Bipolar Women: The Lovers, The Dreamers, and Me (and Catherine Zeta-Jones)[Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered]

For a while, there was this Facebook thing going around where you were supposed to post your “doppelganger” as your profile pic – some famous person you physically resemble in some obvious-to-vague way.

I was conflicted about whom to post as mine (as you can read here in my article Sarah Palin: My Damned Doppelganger.)

I settled for Palin, but she wasn’t my first choice. The person I really wanted to post, as my double was none other than actress and superstar Catherine Zeta-Jones.

After all, we share similar features – long, dark hair, Welsh eyes, and high cheekbones, round cheeks. But did I post her as my doppelganger? No, I did not. The truth is I was far too self-conscious. Would people take one look at my self-appointed twin and think, “Ohh, reeeaally? SHE thinks SHE looks like HER?”

After all, I did the same thing when a not-very-close friend posted Mila Kunis as hers.

But Catherine and I? There were other similarities: we’re both actresses, musical theatre people, about 5.6, and at one time (5 years ago, for about 3 minutes, shoes off, no jewelry weighing me down) – we were both a size 6. Pretty much the biggest you can be in Hollywood. Oh, how that soothed my insecurities, that I could get down to a Catherine-Zeta Jones size.

Then, last year, I learned that Catherine Zeta-Jones and I also share another number: 2. As in Bipolar Type 2.

I was diagnosed in 2009, and though the medication I chose to take was doing a good job stabilizing my moods, I didn’t necessarily believe (or want to believe) the diagnosis.  Other docs had suggested it was everything from depression to ADHD to generalized anxiety disorder– all more palatable to me than the dreaded “bipolar” label.

Then, I was delighted and relieved to learn that bipolar 2 is different than bipolar 1. Better. Not as crazy. That little number 2 made all the difference. Maybe I could accept it– as long as the rest of the world knew, understood the difference.

As such, I was just on the verge outing myself and owning my bipolar 2 when my doctor said something that stopped me cold. “If you do feel the need to disclose [the disorder,]” she said, her eyes clearly willing me not to, “maybe consider telling people it’s something else, something related: cyclothymia, or major depressive disorder, or dysthymia.”

Basically, anything but bipolar.

Bipolar is the butt of jokes all over pop culture, in movies and TV shows, even working its way to late night laughter between girlfriends, i.e. “Oh my God, what a bitch. Hello, bipolar!” I’m sure I’ve participated in it in some way, oblivious. But I quickly became all too aware of the bias.

In the weeks after my diagnosis, I went to visit my parents in Ohio to get some old-fashioned Midwestern TLC. I had just talked to my parents about my diagnosis, when we went to a movie, a comedy where Nia Vardalos plays a kooky cut-rate tour guide, who is totally over her job and ready for a change. A bipolar joke got big laughs. Sitting between my parents, who, like the rest of the audience may or may not have had emitted a knee-jerk giggle, the joke stung.

These wisecracks continue to shock me – maybe because I’ve been reassured that bipolar disorder, or any mental illness, is no different than, say, diabetes. “You’d take your insulin for diabetes, right?” Mental health advocates champion this comparison, and in doing so demand the disease’s legitimacy. Most diabetics aren’t ashamed to take their medication. Bipolar disorder is just like that; a disease that you have, accept, and manage.

You know what?  I can’t remember the last time I heard a good diabetes joke.

But bipolar? That’s ha-larious. Never mind that studies show the bipolar disorder has the highest rate of suicide of any other psychiatric illness – more than 20% higher than the general population. According the World Health Organization, bipolar disorder is the 7th leading cause of disability.

That’s pretty weighty stuff. So, maybe my therapist was right – avoid the drama and pretend it’s some other affliction. After all, I haven’t heard a lot of jokes about these other illnesses, i.e:

“Oh, man! Did you see her all glassy-eyed and not being able to get out of bed? Talk about your major depressive disorder!”

“‘Fo sho.”

“True dat!”

Nor have I heard this:

“OMG – that wacko guy who was all freakin’ and shit? Okay Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder nutjob!”



