The Cost Of Creativity: Bipolar Disorder and the Stars

Bipolar disorder can bestow the highest highs and the lowest lows.


March 21, 2008 — -- The stereotype of the tortured artist shows up often in popular culture: a frazzle-haired composer pacing about his room, a troubled starlet, a crazed novelist with a bad case of writer's block.

Along with that stereotype comes an assumption -- that the hyper highs and crushing lows that we witness in some of our celebrities is a sign of bipolar disorder.

In fact, it's rumored that many of the notable artists in history -- including Beethoven, Lord Byron and Charles Dickens -- suffered from the disorder.

"There is such a thing known as artistic temperament," said Dr. Igor Galynker, director of The Family Center for Bipolar Disorder at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York and professor of clinical of psychiatry Albert Einstein College of Medicine. "And it's kind of conducive to creativity."

So might there be a bipolar "epidemic" among artists?

"It sort of makes intuitive sense," said Dr. Dost Ongur, clinical director of the schizophrenia and bipolar disorder program at McLean Hospital, a psychiatrist hospital in Belmont, Mass. "Some of the things that go into bipolar disorder on the manic side, some of the traits -- thinking fast, creativity, charisma, charm -- can be very positive."

But doctors are quick to note that the connection between celebrities and bipolar disorder isn't ironclad.

For instance, Galynker says that unusual behavior from some celebrities may be due to drug and alcohol use, but instead they get misdiagnosed with a mind disorder.

"It's the diagnosis du jour," Galynker said.

Furthermore, doctors note that it's hard to determine whether celebrities have bipolar disorder at any higher rates than the rest of the population.

"Just by chance, there's going to be 2 percent of people who have it [in any group of the population]," Ongur said.

Still, doctors admit that, for whatever reason, bipolar disorder seems to crop up more often in artists and celebrities.

The stars listed here have opened up about their struggles with bipolar disorder, revealing the inevitable highs and lows of this challenging condition.

Pete Wentz

Pete Wentz, 28, is the bassist for Grammy-nominated pop punk band Fall Out Boy. "Sugar, We're Goin Down," a single off the band's 2005 album, "From Under the Cork Tree," went to No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, but the song's title parallels Wentz's battle with bipolar disorder.

"I have manic depression. I obsess over everything," Wentz told Britain's Q Magazine.

Wentz was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a teenager. He also takes medication for anxiety and sleep.

In February 2005, Wentz passed out from an overdose of anxiety medications, although he denied that it was a suicide attempt.

"I was isolating myself further and further," Wentz told Rolling Stone Magazine. "And the more I isolated myself, the more isolated I'd feel. I wasn't sleeping. I just wanted my head to shut off, like, I just wanted to completely stop thinking about anything at all."

Wentz, who is in a relationship with pop singer Ashlee Simpson, seems to have his disorder under control, for the most part.

"When I am depressed, I can't get out of bed," Wentz said. "But right now, it's sunny and 65 in my head, so it's OK!"

Phil Spector

The producer of hits such as "Unchained Melody" and "Imagine" is known for his prolific career and disturbing behavior. Throughout his history of smash-hits and scandals, Spector says bipolar disorder has been a constant curse.

"I have a bipolar personality," Spector said in February 2002 interview with the London Daily Telegraph. "I'm my own worst enemy. I have devils inside that fight me."

Despite the devils, Spector is credited for reinventing American pop music, creating his signature "wall of sound" -- an orchestral, bombastic style found in songs like "Be My Baby" and "That Lovin' Feeling."

Spector's musical brilliance was been underscored with dark and erratic behavior.

His first wife, Veronica Bennet, claimed he kept her locked up in their mansion and threatened to kill her if she left him. Several musicians who worked with Spector spoke of how the producer had threatened them at gunpoint.

Spector says he has struggled with his bipolar disorder for 20 years.

On February 3, 2003, Spector was arrested and charged with murder in the killing of nightclub hostess Lana Clarkson. His subsequent trial ended with a hung jury. A second trial is scheduled for September 2008.

Linda Hamilton

Linda Hamilton morphed from shy waitress to tough-as-nails freedom fighter over the course of the blockbuster action movies "Terminator" and "Terminator 2: Judgment Day." But Hamilton found it far more difficult to fight off the demons in her personal life.

Hamilton suffered from manic-depressive episodes for 20 years before getting properly treated and calls the years from her 20s to her 40s her "lost years."

"In those 20 years, I did not know the meaning of the word 'hope,'" Hamilton told The Associated Press. "It was just a bleak, difficult existence."

Hamilton said her manic episodes drove much of her work early on, but the depression felt like falling into a manhole with no way out and pushed her to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.

One of our doctors said treatment for bipolar does not reduce creativity. Still, Hamilton feared sacrificing her creativity for mental stability, a common reaction for many artistically inclined people with bipolar disorder.

"That is one of the most difficult things of treating bipolar disorder," Galynker said. "If someone is fantastically creative do you want to make them just averagely creative?"

But Hamilton said she was able to go through treatment without losing her creative streak.

