Thursday, April 14, 2011

Contrasts in bipolar perception: Catherine Zeta-Jones and Vivien Leigh

Actress Catherine Zeta-Jones  recently checked herself into a mental health facility for treatment of her bipolar II disorder, otherwise known as manic depression. 

And we all know about it.

Whether it's due to her openness in an effort to dispel the long-persistent stigma attached to "mental illness," or a preemptive strike against the tabloid press, is not known, and really doesn't matter.

Her story illustrates at least a perceived acceptance of mental illness for what it is -- a legitimate, medical condition.

It wasn't always that way.  In the not-so-distant past, when publicity could bring personal shame and professional disaster, it was considerably harder for those who lived in the public eye to seek treatment or cope with their conditions.

A case in point is actress Vivien Leigh.

She is remembered for the role that made her an icon -- Scarlett O'Hara in the 1939 production of "Gone With the Wind."  The film -- and her performance in it -- plays as fresh as it did over 70 years ago.

While Leigh's greatness and immortality via the stage and screen is secure, she truly suffered with bipolar disorder, and it took a toll on her personal and professional life during the 1940s and 50s.

Leigh biographer, Anne Edwards, describes the strain on Leigh's marriage to fellow actor Sir Lawrence Olivier this way:

"Coping with the acceleration of her hysteria and the manic-depressive periods was weighing Olivier down.... He was becoming more and more aware that they were losing what they once had and that nothing would ever quite be the same.  He felt -- as did Vivien -- that because theirs was a superior, sublime love it could survive most difficulties.  Yet he was growing increasingly alarmed that her extremes of manic behavior could change that, and that the direction of their relationship was moving out of his control...."

Edwards continues:

" ... During her well periods she (Leigh) was the same grand and gracious hostess, the same thoughtful friend, the same sensitive and caring companion.  For Larry (Olivier) and Gertrude (her mother) it was like living with two different women."

Zeta-Jones -- along with six million other bipolars -- can be thankful for advances in treatment.  They don't have to endure, as Leigh did, shock treatments that left her burnt.  Other treatments included sedation.

And, while  today's medication and therapy, if followed, can make bipolar disorder manageable, this was not so in the 1940s and 50s.  Edwards describes the mindset of the day:

"She (Leigh) had -- at least until medicines became more advanced in the area -- an incurable disease, and she new it."

Further, Edwards quotes Leigh as saying, "Why can't I have a decent, clean illness?"

Edwards continues:

"She hated illness of any sort, had absolutely no sympathy with it ... If you we're ill, you just got over it and you ignored it or you got it fixed quietly and with dignity.  Having something mentally wrong was shameful."

Her companion, actor Jack Merivale, tried to encourage Leigh by saying, "Why should you feel ashamed?  What an example you are to so many people who suffer from this, and to think you can lead this successful life, battling against this.  It's a most morvelous example to any and all, and you should be a figure of hope and encouragement to thousands of people."

Leigh didn't buy Merivale's reasoning, which was, in retrospect, openminded and ahead of its time.  Perhaps now, that time has arrived.

A view-worthy video from ABC's Good Morning America:

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