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  • Talking About the Bipolar Tiger

    In many ways, Patty Duke could have been — and perhaps should have been — a child star statistic. The early rise to childhood fame, the alcoholic and mentally ill parents, the controlling and abusive managers led to an adulthood featuring multiple marriages and affairs, suicide attempts, and her own struggles with drugs and drink.

    Despite a persistent feeling that “something was not right, or even more intensely, that there was something wrong with me,” Duke refused to get help until she was in her mid 30s, when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

    “I wasn’t crazy. I didn’t need their help,” she said in a 2011 interview with the girlfriend of a writer I once supervised. “I was on an intimate basis with God. I told God what to do, and He did.”

    Duke managed to survive, and ultimately thrive, in the second act of her life, which ended Tuesday at age 69. She started taking lithium, going to therapy and talking to anyone who would listen about mental health issues; Duke was a keynote speaker at Jill’s American School Counselor Association conference in 2011.

    She attacked the stigma around mental health as fiercely as she attacked a script, writing two books and speaking across the country about her experiences.

    “I’ve survived,” she wrote on her website. “I’ve beaten my own bad system and on some days, most days, that feels like a miracle.” 

    As our kids transition into adulthood, Patty Duke’s story resonates with our family. Now living in New York, our son is navigating the tricky move from child actor to adult actor. Back at home after a few months in Florida, our daughter is learning how to be an adult and trying to manage her bipolar disorder. Their siblings are dealing, in some ways, with the unintentional collateral damage caused by family circumstances.

    The treacherous path that we call parenthood is littered with block after block of crossroads. Left, right or straight, many decisions feel like an endless game of second guessing. Did we do the right thing? Are we doing what’s best for everyone? Is that possible?

    The answers are not clear cut, but we continue to try.

    ••••••

    People are starting to talk more openly about "it."

    Five years ago, when Ben was in the ensemble of “Billy Elliot” in New York, he met Jonathan Bucari, a French filmmaker who had moved to the U.S. and was starting work on a short film called “Illness.” The mother of one of Ben’s cast mates, Carina Rush, agreed to produce the movie, which looked at a family’s struggle to cope with the erratic behavior of their middle son and the discovery that he has a mental illness.

    After winning multiple awards, “Illness” has been expanded to feature length and retitled “No Letting Go.” The 104-minute film, a labor of love for Carina, Jonathan and writer/producer Randi Silverman (who based the screenplay on her own life), has received strong reviews for its handling of the sensitive subject matter and performances. 

    “No Letting Go,” which was released in theaters this month in New York and Los Angeles, was made available on demand Wednesday for “World Bipolar Day.” An event created in 2014 to bring awareness to the disorder and to eliminate the ongoing stigmas surrounding mental illness, “World Bipolar Day” is held annually on the birthday of painter Vincent Van Gogh, who was believed to have suffered from the illness.  

    Also on Wednesday, a webcast held at the University of Michigan Depression Center featured a panel of experts and contributors to the upcoming PBS documentary, “Ride the Tiger: A Guide Through the Bipolar Brain.” The webcast and the one-hour documentary, which focuses on cutting edge mental health research amid personal stories of people with mood disorders, are fascinating and worthwhile uses of your time. Both are available to stream now on the PBS website; the documentary premieres on PBS stations on April 13.

    Throughout “Ride the Tiger,” which I watched after Jill alerted me to the webcast, those affected by the disorders talk about their journeys, what they’ve learned, and how they face the stigmas associated with mental illness.

    The researchers discuss what they are doing to find out where biological breakdowns occur — bipolar is not, despite what some may think, behavioral. It is a medical diagnosis that affects the brain. The researchers show how they are trying to find ways to pre-empt, fix, or rewire the brain so the manic and depressive swings don’t take place.

    One of the documentary’s contributors, author Melody Moezzi, recently wrote an excellent Huffington Post column that talks about “Thriving With Bipolar Disorder.” In it, she notes how it remains difficult for people to talk about mental illness. 

    “For God’s sake, we still call it “mental illness,” as though the brain weren’t a fundamental part of the physical body. Given the prevalence of this colossal oversight, not to mention a grossly underfunded mental health system that relies heavily on condescension, coercion and incarceration, it’s hard not to support any day that might bring more attention to brain disorders.”

    The first person to appear in the documentary, somewhat ironically, is Patty Duke. It is her last screen appearance.

    •••••••

    After her diagnosis, Duke did everything she could to promote awareness and eliminate stigmas as she brought stability to her own life. Her last marriage remained solid for 30 years. She managed to forge close relationships with her sons Sean and Mackenzie Astin, both of whom also became actors. In the 2011 interview with Elizabeth Zavala, almost 20 years after her diagnosis, her voice trembled as she described her sons’ upbringing.

    “They never quite knew who was going to be on the other side of the door. It could be the nice mom or this raving, ranting, raging, out-of-control creature … It took a while for these little boys to trust me again. They do now. They have tremendous respect for my recovery and amazing generosity in their forgiveness of me, as long as I take my medicine.”

    On Tuesday, Sean Astin published a note announcing the Patty Duke Health Project, a program that “will fuel a multi-level approach to achieving results for those suffering with mental illness and their families and communities.” You can make a donation to the initiative here

    “Her greatest achievement was confronting her mental illness and making her story public,” Astin wrote. “She crossed the nation speaking and campaigning and lobbying for mental health. My mom took her place as a mental health advocate in the greatest tradition of noble leadership.”

    May her efforts not be in vain. We need all the advocates we can get. It’s just too important to rest on stigmas.