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Bipolar Explorer

By Hilary MacGregor, Los Angeles Times

Terri Cheney's memoir 'Manic' has special significance in L.A.

Manic Hollywood tales are never in short supply: crazy agents screaming into the phone, out-of-control actors driving drunk, starlets creating outre public spectacles or insomniac writers, holed up in hotel rooms for weeks, hammering out the perfect screenplay. This is not natural behavior, except in L.A., where it is almost expected.

Terri CheneyThe city provides the physical and emotional backdrop for a new book by Terri Cheney, a former entertainment lawyer who exposes the more clinical side of all that out-of-control energy.

"Manic: A Memoir" chronicles Cheney's decades-long struggle to come to terms with and manage her bipolar disorder.

The book is not the first to give an autobiographical account of living bipolar. It joins the ranks of Kay Redfield Jamison's "An Unquiet Mind," Carrie Fisher's "Postcards From the Edge" and "The Best Awful" (two novels based on her life) and Andy Behrman's "Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania," to name a few.

But set in a glamorous world saturated with money and celebrity, the book not only describes Cheney's individual struggle against this disease -- which afflicts 5.7 million adult Americans of every age, gender and social class -- it also provides an apt metaphor for the bizarre psychological terrain of Hollywood.

"Hollywood is an industry of extremes," said Cheney, whose clients included Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones. "It is feast or famine, euphoria or despair. Everything has got to be faster, bigger, more, and right now! In a way, you need to be manic to survive."

Therapists and psychiatrists around L.A. tend to share Cheney's view.

"We are not talking about a town where being married and going to church every Sunday is highly valued," said Rebecca Roy, a therapist who estimates that 75% of her clients are musicians, actors, producers and writers, and advertises her practice with the slogan "Stay Sane in an Insane Industry."

"L.A. is about reaching for the heights, for whatever is possible. That is kind of a manic view: the idea that there is always a carrot on a stick in front of you and if you can just gear yourself up for it you can get it. Millions and millions of people come here for that reason."

No one knows what percentage of people living in Los Angeles are bipolar, but studies have shown that there are very high rates of bipolar among people in the arts, which includes musicians, poets and writers.

"We don't know why this is the case, but there may be something about the gene for creativity that runs not only in those types of professions but in bipolar as well," said Dr. Lori Altshuler, the Julia S. Gouw Professor of Psychiatry and director of the UCLA Mood Disorders Research Program.

The up and down nature of Hollywood life, Cheney suggests, makes it easier for those who suffer to conceal their mental illness here. Bipolar may go undiagnosed in many communities, but in Hollywood, manic traits are not only overlooked, they are celebrated.

(There are two types of bipolar: I and II. The difference is one of degree. Those with bipolar II experience hypomania, but not mania. In most cases, hypomania does not impair a person's daily functioning.)

Bipolar traits include increased energy and productivity, a decreased need for sleep -- many with bipolar need only three to four hours of sleep a night during a manic or hypomanic phase -- and increased self-esteem, talkativeness and sociability.

"These are the types of traits most actors would like to have all the time," Altshuler said. "People who are hypomanic are the life of the party. They are magnetic, and the problem is, they don't want to be treated for hypomania because it feels so good."

Written in episodic chapters that mimic the ups and downs of bipolar depression -- hypomania, mania, depression -- Cheney's book is a gut-churning ride. At times the reader feels lost, discombobulated, but Cheney said the nonlinear structure was intentional.

"I wanted this book to mirror the disease, to give the reader a visceral experience," she writes in her preface. "It's truer to the way I think. When I look back, I rarely remember events in terms of date or sequence. Rather, I remember what emotional state I was in. Manic? Depressed? Suicidal? Euphoric? Life for me is defined not by time, but by mood."

On a recent evening, curled up in her writer's lair in a hidden canyon in Beverly Hills, the petite, red-haired Cheney came across as controlled and slightly fragile. It is hard to imagine her living the crazed sexual and suicidal episodes she describes in her book.

For Cheney, a correct diagnosis took seven years. She has endured multiple suicide attempts, nights in jail and even electroshock therapy in her struggle to reach what she calls "an uneasy truce with the disease."

Her view of L.A. is inseparable from the disease. During 16 years working as an entertainment lawyer, she often wondered if the agent or studio executive talking a mile-a-minute on the other end of the phone wasn't secretly manic, too.

And when she sees stories of volatile young celebrities struggling with substance abuse problems, she suspects the undiagnosed symptoms of bipolar.

Britney SpearsBritney Spears, for example, now hospitalized for the second time: "The relentless exuberance, the irreverence, the constant defiance of rules -- mania looks like fun on the outside, but it's not," Cheney said.

"It's absolutely terrifying. You're swept up by forces you can neither control nor understand. To me, it looks as if bipolar disorder has swallowed her whole."

Doctors know there are very high rates of drug and alcohol abuse in people who are bipolar, many times higher than the general population rates. "They are trying to self-medicate," Altshuler said.

Experts say the list of celebrities with bipolar disorder -- some confirmed, some not -- is in the hundreds. Some actors, such as Carrie Fisher and Patty Duke, have come out publicly about their struggles.

Actress and activist Mariette Hartley, who has appeared in shows such as "Star Trek" and "The Incredible Hulk" over the course of her long career, called her decision to come out about the disease "wrenching."

"Whether you are a famous actor, or a farmer in Iowa, this disease can be hidden from yourself," she said. "When the demons hit, they get you wherever you are."

Still, she said, for actors or rock stars, one depends on the highs to perform, and as time goes by it becomes harder and harder to reach those highs. When that is not there, you plunge down. "Often, you are lost, if you do not have a life."

Even when the disease is diagnosed, many artists and performers are reluctant to be treated, because they fear treatment will extinguish their creative fire.

For Cheney, who spent seven years on her memoir, writing became a form of salvation. In one chapter, she is arrested and jailed in Van Nuys. She was deeply ashamed, and for years could not return to the site of her humiliation.

But after she wrote her story, it lost its power over her.

It's perhaps surprising that Cheney writes with humor, and even wonder, about this disease that has wreaked havoc with her life. In the end, she offers hope -- that the proper medication can be found, and that some semblance of a normal life can be lived.

"It's an incredible time to be bipolar," she said, with only a touch of irony. "There is so much awareness. There are so many medications. There is so much unexpected compassion."

Copyright Los Angeles Times February 1, 2008
Photo by Genaro Molina, Los Angeles Times

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