, would I have had to attempt suicide so many times? Maybe acceptance was always out there, just waiting for me to allow it to emerge. If I have learned anything from the experience of publishing Manic, it’s that so many of the shadows I fear the most exist because I am blocking the light.

Purchase Manic: A Memoir on Amazon.

1 comment:

Cristina Romero-Sierra said...

Hi Terri. Congratulations on coming out to the world and on your success with your book. Congrats too on acceptance. I too hope to publish a book, so it's encouraging to hear your words here. Thank you. I wish you continued success.