The news that actress Catherine Zeta-Jones has bipolar disorder and had recently checked herself into a psychiatric hospital in Connecticut for five days for treatment has been met with a “fund of sympathy and goodwill.” According to the Guardian, not only mental health organizations have applauded the 41-year-old actress for her disclosure; even the likes of the “red-top tabloids” have been treating her with “dignity.” Zeta-Jones has stated that she had a ‘”stressful”‘ year after her husband, actor Michael Douglas, was diagnosed for stage four throat cancer and had to undergo chemotherapy and radiation.
Zeta-Jones has bipolar II disorder in which a person has less dramatic highs and more sustained periods of depression. As she was once told the UK Sunday Times:
“I try and stay positive, being negative isn’t good for my personality. I don’t just bring myself down, I bring everyone around me down. It’s like a dark cloud, ‘Uh oh, here we go’, and I have to snap out of it.”
As Mary Elizabeth Williams writes on Salon, it’s likely that Zeta-Jones has “probably been working to manage her condition for some time.” But caring for a seriously ill loved one can mean that your loved ones experience “overwhelming stress and intense emotional problems” as Williams, a cancer survivor herself, writes:
When I got cancer, I thought it would damn near kill me. But when I watched two of the people I love most in the world get cancer, I thought it would damn near kill me too.
In the midst of a trauma, caregivers often feel they don’t have the luxury of tending to themselves. That’s how people end up looking like Aurora near the end of “Terms of Endearment.” Yet the physical – and emotional – toll of living through someone else’s life-or-death crisis is utterly grueling. And it’s sometimes not until the worst of the storm has passed that the devastation can truly be assessed.
Williams writes about her best friend’s “grueling bout of ovarian cancer” and about seeing her father-in-law “careen from rough but manageable stage three stomach cancer to a terminal diagnosis to death within a three week span.” A “sick person’s inner circle” has to tend to all the things the person cannot do, all while consumed with the efforts of caring for the person’s who ill; these can include:
shuttling the patient to an unimaginable number of doctor visits and chemo treatments, dispensing pills, tending surgical wounds, consoling children, and, somewhere in all of it, managing their own fears and griefs and immense, agonizing powerlessness.
In other words, caring for someone who is seriously ill can make a person seriously ill themselves. Further, if you already have an underlying condition or a predisposition to, for instance, depression, the stress of taking care of someone—and of not taking care of yourself—can cause these to flare up. “When illness storms through a family,’ Williams writes, “it isn’t just the patient who gets hurt.”
I’m among those heartened by Zeta-Jones speaking publicly about her psychiatric illness. My mother-in-law, who died just over a year ago, had depression and bipolar disorder; while her having “mental health issues” was acknowledged, the severity of her illness was downplayed. She therefore did not get the treatment she needed throughout her life until things go very bad. After she was hospitalized and underwent electroconvulsive therapy a few years ago, follow-up treatment was woefully inadequate. It was especially hard on my husband, who was very close to her, to see her decline further and further as she lay near-motionless on a nursing home bed for months.
There is treatment for illnesses like bipolar disorder and it can help. I thank Zeta-Jones again for her disclosure of her condition and wish her and her family good health and more good times together.
Photo by James G. Howes [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons