Coming out: Terry Cheney speaks openly about battling bipolar disorder
Coming out: Terry Cheney speaks openly about battling bipolar disorder
By: DEIDRE WENGEN (Fri, Feb/08/2008)
Terry Cheney, author of the newly released memoir Manic, has spent most of her life hiding out—and as a high-powered, high-profile entertainment lawyer working in some of Los Angeles’ most prestigious firms, laying low wasn’t always an easy task. She became adept at making excuses, at covering up, at deceiving her colleagues, her friends and herself. But now, after a lifetime of battling bipolar disorder, Cheney has finally found the strength to expose her story and hopes that it will provide a platform for discussing the disease.
Cheney struggled with the highs and lows of bipolar disorder for many years before she was officially diagnosed with manic depression in 1994. “I think I’ve had it all my life,” she said. “That’s my theory. But I had my first major depression when I was 16. I couldn’t get out of bed for three weeks. I was completely suicidal and it wasn’t just teenage angst. It was abnormal.”
Despite the severity of her depression, Cheney managed to become the valedictorian of her high school class, graduate from Vassar College with honors and whiz through law school at UCLA. She then began her career specializing in intellectual property and entertainment litigation and continued to keep her struggle with mental illness under wraps. “It amazes me, looking back, that I was able to get away with it,” she said. “There’s a phase called hypomania, which is the phase right before mania, when you’re in a really good mood and you’re really, really functional. I was hypomanic a lot, and that allowed me to do a lot of work at one time and get ahead of things.”
Eventually in 1994, job-related stress triggered a serious bout of depression, and Cheney consented to undergo electroshock treatments (ECT). “I was so suicidal and I had been for a long time,” she said. “None of the drugs were working. ECT felt like my last chance.” Twelve treatments were supposed to be administered over a three-month span, but Cheney’s eighth treatment caused a severe manic episode that lasted for several weeks. During that time she spent exorbitant amounts of money, seduced her friend’s husband and crashed her car into a cypress tree in front of her house. “When you’re manic, you become very grandiose,” she said. “You think you see everything clearly and you have the answers to all of life’s questions. You’re very reckless and don’t really pay attention to the rules. Actually, you don’t really know there are rules.”
Shortly following her ninth ECT session, Cheney attempted to commit suicide by taking prescription pills and wound up in St. John’s Hospital three days later. Due to her reaction to electroshock therapy, Cheney’s illness was finally pinpointed as manic depression—a diagnosis that changed her life. “It made more sense to me than depression because depression only covered half the story,” she said. “It was an incredible relief to find out.”
Although the diagnosis provided her with a better understanding of the illness, Cheney still experienced severe bipolar episodes. While she was manic, Cheney talked non-stop, flirted uncontrollably and “[drove] around in the middle of the night.” Depression, however, was a different state entirely. During depression, Cheney refused to answer phone calls, felt unable to move and had thoughts about killing herself. “It went straight from depression to being suicidal,” she said. “I’d immediately start counting out pills and sharpening knives.”
In 1999, it was the overpowering weight of depression that landed her in a UCLA hospital where she decided to begin writing a book about being bipolar. “I was struggling to tell the doctors ‘This is how I feel,' ‘This is what’s going on,’” she said. “If you can’t describe the problem then you can’t get treated for it.” Cheney originally intended her work to be a clinical book about manic depression, but realized that terms and definitions weren’t “good enough” for what she hoped to accomplish. “I just really wanted the doctors, or whoever was reading the book—the loved ones, the parents—to see what it’s like to be inside a bipolar person,” she said.
Cheney’s book is an intimate and moving account of her struggle with the disease. Told episodically rather than chronologically, it gives the reader an experience that mimics the constant highs and lows of manic depression. Cheney writes about the disorder with lucidity and intensity. She makes the reader experience the excitement associated with mania (“the stars came loose from their moorings and started chasing one another across the sky… For a brief spectacular moment, the entire sky was afire, like a giant’s birthday cake”) and the complete desperation of mental illness (“Only thirty more minutes to midnight; only thirty more minutes to die”).
Manic is as entertaining as it is compelling. Cheney writes about experiences that are absurd and terrifying as well as triumphant and heart-warming. From attempting suicide in Santa Fe and being beaten up in a Van Nuys prison, to flying kites in a thunderstorm and partying in Hollywood, Cheney makes her life-events alarmingly vivid. Each well-written page provides insight into the frightening and complicated scope of bipolar disorder.
The author credits the memoir with saving her life. “Writing my book has been the most rewarding experience. I would still be hiding out otherwise,” she said. “There’s just a power when you write. It becomes your own story—you own it and nobody else owns it and nobody else has power over you anymore.”
Cheney hopes to inspire others who are suffering from bipolar disorder. “I really hope it will give them a vocabulary to discuss the disease,” she said. “It’s a sense of identifying with the disease, so that there’s a face on it, so it’s not just this nameless terrifying thing anymore. Knowing that you’re not the only one is really the first step toward healing.”
Although she is still not used to the attention, Cheney is getting more comfortable talking openly about her illness. “I’ve woken up in the middle of the night a few times in the last month thinking ‘What did I do?’ ‘What was I thinking?’” she said. “But it’s becoming easier for me to tell people, only because the response is so compassionate. I can’t believe all the people I’ve talked to in the past few months about being manic depressive.”
Read an excerpt from Manic by clicking here.
Manic: A Memoir, Terri Cheney, HarperCollins, February 2008
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