Published April 14, 2011
Imagine feeling on top of the world one day – and at the bottom of the barrel the next. For people who suffer from bipolar disorder, this is their reality.
Catherine Zeta-Jones’ representative made a surprise announcement Thursday that she had checked herself into a mental health facility for five days to treat her bipolar disorder, but a member of Fox News Medical A-Team says the actress likely has been dealing with the disorder most of her life.
The 41-year-old Academy Award winner has been under a great deal of stress in the past year: Her husband, actor Michael Douglas, 66, was treated for cancer and her stepson, Cameron, is serving a prison sentence. On top of all that, Zeta-Jones is always in the public eye, as she and Douglas try to raise their young children, Dylan, 10, and Carys, 7.
Zeta-Jones has seemed to handle that stress with ease – she’s been the devoted wife and mother, gracing the red carpets with style, not a hair out of place.
So her announcement may leave many wondering how someone in the spotlight can suffer from such a crippling mental disorder without letting the public see the signs.
SLIDESHOW: Famous Faces of Bipolar Disorder
“It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that a successful, beautiful woman would come to suffer with bipolar II disorder,” said Dr. Keith Ablow, a psychiatrist. “Success and beauty don’t insolate anyone from psychiatric disorders.”
About 6 million Americans suffer from some form of bipolar disorder, Ablow said, and bipolar II is a common variant, characterized by episodes of depression and at least one episode of hypomania, in which the mood is seemingly too high but not fully maniac or out of touch with reality.
Zeta-Jones’ rep said in a statement that the actress made the decision to enter treatment following her husband’s very public battle with throat cancer.
“Stresses in life – like dealing with kids, or a spouse’s illness – can certainly fuel the roller coaster from low to high,” Ablow said. “But many people go through awful struggles and are not bipolar – and vice versa.”
Douglas recently announced that he is cancer free after six months of chemotherapy and radiation treatment. But Ablow said this mental disorder is probably something Zeta-Jones has been dealing with for most of her life.
In all likelihood, Zeta-Jones’ condition was rooted in childhood or adolescence, “possibly even in her brain chemistry from birth,” he said, and she might have been treating this silently for many years.
“The public wouldn’t know that I’ve treated surgeons, politicians, teachers, CEOs – all walks of life can suffer from this, and manage it well. It’s an episodic illness that comes and goes,” Ablow said.
“For people who are wondering how someone so successful can struggle with a psychiatric illness – it’s no different than being diagnosed with diabetes or hypertension,” he added.
How do you know if you have bipolar disorder?
Sufferers of bipolar disorder, which is also known as manic depression, usually have the same symptoms as those suffering from major depression, but they experience extreme highs known as manic or hypermanic episodes.
“The chief mistake that a psychiatrist could make, would be not asking people if, in addition to depression, they also have something that is the opposite of depression,” Ablow said. “Have they at times felt too energized, like they’re moving in too much of an upward direction?”
Symptoms of bipolar disorder
During a high period, a bipolar patient may have feelings of grandiosity, a decreased need for sleep, the tendency to talk too much and experiencing ideas that run too quickly through his or her mind.
“During these episodes, people might also experience too much involvement in activities that are pleasurable but overdone, like spending sprees, risky sexual behavior and investing too much money in businesses that don’t merit it,” Ablow said.
The disorder is 75 to 80 percent hereditary, according to Dr. Candida Fink, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and author of “Bipolar Disorder for Dummies” and “The Ups and Downs of Raising a Bipolar Child.”
Bipolar dramatic episodes may show up in the early 30s with more manic episodes later in life in the 40s.
“A lot of bipolar disorder is struggling with depression, mostly reported in childhood. Manic episodes show up later, and that’s when you’re hit over the head with bipolar,” Fink said.
Treating bipolar disorder
Ablow said in addition to medication, patients should include psychotherapy.
Treatments for bipolar disorder include antiseizure and mood-stabilizing medications such as Depakote and Tegretol, as well as major tranquilizers such as Seroquel, Zyprexa and Abilify.
“Major tranquilizers tend to create a ceiling so that you don’t get too high,” he said. “Mood stabilizers are more commonly used to make sure the bipolar sufferer doesn’t cycle through the highs and lows of the disease.”
Lithium is another mood stabilizer used to treat bipolar disorder, but is considered to carry more unpleasant side effects, such as weight gain, dehydration, kidney damage, as well as a high risk for overdosing, compared to some of the newer classes of drugs used to treat the condition.
People who believe they may be suffering from either depression or bipolar disorder should consult a doctor to determine the best course of treatment.
Contributing: Tina Benetiz, Marrecca Fiore, Jessica Ryen Doyle