For the entire month of May we will celebrate mental health awareness. This coincides brilliantly with the release of my new memoir, Asylum: Hollywood Tales From My Great Depression: Brain Dis-Ease, Recovery, and Being My Mother's Son.
Mental Health Awareness Month is meant to inspire an open conversation about, and erase the stigma, shame and bigotry surrounding, all forms of mental illness (I prefer to call it "brain dis-ease" or just BD). Our mental health service professionals and I look forward to the day when all of us come to believe that having a brain dis-ease or mood sickness will be as acceptable as having the common cold. We'll recognize that these poor unfortunates who suffer from BD are not just "them" but "us" -- our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, wives and husbands. With 75 percent of Americans facing some episode of BD during the course of a lifetime, it's cool to be out there.
A fine sentiment, but we're not quite there yet. Close, but no cigar! Everyone gets depressed sometime about something, even music and movie stars, even reality stars. Shit happens. But it's the symptoms and other co-occurring behaviors born out of untreated brain dis-ease that are still seen as something the sufferer should be able to control.
The fact is, insurance companies don't treat our brain with the same respect they do our heart, spleen, liver, knees, or gall bladder... an organ that's biologically obsolete. Our gall bladder's taking up room inside us and no longer has a job. If it causes a problem, our insurance company will pay 90 percent of the cost for treatment of its removal and our convalescence. Now I wouldn't want anyone reading this to misunderstand me. It's not going to happen, but let's just say that, God forbid, your brain develops a tumor. Your insurance will pay to get rid of it. But if you get depressed over the fact that you're probably gonna die? Then you're on your own.
Our all-American brains should be entitled to constitutional parity with our other vital organs. Who's going to argue that our heart, liver or lungs are not critical to our survival? That being said, doctors can just take 'em out! Heart or liver or lung, they can be replaced: But a brain transplant? 'Nuff said. Those three pounds of the human anatomy are irreplaceable. Your brain breaks, you die.
So why is society so tough on BD? Why is it okay to treat high cholesterol but not BD? When did it become cooler to have Erectile Dysfunction than BD? Viagra had Bob Dole -- what do we got? Me? BD is the only diagnosis you can receive from your doc and get yelled at by your loved ones for having.
Gosh darn it, Wilbur! How in the blazes did you get that! Snap out of it! And keep it under wraps.
People take antidepressants for depression, just like they take statins to reduce cholesterol. Yet when was the last time anybody heard whisperings about clogged veins? Hey Arnold! Did you hear about Wilbur? He's got HIGH CHOLESTEROL! And his shrink's got him on them anti-retardants...
We don't recognize brain dis-ease because it's so often masked by the co-occuring symptoms of addictions to sex, drugs, or alcohol; the addiction to more when too much is never enough.
I was so sad for days after I found out about Amy Winehouse, then Whitney Houston. Those women were a gift from the heavens! I loved their music and I admired their fearlessness. They were so very much part of their work, unapologetic in their pure originality, and graced with that unattainable gift that can only come from God. Amy Winehouse followed her own trail of tears for a decade. She was so full of pain, and her words had such deep meaning, just like Billy Holiday, another tormented soul. I was given permission to use Amy's song "Rehab" as the title song in the 2010 award-winning documentary No Kidding Me Too! In it we examined the genesis of the bigotry, discrimination, stigma and shame that shrouds all styles of BD. (It really should be seen by all Americans. Go to Amazon.com or iTunes.com, rent it and see!) Death finally claimed our fallen angels, but only after many years of public scrutiny over their behavior. Maybe some of us thought, "What's wrong with them? With their looks and talent, why are they doing this?" Maybe, by judging them we could feel better about ourselves. The tabloids made the most of their mysterious misery, If it bleeds, it leads...
Lord knows they weren't the first to succumb to their deadly symptoms, and it wasn't drugs and booze that killed them, it was their dis-ease. I know what that restless apartness feels like when you can't sleep, can't eat, or can't stop. It didn't stop for poor Michael Jackson or Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Monty Clift, River Phoenix, Karen Carpenter, Heath Ledger, Margot and Papa Hemingway and a hundred more. I understand from the tabloids that Demi Moore is having a hard time, just out of rehab and trying to keep her life on track. I pray she does.
What did this "high society" all have in common? They were claimed by their untreated BD, which we called drug and alcohol addiction. Addiction is the symptom that's born from the pain of keeping secrets. Secrets about feeling depressed, about feeling like you might be a little crazy, about feeling like you must be the only one. When you keep those secrets inside, you find a way to medicate them. When that stops working, and it always will, you lose. Like all those celebrities before you, you lose to the dis-easiness that lives in the pit of your soul.
I became passionate about the issue of mental dis-ease after a barrage of emotional assaults starting with 9/11 and ending with the suicide of my friend. The day I started contemplating suicide myself, I realized it was time to call in the professionals. Being diagnosed with clinical depression was a great awakening for me. For years I thought my troubled mind was my fault, a weakness, a personal character flaw because I could stop my black moods. Why couldn't I snap out of it? Why couldn't I stop myself from doing things I know are bad for me? I was a rich and famous movie actor. I had defied the odds of my humble beginnings. Both of my parents suffered the effects of BD, which they medicated with alcohol, cigarettes, and a daily dose of gambling. In junior high I was branded an outcast, a screwball, even a foul-up. I had grown up with ADHD and dyslexia, which my mother chose to interpret as laziness, but I made it out of the projects. So why was I still miserable? I felt guilty and isolated in my unhappiness. When I was finally diagnosed, I realized there were so many others like me, all feeling alone and desperate with their BD.
I think all we all have a pinch of the fire that is madness. It's crazy out there! But no longer am I victimized by my depression. I just go with it. We should all just go with it, and through it. Now I understand that talking about my dis-ease is the cure. I surrendered. Now, I have peace. Sometimes. It's fleeting, but I have it. It's time we all start connecting the emotional dots. In the end, you're only as sick as your secrets. People are so afraid of BD, we miss the obvious answer. Talking about our dis-ease is our cure, it's a gift that gives us our strongest blessing.