Jessie Close didn't know she was living with a Mood disorder until she was 47 years old. Up until then, the younger sister of Hollywood legend, Glenn Close, endured depression, suicide attempts and alcoholism for as long as she can remember.
While on a quest to diagnose behavioral changes in her teenage son, Calen, Jessie found answers to long-asked questions regarding her own life experience. She discovered that she had Bipolar Disorder. Her son, meanwhile, was living with Schizoaffective Disorder.
Jessie shared this information with her brother and sisters, and bit by bit they traced the heritage lines of mental illness through several generations. The discovery of mental illness on both sides of the family didn't make them feel ashamed. In fact, just the opposite. It brought light to family stories and historical accounts. It made sense.
Over the last few years, Jessie Close has taken her personal life journey public. Together with her son, Calen, now in his 30's, her middle son, Sander, 28, her daughter, Mattie, age 19, her service dog, Snitz, and her celebrity sister, Glenn, she is helping bring awareness about mental illness. And debunking stigma along the way. She is a star in her own right.
Serani: You've said that you knew you were always a bit different from you brother and sisters. How early in your life do you know this?
Close: I remember being five or six and self-wounding. I always felt as though I was outside looking in. I don't remember not feeling that way.
Serani: Tell us how you came to learn that you were living with Bipolar Disorder?
Close: I went to a psychiatrist in Salt Lake City, Utah and he diagnosed me with Bipolar Disorder.
Serani: What was it like to learn the actual diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder later in your life?
Close: I was relieved, really, to have a diagnosis. I had known that something was wrong for a very long time. Later, when I was better and looking back, I felt great sadness that this illness had cheated me out of many things like work and relationships.
Serani: What kinds of things did you do to try to help yourself? What worked? What didn't?
Close: In the beginning of my diagnosis I stayed on the medication that was prescribed. I tried to exercise every day. I tried to get rested when needed. Unfortunately, I drank alcohol in the beginning which undermined my health and effects of the medication.
Serani: Tell us more about your experiences with alcohol.
Close: Alcohol is a depressant and if you have a mood disorder drinking will not only make side-effects from medication worse, you won't get better. When I first drank with my medication I was thrilled to discover how few drinks it took to get me wasted. That is not a good attitude! I am ten years sober now and have allowed the medications to work their magic without the influence of alcohol.
Serani: Tell us about your son, Calen. What has he taught you? What do you think he learns from you? What can Psychology Today readers learn from you both?
Close: Calen is my hero. If 'hero' is defined as being brave, courageous, that is Calen. He has taught me to not allow my symptoms or side-effects undermine my life and recovery. He wears sunglasses when he needs to. He leaves a room if he needs to. He takes care of himself by knowing his limitations. I believe PT readers can learn a lot from Calen. He got sick when he was a young teenager and most of his friends, if not all, left his side. This abandonment hurt. Because he has been through the fire he has compassion that only develops when you have been hurt. Funny how that works! His calm strength lifts him up; his artistic ability shows him off, which can be viewed at CalenPick.com. And besides all those glowing remarks, he is one of my best friends. I really don't know what he learns from me. You have to ask him yourself!
Serani: Well, I did! And he said that you taught him to how to be respectful, polite and believe in himself - that you never faltered in your loving manner, and did all you could for him. With all that you've been through, Calen said he came to "understand what family is all about." What about your daughter, Mattie? What do you think she'd say is your greatest strength?
Close: Mattie thinks my greatest strength lies in my perseverance. She said "You persevere through the endless setbacks and disappointments that accompany this illness. You never give up." Mattie herself is an extraordinary young woman. Without fail, when I introduce her to an adult, they tell me later how her inner peace radiated on to them. Mattie has gone through a lot with Calen and me and I think her experience with mental illness has added to her personal strength.
Serani: Your sister, Glenn Close, has been a source of great support for you. Tell Psychology Today readers how BringChange2mind came about.
