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Catherine Zeta Jones and I Both Have Different Versions of the Same Problem

Recently it was reported that actress Catherine Zeta Jones had checked herself into a mental hospital to seek treatment for her Type II Bipolar Disorder, the same disease I was diagnosed with in 2007. Jones' press representative cited the stress she'd endured related to her husband, actor Michael Douglas, and his fight with cancer this past year. Douglas thrived after his initial cancer diagnosis, but the strain of dealing with a major illness of a loved one is wearing on anyone. If you're already dealing with a disease like Bipolar Disorder, that kind of stress can greatly aggravate it. 

More after the jump.

While the journalist in me knew that Jones likely went public with her diagnosis to get ahead of any vicious gossip mongering about it, another part of me was proud that someone so accomplished would go public with her disease, especially a mental illness like Bipolar that's often mistakenly lumped in with everything from Schizophrenia to Dissociative Disorder. Part of the reason why I was willing to talk about my own struggles with BP Type II in 2009 as opposed to when I was sitting in UCLA's neuroscience wing in late 2006 was because I was in UCLA's neuroscience wing. My priority was getting well, getting out of the hospital, getting my life back together and getting out of debt. Not spreading awareness.

I just wanted to be healthy again. 

There's a difference in speaking about your disorder while you're in the depths of it and years after the fact when it has become manageable and you're reasonably healthy. It wasn't so much about helping others, but me being strong enough to deal with the fall out of being public about it. 

It means so much to me when people who have been through the worst (and I went through some extremely dark days) come out of it speak out. Because when I was in that darkness I didn't think I'd ever feel peace again, that I'd ever pursue my dreams or accomplish anything. But having a mental illness doesn't have to be a death sentence. It doesn't have to doom you to a life confined to the margins. Surprisingly though, the first person I had to convince of this was myself, as even I didn't believe it at the time. 

Bipolar Type II is marked moreso by depression, making it a bit harder to diagnose. This meant putting me on medication for depression didn't actually help me, but made things worse without a mood stabilizer. Months of depression were balanced out with weeks of hypomania -- where I was highly creative but extremely moody and unpredictable, often not sleeping or eating.

For about seven years I pretty much had the same story to tell anyone about how I was doing. I was severely depressed, fighting to stay alive. And that's just what it was. For seven years. I had moments of happiness and levity in those seven years, but the majority of it was severe depression, agoraphobia, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, hypomania, self-loathing and narcissism, punctuated by hospitalizations and 6 a.m. panicky phone calls from my mother just to make sure I woke up that morning. It became increasingly difficult to talk to people who remembered how I was in college or high school. They wanted to old, funny, witty Danielle. I still remember how a friend from college called me a couple years after my divorce to see how I was doing and upon telling her that I was three years into the psychological "shit" she said "Still?"

I knew she wasn't trying to be hurtful. But, really, after three years of it I was sick of hearing myself talking about it. By seven years, I pretty much had stopped and devolved into 5'3" of sadness and rage. But it all was what it was. I had no choice but to go through it and push it until I found myself on the other side -- or let myself succumb to the depression that kept telling me to give up. But at the time I never thought I'd have a "life" ever again. I felt permanently damaged. Ruined. And I was devastated over it as I tried to "accept" the unacceptable -- that my dreams were dead and lost to the disease.

So when one of my doctors at UCLA, impressed by how bright and articulate I was, told me how I could do wonders for others with mental illness if I wrote about it as a reporter I looked at him like he was the one who needed the Desipramine.

I was in a mental hospital. How on earth was I going to be an advocate of anything when I still was a high risk for not making it another month?

There's a difference between now when I admit that I'm feeling depressed or manic and then. Then, if I was going through the ups and downs, it was cause for troop rallying and ringing bells and alarms. Today it's like, "Maybe I should take a few days off and sleep, then go out and get some exercise?" Today, when I find some part of me suddenly malfunctioning -- like the other day I found I was avoiding staircases -- I immediately assess if I've eaten, slept or been outside lately. I'm so in-tune with my Bipolar Disorder now that the warning signs have warning signs. Like, I know that I can't be broke or pay my rent late because worrying about money is one of my triggers. If I suddenly have Burning Mouth Syndrome (which, by far, is the most annoying stress-related malady I have), I know I need to just stop doing whatever I'm doing a reassess. I know that I can't stay in the house more than two days in a row, lest I never leave my house again. And since I'm a "misery loves company" person, it's just better to be in a terrible mood with an audience, than in my house, with the junk food and the cable TV.

Having a life is my therapy. Without a life, I'm pretty bad off.

Today, I'm reasonably successful and happy. I have a career. I left my parents' home. I live on my own. I'm self-sufficient and more than capable of taking care of myself. And that's what's important for people struggling with Bipolar to see. That the disease doesn't have to define you. That it is a disease that can be managed with the right mix of coping skills, exercise, diet, therapy, self-awareness and good medicine. That having a mental illness isn't an end to your dreams. It's a challenge, but it's one that you can take on and tackle. One you can wrestle with and overcome. But it takes time, acceptance and understanding. You can't get mad at yourself because you can't be exactly "like everyone else." You just have to be you. And there's nothing wrong or shameful in that.

