Psychological disorders affect as many as half of all adults, according to numerous surveys. The most prevalent mental health disorder is substance abuse, estimated to occur in over half of the adult U.S. population (Moore et al., 2005). Anxiety disorders are the second highest psychological disorder to occur in the population, affecting 29% of U.S. adults (Kessler et al., 2005). Even though these are common disorders, many people are still reluctant to seek help, much less admit that they are suffering from what are often disabling conditions.
We may criticize the celebrity tell-all for its lurid details, just as we harshly judge the bad behavior of the rich and famous. However, by confessing to their own psychological difficulties, these celebrities are doing more than trying to sell books. Their stories provide average adults, who may be suffering from one or more mental health conditions, with the inspiration to receive the help they need.
In my recently published textbook Abnormal Psychology: Clinical Perspectives on Psychological Disorders, 7e (with Richard Halgin), I present the “Real Stories” of well-known people with a range of psychological disorders. These stories, written for the book by American University clinical psychology grad student Jennifer O’Brien, are taken from biographies either authored by the celebrity or by someone close to the celebrity. We also include several historical figures, including Vincent Van Gogh and Ludwig Van Beethoven.
In this article, I summarize 3 of the 15 Real Stories from the book. I think you will find them to be compelling, insightful, and- most importantly- informative about common conditions that can affect any of us at any time in life.
Paula Deen: Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia
“What sickness did I have? What had happened to me? My terror had no name—least none I’d ever heard. I was alone with it. So scared about goin’ outside. It wasn’t always this way.”
Paula Deen’s rise to fame may never have occurred if she didn’t have the courage to overcome a debilitating case of panic disorder with agoraphobia. Her memoir, “It Ain’t All About the Cookin” gives a charismatic and candid account of her unlikely, triumphant rise to fame after suffering from a psychological disorder she kept to herself for nearly twenty years. Her panic attacks began shortly after her father died at the age of 40, a tragic event that led her to fear an early death for herself. Her mental health deteriorated further when her mother died 4 years later. Though she had already been suffering from severe anxiety and frequent panic attacks, Paula recalls that it was after her mother’s death when her mental health took a turn for the worse. For the next 20 years, she continued to suffer from panic and was unable to leave the house even to run small errands. Frustrated and mired in anxiety, often feeling “crippled by this fright I had”, she found solace in her kitchen and honed in on her skill for cooking delicious, traditional southern food. Paula’s family relocated to Savannah, and with the help of neighbors, Paula was able to open up about her illness and gain the confidence to turn her life around.
She writes: “One day, I was lying in bed, and, well—you know what? All of a sudden Denise’s words made sense to me. Simple as that. “Get out of bed,” she’d said. So, this particular morning, I got out of my bed, stood up, and looked in the mirror. I was only forth but I was stuck in my bedroom and dying inside. Out loud, I whispered to my mirror image, “I can’t do this anymore, I just can’t.” Again, Paula slowly began to recover, step by step and day by day.
Portia DiRossi: Anorexia Nervosa
Born in Australia as Amanda Lee Rogers, actress Portia de Rossi has come a long way since she began her professional career at the age of 12 as a fashion model. That was the time, as she recalls in her memoir Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain, when she began to focus obsessively on her weight. In the book, she writes; “Since I was a twelve-year-old girl taking pictures in my front yard to submit to modeling agencies, I’d never known a day where my weight wasn’t the determining factor for my self-esteem. My weight was my mood, and the more effort I put into starving myself to get it to an acceptable level, the more satisfaction I would feel as the restriction and the denial built into an incredible sense of accomplishment.”
As a teenager, Portia remembers getting “ready” for photo shoots, which consisted of losing weight in a short amount of time before the shoot. With her mother’s help, Portia would restrict her diet severely or not eat at all in the days leading up to the shoots. After a few years of modeling, Portia discovered her love of acting. She was featured in several Australian films until, at 25 years old, she got her first big break as Nelle Porter on Ally McBeal. Joining the show marked a new chapter in her life in which she began to experience immense pressure to be thin, along with the pressure that she felt from herself to blend into the Hollywood crowd. Portia was also faced with the realization that she was homosexual. She became plagued by fear that the public would find out about her sexuality.
