There’s an aberration that charms the most brilliant of us into believing we’re invincible, capable of impossible dreams, beautiful, godlike, high on ourselves–just before crushing us into a million tiny pieces of nothing. Manic depression, also known as bipolar disorder, is a mental illness characterized by extreme changes in mood (poles)–from mania to depression–that can be serious and disabling.
Terri Cheney knows firsthand how the whirlwind of emotion caused by bipolar disorder can twist reality, turning every day life events into dramatic, painful escapades of secrecy and survival. Her memoir, Manic (HarperCollins) will be released in paperback on February 3rd. Per HarperCollins, this harrowing yet hopeful book is more than just a searing insider’s account of what it’s really like to live with bipolar disorder. It is a testament to the sharp beauty of a life lived in extremes.
Having specialized in intellectual property and entertainment law at several prominent Los Angeles firms, Terri now devotes her talents to the cause of mental illness. She was named a member of the board of the California Bipolar Foundation and the Community Advisory Board of the UCLA Mood Disorders Research Program. She is also the founder of a weekly support group at UCLA’s Semel Institute.
Terri was fascinated by Aberration Nation, and quite eager to join the ranks. Being a fellow writer and having my own set of aberrations, I’m in awe of her accomplishments. Reading her story helps me feel understood–not based on a diagnosis but rather on our shared humanity. After all, isn’t that much bigger than any common aberration? We’re all human; that’s what Aberration Nation is all about.
You have been diagnosed with manic depression. Can you tell us in plain terms what it’s like to struggle with manic depression, particularly alone, as you did for so many years?
It wasn’t until the past few years, when I’ve been relatively stable, that I’ve been able to look back on my life and realize how incredibly hard it has been. It’s amazing, after so many suicide attempts, that I am here today to respond to this question. Everything I feel, I feel intensely–whether it’s joy or pain, love or desperation. I’m slowly beginning to realize that much of the world doesn’t respond this way. My survival is a source of great amazement to me.
For most of my childhood and early adulthood, I was consumed by guilt. I was sure that whatever was wrong with me was purely my fault–that it was volitional, and if I just worked hard enough at being normal, I could. That guilt eased somewhat when I was diagnosed in 1987, when I was 27 years old. It was the wrong diagnosis–the doctor assumed I was “just” depressed–but still, it helped. Then when I was finally diagnosed in 1994 with manic depression, I felt an enormous sense of relief. My chaotic life actually made sense to me, for the first time. It wasn’t all my fault. It was a chemical disorder for which there was help, and hope, and treatment.
I’m writing a second book now, a childhood memoir. It’s been surprising to discover how much of my bipolar disorder had its seeds in my childhood and adolescence. I was a very intense overachiever, extremely sensitive to criticism or the threat of rejection or failure. I was suicidal at age seven, which should have clued me in to the fact that I was ill, but it didn’t. I just learned very early on to hide my illness behind my achievements, a pattern that continues to this very day.
Once you were diagnosed, did the burden ease significantly or do you still struggle day to day? How have you learned to cope and keep the swaying tides of manic depression at a level that you can feel happy and fulfilled?
I still struggle–I’m just coming out of a bout of depression as I write this. But I’m so much saner than I’ve ever been, because over the course of the past eight years, I’ve harvested so many recovery tools. I go to therapy every week, I have a good relationship with my psychopharmacologist, and I’m very medication-compliant. I run a weekly support group at UCLA for people with a dual diagnosis–mental illness combined with substance abuse. (I’ve been sober for nine years, which still amazes me.) And my writing has been immensely cathartic. I’m in two writing groups, which give me support and structure and discipline. I also had to make the tough decision to give up the practice of law, because it was too stressful for me. But I’ve always wanted to write, so doing what I love best in the world is a tremendous gift. I miss the money, but I’m so much more personally fulfilled now.
Obviously, like many aberrations, manic depression isn’t fun nor is it to be celebrated. It stinks! However, through your diagnosis, recovery, and ongoing challenges, what positives have you found? In what ways has this negative, powerful force in your life enabled you to become the courageous, positive person you are today?
I think it’s obvious to everyone by now that there is a definite link between manic depression and creativity. Were it not for my bipolar disorder, I doubt that I would be a writer. My illness has kept me on the outside, watching; it makes me feel things very deeply; and I think I see the world at a slightly different angle from most people–all of which are two-edged swords, of course, but great for writing. Also, as a result of my own suffering, I am very attuned to others’ feelings. My empathy helps me put my own struggles into perspective.
What are the top three things that friends and family can do for someone dealing with manic depression?
First, don’t try to argue or reason with depression. Just ask where it hurts. Your empathy will mean more to the person than all your cheery, well-meaning attempts to make it better.
Second, educate yourself about the disease. Know the signs and symptoms of the different mood states. If you can speak the vocabulary of the illness, you will be able to help your loved ones articulate what is going on with them–which is invaluable, not just for their own need to be understood, but for their communication with their doctors.
Third, do whatever you can to help your loved ones get sober. Many people with bipolar disorder self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. But the medications simply don’t work when someone is abusing substances. Find out about twelve-step meetings in your area (google “Dual Recovery Anonymous”) and offer to go along. Sobriety is a critical step to bipolar recovery, which is all too often ignored.
I would tell the world that it’s not just a mental illness. It’s physical, incredibly physical. I’m amazed, every time I slip into depression, how true this is. My entire body is affected, not just my mind. Manic depression is a chemical disorder of the brain. It’s as real and physical as diabetes or cancer. I think if more people understood this, stigma would lessen and true compassion would emerge.