Through a stellar career in entertainment law, where she represented such celebrity clients as Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones, and Universal and Columbia Pictures, Terri Cheney secretly struggled with manic depression. But after a suicide attempt in 1999, she abruptly walked away from the law to write about her illness, both as a form of therapy as well as to encourage others with mental health conditions to tell their stories. Her book, Manic, became a New York Times bestseller, and has recently been optioned by HBO for a series.
Cheney is a member of the Community Advisory Board of the UCLA Mood Disorders Research Program, the nation’s largest nonprofit research consortium regarding manic depression. She also founded a weekly community support group at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute. Recently she met up with ABILITY Magazine’s editor-in chief in Beverly Hills, Califonia, to talk about her very bumpy—but still very interesting—ride.
Chet Cooper: You don’t like the term bipolar disorder.
Terri Cheney: It feels too politically correct to me. Besides, bipolar makes it sound like there are only two poles, and only two places you can go—either manic or depressed—when in fact there are many different places you can go.
Cooper: Maybe a better term is multipolar or polypolar.
Cheney: Polypolar. “You’ve gotten polymorphously perverse” is a phrase that Woody Allen used to love. I think manic depression is better than bipolar because it just spells out how you feel. But even that term gives you a sense of the states being limited to the two. I think they should just call it a mood spectrum disorder to fit all sorts of different categories.
Cooper: It’s like autism. There’s a spectrum.
Cheney: Spectrum is a pretty word.
Cooper: Rainbow works, too.
Cheney: Yeah. Bipolar rainbow. I like that. That’s better.
Cooper: I think a lot of people don’t realize there are other states between the two poles.
Cheney: Well, the most common one for me is hypomania, and that’s the best part of being bipolar, where you’re really charming and creative and energetic but you haven’t lost your judgment and you don’t do incredibly reckless things the way you do in the manic phase. I think of it as the stage right before mania, although you can also switch back and go into depression. I functioned at a hypomanic level most of my life. That’s how I was able to function as a lawyer and in my daily life.
Then there’s what they call the mixed state, which is the worst part of being bipolar. That’s mania combined with depression. You have all the energy and recklessness of mania, but you’re incredibly depressed. So you have the drive and the ability to carry out suicidal thoughts. I always want to break glass, for some reason, when I’m in a mixed state. I want to smash things.
Cooper: It has nothing to do with the ceiling that women are looking at financially?
Cheney: (laughs) No. That would be another good reason to smash glass.
Cooper: What is the depression state like for you?
Cheney: In most of my depressions, I get physically paralyzed. They call it psychomotor retardation.
In a mixed state, I do have more energy, I can move around a little more, but I’m so irritable that you wouldn’t want to deal with me. I try not to do emailing or phone calls when I’m in a mixed state. It’s like when the Santa Ana winds blow, really hot and intense—you have that kind of edge to you. Very irritable, very reckless.
Cooper: Are there some states where you’re—I’ll use the word lethargic—where you can make it to the office, but you can’t seem to get anything done?
Cheney: I think of it as, there’s a point where I am still capable of pushing myself. Back then, when I still worked in an office, I would show up, sit there and stare blankly at the walls. I wouldn’t really do anything, but I would be physically present. But then it will go into a state where I just can’t get out of bed. That doesn’t happen as often as it used to, thank God.
Cooper: What was driving you to go to the office?
Cheney: My paycheck. That was about it.
Cooper: So you were rational enough to realize, I have to get there or I won’t get paid.
Cheney: Right. Well, for me, I think it was, I have to get there or else people will find out there’s something wrong with me. It was all about a façade when I was practicing law. It was very much about nobody knowing that there was something wrong with me. I thought that would be the end of my career and the end of my life as I knew it. That’s why I would show up.
Cooper: But you talk about other times where you weren’t able to show up. Times when you didn’t go to work for 30 days. How did you get away with that?
Cheney: Why did I not get fired? I think about that all the time. I’m writing another book now about growing up bipolar, a childhood memoir, and I realized I’ve had this pattern as far back as I can remember—periods of just not getting out of bed, not going to school, not going to work, followed by various high-functioning periods. And I think people just noticed the high functioning. If you get straight A’s, they don’t think there’s anything wrong with you. I did well in school and I did well in my career, so I think people looked at that. I always came up with these physical excuses for being sick. I claimed to have a lot of asthma attacks. I said I had the flu a lot. I said I had dental appointments all the time, but they were really therapy. I made up things, basically.
