With recent revelations of mental illness by Catherine Zeta-Jones and Demi Lovato making the rounds through mainstream media (including Michael Douglas's recent sit-down with Oprah), bipolar disorder is experiencing a moment in the spotlight. Top that off with Charlie Sheen's ambiguously energetic "I'm Not Bipolar" Bipolar Awareness Walk, and you've got a psychological triumvirate that has people talking.
As a gal who's been diagnosed with this particular mental illness for over a decade, I'm more than a little curious about the lessons we can derive from watching stars speak out to journalists about having what is often classified, alongside the arguably still-more stigmatized illness of schizophrenia, as a severe mental illness. And, after a bit of contemplation, I've come up with some convenient categories for Zeta-Jones, Lovato, and Sheen's representations in the public eye.
Imagine, if you will, a hit flick about a soul-sucking, difficult, heart-wrenching, and often fatal mental disorder. Most frequently known for sky-high manias and terrible lows (though the bipolar spectrum is far more complex and nuanced than this overly succinct depiction), this cinematic creation features three major characters: The Good-Hearted Lass, The Troubled but Triumphant Teen, and The Rogue.
Let's start with Catherine Zeta-Jones, otherwise known as The Good-Hearted Lass. People subheaded a piece about her disorder with the clause, "Her Private Struggle," and painted her as a woman sparring with mental illness while steadfastly supporting Michael Douglas in his fight with cancer. Douglas had some strange comments about her in his Oprah interview, seeming to imply that since he had so many problems, it was pretty inconvenient for her to get depressed — but he also made sure to emphasize that she'd been helpful and "stoic" in the face of his illness. Additional pieces append quotes from Zeta-Jones about raising awareness ("If my revelation of having bipolar II has encouraged one person to seek help, then it is worth it"), raising Zeta-Jones from the level of Star with a Disorder to Star with a Cause. Classy, says the crowd.
Demi Lovato, former Disney star of the tween show Sonny With a Chance, agrees. In a supportive tweet that appeared after Zeta-Jones' announcement, she called Zeta-Jones "brave," and revealed soon after emerging from a treatment facility (for self-harm and an eating disorder) that she, too, has bipolar disorder. While Lohan- and Hilton-types have been derided for their party-girl antics, Lovato's months-long stint at the treatment facility appears to have been entirely for psychological treatment, thereby paving the way for fans and goss columns alike to keep mostly mum about Lovato's then-controversial assault of a dancer in 2010. She sat down with ABC News, 20/20, and Good Morning America to discuss her problems and treatment. In her 20/20 interview, Lovato struck a similar, advocacy-oriented chord to that of Zeta-Jones, in which she stated that "The real reason why I'm sitting down with you is to open up the eyes of so many young girls, that it doesn't have to be this way," after which viewers, bloggers, and fans called her "brave" for disclosing a mental illness in a society that still stigmatizes said illnesses –- and so the troubled pop starlet comes out triumphant.
All good stuff, right? Raising awareness. Celebrities who fight the good fight. But what about when crazy gets too … crazy?
Though much has been made about the perils of diagnosing celebrities from afar, Charlie Sheen's association with the disorder seems to be closer than most. Not long after Zeta-Jones went public, Sheen organized a walk to benefit bipolar awareness — this, of course, after a media-eternity of "bi-winning" behavior that was amusing to some but appalling to others. Fans walked for 1.2 miles with Sheen to "Stop the Stigma!!" — and while I haven't watched a video of the entire 1.2 miles, I've seen photographs of Sheen in the ironic-but-maybe-not "I'm Not Bipolar Hat." Kaj Korvela, the executive director of the bipolar support organization that received donations raised from said walk, stated that "we just want to be seen in the best light, and I don't think that march was seen in the greatest light. [...] It's people like Catherine Zeta-Jones, Carrie Fisher, who can really address the experience. Those are the people that express integrity and elegance."
Hence my title for Sheen: The Rogue. Even if Sheen doesn't have bipolar disorder, a lot of his behaviors are the very sorts of things that mentally ill people in a manic state do. It's the kind of behavior that can get the executive director of a bipolar support organization to wish you had "integrity and elegance." It's the kind of behavior that reminds people of another star who had pseudo-diagnoses waved in her direction not too long ago, after she bashed a windshield with an umbrella and shaved her head bald. And it's the kind of behavior that makes mere mortals like me keep quiet about the worst parts of their manic episodes, because thank goodness I wasn't being followed around by paparazzi when I was doing X, Y, and Z.
I'm glad that celebrities are coming out about bipolar disorder. Like any stigmatized condition or illness, it's important to raise awareness, and interesting to show that even the glamorous can suffer in silence. But like any stigmatized condition or illness, there's a reason that bipolar disorder is stigmatized — and it's important that we don't forget to acknowledge those stigmas so that we can fight to overcome them. Mental illness, much like physical illness, doesn't always look "brave" or "triumphant," and by looking at celebrities, who are more likely to either be shined to a high gloss or toppled from their pedestals post-"breakdown," we're able to see one of the fascinating difficulties of everyday folk with mental illness writ large. For example, consider the hypomanic (a milder form of mania, experienced by people –- like Catherine Zeta-Jones –- with bipolar II disorder) giddiness of an ill friend at a party versus the psychotically manic man screaming nonsensically on your bus ride home. Both have bipolar disorder, and both need help, but one is much likelier to earn sympathy, or even basic human kindness, than the other; and so it is essential to be aware of, and equally advocate for, things such as awareness, compassion, and better health care for all parties involved. Even — and especially — if things start to look really, truly insane.
Meggy Wang is a writer of fiction and nonfiction. She blogs at The Novelist's Hubris.