Posted by: hypomanic | April 16, 2011

Catherine Zeta-Jones and all those who outed before her

There has been widespread coverage of bipolar this week due to the announcement that actress Catherine Zeta-Jones has recently been diagnosed and spent time in a mental health facility in the US.

I was diagnosed bipolar in 1996 and since then I’ve witnessed a lot of occasions like the one this week when someone who is famous and becomes bipolar gets made an example of in news feed and editorials. Sometimes the media are kind, as they have been this week to Catherine but often in the past they were not. For example during 2004 in the UK when boxer Frank Bruno experienced the same transformation as Catherine has this week, he was derided by some of the British press for more reasons than just his mental predicament, particularly The Sun’s front page headline “BONKERS BRUNO LOCKED UP.”

Catherine Zeta-Jones does not propose a perceived threat to the safety of the wider general public because her physical presence evokes something entirely different, something much less threatening in the fear hierarchies of the perpetrators of stigma. The archetype story I use to demonstrate my point is Beauty and the Beast. Its an ancient fairy tale I often read to my 3 year old before she goes to bed so I guess I’m perpetuating too. Its difficult. Stigma has been around for a very long time, it is very well established and it is ingrained globally throughout the human psyche. Turning that around is no small task.

However, if the positive bipolar coverage of Catherine Zeta Jones represents progress along the lines of self advocacy and openness as a human race (with regard to mental illness) then I take encouragement and strength from that in my own struggles with coming out as a non-famous bipolar individual to the people I meet throughout my life. It is a different playing field altogether and that is why I’m remaining reluctantly defensive and somewhat closed.

The thing is, something in the deeper recesses of my mind is telling me to remain skeptic and therefore closed day-to-day even when revelations in the news about film star’s lives become company, even a bit close to home. Catherine Zeta-Jones has taken a decision to come out and tell the world she has the incurable condition bipolar that sits in second place only to Schizophrenia as the worst, most disruptive mental disorder known to man. She has clearly accepted that fact. The illness has been imposed upon her by her biological makeup and it’s susceptibility to depression and mania when exposed to the extreme stress of her husband’s recent fight against cancer. The biological aspect of this is important when I refer back to Frank Bruno’s case in 2004.

Frank Bruno had a divorce and his successful boxing career had recently ended. But that particular story, from our point of view as the audience, has less of an emotional hook than that which touches our empathy from what Catherine Zeta-Jones, in early reports, appears to have gone through. Also, in terms of dignity, Frank’s behaviour had gone awry not only with his family but it was being recognised by a wider group of people, who eventually got quoted by ‘sensational’ journalists (a lesser extreme version of what is happening to Charlie Sheen at the moment). Catherine has been relatively private. However, both cases involved a stressful life event and a medically understood vacancy of a certain brain chemistry essential for the ability to control mood peaks and troughs brought about by the events of the external environment. Fight or flight or medical intervention.

I also fear bipolar is becoming sort of a fashionable illness because so many people who make vast amounts of money from the culture of celebrity are by necessity outed as having a diagnosis of bipolar by the newspapers and magazines that help the celebrity economy to remain front and center in the early 21st century. I’m convinced that the ‘fame’ model is almost identically the same DNA that perpetuates stigma. I’m talking all kinds of stigma and associated bullying, not just about mental illness.

Out of 6 billion human beings, none are identical and everyone of them is unique. Fame has nothing to do with this. Bipolar has little to do with this either. We’re all special. There are 6 billion minorities walking this planet.

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