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Lawyer Chronicles Struggle with Bipolar Disorder


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In a few minutes, the other side of the Super Bowl, how the NFL and the players union are dealing with ailing former players who can't pay their medical bills.

But first, we turn to our weekly feature Behind Closed Doors, where we talk about difficult issues that are often hidden from public view.

And the height of her career, Terri Cheney was a high-powered entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles representing some of the biggest names in the business, including Michael Jackson. On the outside, she was the epitome of success. She had money, charm and respect. But on the inside, she was tormented by an illness that for much of her life she could not name, an illness that would send her into euphoria and a depression so painful she tried to take her own life. It's called bipolar disorder, commonly known as manic depressive illness. This is the first of two conversations we're going to have this week about mental illness. Tomorrow, we're going to talk with Terri Williams(ph) about her new book on African-Americans and depression.

But first, Terri Cheney on her new memoir, "Manic." She joins us now from NPR West in Culver City, California.


Ms. TERRI CHENEY (Author, "Manic"): Oh, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Terri, I was thinking - and I hope this doesn't sound strange, but your book is actually kind of fun to read, even though some really awful things happened to you. And I was wondering, is that because - are there aspects of being manic that are fun?

Ms. CHENEY: Well, there's aspects of crazy that are definitely fun. It's over the top, so the exaggeration is bound to be funny after a while.

MARTIN: You told your story in a kind of an interesting way. You bounce around -it moves from different periods in your life. It's not sort of strictly chronological. Why did you decide do it that way?

Ms. CHENEY: Well, because the disease itself is not linear. It goes in all directions. You never know from one moment to the next, at least in my case, where you're going to be. So I thought I wanted the reader to have this real experience of bipolar disorder, to feel what it's like inside the skin of someone going through this illness.

MARTIN: How did you first figure out that there was something wrong?

Ms. CHENEY: Well, I always knew I was a little odd, but it wasn't until I was about 16 that I had such a bad depression - I realize it was, now - that I couldn't get out of bed for about three weeks. I just couldn't move.

MARTIN: Well, what about your folks? What about your parents? Teachers? Friends? I mean, did everybody think it was okay you could just stay in bed for three weeks and nobody did anything?

Ms. CHENEY: I die extremely well in school. I was valedictorian of my high school, for example. So as long as I made good grades, it didn't seem like anyone really was worried about my eccentricity. They just thought of it as Terri's spells.

MARTIN: Well, you didn't really get any treatment. You just were able to go on and finish school and finish law school and get a job at a firm and all that. When did it finally catch up?

Ms. CHENEY: I think in law school was when it finally caught up. I just really couldn't function anymore, and I found it almost unbearable to go to law school, so I stopped going. I just studied at home and would show up for the exams. And I knew something was really wrong, because I would seem to excel really well when I was in public. But when I was by myself, I was just so suicidal.

MARTIN: Did you ever tell anybody?

Ms. CHENEY: Not until much, much later. Not until I was working at a firm, and I had a very dear friend who is gay who came out of the closet and I was able to tell him that I was depressed.

MARTIN: Did that help when you able to talk about it?

Ms. CHENEY: It gave me an ally in the madness, yes.

MARTIN: There are a number of very painful episodes in this book, and I - painful events that you describe in the book. And when I - I remember that when I greeted you and said, oh, it's good to talk to you, I was thinking to myself, yeah, it really is good to talk to you because it wasn't always assured that you would be here with us.

Ms. CHENEY: Oh, thank you.

MARTIN: Can you describe what it's like to feel so low that you just don't want to be here anymore?

Ms. CHENEY: Well, for me, it always manifested in being unable to move, unable to get out of my bed. I would just stay in my bed, literally, for days, having to crawl to the bathroom. It felt like nothing could possibly be worse than what was going on inside my head. So the idea of suicide, of killing myself, didn't really seem that bad. It felt like, it seemed like it would have to be better than what I was feeling.

MARTIN: And then the other side of it, you know, when you're in a manic phase, I mean, you find yourself, you know, flirting wildly, putting yourself in some dangerous situations. I don't want to give away all the details of what happened, but you put yourself in some dangerous situations because your judgment was lacking. Can you describe what that's like?

