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wise, witty and kicking stigma
by Stacie Zoe Berg
Reprinted with permission from bp Magazine, Winter 2005
Armed with a Mickey Mouse clock, which she had taken from Sid Sheinberg’s desk and tucked in her pocket, at the young age of 24 Patty Duke stood in his office impatiently waiting for him. He was the president of MCA studios and a Hollywood powerhouse, but that didn’t matter. Patty was mad that morning, not to mention manic. She had already walked off the set of Matt Lincoln, MD, where she was guest starring, because the actors were told to take lunch while a tired crew was required to stay to resolve technical problems. She didn’t like the inequity. She had already hopped onto a garbage truck with armed soldiers heading for an army base with the studio limo in pursuit on a real-life chase to get an actress back to the set on time. And she had already invited the garbage men and their friends, which turned out to be more than a hundred men in uniform, back to the studio for lunch, before finally being summoned to Sheinberg’s office. Still, she would have nothing of it. When Sid arrived, she greeted him with a string of obscenities. Then she reached into her pocket for the clock and threw it at him.
That was 1970, and in her defense, the crew was hungry.
Fast forward to the fall of 2005. I am talking with Anna Duke Pearce. She is warm, witty, kind, and generous. She is Patty Duke, the same woman with the Mickey Mouse clock in her pocket. Well, not really the same woman, because she is balanced now. And while I learn from her how aware and pained she is knowing, in her recovery, that people suffered from her actions as a consequence of bipolar disorder, many more, she hopes, reap the benefits from her insights and forthrightness as she speaks out about her own mental health battles and educates the world about bipolar. As this Academy Award-winning actress will tell you, despite all the enticements of euphoria, balanced is a much better place to be.
Sid would probably agree.
Actor and author
Patty Duke has done it all - performed on Broadway, in feature films, television series, and cartoons, and has appeared in 72 television movies. Best known by the public for playing the roles of both main characters Patty and Cathy, who were identical cousins on The Patty Duke Show, she was the youngest actor at the time to have a prime-time TV series bearing her name.
Hollywood has taken note of Duke’s talent to bring depth and character to a role, awarding her at age 16 an Oscar for her portrayal of Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, making her the youngest actor at that time to receive an Academy Award. Add to that two Golden Globes, three Emmys, six Emmy nominations, and a People’s Choice Award.
Duke’s ability to communicate spread to the page, and she became a best-selling author with her books, Call me Anna, her autobiography; and A Brilliant Madness, a detailed account of her battle with bipolar disorder that she coauthored with Gloria Hochman.
Hooray for Hollywood
Anna Marie Duke was born to a witty mother and a father who often took her to the bar where her grandfather bartended and hoisted her up on the counter so she could recite The Night Before Christmas, even in July. This, she thinks, is where she got her passion for acting. She credits her mother for her sense of humor.
At the tender age of seven, she was signed by a husband and wife team of managers, the Rosses, who stripped her of all that she knew - including her name - and created a new existence for her, one ruled by tyranny, for the girl they named Patty. How could her parents, who were battered and broken by their own life circumstances say no to apparently well-to-do people who promised to make their little girl a star when they could barely scrape together $36 a month for rent, Patty says, understanding their actions in retrospect.
When she was just eight years old, Patty began suffering from terrorizing panic attacks. These attacks set her mind on fire with thoughts of death, and shot adrenaline searing through her, sending her running and screaming or forcing her to clear her throat and wheeze, a little something theatrical she added to explain away her curious behavior as asthma.
At 16, after winning her Academy Award and when she was starring in The Patty Duke Show, the depressions began, although not before the hallucinations, which resulted from insomnia that went on for days. They were audio hallucinations, often based in religiosity. She received audio messages from beings who had passed on and, on rare occasions, she heard directly from God. She was to be the messenger, Patty says. "And sometimes," she jokes about the disorder, "my focus was so interrupted … I would forget the message I was supposed to take!"
It seems having hallucinations would be scary, but Patty explains, "When you’re manic, nothing is scary. There were no consequences; therefore, it was perfectly normal for God to be talking to me," she laughs.
In her autobiography Patty writes, "I don’t mind being thought of as someone who was crazy, because I had no control over that situation. What I don’t like is for people to think that I chose to do destructive things. I was someone who didn’t have a choice about my actions, yet I fought like a son of a bitch to get to a place where I could have one."
The road to recovery
In the midst of the madness, she divorced three times. That, along with wild spending sprees and temper tantrums could have been written off as Hollywood, but the extreme euphoria, deep depressions, suicide attempts, and delusions could not. And had a doctor gotten the full picture, he might have put the pieces of the puzzle together, but, admittedly, Patty would spend her therapy sessions crying, and so the therapists she saw were exposed to only one side of what was a pendulum of emotions, swinging farther and farther to each extreme, picking up pace as the 20 years of madness was about to be halted when one psychiatrist witnessed the mania and steadied it with a prescription of lithium.