Cooper: When did you seek therapy?
Cheney: I tried in college when I realized there was something more than just the blues going on. I was taking psychology, and I knew there was something wrong with me, but I didn’t know what. But therapy didn’t really work out. Around 1987, when I was about 27 years old, I was diagnosed with major depression— unfortunately, a misdiagnosis. I got medication for depression, not for manic depression.
Cooper: What’s the difference?
Cheney: Well, if you’re bipolar, you don’t want to be on antidepressants, because they can trigger what’s called cycling, where you move up and down between mania and depression. That’s a bad thing. You want to try for stability. But of course the first knee-jerk response when somebody comes into a doctor’s office and says they’re depressed is to prescribe Prozac.
Cooper: When you say “doctor’s office,” are you talking about psychiatrists or just a general MD?
Cheney: Either one. I always wanted to see a specialist. I never received a prescription from a regular doctor. I find it kind of shocking that people are prescribed so much psychiatric medication, anti-psychotic medication, from regular doctors.
Cooper: I would think that a generalist would work with a psychiatrist for med management.
Cheney: Medications are so complicated. I have an amazing psychopharmacologist that I’ve been with for years, and he’s like the quarterback of my team. I run every medication I take by him. He talks to my other doctors. He knows what else I’m on. That is critical.
Cooper: Have you ever had electroshock treatment, or what they call ECT?
Cheney: I had it in 1994, and it was a mixed experience. I know now that things have really changed. I run a group at UCLA for dual-diagnosis patients—people who have both a mental illness and a substance abuse problem. There, I see people all the time who have had ECT, and they are doing so well that I’m just amazed. They don’t seem to have the memory problems that I had when I went through it.
Cooper: How do you know?
Cheney: How do I know? (laughs) That’s a good point! Maybe I just can’t remember…And how do they know—they might not be telling me everything.
Cooper: I’ve heard that most of the memory problems with ECT are short term.
Cheney: They affected me long-term.
Cooper: And yet you’re writing a memoir about your childhood.
Cheney: (laughs) It’s coming back slowly as I write. It’s been a really useful exercise to write about my childhood, because I thought I had forgotten it. As I write, things begin to connect. Some memories trigger others. So maybe writing therapy is something that all ECT patients should try.
Cooper: What inspired you to begin writing Manic?
Cheney: I was hospitalized at UCLA in 1999 for very severe depression after a suicide attempt—an attempt that obviously wasn’t successful. I was in the hospital for quite a long time in an outpatient program. I noticed that there were a lot of very articulate, bright people who were not getting better because they just couldn’t describe what was going on with them. There were no words to describe the inner life of bipolar disorder. There were a lot of clinical terms that we all bandied about, but there were very few personal accounts of what it feels like to be bipolar.
A few years before, Kay Redfield Jamison had written An Unquiet Mind, a book describing her experiences first as a patient with bipolar disorder, and then as a researcher studying it. That’s an amazing book. But I found that there wasn’t much else out there that told me what the condition was like from a personal perspective. I thought, there needs to be a book about bipolar disorder from the inside out. And I just started writing. Seven years later I had a manuscript for Manic.
Cooper: Do you have a writing background?
Cheney: I have always wanted to write. But at 21, when I got out of college, I didn’t feel like I had the material. I knew I could write, but I didn’t know what to write about.
Cooper: You hadn’t been hospitalized yet.
Cheney: (laughs) Right. I needed my diagnosis. I needed more crazy life experiences.
Cooper: For a while you spread your wings and moved away from your parents and Los Angeles. What brought you back?
Cheney: My parents got divorced, and my mother was having a really hard time alone. They lived out here. As I was going into law, I thought I should do entertainment law, because I like going to the movies and I like movie stars. UCLA has a really good entertainment law program, so I chose to go to law school there.
Cooper: What did your parents do?
Cheney: My father was a real estate developer; he died in 1997. My mother was a registered nurse before she retired.
Cooper: As a nurse, did she pick up any signs of your condition?
Cheney: You’d think so, but she really didn’t. I got straight A’s, which really blinded my parents. And I got into good schools and all that.
Cooper: And you got good at lying about being sick.
Cheney: (laughs) I was very convincing. My mother had a Merck Manual, and I would go and look up symptoms to use as my excuse for why I couldn’t go to school that day. I had rhinitis or congestivitis, or whatever word I could find that day.
Cooper: And she never picked up on it?