Ms. CHENEY: Well, all your impulses are extreme when you're manic. If you like something, you don't just like it. You love it. You want it more and more. You want all of it. You want - you know, if you like shopping, that's all you want to do. Or if you like flirting with men - and unfortunately, I liked a lot of those things, and it became very extreme, and I wouldn't stop until I got in trouble. And, you know, I think I say in the book that I couldn't - I had no memory of what I was doing at the time. I had no idea that what I was doing was wrong. I just wanted to keep moving, keep going faster and faster and more and more. And in the end, I would crash, and then I would have to piece what I did by the sales receipts. That's the only way I could figure it out.

MARTIN: You know, Terri, one of the things that strikes me is that we live in a time and you live in a city in which we assume that there's tremendous awareness of mental illness, you know, that it really isn't that big of a deal to tell people that you have bipolar disorder and that you might need to take some medication on a schedule, that you might need to do some things to take care of yourself. And what I'm hearing from this book is that it actually still is a really big deal.

Ms. CHENEY: Yeah. It's a big deal, I think perhaps less now than when I was first struggling with the diagnosis around 1994. But I felt that I would definitely lose my job. I was at a good-size law firm. It was very prestigious, and I didn't even want them to know I was in therapy, let alone that I had a disease.

MARTIN: How is it possible? I mean, there's even an HBO series now, right, which purports to show people in therapy, some very high-powered actors are involved with this series. So I guess I'm wondering - so how is it possible that the entertainment industry talks about this, you know, novelists talk about therapy - I mean, my gosh, you know, Woody Allen certainly talks, you know, has - you know, made his sort of therapy kind of a subject of movies for years. And yet, in the real world, it's still so hard. Why do you think that is?

Ms. CHENEY: I think because it's a real disease, ultimately. When you come face to face with manic depression and it's really happening, it can be very, very frightening because the manic phase knows no bounds. It knows no rules or manners. It can just be very scary to come face to face with someone that's in the grips of it. I mean, it is mental illness, after all. It isn't like indigestion. You know, it isn't just the flavor of the week. It's a real disease. It's as physical as the flu or diabetes. It's not just about being crazy, it's about being forced to be crazy. It's chemical and physical in nature, and I think that there's something about us that we sense that, oh, this person is different and this person is having an episode. And it can be frightening.

MARTIN: I think there are those who would believe that because you are - you know, forgive me - you know, white, attractive, a professional of means, that you are insulated from some of the negative consequences of your illness. But you point out in a powerful way that you really weren't. In fact, there's one point at which you got arrested because you were in need of medication and were not allowed to take it. Can you just tell us a little bit more about that?

Ms. CHENEY: That's the episode where I spent many, many hours in jail because I had driven while under the influence of medication. It was prescribed medication, but nonetheless, I was on something very powerful, and I was supposed to take a dose every few hours. And unfortunately, the police not only confiscated my medication, but put me in jail because of it. And I wasn't able to take my medication as required, so I got manic while I was in jail. And I was somewhat snippy with the police, and I got beaten. And it was the first time I ever realized - I think I say it in the book - that I was touchable. Even I, with all my privileges and my luck, raised as I was, I was actually beaten up, physically and mentally.

MARTIN: Did that change your sense of yourself in the world?

Ms. CHENEY: I was so afraid for so many months after that just to go out in the world, and it made me ultimately have much more compassion for other people because I realized we're all just a hair's breath away from being beaten up.

MARTIN: Do you feel now that you've gotten to who the real Terri Cheney is?

Ms. CHENEY: Well, I think I'm getting there. I wrote a novel since "Manic," and just the experience of writing makes me realize who I am. I'm a person who words. I'm a person who loves ideas, and I like telling my own story more than I like telling somebody else's in a legal brief.

MARTIN: What do you want people to take away from the book?

Ms. CHENEY: There are so many people out there right now that are suffering through this in secret, and just opening up the door to talk to them would make - you could change a life.

MARIN: Terri Cheney is the author of "Manic," a memoir about her struggle with bipolar disorder. She joined us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Terri Cheney, thank you so much.

Ms. CHENEY: Oh, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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