• Tue, Apr 19 2011

I Don’t Need Catherine Zeta-Jones to Legitimize My Bipolar Disorder

Not even a half-hour after the news broke about Catherine Zeta-Jones checking into a rehab facility for treatment of bipolar II disorder, I received a half-dozen emails. Followed by about five voice messages. And then more emails.

While I was ecstatic that one of my favorite celebs had the courage to disclose her mental illness – especially in a Hollywood culture that often outright denies that such conditions exist – I wondered why it took a beautiful star getting diagnosed for us to talk about bipolar in way that didn’t mock it (Thanks, Charlie Sheen), and for us to believe that the illness is legitimate.

You may recall that it was the same thing with Brooke Shields several years ago. There were some people in my life who simply didn’t buy postpartum depression until this gorgeous creature came out with her story and a bestselling book filled with not-so-Hollywood-friendly details. Afterward, most of us made fun of Tom Cruise’s blanket dismissal of psychiatry and psychiatric illness; but based on all the feedback I’ve received about my own diagnosis of bipolar II, I think about half of us actually agree with him, even after that now-legendary (and embarrassing) Oprah-couch-jumping incident, where Cruise himself certainly manifested a mental illness – or five.

When I first emerged from the hospital with my diagnosis of bipolar II, relatives and friends balked at it. “Come on…You’re fine!” they said. “This is just another manipulation of big pharma, trying to get its hands on some of your money.” Some still feel that way. But now that Catherine Zeta-Jones has gone public with bipolar II,  I can already see the wheels turning in their minds as they reassess their opinions.

Think I’m being far-fetched? Check out this reader comment by an M.D. (medical doctor, that is) in the combox of a Psych Central post I just wrote:

I sense Ms. Zeta-Jones is just the latest poster person for the big pharma push to sell their meds, especially the second-generation antipsychotics like, in order of sales pitch hysteria: Seroquel, Abilify, Zyprexa, Risperdal, Geodon, and soon to follow Zanapt, and Latuda. And yet, what if someone is personality disordered, has these mood swings that are often the lack of maturity and effective coping skills, and just seeks out any and all support systems in their acuity and demanding-ness, just to be falsely labeled as a mood disorder?

And this one:

Aren’t these also symptoms of “electromagnetic radiation poisoning?” We are bombarded with so much radiation from towers, dishes, antennae for cell phones, wireless phones and computers, digital TVs, and, perhaps more importantly, from “HAARP” weather warfare electromagnetic radiation technology. Our bodies cannot handle this bombardment. After using the Internet for a couple days, intensively, I couldn’t sleep anymore, for ten days I simply could not sleep. And then fear came, from sleep loss. I had loads of energy. It was just too much radiation exposure for my body.

Way off?

Not in my world.

They articulate the opinions that many of the people around me espouse. (Until a rock star comes along and says it’s all true, of course.) It’s like those of us who’ve been diagnosed as bipolar have been believing in Santa Claus among a circle of skeptics, and then, all of a sudden, the reindeer emerge from the sky. Why the hell can’t we accept that there really is a Santa without proof of the sleigh and Dasher and Prancer and all the rest?

And why should Zeta-Jones having bipolar be such a shocker? That she would actually disclose her illness?!? My God, that’ll be the end of her career! Would anyone care if she had said, instead, that she had just been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis? Talk shows may not be so keen to book that story. But, God, bipolar? That’s so politically incorrect! That’s basically like saying she believes she was once abducted by aliens and taken away in a space ship.

Notice the language involved in this media story: Zeta-Jones “admits” she has bipolar. Admits? Like it’s a crime? Do we say that someone admits they have cancer? Of course not. That would be ridiculous.

The thing is, I just want to know why people can’t believe me (or don’t want to) when I say I’m bipolar – even if there’s no Hollywood A-Lister to back it up. Do I really need the support of celebrities I’ll never meet in order to feel okay in my bipolar skin? Although I do think Zeta-Jones is brave (see, there’s that language again – brave?) to disclose her illness, I wish I didn’t feel like I needed her diagnosis in order to legitimize mine, because I know I really don’t.

Therese J. Borchard is Associate Editor of Psych Central, where she regularly contributes to the award-winning blog, World of Psychology. She also writes the daily blog, Beyond Blue, on Beliefnet, which is featured weekly on The Huffington Post and several other websites, and moderates the popular depression support group, Beyond Blue, on Beliefnet’s community site. Therese is the author of Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes and The Pocket Therapist: An Emotional Survival Kit. She resides in Annapolis, MD with her husband, Eric, and their two children.

You can follow Therese on Twitter at @thereseborchard or visit her website: thereseborchard.com.

photo of Catherine Zeta-Jones: WENN.com

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  • marymargaret

    Dearest Therese,
    What a wonderful world it will be when we no longer need the empowerment of the approval of others to be ourselves.
    Labels on foods must now show all that is inside the packaging.Labels on humans would list all of our impurities, shortcomings, flaws, experiences, thoughts, and abuses of our minds, bodies and souls.
    Labels. Diagnoses. Same difference.

  • Melissa

    Psychology/psychiatry has always worn the label of charlatan at best because very few people understand how the mind & brain work. It’s easier to label people who suffer with mental illness as lazy, immature, irresponsible than to understand that their illness is due to a very real, yet intangible organic disease. Thanks Therese for your thoughts on this topic! The only way to eridicate ignorance is through exposure & education.

  • dugg

    I spent part of this evening writing about my own mixed reactions to her recent ‘coming out’, so I’ve enjoyed reading your about your perspective. The language that is used in talking about this is so very important- thanks for raising it here…

    d

    http://bipolar-planet.blogspot.com/2011/04/bipolar-celebrities.html