Cheney: She picked up on the fake temperatures I used to run. I used to put the thermometer up to the light bulb and pretend to be having a fever. She always picked up on that. But as I’m writing this book now about my childhood, I find myself wondering why they weren’t aware of those times when I couldn’t get out of bed.
Cooper: When you were running around, were you a handful?
Cheney: No, I was a good child. I was hypomanic a lot, I think, because I was very active. I was a cheerleader.
Cooper: I was wondering, if you normally were really active, could those times when you weren’t have felt like a break for them?
Cheney: Interesting take on it. I never thought of that. I never really got in trouble or anything like that, so I don’t think it was like, “Thank God, there’s a respite, she’s in bed.”
Cooper: Did you ever have any conversations with people in organizations like the Survivors of Psychiatry?
Cheney: No, never heard of them. That’s interesting. What is that group?
Cooper: Some of them believe there is no such thing as mental illness, that it’s all a lot of propaganda made up by pharmaceutical companies and doctors.
Cheney: Very interesting. I go through stages where I don’t believe I have bipolar disorder, in spite of having written a book about it. Every once in a while I’ll go into my doctor’s office and say, “Are you sure I’m bipolar?” and he says, “Yes, I’m sure you’re bipolar,” and we move on from there. I question it until I get into a depression, and then when I’m in an actual depression, real-time, not just the blues but a real chemical depression, I know it is real and I know it’s physical, as physical as any other illness, and I don’t even have a question in my mind about it. But then it’s weird, I get out of depression and I start to question it again. So I think it’s like childbirth—I think you forget the labor pains.
Cooper: I’m ready to have a child again.
Cheney: (laughs) Yeah, it was such a great experience!
Cooper: I think Scientology takes a similar position— not believing in psychiatry.
Cheney: Yeah, Tom Cruise, I was offended by that. I thought he was pretty insensitive.
Again, every time I have a real depression—and I say a “real” depression because it is hard to differentiate sometimes—it’s just so physical. I really can’t move. It isn’t like I just feel bad. My body won’t move. It’s very much in my body. And the same is true of mania. There are such physical sensations that are associated with it for me that I can’t divorce it from my body. I know it’s real. It’s not all in my mind.
Cooper: Tell me about relationships.
Cheney: Oh, God! What about them?
Cooper: Are you married?
Cheney: No, I’m single.
Cooper: Do you think being bipolar is part of the reason you’re single?
Cheney: I’ve thought a lot about it. It’s a factor. For years I would just disappear—before I wrote the book, before I came out of the closet, so to speak. I found relationships very hard to maintain, because I was disappearing all the time. I wouldn’t return phone calls, and people wouldn’t know where I had gone or what had happened to me. I still managed to have long-term relationships, but it was difficult. I was very sick during my 30s, the time for getting married and having children, and I think time really passed me by. I regret it, but I’m so much better now.
I’ve started to share more since I’ve been the writing books. I’m in two different writing groups, and the other writers knew about the disorder because I was writing about it every week. But for most of my life, other than
people who knew me from the hospital, or from mental health groups, no one would have known what was going on with me. I never told anybody at work about it when I was a lawyer.
Cooper: When did you stop practicing law?
Cheney: I still practice. Once in a while I’ll do a little tiny, tiny bit. But I pretty much dropped out of the fast track in 1996. My father got cancer and I had to take care of him. I never really got back on the fast track after that.
Cooper: You had notable clients?
Cheney: Michael Jackson was a client. Quincy Jones, who’s really terrific. Lionel Richie. Also many of the motion picture studios.
Cooper: And you were doing what? Intellectual property?
Cheney: Intellectual property, entertainment litigation, copyright, privacy issues, defamation, all the interesting stuff.
Cooper: What do you do now when you practice?
Cheney: A few weeks ago I sat in on a deposition for a friend, but I don’t want to practice law. I really just want to write. If there is a God, I will never have to practice law again, because the stress of it makes me sick.
Cooper: You think it triggers episodes?
Cheney: Absolutely. The deadlines, the office politics. Also, it’s not where my heart is.
Cooper: So you’re writing full time now?
Cheney: Yeah. Cooper: It keeps you in coffee?
Cheney: Barely. My book was sold to HBO. They optioned it for a TV serial. That helped.
Cooper: I’ve been thinking of acting.
Cheney: (laughs) You can play the guy who interviews me!
Cooper: How long ago was that?
Cheney: This summer.