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Reader Comments (17)

Thanks so much for writing this, for telling your truth of living as a successful, professional, educated, funny Black woman who lives everyday with mental illness. I've had the same experience as you, depression diagnosis for years, then finally a bipolar diagnosis along with some relief and a continuation of my personal and professional trajectory.

Every time you tell your story it not only helps other people struggling with illness, but it also helps everyone understand the truth about our disease: that it's not a death sentence, that it doesn't mean you're lazy, that mental illness does not equal mental disability.

Keep fighting the good fight *throws up the Black mental health power fist*


April 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDeltra Coyne

My wife has clinical depression so I know a little of what you're going through. It takes courage to admit you suffer from a mental illness. Far too many people will stigmatize you because they are so ignorant of the ailment. I'll put you in my prayers. You keep fighting.

April 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterM SLADE

"You can't get mad at yourself because you can't be exactly "like everyone else." You just have to be you. And there's nothing wrong or shameful in that."

That is so profound.

Thank you.

April 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

My mom has bipolar disorder, so I grew up watching her struggle with it and saw the difference proper diagnose and treatment can bring. Thank you so much for sharing your story. Hopefully it will encourage others folks who suffer from bipolar disorder (or their loved ones) to seek help.

Great post, Snob. My sister has bipolar disorder (recently diagnosed) and I referred her to your blog because you're a great example of how life can and should be when living with mental illness. Keep doing what you do.

April 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJD

Kudos to you.

As a struggling conspiracy theorist it is difficult to imagine that anyone in Hollywood would put out news like this one except to 1- get ahead of the media like you said or 2- promote a movie.

In reading your struggle I guess I have been too harsh in my judgement of Ms. Jones. Thank you for giving me a well deserved lesson!

April 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterQalil Little

I think my previous post didn't make it.

Any way, thanks for shedding light on this. It gives folks like me hope.

April 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTamara

I say kudos every time you post about mental illness. My mother-in-law has suffered from schizophrenia since at least the 1950s. She lost her battle since before my husband was born. To watch you, from a cyber distance, live, heal, write, and create a beautiful life for yourself is a joy to witness.

April 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlthea

May I one day have the courage that you have to open up more about my struggles with depression. I've come a long way, though; like you, I almost didn't make it and I'm more aware now of the "warning signs (that) have warning signs". My uncle suffers from clinical depression and he's very open about it. Again, I hope to get to a place where you & my uncle are, if only to help someone else.

"the right mix of coping skills, exercise, diet, therapy, self-awareness and good medicine." Yep, that's me.

Thank you Danielle. You do such a service.

April 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSpinster

I'm forever appreciative of you writing about your mental illness. Around this time two years ago you wrote a Danielle's Journal entry that gave me enough perspective to realize that I was depressed, not just unhappy. Two years later with a mix of diet, exercise, and medicine I'm so much better. Happy and stable. I shudder to think what might have happened if you hadn't figuratively tapped me on my shoulder and said "everything is not ok."

Thanks a thousand times.

April 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBuenaventuraAvenue


You write so beautifully, eloquently, honestly and bravely of your struggle, your triumphs and setbacks, your healing, that it can only be inspirational. As a mental health professional who is also living with someone with serious mental illness, I say once again, thank you. Remember, regardless of the number of comments you get on a particular post, you will never know how many more people you have informed, encouraged, and maybe even saved.

April 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWinn

Danielle, I always appreciate when you write about this. I live with another mental illness, and I related to the whole paragraph about "I'm so in-tune with my Bipolar Disorder now that the warning signs have warning signs." :-D

I just wanted to echo above what others said. Keep fighting the good fight!

April 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRachel

You are so brave for writing about your condition. If there were only more people like you who were willing to be open with their illness, I think it would have a great impact on the stigma that surrounds mental illness as a whole. Very admirable.

April 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRitz

Beautifully expressed, Snob. In spite of your illness, we, the readers of this blog, shall be a foundation on which you can always stand.

April 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterD.A.LW.

Thanks so much for this. I'm still making adjustments to my Bipolar diagnosis 2.5 years ago. You story gives me hope and a new perspective. Because of your article I will take the time to be more conscious of the warning signs that my body gives to me and take the opportunity to readjust. Thank you! Thank you!

April 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCha-Cha

I'm on a downswing right now and reminding myself that this is normal, this is what I've dealt with before, that I know how to cope and I won't end up in the hospital like I did ten years ago. BP II is sneakier than a lot of the flashy mental illnesses.

Thank you. It's always good to remember that there are lots of people coping and working with it.

May 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGement

Interestingly enough, I had an epiphany after conversing with a friend from Oregon. We all (especially Black Americans) suffer from some sort of dementia. I have O.C.D and have pathological tendencies.
Between the chem trails, societal adversities and mo' shit; whether it's faint or full-fledged, we all possess some kind of "crazy".

Much appreciated, Ms. Snob. Much appreciated.

May 9, 2011 | Registered CommenterIndia Weatherspoon
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