"A lot of my early career was based on that angry woman that was just an organic outgrowth of the chemical imbalance that I had," Hamilton said. "And I thought, I'm going to become normal and I won't have those extraordinary gifts as an actress. There is nothing that has been diminished or dulled. I don't feel that any of my greatness has been covered over."

Richard Dreyfuss

Oscar winner Richard Dreyfuss may be best known for playing the marine biologist who thought a scuba suit and shark cage could protect him from the hungry maw of "Jaws," but the famous actor's inner life is far more complex than that of the boyish character he made famous.

In a 2006 television documentary titled "The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive" by British actor Stephen Fry, Dreyfuss was one of several actors who spoke extensively and frankly about his bipolar disorder. He told Fry that he been on lithium and other medications to level his mood.

Dreyfuss is not reticent about sharing his views on subjects like mental illness, religion and politics and he speaks frequently about civic duty. Still, it may be his openness about the stigmatized disorder that has made the most impact.

Margot Kidder

As Lois Lane, Margot Kidder played a vivacious journalist with a soft spot for Superman, played by Christopher Reeve, in the blockbuster films of the 1970s and 1980s. But even Superman could not save Kidder from her bipolar disorder.

Kidder said she was aware as early as 19 that her mood swings were intense enough to "knock over entire cities."

"But at that point, I don't know how much psychiatrists knew about manic depression. I know that I didn't know what to call it," Kidder said. "It wasn't my mood swings that alarmed me as much as the altered states that I would go into. I likened them to LSD trips without the LSD."

Kidder's drinking and occasional drug use masked her problem but in April 1996, she could not hide anymore. After disappearing for several days, Kidder made headlines when she was found dirty and dazed, hiding behind some bushes in a stranger's backyard.

Kidder was taken to the mental ward of a Los Angeles hospital for treatment, after which she went home to Canada to rest.

"I so don't want to cry, but it's the thing I have avoided and been terrified by and have demonized my whole life and it has done extraordinary damage to an awful lot of lives besides mine," Kidder said. "I've had an awful lot of highs and they were great. But the price I've paid for them is pretty tough to accept and I'm not -- I can't pay that price anymore."

Maurice Bernard

Soap opera stars rarely go through the same kind of life-altering dramas that their characters suffer through on TV -- the amnesia, the long-lost mothers, the unintentional marriages.

But Maurice Bernard, who plays a mob boss on "General Hospital," got to act out aspects of his own personal distress in the award-winning "Sonny Is Bipolar" story line.

In 2007, Bernard was honored by the Entertainment Industries Council with the first "Performance in a Daytime Drama" PRISM Award for his portrayal of bipolar disorder.

Bernard, 45, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (then called manic depression) at the age of 22 after a nervous breakdown and a stay in a mental hospital.

Since his 1993 start at "General Hospital," Bernard has had a few rough periods and even left the show in 1998.

In a 2007 interview on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," Bernard described the importance of sticking to his medication.

"I flirt with not taking it -- but I'm not stupid, because every time I've gone off the medication, I've had a breakdown," he said.

Carrie Fisher

The actress and writer, known best for her role as the dauntless Princess Leia in the "Star Wars" trilogy, has had to deal with both the light and the dark sides of her psyche.

Fisher has suffered from bipolar disorder since her youth.

"I have a chemical imbalance that, in its most extreme state, will lead me to a mental hospital," Fisher told Diane Sawyer.

Fisher, the child of actors Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, had a tumultuous childhood. Her father ran away with Elizabeth Taylor when she was 2 years old, and Fisher began performing on stage at age 12.

While Fisher got a huge break in "Star Wars", her career did not take off, and she gradually developed a cocaine and alcohol addiction. All during this time, she struggled with her disorder.

"I used to think I was a drug addict, pure and simple -- just someone who could not stop taking drugs willfully," said Fisher in a December 2000 interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC News. "And I was that. But it turns out that I am severely manic depressive."

However, after years of struggle and a breakdown that kept her in a hospital for two weeks, Fisher has come to terms with her condition.

"I outlasted my problems," Fisher said. "I am mentally ill. I can say that. I am not ashamed of that. I survived that, I'm still surviving it, but bring it on. Better me than you."

Stephen Fry

While the English actor and comedian imbued drollery into British TV favorites such as "Jeeves and Wooster" and "Black Adder," he's had to do it while dealing with bipolar disorder.

"I [suffer], according to a psychiatrist at least, from cyclothymia, which is sometimes called 'bipolar light,'" Fry said in a 2006 seminar at St. Andrew's University.

While Fry explained that his condition generally has less severe symptoms, he reached a dangerous low point in 1995, when he walked out of a play he was starring in and came very close to killing himself.

"I went into my garage, sealed the door with a duvet I'd brought and got into my car," the comedian said in a BBC documentary "Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive."

"I sat there for at least, I think, two hours in the car, my hands on the ignition key," he said.

After that, Fry was diagnosed with the bipolar disorder.

"I'd never heard the word before," Fry said in the documentary. "But for the first time, at the age of 37, I had a diagnosis that explains the massive highs and miserable lows I've lived with all my life."