“That chick is a total freakshow. Can you say Seasonal Affective Disorder?”

No – there aren’t a whole lot of depression jokes in the media because …oh, wait I know –  because depression isn’t funny. But, bipolar? Now, there’s a gold mine!

No, I decided I certainly wouldn’t tell people about my bipolar disorder – even if it is a “2” which I was now starting think stood for “too” – as in too much stigma surrounding the word itself. I’m entitled my privacy, I thought, bolstering my case for keeping mum. Why, I thought, would anyone bring their bipolar out in the open, bringing with it all judgment, speculation, and whispering that would only further damage an already hurting heart?

Better to sock it away, keep it a secret.  Easier to rely on easier-to-swallow terms like “mood disorder” or the even more vague, “chemical imbalance.”

In fact, better not to discuss it at all.

That didn’t feel right either. Not when there are 5.7 million Americans with the disorder (and how many un- or mis-diagnosed?) No, I told myself, when I choose to, I can be frank about it.  I’ll just take it upon myself to inform everyone that my bipolar 2 is totally different than Type 1! I’m not the first one to take this tact. My go-to script:

“See, bipolar 1 is the really bad one, remember Sally Fields’ character on ER? Bipolar 1 is the scary, gamble away your life savings, sleep with a football team and wake up 6,000 miles from your house. That’s bipolar 1! That’s totally different! I don’t have that.”

Subtext: Those people are crazy. Ha! I’m not that nuts! I was willing to use my bipolar 1 brethren as a diversion, my scapegoat; the whipping boys at the cirque de lune.

For this article, I was all set to create a list of successful Bipolar Type 2 women. But, then I realized I’d purposefully be avoiding association with another aspect of the bipolar, thus contributing to the stigma.

The fact is that like so many things, from human sexuality to autism, bipolar disorder exists on a spectrum.

If you’re unfamiliar with the bipolar spectrum, here it is in a nutshell:

Bipolar 1 is characterized by extreme range of mood swings from severe depression (feelings of emptiness, worry, fatigue, changes in eating/sleeping patterns, suicidal thoughts, difficulty concentrating) to mania (euphoria, irritability, racing thoughts, impulsiveness/high-risk behaviors, decreased need for sleep) or mixed mania.

The hallmark of Bipolar 2 is a low and long depression that includes the less severe hypomania, rather than full-on mania or psychosis. Bipolar depression can be disabling and difficult to treat.

Cyclothymia refers to a chronic unstable mood state, from moderate depression to hypomania.

Rumor has it Catherine Zeta-Jones never intended to go public with her bipolar 2 disorder. Rather, she was “outed” by a disloyal cohort in residential treatment therapy. Doesn’t matter. It’s still courageous to discuss it, to shine light upon it. It’s better in the light.

So, there it is.  I’ve outed myself. I’m like, totally bipolar.

Here is list of women who have openly talked about their bipolar disorder. Everyone on this list has openly discussed their bipolar disorder. (Not included are women who are simply rumored to have bipolar disorder’ – for this reason I have not included amazing women like Virginia Woolf).

*Special kudos to those who wrote about their bipolar!

*Carrie Fischer

*Jane Pauley

*Mariette Harltey

*Rosemary Clooney

*Patty Duke

*Kitty Dukakis

*Kay Redfield Jamison (author)

*Jane Kenyon (poet)

*Kristin Hersch (musician)

*Connie Francis

Margaret Trudeau

Sinead O’Conner

Linda Hamilton

Patricia Cornwell (author)

Kaye Gibbons (author)

Macy Gray

Jenifer Lewis

Kristy McNichol

Cheri Oteri

Nina Symone

Nicola Pagett

Gene Tierney

Phyllis Hymen

Margaret Trudeau

Ruby Wax

Amy Winehouse

Lili Taylor

Tracy Ullman

Vivian Leigh

Kristin Hersh

Jane Kenyon

Patricia Cornwall

Lori Schiller

featured image credit: batwrangler