On Tuesday March 29, 2016 the world lost an amazing soul, and I lost one of my great heroes. Academy award-winning actress “Patty” Duke [Anna Marie Pearce] succumbed to a sepsis infection. She was only 69 years old. She meant a great deal to a great many people. And, I owe her my life.
This is my story and my personal tribute.
When Patty Duke won an Oscar at age 16 for “best supporting actress”, she was the youngest on record to win the coveted award.
However, I believe her greatest achievement was the role she was given to play in her real life to educate and save others. You see, Patty was one the first influential people to talk openly about living with bipolar disorder (then known as “manic depression”). After she was diagnosed at the age of 35 in 1982, Patty began to talk about mental illness. It was something that was not only unpopular, but rather unaccepted by society to discuss. It meant risking the possibility of losing her reputation and her career.
But, she did it anyway.
“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 went through a horrific ordeal during her early life as a child actress. She was put under the care of abusive talent managers [detailed in her autobiography “Call Me Anna“], and adding her illness on top of everything else, she eventually unraveled. Patty, and those who loved her, suffered greatly.
However, once Patty was diagnosed and stabilized, she took all of her experiences and learned everything she could about her illness, and then she chose to speak out about it. She said she felt “compelled to do it – to help others.” And, because she did, Patty became a champion for not only bipolar disorder, but also for mental healthcare initiatives.
In 1992 Patty wrote the groundbreaking book “A Brilliant Madness: Living with Manic-Depressive Illness” which not only tells her own fascinating and heart wrenching story, but also educates people about the disorder in detail, and explains how the chemical imbalance affects the brain, moods and personality.
At about the age of eleven, I started to notice the beginnings of roller-coaster emotions and thoughts that ranged between elation, irritability, rage, or utter despair. There were wonderful exciting “highs” but also devastating lows. This swinging of my emotions was explained away due to “going through puberty”. But, the emotions, accompanied by continual feelings of frustration, worthlessness and hopelessness increased through my teens. By the end of High School my flashes of brilliance and then deep depression escalated to the point that I was exhausted. I began to fixate on ending such an unbearable way of living. I managed to hang on – barely. I think my personal saving grace was writing daily in my journal – sometimes 10 or 15 pages a night – which became great therapy. But, my first year of college was an especially dismal, agonizing time for me. I would endure through the long dark nights wondering if relief would come in the morning. Sometimes I would swing back into a good mood with the dawn. Other times, the smothering cloud wouldn’t budge. My excitement. creativity and Joie de vivre would blossom one moment, only to come crashing down by evening, or the next day. I adopted some coping skills – not all of them healthy. I “self medicated” with long naps, eating junk food, binge shopping, staying out late, clubbing and getting involed in risky behavior my “real self” would never choose. I always felt like I was walking “on the edge,” embracing the high, waiting for the next breakdown.
I was certain I was a very sinful, and definitely ungrateful person at heart.
It wasn’t until I was 30 years old [20 years ago this summer] that I would finally be told what was wrong with me and given a medical diagnosis of bipolar disorder: rapid cycling, formerly known as “manic depression.” Like Patty was at the time of her diagnosis, I was a mother of young children, a wife and a performer. As is usually the case with mental illness, I had known something was wrong with me for a long time, but I didn’t realize how bad it was getting nor that there was anything I could do about it. It took falling into a very deep, dark place. The “real me” was lost because of my chemical imbalance. I desperately needed help. My decisions, actions and rage were out of control. I didn’t know I had an illness, but I did know I felt depression. So, I sought medical care. My concerned doctor prescribed Prozac for what he believed was postpartum depression. Less than three weeks later I was back in his office practically bouncing off the walls, ‘higher than a kite’, talking so fast no one could understand me, alternating between laughing hysterically and sobbing uncontrollably and not having slept for 6 days straight (I’d been driving for hours, or running for miles and miles each day, or cleaning my whole house over and over, vacuuming in the middle of the night, scrubbing my shower tiles with toothbrushes…)
My doctor took one look at me and said “Oh, wow! Okay, now we know what this really is.” After given a name for my condition, I had hope! All of this misery wasn’t who I really was. There was correct medication. I could get rid of this terrifying roller-coaster and I could get well! Before leaving the clinic, my wonderful, kind doctor put a copy of Patty Duke’s book in my hands.
I read the whole thing in 24 hours (well, I WAS still manic of course). I underlined passages, and dog-eared pages. For the next three years as I worked through therapy and the adjustments of my medication doses this book was one of my bibles. I read it, studied it, and underlined it every day. In fact, I used it so much that my copy is close to falling apart. No matter, it is a priceless treasure to me. I’ve also never tired of giving out copies to others that I feel could use Patty’s wisdom.