Close: Glenn has not only been a sister but has stood by me during my trials. None of us knew about Bipolar Disorder when I was young, but she knew something was wrong. She stuck by me, no matter what. She flew out to Salt Lake City to be with me when I was diagnosed. BringChange2Mind came about a few years after I asked her to help Calen and me with the stigma attached to mental illness. She volunteered her time at Fountain House in NYC to get a handle on what was needed and how she could help. She grew BC2M.org out of Calen's and my pain, the pain of mental illness. Her executive assistant, Nancy Evans, was our first executive director and with her hand on the wheel we have grown enormously over the past year and a half. To get the attention we needed Glenn went to Ron Howard of 'A Beautiful Mind' and he donated his time to shoot a Public Service Announcement in Grand Central Station in October of 2009. The PSA was a great hit and played all across the country. Once the PSA was launched, the focus shifted to helping others. Go to our website and see, at the top of the page, a button that says Find Help. We have volunteers standing by and pledge to get back to you with information you may need within 48 hours. There are also important numbers there like Suicide Prevention.
Serani: You often speak about the need to be you own advocate if you live with mental illness. Tell us more about that.
Close: Yes, being our own advocates is important. No one can stand up for your dignity like yourself. No one can live your life but yourself. We may have people who love us and help us but loving and helping ourselves is what's most important. You might think, "Well, if things were different I could..." - but they're not. Standing up for yourself is a big deal. Understanding your mental illness and being pro-active with your doctor is also a big deal. You can really make a difference for many people, and starting with yourself is really the only logical place to start.
Serani: What kinds of experiences have you had with stigma?
Close: My experiences with stigma have been the silent kind; the looks people give me and the glazing over of their eyes when I mention that I have bipolar disorder. I actually had a man I was dating say he couldn't be with someone who took psychiatric medication after I told him I was taking an anti-depressant. I was devastated as I really liked him. I have also experienced a fear that begins in my own heart when I'm afraid to tell someone that I have a mental illness. When my daughter was little I was afraid that her friends' mothers would find out I was Bipolar and not let their child come to my house. That scenario never happened but the fear and self-stigma were very real.
Serani: Tell us about your service dog, Snitz.
Close: All I can say about Snitz is that she's perfect! She came into my life almost six years ago and I noticed, when she was about three, how much better I felt when she was along. She is a tiny girl but is warm and soft and very understanding. She is half miniature Chihuahua, one quarter Rat Terrier and one quarter Yorkie Terrier. I think that sometimes she's comforting because she gets nervous so I concentrate on her instead of me. When I speak she is the best tool I have. I think sometimes the audience watches Snitz and can't help but hear me. When I'm finished speaking people come up to me but are sometimes too shy to talk to me or don't want to reveal anything about themselves. I've watched them approach Snitz, because she's safe, and pat her. Then they begin speaking to me about themselves. It works. She is a good psychologist.
Serani: For me, I can recall the exact moment that I knew I had to talk publicly about Unipolar Depression. What was it that made you decide to be more vocal about your experiences with Bipolar Disorder?
Close: Before BringChange2Mind I had my own 'one on one' anti-stigma campaign going. I would talk to anyone who was interested. But as far as public speaking - I had no idea that sharing my experience would benefit the people that it has. Our first invitation was to the annual Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance Conference. After all was said and done I got off the stage and was stunned by how much I liked speaking to the crowd. It's taken off since then.
Serani: A lot of mental health professionals read Psychology Today, so this is a great opportunity to help them become better practitioners. As a person living with a mood disorder, what would you like to see more from professionals?
Close: I would like to see the professionals who work with the mentally ill listen more. We have to take medication but we also have experiences that need a voice and that voice needs an ear. We have a Drop-In Center in Bozeman at the new Mental Health Center. All are welcome and we are able to speak to each other in a relaxed atmosphere. There are Dual Diagnosis meetings and activities. We even have a washer and dryer so people can do their laundry if they don't have a home with such facilities or have no home at all. But even with all those amenities we need to be heard by the doctors. Even if they only have time to comment on just one sentence the patient says. Listening is nurturing. Nurturing is healing.
Serani: What advice would you give to someone who is struggling with a mood disorder?
Close: My advice to someone with a mood disorder is the same advice I give myself. See or speak with your doctor or prescribing professional at least once a month, if possible. Take your medication every day and at the same time. Do not increase or stop your medication without speaking to your doctor. Just because you are feeling well, normal actually, this is not a good time to quit your medication because it is that medication that is allowing you to feel well. Devise a routine for yourself and stick to it as much as possible. Love yourself. Understand that certain people will always be uncomfortable in your presence and try to not let that bother you. Read as much as you can about your disorder. Love yourself.
To learn more about Jessie Close and BringChange2Mind go here
Note: Dr. Deborah Serani is the author of the forthcoming book "Living with Depression: Why Biology and Biography Matter Along the Path to Hope and Healing" by Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.