The Sanest Person in Television
By Lizzie Simon
Reprinted with permission from bp Magazine, Fall 2005
Jane Pauley has always considered herself a lucky person, long before she was a celebrity with glamorous friends and a life of worldwide adventure. When she was still a teenager growing up in Indiana, she developed a theory to explain the good luck that seemed to follow her throughout her childhood. She called it "The Things Falling Out of Heaven Theory." According to this theory, the most likely moment for something incredible to happen to you is the moment when you are most certain that nothing will occur.
"I’ve led a life of incredible good fortune," she says, "where the unexpected could happen."
And it most certainly did. When she made her network debut on the Today show at the precocious age of 25, Pauley became a household name overnight. The public christened her "America’s sweetheart," "dawn’s early sprite," and the "smart sorority girl with the cheerleader smile." With these endorsements, the warm Midwestern beauty saw her career in the media launched with an incredible, rocketing start.
Her 13-year tenure at the Today show was followed by an equally successful 11 years at NBC’s Dateline, only to be one-upped by the 2004 premiere of her own talk show, The Jane Pauley Show, and the publishing of her best-selling memoir, Skywriting (Random House, 2004).
She is, indeed, lucky. Her marriage to cartoonist Garry Trudeau is reaching its 25th year, and together they have three healthy children, Rickie, Ross, and Tom. She sits now, age 54, in her living room in Manhattan, surrounded by exquisite art and antiques from around the world and from many centuries. Behind her, the view of Central Park is so magnificent, so intimate, that the entire apartment feels like a castle overlooking its own enchanted, verdant forest. On the coffee table before her, a white orchid reaches tall from its pot and opens up in the gorgeous, surprising, complex way that orchids do.
A photograph of Pauley’s daughter, Rickie, lies on a side table nearby, along with a framed, nearly 30-year-old page from her husband’s personal calendar inscribed, "dinner w Jane." The calendar entry marked their first date. "We’re very well matched," she says confidently.
And yet, as Pauley notes in the very last line of the very last page of her memoir, "There are no charmed lives, only lives." In fact, this refined, placid, and elegant home has been the backdrop of considerable turbulence for its residents. Four years ago, in a terrifying reversal of fortune, Pauley, at the age of 50, met with the confusing,
humiliating, destabilizing episodes of depression and mania that characterize bipolar disorder. There are situations for which even the most prepared among us can never be ready, as when circumstances precipitate a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. "The thing about my experience that I probably remember most vividly, is that your self-perception is yanked out from under you and then you’re left with no self perception at all," says Pauley.
"I knew that people broke down," Pauley explains, "and I had no reason to think I was any different. I always knew, I always suspected that a run of good luck that I had couldn’t go on forever, and I wondered what it would be [like]. I had reason to be prepared for heart disease, cancer, financial reversals. But when it turned out to be bipolar .…"
Pauley was, understandably, unprepared. She describes the unusual circumstances of her diagnosis. The story begins in June 2000 with chronic recurrent idiopathic urticaria edema - in other words, hives. Her skin erupted; doctors believe that the steroids used to treat her hives kick-started her bipolar disorder, which she may or may not have been genetically vulnerable to all along.
Pauley became depressed in early 2001 and was treated unsuccessfully with antidepressants. This was followed by a period of exuberant hypomania. "Feelings came shooting in and out at the speed of bullet trains," she writes in Skywriting, "along with ideas, followed by phone calls that produced action plans."
As months went by and her symptoms continued, her husband began to worry, having noticed the unexplained changes in his wife’s behavior. "He was becoming concerned,” she says, “and I was mad at him for not taking pleasure that I was feeling better [after the depression]."
Finally, in the spring of 2001, Pauley revealed - in a conversation with her psychiatrist - that she had a new understanding of how people could kill themselves. She swears she wasn’t herself suicidal at the time, but her doctor became alarmed nonetheless. When he suggested she be hospitalized, she relented. For three weeks, she was a patient at the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic in New York City.
For Pauley, her celebrity status was suddenly most unlucky. Although her privacy was ultimately protected during this vulnerable time, "there were rumors," she says. "The tabloids had a reporter in the lobby of my building checking out reports that I had been hospitalized."
Had her fans learned that she was seeking help for bipolar disorder, they would not have been alone in their surprise. Pauley had never imagined that she would suffer from a mental illness. "Not only did I not suspect it, but I had a selfimage that was supported by public testimony that I was probably the sanest person in television. Literally!" She continues, smiling, "Larry Grossman, who was head of NBC, said that. And it was printed. And I looked at it and I thought, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s me.’ It was a reputation that I probably cultivated."
Pauley currently takes medication - lithium - to keep the episodes of bipolar disorder at bay. She has not become sick since taking this medication. She also feels grateful to have suffered only one round of episodes before getting properly treated. And, here she is lucky again, as a recent study conducted by the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance found that it can take people with bipolar disorder ten years to get the proper diagnosis and treatment for what ails them.
