Author and advocate Terri Cheney’s friends and family were often baffled by her moods and how to best help her. People offered lots of well-meaning advice but none of it got down to her core.
“When someone is depressed, say five little words: Tell me where it hurts,” said Cheney. “This helps a person open up about their feelings and pain. The darkness dissipates out into the light.”
Cheney is the author of three books, the best-selling memoir Manic about her life as an entertainment lawyer with bipolar disorder, the Dark Side of Innocence about her childhood and adolescence growing up undiagnosed bipolar, and her latest book Modern Madness: An Owner’s Manual.
The Reasoning behind Modern Madness
Cheney wrote Modern Madness to reach beyond her own experience since her first memoir was published and incorporate some of the new research on bipolar disorder. The book is more prescriptive than her memoirs but she uses anecdotes from her own life to illustrate.
“Several years ago, I bought a new vacuum and it came with complicated instructions. I had the idea that there should be an owner’s manual for mental health. It’s a frightening subject unless you break it down.”
Describing her manias and her depressions
Cheney, diagnosed with ultra-rapid cycling bipolar as an adult, describes mania like this: “I just had a manic day after not having one for a long time. I felt like I was being pushed from behind, speaking quickly, racing through my day.”
Depression is quite the opposite for her. She experiences physical paralysis or psychomotor retardation as psychiatrists call it.
“I could be looking at a pen on the desk. I’ll stare at it for 10 minutes and not pick it up. Both the emotional and physical components of depression are frightening,” she said.
Childhood and Bipolar on the College Campus
Cheney’s bipolar disorder was apparent in the Dark Side of Innocence. She explained her symptoms as the “Black Beast” inside of her. But it went untreated because she was a straight A student, popular and not the type of kid you think of as being troubled. Her parents didn’t talk about mental illness and as she says in Manicher father thought it was all in her head. By the time she stepped on Vassar’s campus, she went to the campus mental health center because she wasn’t sleeping but didn’t open up to the therapist that she was experiencing depression quite possibly because she couldn’t find the words to articulate her experience. The same thing happened to me at Simmons’ mental health center. I couldn’t find words to describe my experience so I went unnoticed until I had a manic break later that year.
“It’s hard to take the first step and acknowledge something is very wrong,” she said.
Talking about Mental Health Now and in the Future
“There is hope for the future. We’ve gone through with Covid as a nation and it has sensitized people that mental health is physical health and life is precious and fragile. This will lead to awareness and compassion.”
“We are finally seeing a shift with the NFL open about mental health and Simone Biles opening up at the Olympics. We’ll look back in 5 years and wonder why we were so afraid to talk about this.”
The Language we use
Cheney who writes a blog on Psychology Today’s web site spoke of the political correctness in the mental health advocacy world. “I hope we don’t mess up experience with political correctness. We have to be careful about the language we use. The mental health community focuses too much on language and not enough on talking.”
To have the illness or to not have it
I asked Cheney if she ever wished she were born without the Black Beast’s influence.
“Elyn [Saks] and I talked about this quite a bit. If we could take a magic pill to get rid of our illnesses, would we? I don’t think I would take that pill. Bipolar disorder is critical in developing my empathy and creativity.”
A California resident, Cheney is good friends with Elyn Saks, also a lawyer and diagnosed schizophrenic. Cheney sits on the board of her Center for Law, Policy and Ethics at USC.
Cheney is fascinated by the subject of manic depression. It has captured her imagination. She loves to sit in coffee shops with her notebook and write on moods and madness. Although her depressions have led her to be extremely suicidal and suicide attempts, she’d still want the beauty and ability to appreciate the darks and lights and shadows of life that bipolar brings her.
“It’s a very interesting illness. I don’t know why people don’t want to find out more,” she said.
Education is key
Cheney encourages her friends and family to educate themselves on her illness by reading her books and other literature that is out there so they know what she goes through and what they are getting into.
“Anyone in a relationship with me is going to be educated about bipolar disorder,” she said. “I’m honest about my depressions. I isolate and don’t return phone calls and texts.”
She says all she needs is people to know her well enough to check in on her and she will do her best to stay in contact.
Finding the Right Treatment
“Finding the right treatment can be difficult as a middle class white woman. I have privilege and I still find it difficult to pay for treatment. It makes me angry. We are nowhere near where we need to be with parity,” she said.
“In a perfect world, everyone that needed it would have a therapist and a psychopharmacologist who is conservative and careful.”
She warned against people going to their PCP for a prescription for Prozac because anti-depressants are not good in bipolar patients. Peer support groups are good for people who can’t afford therapy.
Cheney began and facilitated a support group at UCLA Medical Center. “You need to be your own advocate,” she said.
Because Cheney has written three books and is very open about her illness, she has trouble putting herself in other’s shoes when it comes to disclosure. She advises people when telling others about their illness to gage their audience closely.
“I wouldn’t tell details about a past relationship or job. You have to be careful who you tell and when you tell them,” she said. “I tell people as early as possible. If that person has a problem with it, I don’t want them in my life.”
Three Degrees of Separation
“Whenever I’ve told someone I’m bipolar, nine times out of ten they tell me about their cousin or mother or themselves are too.”
Self-Care vs. Self-Soothing
Cheney sees self-care as going to the doctor or getting bloodwork done. However, self-soothing, for her, is reading a good book and eating frozen yogurt.
“When I’m depressed, I treat myself as if I had the flu and not set expectations of myself.”
She’s a big fan of mindless television. She likes the classics like that make her laugh such as Mary Tyler Moore and Cheers.
Her depiction in the Modern Love series on Amazon Prime
Cheney thought they did a somewhat realistic job of depicting bipolar disorder on the Modern Love series on Prime based on an essay she wrote for the New York Times. Anne Hathaway and her chatted beforehand to get an accurate picture of her depression. The only thing they took creative license on is they made the character of Terri get fired.
“I have never been fired from a job because of my illness,” she said.
Hope for the future
Cheney is writing a new memoir asking the question whether people can really change.
“It’s been a difficult life dealing with mental illness. But it’s made me empathetic and kind,” she said.
“I’m amazed at how people get through the dark times without the advantages I’ve had,” she said referring to the support group she facilitated at UCLA.
Terri Cheney has a website at www.terricheney.com. It is being redeveloped as an educational site but you will still be able to purchase her books or friend her on Facebook.