Patty Duke Opens Up About Living With Bipolar Disorder

Taken from the  Democrat and Chronicle   which is located     HERE.

Last March, Patty Duke celebrated her 25th anniversary with her husband, Michael Pearce, but this spring will mark an even longer milestone: the 30th anniversary of when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

The diagnosis was a turning point in her life — a second chance to build a life without wild mood swings, substance abuse or fractured relationships.

She’s still acting; her latest role is guest-starring on an upcoming episode of Hawaii Five-O. And she’s still speaking about living with mental illness and the importance of diagnosis and awareness, which she’ll discuss next Wednesday (Sept. 28) at the East House’s luncheon.

“Part of what I talk about is that the patient isn’t the only person who suffers,” says Duke, who will turn 65 in December. “So do their relatives. … Mental illness is an illness of the whole family.”

Her sons, Sean and MacKenzie Astin, didn’t know which way was up when they were young, she says. When she was in a depressive mode, she’d be in bed for days.

“Sean and Mac have stuck with me. For that, I’m extremely grateful,” says Duke, who also has a son, Kevin, from her current marriage.

Recovery is a journey, she says, and not unlike other chronic illnesses where medicine must be adjusted, lifestyle changes must be monitored and relationships must be rebuilt bit by bit.

“That takes a good deal of time and patience on everybody’s part,” she says.

Duke was a child star who broke boundaries. She was the youngest person ever to win an Oscar, at 16 for her role as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. She was the youngest person to have a show named after her; also at 16 as she played identical cousins in The Patty Duke Show.

As an adult, she continued to excel in firsts — first actor to win an Emmy for a TV movie, for My Sweet Charlie; first woman to be president of the Screen Actors Guild.

Yet through it all, she was suffering. Duke was raised by her managers, who changed her given name, Anna Marie, to Patty, causing identity issues. She says they encouraged alcohol and prescription drug use when she was a teen (fueling manic-depressive episodes). She was hospitalized at 20, tried to commit suicide by age 25. As her third marriage, to actor John Astin, was breaking up, she needed a cortisone shot to treat nodes on her vocal cords. The medicine brought on a manic episode, and she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

The diagnosis, she writes in her memoir Call Me Anna, brought about a sense of calm.

“At first, it’s miraculous almost that some medication and some continued talk therapy has you balanced,” she says.

And then the hard work begins. “It’s up to you to take control and gain some balance in your life,” she says.

It gets better. You get to a point, she says, when the illness is not the first thing that comes to mind when you wake up in the morning.

Yet the illness remains, so vigilance is vital. That means continually asking whether the medication is still working. “And to the best of your ability, are you allowing it to be effective, meaning you’re taking it properly,” she says.

Abby Brown, independent living program director for the East House, says it’s essential for those diagnosed with a serious and persistent mental illness to seek support and ongoing therapy.

“Everyone needs understanding, support, care and compassion, but when you’re dealing with a debilitating illness, it needs to be more structured,” Brown says.

East House works with individuals to come up with action plans, talking through what situations might come up, how they will stay connected with people, how they’ll deal with the effects of their illness in public situations like a job site.

There’s a lot to consider. If you have a dental emergency and get medicine for the pain, for example, that might affect the psychiatric medications.

“It’s being aware of your own signs and symptoms,” Brown says, and involving your support system — whether it’s East House or your family — in your progress.

Duke says her medication has been adjusted at different times, and while she hasn’t had any full-blown episodes since she started getting treatment, she has had anxiety and panic attacks that have sent her to the doctor.

Duke’s main support — her center — comes from her husband, who she met when he was a military consultant for her 1986 movie, A Time to Triumph. They now live in Idaho.

“Who you see is who he is,” she says. When she’s nervous or panicky, he talks it through with her. He has her back.

“I have to admit that I have wondered what it would have been like if I had met him before I got treatment,” she says. “I believe he would have stayed, … and I believe I might have gotten the treatment I needed sooner.”

As she gets older, closer to retirement, she is starting to formulate a plan.

“Some people get to retirement and are lost. They’re left saying, ‘It sounded like a good idea at the time,'” she says. “You have to plan to have a purpose. I’m not suggesting a 10-hour-a-day job, but something that matters to you, whether it’s working with a charity or taking care of grandchildren.”

This is especially true for those who have mental illness, because routine changes can trigger episodes.

For now, Duke will continue in her dual roles. Becoming an advocate wasn’t easy, she says, but modern society tends to focus on issues if a celebrity adopts them.

She continues because of the people she reaches. “It has opened the world to me,” she says. “The people I meet, they’re all so good and wonderful.”

One Response

  1. Thank you for sharing your insights!

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