And Pauley’s is an unusual case for other reasons as well. The average age of onset for bipolar disorder is between the ages of 16 and 25, and bipolar disorder is thought to be genetic. Pauley, on the other hand, is older than normal for onset. Moreover, she does not know of any blood relatives who have bipolar disorder. These mysteries continue to both interest and elude her. "I can’t answer the question for myself whether I always had bipolar," she says. "There had been some depression, but never major depression." The details of her diagnosis make her somewhat of an anomaly, but, of course, for people with bipolar disorder, no two cases are identical.
Once Pauley was stabilized, she reintegrated back into her fast-paced life. A major factor in her recovery was returning to work following her hospitalization, even if the return coincided with one of the worst, most frightful, most panicked days in American history. "I was back on [the air] September 10, 2001," she recalls. "The next day, I was scared like everybody else." And while the work was certainly stressful, "I was very busy doing work that ultimately I won an Emmy for. It was excellent for me to go back to work; I returned to work at a moment when emotional disturbance was the norm."
Three years later, Pauley was launching The Jane Pauley Show on NBC, and releasing her memoir, Skywriting, to the world. Of her decision to "come out" and tell the American public about her experiences with bipolar disorder, Pauley says simply, "I could afford it."
In her memoir, she writes, "I had already decided that if only one good thing came out of this mess, it would be the opportunity to talk about the disease. It didn’t seem like an act of courage. No one I cared about was likely to love me less - virtually all of our friends and the whole family already knew. … Most people living courageously with mental illness fear losing everything - they can’t afford to give people the benefit of the doubt. I can. It seemed pretty simple."
One might expect that a celebrity known for her reliability and sanity would cling even more tightly to her image of unruffled perfection in the face of mental illness. Not Pauley. "I never wanted to be known as someone I wasn’t," she insists. "It had to be real. The part of the persona that was core for me was honesty. That’s why, when I had children, and some of the magazines called me ‘supermom,’ I knew perfectly well that there was chaos at home," she says, smiling, "and that my children would perish if they were solely left to me. I was not a supermom; I couldn’t stand having labels pinned on me that weren’t true."
But would that commitment to honesty come at a price? A year has passed since Pauley spoke out about her diagnosis, which surely is enough time to figure out if telling the world that you live with bipolar disorder is really as "affordable" as you had thought it would be. And here again Pauley is unwavering: She reports that she has no regrets about sharing these experiences. "Not a day went by on my now canceled show that someone didn’t pull me aside so that we could have a ‘special conversation’ [about bipolar disorder]. I loved that. That was just totally gratifying."
Pauley, however humble, is without doubt a much-needed role model for people who have bipolar disorder. In a culture where so few celebrities have come forward to speak openly and frankly about their struggles with this particular mental illness, Pauley is a pioneer. She is a living public example that someone with bipolar disorder can still be a success in the workplace, a loving wife, and a good parent. Media attention paid to people with bipolar disorder usually chases crime or violence. Pauley’s acknowledgement, however, communicates an entirely different, more positive, message: Anybody can get this; you don’t need to be ashamed of yourself, and you can get through it.
"If we’re lucky," she says, "that next generation won’t drag around that personal stigma. They also are going to grow up with a wider array of medications that addresses whatever causes this malady of ours."
Not everybody celebrated her admission. Some critics insinuated that she had used bipolar disorder to generate attention for her new show, charges that she vehemently denies. "That stung a lot," says Pauley. "It made me angry. I just thought, ‘You idiot. You absolute idiot.’ Since when did mental illness become a publicity gambit? And if it did, well, good news, the headline would be there is no stigma to mental illness anymore."
Pauley is understandably disappointed in the demise of her talk show, which was canceled in March 2005 because of low ratings (the show was seen in reruns through September 2005). "For the first time in my life I’m unemployed!" she says, continuing, "I don’t regret it at all. But in mid- March, when we went out and stopped production and dismantled the set and the staff was dispersed to find new jobs, and I have all of my boxes from my office here … there’s no way to interpret that other than failure. It has been a challenge adjusting to that."
The future is wide open for Pauley, and not simply in her career, but in her personal life as well. Her children are out of the house, and her twins, Rickie and Ross, have graduated from college. "The job is over," she says, "and you’ve got! got! to reinvent yourself for the next phase." Her nest is not only empty, but according Pauley, it has also been sold. She and her husband have let go of this apartment, views and all, and plan to to move to a more modest apartment elsewhere in the city.
With career, family, and health in major transitions, Pauley is perched at an unprecedented period of her own life. "It would be a challenge for anybody," she says.
So what’s next?
"Right now," she says, "I’m probably approaching ‘The Things Falling Out of Heaven’ moment."
Lizzie Simon is a writer, producer, and frequent guest lecturer for colleges and organizations. She is the author of DETOUR: My Bipolar Road Trip in 4-D, a memoir that chronicles her crosscountry adventures, interviewing people with bipolar disorder about wellness. Her Web site is www.lizziesimon.com.
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