Now, Fry uses his celebrity to create awareness about bipolar disorder.

"I'm in a rare and privileged position of being able to help address the whole business of stigma," Fry said in his documentary, "and why it is that the rest of society finds it so easy to wrinkle their noses... when confronted with an illness of the mind and of the mood -- especially when we reach out with such sympathy towards diseases of the liver or other organs that don't affect who we are and how we feel in quite such devastating complexity."

Burgess Meredith

Though he played the part of Rocky's iconic boxing trainer, Mickey, in "Rocky," Burgess Meredith might have needed some coaching of his own when dealing with his bipolar disorder.

Although younger generations may not recognize Meredith -- he died in 1997 -- he was well-known in his era, playing the Penguin in the 1966 "Batman" TV series and starring in the 1939 version of "Of Mice and Men."

He was also known in Hollywood for his violent mood swings and temperamental behavior. Rumored as woman-chaser, the actor married four times.

Meredith explained his changeable behavior in his autobiography, "So Far, So Good," writing that he was diagnosed with cyclothymia, a milder form of bipolar disorder.

Like many people who suffer from bipolar disorder, Meredith had a difficult childhood.

"All my life, to this day, the memory of my childhood remains grim and incoherent," Meredith wrote in his autobiography. "If I close my eyes and think back, I see little except violence and fear."

Apparently, abuse or neglect during early years can act as a trigger for the disorder.

"If you have the predisposition, you can become ill if there's a sufficient stress brought to bear on that situation," said Dr. C. Edward Coffey, professor of psychology and neurology and vice president for behavioral health services at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit. "We know that kids that experience trauma when they're young -- that's going to disturb their balance and can lead to bipolar disorder [if they are predisposed]."

Dick Cavett

The clever talk show host and comedian may have appeared suave and self-assured on television, but there were times when Dick Cavett's mind was far from serene.

Cavett has openly talked about his struggle both with depression and bipolar disorder. He even did electroconvulsive therapy to help him treat his mind disorders.

"In my case, ECT was miraculous," Cavett said in a 1992 interview with People Magazine. "My wife was dubious, but when she came into my room afterward, I sat up and said, 'Look who's back among the living.' It was like a magic wand."

However, his illness still caused him some difficulty when he was sued for backing out of doing a nationally syndicated radio program in 1997. Cavett's lawyer told The Associated Press that the host had a manic depressive (bipolar) episode and was not able to fulfill the contract.

The case against Cavett was dropped. Since then, the actor has also helped to raise awareness by participating in a movie about mental illness called "A Patient's Perspective," produced by the Depression and Related Affective Disorders Association.

Patty Duke

The child actress-turned TV star has lived a life of extreme highs and lows, mirroring her struggle with bipolar disorder.

While Patty Duke won an Oscar at age 16 for her role as Helen Keller in "The Miracle Worker," and fame from her TV series "The Patty Duke Show," her personal life was traumatic.

Her mother turned Duke over to the control of her managers, John and Ethel Ross, who abused and controlled Duke for most of her young adulthood. This abuse led to years of misery, addiction and broken relationships for Duke.

She also struggled, unknowingly with her bipolar disorder -- which she would not be diagnosed with until her 30s.

"Even now, it's weird to tell you what my reaction was. In my entire life I had heard the words 'manic-depressive' only three or four times -- in some completely unrelated way, certainly nothing to do with me," Duke writes in her autobiography, "A Brilliant Madness."

"But the words just made sense. As my psychiatrist said them, I remember nodding my head as if I had known this all along. They were the best two words I ever heard. They described how it felt to be me."

Duke now has control of her life and is informed about her disorder. In addition to authoring two books on her experience with bipolar disorder, she has become a spokeswoman and activist for mental health awareness.

Vivien Leigh

For those younger than 35 the name Vivien Leigh may draw a blank stare. But it was the beautiful, famously temperamental Leigh who played the breathless Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind."

She also played Blanche DuBois, the oversexed alcoholic in "A Streetcar Named Desire." Tragically her private life mirrored that of her Oscar-winning roles.

Leigh was reportedly diagnosed with bipolar disorder, characterized by extreme highs and lows, a disorder that could be seen as a metaphor for some of the external circumstances in her life.

Her unhappy childhood in India was spent in a convent boarding school and her two marriages ended unhappily. Besides battling alcoholism and what was then known as manic depression, she died of tuberculosis at 53.

On the other hand, she was known internationally as one of the most beautiful women in the world. She was also lauded for her talent. She won Oscars for her roles in "Gone with the Wind" and "Streetcar" and played opposite acting greats Sir Laurence Olivier, Clark Gable and Marlon Brando.

Leigh married Olivier in 1940. In his autobiography, Olivier described her disorder in the poetic way one might expect from the famous actor: "Throughout her possession by that uncannily evil monster, manic depression, with its deadly ever-tightening spirals, she retained ... an ability to disguise her true mental condition from almost all except me."

Lauren Cox contributed to this report.

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