Zeta-Jones is one of many creatives to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but what is it?

Catherine Zeta-Jones is one of many creatives to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but what is it?

Imagine that you have three states of being in your day-to-day life. In one, everything is perfectly normal – life goes on pretty much like life goes on for everyone else. In the second, you experience periods of very high energy, where your mood is very intense, focused, and perhaps very positive. In the third, life seems too much – it’s hard to see the positive in anything, and you want to hide away and sleep or sit on the periphery and just observe. Let’s call these normal, manic, and depressive ways of being.

Bipolar disorder is a relatively new term for a long known condition, in which an individual experiences two or three of these states more often than most people. Thus they may be manic, but with periods of normality (bipolar I). If the mania is not too extreme then they may be described as experiencing ‘hypomania’. Where all three phases are present they are described as ‘bipolar II’. Some have little experience of the normal phase at all, and they are said to experience ‘rapid cycling’ bipolar disorder. Where the cycles are quite extreme the individual is said to experience ‘cyclothymia’. Bipolar disorder is only diagnosed after a range of other conditions have been excluded.

Hypomania is typified in many people by periods of intense creative, outgoing, and high-functioning behaviour. Bipolar, itself, is not usually said to have been displayed until someone is in their late adolescence or early adulthood (around 20yrs of age). For these two reasons, it is often very hard to distinguish from ‘normal’ behaviours among some people.

The depressive phase, when it is experienced, may also range from ‘mild’ depression to extreme, suicidal thoughts.

Bipolar disorder may not need treatment – as some individuals will be happy functioning at the high manic end and then retire themselves when they experience a depressive or ‘normal’ phase.

When it is considered appropriate for treatment, then mood stabilising drugs are usually prescribed and these will be followed with psychotherapy.

As with so many mental health problems, opinions differ enormously as to the contribution of genetic and environmental factors (largely during childhood) in the development of the disorder.

As some people with bipolar disorder will, during the manic phase, demonstrate symptoms that appear quite psychotic, they may be confused by the public as suffering from other disorders, especially schizophrenia. As a result, there is often a social stigma associated with the condition. This is largely due to lack of understanding of what the sufferer is experiencing.

Among many others, well known people considered to have had the condition include; Russell Brand, Adam Ant, Jeremy Brett, Frank Bruno, Patricia Cornwell, Richard Dreyfuss, Stephen Fry, Paul Gascoine, Graham Greene, Mel Gibson, Ernest Hemingway, Otto Klemperer, Vivien Leigh, Jack London, Spike Milligan, Florence Nightingale, Bill Oddie, Sinéad O’Connor, Edgar Allan Poe, and now Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Across the population, roughly 4-5% suffer from bipolar II – the diagnosis that Zeta-Jones has.

As her official representative said earlier today, Zeta-Jones has admitted herself to a clinic for treatment, after a particularly difficult year with husband Michael Douglass recovering from a long battle with cancer. “After dealing with the stress of the past year, Catherine made the decision to check in to a mental health facility for a brief stay to treat her bipolar II disorder… She’s feeling great and looking forward to starting work this week on her two upcoming films.”

There are fewer examples of bipolar reported among highly successful business people. One well known example is the multi-millionaire businessman Paul Downes who, in February 2009, asked a film-maker to fly out to Jamaica to make a record of his search to find a wife. Never before married, Paul had decided he wanted to settle down and have a family, so he had advertisements distributed in the Ukraine where he had decided the women who exemplified his perfect wife lived. He drew up a short-list of 12 women to spend two weeks in an exclusive villa he had rented. It was one of a number of bizarre bouts of behaviour demonstrated by him. In his earlier adulthood, he was certainly a high achiever, but it was the bizarre nature of the behaviour that marked him out. While he is undoubtedly creative in his own way too, he also experiences ‘grandiose delusions’ where he believes that he has power over others, as well as connections with powerful world leaders.

The timing of phases is very variable, sometimes the manic phase will last for years, and the bipolarity is only evident when there is a sudden and crippling period of depression.

As someone who works with typically high-performing individuals, more than a handful of my clients can be said to fall somewhere on this spectrum. In some ways, I serve as one of their balancing mechanisms – helping to temper their natural exuberance. In others, the help they need is effectively a form of cognitive behavioural support, helping them to put their lows into context. Clearly though, we are always walking a tightrope and my aim has to be to help them find the right kind of support for the long-term future. It is not unusual for us to spend some time exploring the conditioning that they experienced as children and how they have interpreted that (whether consciously or unconsciously) in adulthood. It is not unusual for us to find that they have exaggerated in their own minds the expectations of others around them, to the extent that the only way in which they can be loved is by continuing to exhibit the phenomenal success that they have so far experienced. This loop has to be broken, even though it may lead to a dramatically different set of life style choices.

Best wishes

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