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Jamie Frevele

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Eric Millegan on Living (and Acting) with Bipolar Disorder: Part 1

Posted: 10/27/09 11:19 PM ET

Mental illness is one of the most frightening things that can happen to a human being. It's like fighting an invisible war. Not imaginary -- invisible. It's there, but no one can see it, but the person fighting it feels every inch of it. And hopefully, others will believe it exists. When our organs have something wrong with them, like our hearts, livers or bones, there is a pretty tangible effect for those around us to witness. But we can, for the most part, still function. When the organ afflicted is the brain, however, the organ running the show, deciding how we act, react, communicate, socialize, etc., it's just...different. There are no open wounds, bruises, swelling, anything other people can see. How do they know it's not fake?

And what if you're an actor for a living?

I've been a fan of Eric Millegan since early 2008, when I started watching the Fox show Bones. He played my favorite character, the unintentionally hilarious Asperger's case Zack Addy. Ironically, while he was shooting the seasons that made me a fan of the show, Eric Millegan, while playing a wholly unemotional character, was going through emotional hell. Recently, he posted on his YouTube channel that he had been living with rapid-cycling bipolar disorder and was ready to talk about it. Creative types are, by nature, excellent storytellers, so here, in his own words, is Eric Millegan's story:

There were times when I was going through hell inside, but people on the outside didn't necessarily notice. [So], I was able to press forward. I remember at the up-fronts for Bones the very first season, I was going through a nasty episode. With me, everything gets very, very quick in my chest, everything really hurts, and everything's really fast, and I was on the verge of tears, and I even had to excuse myself so I could leave and cry my eyes out. And I remember Emily [Deschanel] and I were in a limo together and I said, "I'm really going through a tough time right now," and she was like, "I can't tell at all." And in a way, it was a nice breakthrough for me, like "I can just keep trying to do things even though I feel a certain way."

On performing at New York's Cast Party:

I wanted to sing a song at Cast Party, but I was really a mess inside. My emotions were all over the place. I [thought], "I don't think I can do it," but I kinda wanted to get up and sing a song. So, I got up -- Chita Rivera was in the audience, of all people -- and I sang "Leaving's Not the Only Way to Go" from Big River, and I got a standing ovation and cheers from Chita Rivera, and I remember that being so exciting. I remember I walked up onto the stage, like I didn't take my coat off or anything, and I sat there in the stool and sang, and I really connected with people. I connected with Chita Rivera, even though I was going through a [bipolar] episode.

On support from Bones:

A lot of times I feel I probably would have ended up in a mental hospital if it weren't for the structure that Bones gave me. But [showrunner] Hart Hanson came to me at the end of the first season and said "You're valuable to the show, so if you need to [leave] and get better, you'll still have your job when you come back." And that meant a lot. And I did not end up going to the mental hospital because I've worked my whole life to get a job like Bones. To get a job that's that high-paying, that high-profile, and it was my big break, and I didn't want to miss one second of my big break... But very specifically, Emily and Hart were the ones who knew about it early on, and they were very, very supportive.

Hart Hanson, who has experience with loved ones who were mentally ill, says he "had a little warning of what was coming with Eric."

"On the pilot, he seemed lost and slightly awkward and slightly timid -- none of this was true, by the way. But what I noticed first was that he would tie his shoes many, many, many times until they were balanced...There's any number of things [that the] symptoms I recognized could be. Depression was one, although I did recognize mania. I was hoping that he was obsessive-compulsive."

On his breakthrough:

The big breakthrough day was when I woke up really, really depressed one morning -- very, very, very depressed -- then I got really happy and decided I would go to Disneyland. And then I got to Disneyland and I started crying. And I was like, "Something's wrong with me," and I called Charles, my partner, and said, "Something is wrong with me. I was crying and crying and crying and I have no idea what's wrong." And that's when I knew something was wrong. I had just gone from really depressed, to really happy, to crying, and something was just not right.

After Disneyland, Hanson became a crucial figure in Millegan's support system.

"I felt I had no choice. It was odd, because it was just somebody I hired, and I saw he was in trouble, and the next thing you knew, we were in there, in the midst of this thing, and there was just no hope of turning your back on him. It's like sticking your foot in a river and getting pulled in, and I was just in it. And I'd just shrug and say, 'I'm in it. I'm in it with him, and he will be okay, he will take his medication, and he will get better,' and it all turned out to be true, but it was very stressful at the time. It was very stressful being around someone who was having such a hard time. Such a terrible time, and terrified of making a misstep. Terrified to say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing. It was really quite something."

When he got the part on 'Bones,' Millegan moved from New York to Los Angeles, which he says "definitely" triggered symptoms of bipolar disorder. "The combination of the move to LA and getting the television show."

On denial:

I thought, "Oh, this is just moving to LA. I moved to LA and they're going to give me a bunch of drugs and make me eat sushi and stuff."

On being diagnosed and telling the cast and crew:

Hart knew when I knew. When I was diagnosed, he was the first person I told. Emily I probably told not long after that. The others didn't know for a while. Eventually they found out. Hart was slowly telling crew, producers and actors on the set. I don't think I told Michaela [Conlin] directly. I think she found out. Tamara [Taylor], didn't come in till second season, but early in the second season, I pulled Tamara aside and said "Hey, this is what I'm going through."

Hanson recalls, "He had a very tough time. It was a very tough time with mood swings and mania. Essentially, he and I had a talk and I said it was up to him and I wanted him to talk to his shrink, but I thought it would be better if the people he was working with knew what he was wrestling with."

On working:

For whatever reason, I was able to still do what I had to do. From "Action" to "Cut," I could hold it together. Then in my trailer, I would be a mess. But when we actually shot the scenes, I just did it. I just did it because I didn't want to lose it.

Hanson says, "He'd recover from just about being a puddle on the floor and then do his scenes. And it was very impressive. Not everyone could have done that."

In Part 2: Going on medication, suicidal thoughts, and going public.

Eric also recommends the book "Detour: My Bipolar Road Trip in 4-D" by Lizzie Simon, a gift from Emily Deschanel, which recounts stories of several people living with bipolar disorder.

For more information on bipolar disorder and mental illness, visit the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance.

 

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