It was 1982. Patty was 35 years old, and "everybody’s life was hell," she says. She had endured a roller coaster of emotions for decades, which she tried to temper by self-medicating. Well, "we don’t call it self-medicating, we think we’re having a drink … or 12," she jokes. She was filming It Takes Two with Richard Crenna, going through a divorce, and seeing a psychiatrist to keep things civil for her children. As the sessions progressed over a couple of weeks, the psychiatrist told her he wanted to tell her something. "It was that famous pregnant pause, and he said, 'I think you’re manic-depressive,'" she says. "My reaction was … God, it has a name. This thing that had floated and spiked and fallen actually had a name. It was almost as if, 'See I’m not crazy, it has a name!'" Then he said it has a treatment, and the relief she felt multiplied.
She recalls, "My doctor handed me a lithium pill and a book [My Up and Down, In and Out Life, 1976] by theater director Josh Logan," who also had bipolar disorder. Every day since then, without fail, Patty takes her lithium with no notable side effects. In fact, she "never ever even remotely thought of not taking it,” she says. "I never ever wanted to be who I was prior to the diagnosis and medication," she says. "I began to have a life, [and] my children began to know what persona would be ‘mom’ when they came home from school," she says. Lithium, she explains, stabilized her so manic events weren’t in the realm of possibility anymore, and her life dramatically changed. She found that she could decipher things, and she realized there was an absence of those negative disruptive impulses.
There are the things - the mania and the creativity - that people who have bipolar disorder are afraid to give up, Patty says, noting comically, "Now all my conversations are one-sided." Then, she adds, "You give up some of the more dramatic experiences of mania, but to me it’s been a fabulous trade-off."
She continues, "It was not until diagnosis and treatment that I was able to see more clearly the effect [of my behaviors] on others and … do the best I could to work together with them to rectify it." It took all of her family working together to heal, she says, and it took years. She thinks there are still a few painful moments that aren’t healed and accepts she just has to live with it.
Patty didn’t stop with her family. As with one of the 12 steps for those recovering from alcoholism, she went back to everyone she could remember whom she had offended and asked for forgiveness. And Patty also forgave. "If I forgive the Rosses," she says, "the enormous burden is lifted," although sometimes, in recent years, she’s had to forgive them again, she says with a laugh.
"The more I’m able to learn about the human condition, the easier it is to let go, and, in the process, forgive myself," she says.
Hollywood took note of her metamorphosis. In 1985, Patty achieved what she considers the "ultimate stamp of approval," as her peers elected her president of the Screen Actors Guild. She knew then that they believed she could get the job done right.
Several years into recovery, Patty took on a new role to fight the stigma against mental illness. While Josh Logan was the first celebrity to reveal to the world he had bipolar disorder, Patty’s debut was the first to gain extensive media coverage.
"I had nothing left to lose - when I decided to go public with it [in 1985] .… the relief at getting well and the passion for not keeping it a secret overrode [the possibility of not getting work]," Patty says. Many people in the industry have been remarkably supportive. "That was the surprise," she says. However, she warns people who have bipolar disorder not to go public if they’re in a field where revelation could adversely affect their careers.
Patty has spent two decades traveling the country addressing issues of mental health. Now, in an effort to reach more people, she has launched a Web site www.PattyDuke.net with a blog to provide education, information, and empathy to people who have bipolar disorder and their families. Part of what’s available is "someone that Americans think they know," she says. Patty even responds to emails personally, although at press time she had a backlog. In the near future, the online center will offer education materials and seminars.
One of her goals with her Web site is to explain to individuals who have bipolar disorder that they will not lose their creativity if they take medication. She says that she’s more creative now because she can organize a thought.
"The medication isn’t the be-all and end-all, but it helps you get there," Patty says. She tries not to use guilt, but resorts to it sometimes to make a point, saying, "If you don’t want to take it for us, my God, take a look around you; look at the human debris it has caused. 'Take the medicine!'"
Another big hurdle Patty is trying to conquer is the issue of stigma. "What I’m realizing through this endeavor is that the saddest part of it is that the [answer] is really simple. It is the stigma that’s ingrained in us that keeps us from going to that simple solution," she says, talking about the medication. "We have to keep beating it [the stigma] with that stick and never give up."
In February 2006, Patty will star in Falling in Love with the Girl Next Door on the Hallmark channel and, on dates to be announced, on QVC to sell the Patty Duke Bear Collection from Boyds Bears. Also that same month, she is scheduled to testify before Congress on mental health parity, a fall 2005 hearing that was rescheduled following hurricane Katrina.
If you could throw a dart on a map of recovery, you see Patty has found her way to the highest peak and can look down at the rest of the world with perspective. While from time to time she still has panic attacks, she no longer avoids cemeteries, something that used to be a key trigger. "I visit cemeteries often, whether I know anybody there or not," she says. "I still don’t like the concept of death, I think somebody screwed up … I’m not looking for an afterlife to be better; I want this one. I finally almost got things straightened out."
Stacie Zoe Berg is an award-winning science/medical journalist. She is also the author of a blog on novel research on brain disorders at www.EurekaAlert.blogspot.com.
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