Who is Patty Duke?

At the end of January I sat in my psychiatrist’s office drawing a blank when she asked me if I knew who Patty Duke was.

The name sounded vaguely familiar, but I wasn’t like, “Oh yes! I know who she is. I love her!”

Quite the contrary. I am 36 years-old. Patty Duke was before my time. Although her work and advocacy for mental illness has remained her mission, I am newly “out of the closet” about my bipolar diagnosis, so I didn’t know much about her until that moment.

My psychiatrist suggested that I might like to read her book, A Brilliant Madness: Living with Manic Depressive Illness to help me better understand the diagnosis. Brilliant Madness was first published over 20 years ago, but I figured I’d give it a shot because when I read the synopsis, it spoke to me.

I received a bipolar disorder diagnosis in April 2011 and since then I have tried to talk myself out of having the illness. I have looked the other way about any association to the illness, aside from taking my medication because I know from experience that I need it to live a stable life.

The stigmas about mental illness have prevented me from talking to many people about my diagnosis, and to this point, I haven’t talked to another person who has bipolar. I guess you could say I have been in hiding.

Until now.

Last November I start to feel “off.” My world seemed frenzied, I felt loopy, overly-energetic,  and my thoughts jumped quickly from idea to idea. Despite my denial to the rest of the world about my diagnosis, I had developed enough awareness to know when I was in trouble. When my sleeping became disrupted I knew I needed to call my doctor.

I’ve had two psychotic episodes in the past, and I am absolutely aware of how important sleep is to someone with bipolar disorder. I promptly made an appointment with my psychiatrist and started a medication change and more frequent appointments as I rode the waves.

In addition to the medication change, I agreed to start talk therapy. That led me to realize I couldn’t live in secret about my illness anymore. I decided to start this (exploratory) blog, and boy did it open the dam. My buried emotions came rushing out of me, most often in a hypomanic state.

As it became abundantly clear to me that I needed to talk to my friends and family, I started the difficult steps toward “coming out.” I spent weeks talking to and emailing friends and family. I included factual information about bipolar so they would know it wasn’t just some heinous thing that I was making up. That bipolar disorder is an illness and not something that just goes away by snapping your fingers.

The good news, I shared with them, is that there is treatment. I started to feel empowered as I spread the word about my diagnosis and disseminated information to people who, mostly, did not know much about bipolar disorder.

Turns out I was one of those people.

The more I read, the more I realized I am not an anomaly — in fact, I am textbook. The more I read, I realized that I shouldn’t shame myself just because my brain malfunctions and doesn’t work on an even keel without treatment. It took some of the pressure of what has felt like walking a tightrope through life as I have tried not be too happy or too sad out of risk that someone would find out I was bipolar.

As I tore into Duke’s book I gained confidence about who I am as a person with a mental illness. I could resonate with some of what she was describing. Of course, I am not a celebrity — she had that to contend with on top of having the illness — but when she spoke of her symptoms, such as periods of euphoria and unhealthy lows I started to give myself grace for some of my past behaviors and feelings.

Duke’s book is also laced with a lot of medical information about manic depression (bipolar) that I, unbeknownst to me, hungered for. My brain could barely keep up with all that I was processing. I’m not so crazy after all, and yet I am SO CRAZY. I felt such relief.

I felt even more relief when I didn’t receive any negative feedback (at least to my face) from my family and friends. Patty Duke had helped find a way into my mind that made me feel less afraid to hide. She became an icon in my new journey of acceptance of bipolar disorder.

A good friend of mine thought it was interesting that I was reading her book. She has a close connection to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and told me she knew where Patty Duke’s house was. I couldn’t believe it. I thought, I should write Patty Duke a letter about her influence on me and have my friend drop it in her mailbox. How cool would that be?!

Turns out I’ll never get that chance.

Patty Duke died on Tuesday, March 29, 2016 at a hospital in Coeur d’Alene. I am devastated. I literally just wrote a review of Brilliant Madness on Goodreads on March 20, nine days before she died. I literally just started following her on Twitter.

If I could say one thing to her family, it would be that “Patty Duke was helping people, like me, with bipolar disorder right up until the day she died.” I had become fascinated with her after reading her book. I’ve talked about her to my friends and family. Her celebrity name and advocacy work that she has done to fight stigmas, made me less ashamed to have a bipolar disorder. She helped me reach acceptance about my diagnosis the way no other person has done.

When I checked Brilliant Madness out of the local library, it was the first time I had ever attached my real name to something related to bipolar disorder. I was scared. I decide to write in my journal before I opened it, so I set the book next to me. I felt uneasy about it. I turned the book over so no one walking by would see the great big words MANIC DEPRESSIVE ILLNESS on the cover and then look at me and judge. But then I thought, No. I do not need to hide anymore about having this illness.

I am so thankful to have recently read Patty Duke’s book, and I am so sad that she has passed on. She’ll always stay an influential figure in my life. As I get more secure about my diagnosis, I hope, with others, to pick up where she left off fighting stigmas about mental illness, raising awareness about bipolar disorder, and helping people who are suffering with mental illnesses to find treatment.

The next time someone asks me if I know who Patty Duke is, you can bet I have an answer. I look forward to watching her in the PBS documentary Ride The Tiger: A Guide Through the Bipolar Brain.

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