Cooper: So you could be hearing from them?
Cheney: Yeah. The producer, Gavin Palone, is pretty well known at HBO. He does Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Cooper: You mentioned earlier that you think everyone should write.
Cheney: Absolutely. I can’t think of anything more helpful than writing, because my experiences don’t have the same power over me after I write them down. I’ve been through some pretty nasty things. As I’ve written about in my book.
Cooper: I remember reading that you were running around naked.
Cheney: Well, there were a few times, actually. (laughs) It just doesn’t seem to own me any more after I write it down. The story isn’t as painful to think about.
Cooper: What if you can’t write? I always struggle to write what I’m thinking; the delay from my brain to the written word makes it hard to keep in step.
Cheney: Welcome to writing! It’s never quite the rhythm you hear in your head. That’s why you spend days on a paragraph.
Cooper: In that case, I am a writer!
Cheney: (laughs) It’s tricky. I took this wonderful class once called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. It taught me that I had all these messages from childhood like, “You’re not a very good painter, you’re not a very good artist.” I knew I was a good writer, but I never thought I could paint. So that became the story I told myself about painting. But finally I got past that.
Cooper: I think that’s a good metaphor for the connection to writing. Everyone can paint. Everyone can write.
Cheney: Some people draw stick figures, some people draw self-portraits.
Cooper: There was an HBO special called King Gimp about the artist Dan Keplinger. He has cerebral palsy, and he paints by putting a paintbrush on his head.
Cheney: Oh, that’s amazing.
Cooper: The interesting thing is, because of the cerebral palsy, he twitches, and yet somehow he paints this incredible stuff using his forehead. The documentary explored how he became a painter. He’s got a gallery in New York and does well.
Cheney: What does his painting look like? Is it abstract?
Cooper: Some of it is. We had him on ABILITY Magazine’s cover with a self-portrait.
Cheney: What a great cover that must have been.
Cooper: When Manic came out a year ago, and then hit the New York Times bestseller list, were you surprised to find a lot more interest in the issue of manic depression than you had expected?
Cheney: I was astonished. I also had a stroke of good luck right before the book came out. I wrote an essay for this column in the New York Times called “Modern Love.” I wrote a piece about bipolar dating and they actually ran it, right before my book came out. There was so much email from that, and then the book came out, and then there was a lot more email from the book. So it’s been really overwhelming.
Cooper: Can you summarize what the column said?
Cheney: It talked about my experience of meeting a man when I was in the manic phase. I was in the grocery store and I sort of picked him up.
Cooper: Was it in the vegetable section?
Cheney: (laughs) It was in the produce section, of course! How did you know that? Squeezing things, yes. And then by the time we had our first date, I was depressed. So he went out with a totally different person than he had met in the grocery store, and then of course I got manic again. It was about my experience of just not being able to be one person that he could see continuously.
Cooper: Have you seen United States of Tara?
Cheney: No. I’m curious how it’s going to do.
Cooper: The theme of that show is a different mental illness, not bipolar disorder, but I was thinking of the “just not being able to be one person” part. With shows like that in the TV lineup, do you think it’s an indicator that people are gaining a greater degree of comfort with the idea of mental illness?
Cheney: I’ve been not just surprised, but astonished by how everyone seems to have some relationship to bipolar disorder. There’s a six-degrees-of-separation thing going on, a friend or a boss or a child. All the years that I spent hiding out, I just wonder, did I really need to do that? Because only once—when I was dating a psychologist, of all things—did I ever encounter someone in my life who thought my bipolar disorder was too much baggage.
Cooper: That’s sad and funny at the same time, that it was an issue in that relationship.
Cooper: Maybe it’s like being a chef, and then coming home and not wanting to go in the kitchen.
Cheney: Or just knowing what your role is. When I took care of my father, the things that I wanted to give him weren’t necessarily the things that he needed. I had to adjust my idea of what was supportive, and sometimes just be with him, hold his hand. I learned a lot from that experience.
Cooper: In your past relationships, were the people you were with supportive of your situation?
Cheney: I guess I always think of life as pre-Manic and post-Manic. Before my book there was a lot less support than after my book, and I think that comes down to the fact that later on, people knew what they were dealing with. When there was a label put on it, my life became more explicable and it was easier to deal with me. The days that I couldn’t function or go out became understandable, as opposed to being a reflection on the other people in my life in some way. It wasn’t that I didn’t love them, it was that I was too depressed to go out, so that became understandable.