Soon her distorted mindset, typical of those suffering from anorexia nervosa, led her to increasingly severe caloric restriction, until she was down to a frightening 82 pounds. At the time, she was shooting her first major Hollywood film in Who is Cletis Tout? . Due to her dietary restriction and low body weight, her joints ached to the point where she could barely move without extreme agony. She collapsed while shooting a particularly challenging action scene. Medical tests showed that she had osteoporosis, cirrhosis of the liver, and lupus. For the first time, Portia was forced to confront the reality of her obsession with weight loss, and so began her long and difficult journey towards recovery. By the time she started dating her current wife, Ellen DeGeneres in 2004, Portia had fully recovered from anorexia. She now enjoys a healthy and active lifestyle, free from the constraints of her eating disorder. “I never wanted to think about food and weight ever again.” She writes. “For me, that’s the definition of recovered.”
Daniel Tammet: Asperger’s Disorder
“I was born on January 31, 1979—a Wednesday. I know it was a Wednesday, because the date is blue in my mind and Wednesdays are always blue, like the number 9 or the sound of loud voices arguing.” Daniel was 26 years old when he wrote his autobiography, Born on a Blue Day, which describes in vivid detail his experiences that are both a part of any other child’s development and those that are far rarer. Much like those with savant syndrome, Daniel has Asperger’s Disorder and throughout the book he describes having many experiences during his childhood that are consistent with the diagnosis.
When Daniel was a child, the scientific world knew little about developmental disorders, and his parents could not understand what their son was experiencing. At 4 years, Daniel began having seizures and doctors diagnosed him with temporal lobe epilepsy. He took medication for about three years until the seizures subsided. His doctors now believe that these seizures lead to savant syndrome.
He recalls that as a child he took comfort in the daily routines at school, and would become highly anxious should the routines be upset in any way. When he was feeling particularly anxious, he would bang his head against a wall, or run home to his parent’s house when he felt overwhelmed during school. Looking back, Daniel wonders “What must the other children have made of me? I don’t know, because I have no memory of them at all. To me they were the background to my visual and tactile experiences.”
Daniel describes that his synesthesia (a neurologically based condition in which sensory or cognitive pathway stimulation leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway) causes a blurring of his senses and emotions when someone presents him with numbers or words. He writes, “The word ladder, for example, is blue and shiny, while hoop is a soft, white word.”
Daniel’s savant syndrome grants him the ability to see letters and numbers as colors and textures, and has led to some remarkable lifetime achievements. For example, Daniel has taught himself to speak at least ten languages, including Icelandic which he learned in just four days as part of the filming for a documentary in which he participated. In 2005, Daniel set the British and European record for reciting 22,514 digits of pi in just over five hours. Although he has gained considerable media attention for his extraordinary abilities, Daniel enjoys a quiet life which he spends mostly at home where he takes pleasure in his daily routines. He has also found strength through attending church, and especially enjoys the ritual aspect of it. From time to time he gives talks for the National Autistic Society and the National Society for Epilepsy and writes that he hopes to continue contributing to an understanding and acceptance of developmental disorders. Daniel has gone on to write another book, Embracing the Wide Sky, in addition to many other articles and public appearances.
These brave individuals, by sharing their stories so publicly, give us hope that we can turn our lives around when psychological challenges come our way. In a later blog, I will share several more of these fascinating first-person accounts.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2012
Kessler, R. C., Chiu, W. T., Demler, O., Merikangas, K. R., & Walters, E. E. (2005). Prevalence, severity, and comorbidity of 12-month DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62(6), 617-627.
Moore, A. A., Gould, R., Reuben, D. B., Greendale, G. A., Carter, M. K., Zhou, K., & Karlamangla, A. (2005). Longitudinal patterns and predictors of alcohol consumption in the United States. American Journal of Public Health, 95(3), 458-465. doi: 95/3/458 [pii]\
Whitbourne, S.K. & Halgin, R.P. (2013). Abnormal Psychology : Clinical Perspectives onPsychological Disorders, 7e. New York : McGraw-Hill.