The Bipolar Lens

My view from the rollercoaster.

Catherine Zeta-Jones is Bipolar. So What?

Are We Seeing Glimmers of a Decline In Bipolar Stigma?

A little over two years ago, when actress Catherine Zeta-Jones announced that she was bipolar, a frenzy of publicity erupted. That evening it was one of the lead stories on the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, the nation's most popular news broadcast. I remember watching Brian Williams, his brow furrowed in concern, as he listened intently to Chief Medical Editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman expound about Zeta-Jones' condition. I remember this because earlier that day, a swarm of NBC Nightly News cameramen had descended on my house. For several hours a reporter had earnestly interviewed me about "what it was really like to be bipolar."

I felt rather important and at the same time extremely weird, like I was a space alien being asked to describe the customs and culture of my home planet. I did my best to explain the different mood states I travel through and the impact the illness has had on my life. I wasn't in top interview mode that day—I was coming out of a depression and cursed the absence of my grandiloquent manic eloquence. But the reporter seemed very happy with the material he got. It wasn't until after he and the camera crew left that I realized why I was feeling blue: because bipolar disorder was still considered big news.

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Don't get me wrong: I want the illness to get as much attention as possible, from as many sources as possible. That's the way to more funding and research and hopefully, one day, a cure. But I don't want it to be considered newsworthy because it's so bizarre. For every sober Nightly News interview, there's a flurry of tabloid exploitations, and God knows how many cyberspace atrocities. My hope is that someday the disease will be so well known and understood that it borders on the mundane.

Another celebrity with bipolar disorder? Yawn. What else can we cover?

According to my correspondents on email and Facebook, that time is not yet here. I receive countless messages from bipolar individuals all over the world telling me how frightened they are that "someone will find out"—especially someone at work. They are sure they'll be fired, they'll be ostracized, they'll no longer be loved. They have to hide their essence from the world day after day, night after night. These people live, not in a closet, but in a shoebox: stuffing their personalities into dark little holes where enlightenment can never shine.

Stigma, it seems, is alive and well and thriving in the bipolar community.

But then it happened: a few days ago, on April 29, 2013, Zeta-Jones was in the news again. I barely caught the story. It was just a blip on the evening news—a photo of the actress, looking stunning as always, followed by a sentence: she was going to be hospitalized for "pro-active treatment" of her bipolar disorder. Then the news moved on to Bangladesh.

I wondered what pro-active treatment was, and whether I could get it. Then it struck me—wham! pow!—how exceedingly short the entire story had been, if one could even call it a story. Why? Zeta-Jones is just as big a celebrity as she was two years ago. Yet her bipolar disorder was treated more like a factoid, with a very pretty face attached. No reporters had called me for background material that day. Apparently no one wanted to go deep, as they say.

I live in L.A. and I used to work in the entertainment industry. By osmosis, I've learned when a story is hot, and when it's no longer a story. A few seconds on the nightly news constitutes interest, but that interest is clearly waning. Maybe this means that bipolar disorder is not such a big deal anymore. Maybe people are getting used to it, and the stigma so many of us have had to endure all our lives is finally starting to lessen.

I sincerely want to believe that. I want to be able to tell my friends who write me with such fear and despair: hold on, be patient, just wait. Perhaps, just perhaps, the end is beginning.

Terri Cheney is the author of Manic: A Memoir and The Dark Side of Innocence: Growing Up Bipolar.

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