Patty told it like it was. She was open and honest, she validated my worst fears (being called “crazy”) and reassured me that although it takes practice living with mental illness, “it keeps getting better.”
When I began to take my medication and I was coming down off of my hyped-up manic state I felt like I was completely losing my personality. All my ‘sparkle’ was gone. I panicked. I was sure I was going to become a completely ‘bland’ automaton, with no creative energy or life any more. I wanted to quit taking my pills. Thankfully, Patty was there to tell me what I was feeling was normal and all part of the process to recovery. The feeling of ‘bland’ would go away, and in place of my out-of-control roller-coaster creativity I would gain a deeper, more focused and power-house kind of creativity.
She was right.
One of her goals with her web site was to explain to individuals who have bipolar disorder that they will not lose their creativity if they take medication.
If I could TRIPLE UNDERLINE that sentence, I would.
She continually reassured that she was more creative with medication, because she could organize a thought.
“The medication isn’t the be-all and end-all, but it helps you get there…If you don’t want to take it for [you], my God, take a look around you; look at the human debris it has caused, and ‘Take the medicine!’”
Patty advocated for treating a mental health illness with the proper respect and diligence as any other chronic condition – accepting the need for daily lifelong care, proper therapy and the importance of being vigilant in taking prescribed medications every day for the rest of ones life.
Before I finished reading her book that first night I received my diagnosis I made a commitment then and there that I would never stop taking my meds. I would never let myself make the common fatal assumption “oh, see! I feel perfectly fine now. I don’t need these pills anymore.” I would also not make the fatal assumption “oh, see! These pills aren’t helping me at all, they’re completely useless.” Nope. I would reject those thoughts and continue to take the meds, while immediately reaching out to my doctor to discuss my concerns, and getting professional adjustments.
I can testify that internalizing that single mantra from Patty Duke was one of the most important life-saving gifts she gave me. I am happy to say that after the first couple of years just getting things evened out properly and adjusting to the new “real me,” I have lived a wonderfully stable, healthy, productive life. I don’t talk about my bipolar disorder very much – not because I am ashamed of it by any means, but basiclaly because I don’t really have to think about it. Having bipolar doesn’t define who I am. It’s simply in the background of my life experience and my daily routine of taking my little pill every morning, and making sure I get enough sleep, nutrition, exercise and fresh air.
Patty taught me WHY it was so important to take my pill every day and do everything in my power to prevent a relapse. Because, without proper, consistent treatment, this disease is degenerative.
Patty fought for ending the stigma surrounding a mental disorder, and encouraged the world to view a mental illness simply as any other kind of illness – very much a chronic physical condition, such as diabetes. After all, our brain is part of our physical body. Diseases effecting the brain are not indicative of “character flaws” any more or less than someone with heart, lung or kidney disease. It’s simply part of having a mortal body with random genetic codes and naturally occurring flaws.
I truly feel that Patty Duke made all the difference in how I approached my diagnoses and my treatment. I wasn’t cured “overnight” and there was “fallout” from my illness that I had to deal with. But, I have not just survived. I have thrived. Because of Patty, I have never been ashamed of my mental illness. I have accepted it. I have even embraced it. I have been vigilant in my treatment. I acknowledge that I have been very blessed to partner with excellent medical professionals along the way, and I have been given an incredible, amazing family support group. My husband and children were hardest hit during my illness. They were very much the “combat victims” through the dark, unpredictable and quite scary years. They stood by me. They never gave up. They were, and remain, my pillars of strength.
But, their love could not fix me.
I’m so glad – especially for their sake – I got help.
Today, I feel extremely blessed to have bipolar disorder. Yes, honestly blessed. It has been twenty years since my diagnosis, and I have lived eighteen of those years with stability, I’m not “cured” of course, but it’s negative symptoms are generally “dormant.” The disorder has given me a heightened creative energy and a deeper sensitivity. It has given my life experience that has made me wiser, and I think, perhaps, more empathetic. It is the “Brilliant” part of the “Madness” that Patty talks about. I was happy to learn that I am in good company with some of the greatest, best and brightest musicians, actors, inventors and statesmen in history (Patty’s book talks about many of them).
Thank you, dearest Patty. You will never know the millions of lives you have touched, and saved – including mine – because of your courage to share your journey and knowledge. Hopefully, I can follow your example, and honor your legacy. I look forward to thanking you in person someday. Until then, God be with you. – MoSop
DON’T MISS THIS POWERFUL INTERVIEW!
Patty’s son, actor Sean Astin (yes, of Lord of the Rings fame), has invited the public to contribute to a mental health fund which will create a foundation in his mother’s name, the Patty Duke Mental Health Initiative. Check it out.