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From her first time taking Prozac to hiding depressive episodes at work: A candid depiction of a former entertainment lawyer's ongoing struggle with bipolar disorder

Terri Cheney   

From her first time taking Prozac to hiding depressive episodes at work: A candid depiction of a former entertainment lawyer's ongoing struggle with bipolar disorder
  • Terri Cheney is a bestselling author, former entertainment attorney, and writer whose been featured in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, NPR, and more. The following is an excerpt from her new book, "MODERN MADNESS: An Owner’s Manual."
  • In it, she combines her personal battle with bipolar disorder with scientific research to help others navigate their mental illness.
  • Her poignant, candid picture of mental illness in the modern workplace reveals the state of mental health today, and what we can do about it moving forward.
  • If you're struggling, call the SAMHSA National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357), or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

It was the best relationship I've ever had. It lasted almost two years — two glorious years of waking up in the morning eager for the day to start, and falling asleep with a satisfied smile on my face. Two years of memory-making adventures, intense connection, and a harmony so complete it eludes description. The relationship wasn't with a man, or a woman, or even an animal. I was in love with myself. I call them "the Prozac years."

I hadn't yet been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

When I went to see a psychiatrist, all he witnessed was my crippling despair — the crying jags, the inability to move, the overwhelming wish to end it all. Not surprisingly, he diagnosed me with major depression. He was an excellent doctor, very up-to-the-minute, so it also wasn't a surprise that he prescribed Prozac, the latest wonder drug to hit the market.

It took a week or so to take effect, but oh my God, when it hit, it hit hard.

It banished my depression to a faint if troubling memory. For the first time in ages, I actually looked forward to going to work — in fact, I almost craved the challenge. My mind had been lying dormant for so long, it was a thrill to be reintroduced to its abilities.

I researched and wrote like a fiend, practically cackling with joy at the thought of whipping my adversaries. The partners in my law firm noticed and began giving me bigger and better cases, until my floor overflowed with files and I had to annex an adjoining office.

But it wasn't just in the law that I shone. My creativity, which I thought had all but disappeared, blossomed back to life and the old itch to write reasserted itself.

So I took a writing class, joined a writing group, and rediscovered the bliss of putting just the right words in just the right order. I studied drawing and art history and English country gardens, and amassed a sizable collection of Sherlock Holmes apocrypha. That wasn't enough, though: I was fulfilling my own needs, but what about the world's? There were so many inequities staring me in the face, and I had the resources and energy to take them on.

I sought out causes and represented them pro bono — one lawsuit went all the way up to the US Supreme Court. I finagled myself into an elite showbiz political coalition, and schmoozed my way to justice. How did I take all of this on, while still billing such an extraordinary number of hours?

I often look back at that time and wonder at its elasticity.

It's as if my life expanded to meet my needs and my desires — and speaking of desire, I didn't skimp on socializing, either. I belonged to all the groups for up-and-coming professionals, and made the most of the opportunity to consort with anyone and everyone I found fascinating. And I found a great many people fascinating back then.

The world was full of wonders, not all of them men. Bad things naturally happened — I was, after all, performing for very high stakes in a high-stress environment, and I wasn't magically immune to sadness or disappointment. But they didn't burrow deep inside me and fester, as they used to. I didn't ruminate about them until all hours of the night. I told my doctor I felt like the beloved omelette pan I'd brought home from Paris. Somehow things didn't stick to me, they swooshed right off. I dealt with them and moved on.

I remember one Sunday afternoon hiking up to the Hollywood sign — yes, I even enjoyed hiking back then, such a stark contrast to the sedentary, practically paralyzed person I'd been when I was depressed. It was nearing the golden hour, when L.A. takes on a roseate glow that makes you believe in the divinity of beauty no matter how jaded you might be. I looked out over the city — my city — and made a mental note to remember that moment. Even now, I can still recall how happy and proud and grateful I felt.

I was becoming the person I'd always wanted to be.

The Prozac years ended the following day. I know because it was a Monday and I had a filing deadline in federal court — an answer to a complaint for copyright infringement that I'd already finished writing. All that was left to do was to get all the necessary copies made and send it by messenger to be filed and served. My secretary could handle most of that, I just had to stand by and make sure everything got done on time.

But that morning, when the alarm clock rang, I felt the oddest lethargy. I hit the snooze button once, twice, then knocked the damn thing off the bedside table. It was past time for me to get in the shower, but the thought of that was repellent to me: all that water needling my skin. When my eyes opened again, the sun was directly in them, which wasn't a good sign. I picked up the clock and swore: 1 p.m. I threw on a suit and gunned the Porsche and made it to the office in record time, only to find disaster waiting for me. The Xerox machines were down.

"They've been working on them all morning," my secretary told me, practically wringing her hands. "It's something electrical, they've called in an expert."

Normally I would have reassured her that it wasn't that big a deal, it would all turn out fine, and not to panic. Instead I marched into the copy room and corralled the head guy.

"I've got a major filing due this afternoon, you have to fix it now," I said. "We're working on it," he said. "But it seems — " I raised my voice so all the copy guys could hear. "I don't want to hear but, I don't want to hear why. I want it fixed and I want it fixed now. Just do it, I don't care how." And I slammed the door behind me.

This wasn't like me at all — I'd always tried hard to maintain a good working relationship with the people who helped me.

I needed them more than they needed me, and I knew it; I was careful with their feelings. But that day I was just plain furious and couldn't stop my anger from mounting. I yelled at my secretary to go stand in the copy room and watch, not that she could do anything but I was inexplicably mad at her, too. The senior partner who was supervising the case stopped by my office.

"What's happening with the filing?" he asked. I told him what was going on, and he lit into me the same way I had lit into the copy guys. "I already told the studio the answer was on its way," he said. "You've made me into a liar. Get it done, now."

When he left, I burst into tears even though I knew this was the way of the wolf pack I lived in: devour or be devoured. I felt helpless and hopeless, and the minutes just kept ticking by. I had to get the pleading out the door by 3 p.m. to beat the downtown traffic, and it was well past two o'clock. But my brain wouldn't work. It was thick and fuzzy, like a cloud of cotton wool. Beneath the fog lay something worse: a growing realization that I had changed, that things weren't swooshing off me anymore.

Excerpted from MODERN MADNESS: An Owner's Manual by Terri Cheney. Copyright ©2020. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Terri Cheney is the author of The New York Times bestseller "Manic: A Memoir," which was translated into eight foreign languages. Terri's writings and commentary about bipolar disorder have also been featured in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Huffington Post, NPR, and countless articles and popular blogs, including her own ongoing blog for Psychology Today, which has over one million views.

Once a successful entertainment attorney representing the likes of Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones, Terri now devotes her advocacy skills to the cause of destigmatizing mental illness. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy, and Ethics at USC, and the Honorary Board of Directors of the International Bipolar Foundation. She also served on the Community Advisory Board of the UCLA Mood Disorders Research Program. She currently lives in Los Angeles.


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