Why are we so shocked to learn that Catherine Zeta-Jones has bipolar disorder and checked herself into a mental health facility?Because she is ravishingly beautiful, classy and charming, has a healthy sense of humor, a flair for elegant fashion, and seems to be a devoted wife and mother who handled the horribly stressful situation of her husband Michaels throat cancer with grace and fierce loyalty?How could Catherine Zeta-Jones be the face of bipolar disorder?Because, like cancer, brain disorders have no boundaries that limit them to those with less money, beauty, or luck. The number floated around most often is that one in four adult Americans have a mental health challenge of some kind, whether OCD, PTSD, depression, anxiety, or a more serious diagnosis like schizophrenia.Identifying Zeta-Jones as having Bipolar Disorder II whether it was a decision she made or she was outed by a tabloid could be one of the best things that ever happened to others with Bipolar Disorder. It opens a forum for discussion and it destigmatizes an illness that is often kept secret to the detriment of those who have it and their families.Bipolar Disorder II is not so different from other variations of Bipolar Disorder. It still involves mood swings between depression and mania. But the emphasis is on depression and the mania is not so pronounced, more of a hypomania, or below mania. In fact, it often presents as feeling optimistic, having more energy and feeling mentally sharper and more creative all attributes that would seem to characterize Zeta-Jones more accurately than bipolar.
But its a package deal. With hypomania comes crippling depressions that are so painful it is not unusual for those who are suffering to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs; and reports are that Zeta-Jones was drinking excessively. Unfortunately, alcohol often only makes symptoms like irritability, restlessness, fatigue, and inability to sleep worse.
Stress is a major factor in setting off the symptoms, as is lack of sleep. Zeta-Jones may have been able to publicly hold it together while supporting her husband through his health crisis. But there is no doubt that the watching her husband undergo intense treatment for a severe cancer would have set off a depressive episode.
The wonder and glory of Catherine Zeta-Jones situation is that she sought help and signed herself in (reportedly with her husband at her side) to a mental health facility for a 5-day stay. During her stay she would have received individual and group therapy and perhaps had a medication change under supervision.
By naming and treating her condition, Zeta-Jones has given Bipolar Disorder II the best press it could ever have. Her husband had cancer and dealt with it. She has Bipolar Disorder II and is dealing with it. How refreshingly adult, how positively life-affirming. Thank you, Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Judy Kirkwood is an advocate for understanding early onset bipolar disorder and adolescent addiction.