Last night I curled up with my favorite guilty pleasure, People Magazine, and read about Catherine Zeta-Jones’ and Demi Lovato’s struggles with bipolar disorder. Zeta-Jones’s flawless face graces this week’s cover, next to the caption, “I’m Not Ashamed.” In articles about both women’s struggles, friends characterize the actresses’ coming out of the mental health closet as “brave.”
Hmmph, I thought. Would these stars risk being so “brave” if they were going through a custody battle?
I spent much of this past weekend putting the finishing touches on a 30-page “detailed history questionnaire” for my custody evaluator. Had anyone ever suggested I had a problem with drugs or alcohol? No. Had I ever been arrested? No. Did I, or anyone in my family, have a history of mental illness? Well…yes.
Except that I don’t think of myself as “mentally ill.” That term doesn’t fit me at all. I don’t hear voices, I don’t mutter at people who aren’t in the room, I’ve never forsaken my grooming, been unable to get myself out of bed in the morning or neglected my children. Unlike the friendly man in my neighborhood, I don’t walk up and down the street bellowing, “Tamales, tamales, tamales!” when I have no tamales to sell. And even if I did have those experiences, who wants to think of herself as crazy? If you’re crazy, there’s only one way to go, and it’s not up.
I prefer to say that I have a Mood Disorder, which is true. After years of intermittent depression, punctuated by brief phases of reaching-for-the-stars exhiliration and a default setting of low-level anxiety, I tried out a new psychiatrist. I sat in his Eames chair, admiring the framed Modern Art posters on the walls, and told him that the initial effects of my latest antidepressant had sputtered to a halt, as had been the case with the half dozen other antidepressants that I had tried over the course of almost 20 years.
“That’s because you shouldn’t be on an antidepressant,” he said, after inquiring about appetite (healthy, followed by spurts of wanting to gag at the sight of food), libido (alternating between uncontainable and all but non-existant), and sleep (frequently wide-eyed and racing-minded at 2 a.m.).
“You need a mood stabilizer. You don’t have depression.” He was emphatic.
My psychiatrist has a soothing voice, good for talking people down off a ledge.
“A little bit,” he said with a smile. “You’re a little bit bipolar.”
Many people with mild bipolar symptoms, such as Catherine Zeta-Jones, Demi Lovato and yours truly, will tell you they were misdiagnosed for years as having some form of Depressive Disorder. Fun-filled, ain’t-life-grand episodes don’t send folks running to the psychiatrist. The undertow of depression and the thunderbolts of anxiety do. So psychiatrists prescribe antidepressants that increase seratonin and dopamine, the brain’s feel-good chemicals, but do nothing to get one off the roller coaster at the Bipolar Festival.
Since my mood disorder is characterized mainly by depression, my psychiatrist put me on Lamictal, a mood stabilizer that is particularly effective at alleviating that symptom.
Six weeks after starting Lamictal, my moods stopped swinging. I no longer had to hoist myself out of dark holes, although I did miss those brief periods of being convinced I was truly fabulous, on the cusp of fame and fortune.
Over the course of the past year, however, I have lapsed into black moods. I don’t blame this on my medication, nor do I think my funk is a result of a neurochemical misfire. Frankly, I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t feel bummed out after being chronically pelted by a rich, vindictive ex. Under these circumstances, I don’t think any drug would make me feel that the world is a warm, sunshiney place.
During my ex-husband’s recent deposition, my attorney asked him if he thought I was mentally ill. Given the fact that I have stacks of e-mails in which the father of my children accuses me of being “psychotic,” “crazy,” and an “unfit mother,” this was not an unreasonable question.
“Well,” Prince said, as if he had been waiting for this moment. “She actually admitted being bipolar when we took Luca to the psychiatrist. She wants Luca to be bipolar because she is!”
Shortly after I received my A Little Bit Bipolar diagnosis, I did share this information with our son’s psychiatrist, as I believed it was important for him to know Luca’s genetic loading. Prince was in the room, so I hesitated before my disclosure. I considered keeping my mental health issues to myself, the same way I had hidden vials of antidepressants when I was married to Prince, for fear of being ridiculed by him and his family. But now, post-divorce, I longed to stand up and be who I was. If I was too scared to reveal this part of me, what message was I sending? That having a mood disorder made me flawed and inferior? That stigma ruled my life and quashed my authenticity? That Luca, should he receive a similar diagnosis, should grow up with shame staring over his shoulder?
Unfortunately, it didn’t occur to me that I could be reasonably authentic divulging my mental health history to Luca’s shrink in confidence instead of in the same room with my ex-husband. Prince is so concrete in his thinking that I’m sure he believes anyone who has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder is certifiably cuckoo. And how should I respond to his attorney, who will be all over my bipolar diagnosis when I’m on the witness stand?
“Yes, but I’m only a little bit bipolar”? or “Haven’t you heard bipolar is the new black”? or “Catherine Zeta-Jones is way more bipolar than I am”?
It probably doesn’t matter that Prince already knows about my diagnosis. I don’t like to lie, so I would have ‘fessed up on the custody questionnaire anyway. If the evaluator talks to my psychiatrist he’ll learn the truth: that I show up twice a year for a med check and the only symptoms I complain about are divorce-related.
While I don’t know what it’s like to come out in front of millions of fans and risk losing the confidence of studio heads and film directors, I do know what it’s like to bare myself in front of custody evaluators, lawyers and judges. I got my own brand of brave, which I’ve been slapping on like cheap cologne during this custody extravaganza.
All right, People Magazine. I’m ready for my close-up.