Cooper: Give me an example of what you’re working on right now to be stable.
Cheney: Well, I’ve had trouble with some mood swings lately, because I have developed a condition in my jaw that’s extremely painful. So I’ve had to be on all sorts of different meds for that, and the meds are not working with my other psychiatric medications.
Cooper: Do you have a device to help your jaw?
Cheney: Yeah, I have a night guard. I’m seeing a really good pain management specialist who works closely with my psychopharmacologist. But some of the muscle relaxants and other things she’s put me on have caused really severe mood swings. So I’m having to put up with pain, for example, as a choice. Rather than be unstable, I put up with the pain.
Cooper: What about creativity? Do any of the meds reduce your writing capability?
Cheney: There are a lot of people who write to me saying they don’t want to stop being manic because they’re afraid that it will take away their creativity. I don’t agree with that. When I was manic, I would write many, many pages in this tiny little handwriting that I couldn’t read afterwards, and it was rambling. I never wrote well while manic. And I can’t write depressed. I can really only write when I’m stable, so there’s a real incentive there. I do notice that some of the meds make it a little harder to be creative than others. I think that lithium, for some people, has an impact on their creativity. It dulls them a little bit. For me, it’s all about avoiding the two poles. If I can avoid those, then I can write and be happy.
Cooper: You’ve mentioned that you rely on a few different psychiatric medications for your bipolar disorder, and now there are new medications with the jaw pain. It must be complicated sometimes. What else is part of the mix ?
Cheney: I’m on Provigil, which is a very good drug for me, as well as Abilify. I’m on several thyroid medications and several sleep medications. Sleep is a real issue with me. I don’t sleep very well, I never have. My doctor says it’s related to the bipolar disorder, but we’ve never fixed it, unfortunately.
Cooper: I have problems with sleep. I have these constant dreams that I have insomnia, so I wake up tired.
Cheney: (laughs) Very funny…
Cooper: Tell me what kindling is. Cheney: I think it’s a fascinating theory about the susceptibility to stress. It’s a chicken-and-egg question about bipolar disorder and stress. As far as I understand kindling, it means that there is this predisposition, basically, to be hypersensitive to stress and vulnerable to it; it’s like putting a match to kindling. I think that’s why they call it that. It just builds and builds and then the bipolar cycle starts to take over.
Cooper: So kindling is the stress that causes the fire to burn, but after a while…
Cheney: It just burns by itself.
Cooper: I know from other interviews we’ve done that researchers feel there is a strong genetic or biological component to bipolar disorder—so you wouldn’t necessarily have to have stress to have an episode. But you’re saying that stress can definitely play a role. A lot of stress might set off a particular episode, and then once the cycle gets going it’s harder and harder to stop.
Cheney: I’m sure that’s true in my case. I’m so much happier not being under all the stress of a law practice and trying to live that lifestyle that was just simply too much for me. I just never handled deadlines well.
Cooper: In my many years of publishing ABILITY Magazine, we’ve had many great graphic designers come through who’ve had mental illness, bipolar disorder being predominant. There have been several occasions when it’s harder for them to show up, but when the work gets in—it’s brilliant.
Cheney: There you go. You asked me at the beginning of our interview, why do I think nobody ever noticed my illness? It’s because the work would be that good. It’s interesting, since my book came out, people I’ve worked with in the past have been contacting me, and there’s always this interesting little dialogue we have about, “Did you know that I was bipolar?” What I get back is, “We knew there was something going on with you, but your work was so good, we could never tell. You just always seemed to get the flu.”
Cooper: How do you feel about the fact that, looking from the outside, there is some humor in some of the events you describe in Manic?
Cheney: A lot of people tell me that my book has a dark humor to it, which is the best compliment that anybody could give me. They don’t want to say it’s funny, because you’re not supposed to laugh when you’re talking about suicide, about depression. But it does get to a point of absurdity. You have to laugh.
In my readings, when I’m reciting a particularly dark passage that has a little twist of humor in it, you hear the twitters in the audience, and then people look around, not sure if they should laugh or not. I love it. If you can get them to laugh, you know you’ve nailed it.
Cooper: What’s it like emotionally when you get up to read this personal material in front of an audience of strangers?
Cheney: I really like the readings, and I love the question-and-answer period afterwards. It’s really hard for people to ask questions sometimes, but once they start, it’s like kindling. It really becomes this wonderful community feeling. I just love that.