I've been taking a ride on Britney Spears' coattails, and I'm not quite sure how I feel about that. The possibility that she has bipolar disorder has generated an unprecedented amount of interest in the disease -- all of it, quite frankly, good publicity for my new book, Manic: A Memoir. On TV, in blogs and in press interviews, the same question keeps being asked of me: Do I think Britney's bipolar?
"I'm not a doctor," I reply. (I am, however, a lawyer, and the prospect of giving a straight answer on this delicate subject unnerves me.) The interviewer persists. "But based on your 30 years of personal experience with bipolar disorder, do you have an opinion?" "Her conduct looks very familiar to me," I say. The interviewer is satisfied, the deadline is met, and I find that I'm enjoying the game.
Then last week, someone sent me this e-mail:
"The Associated Press began preparing Britney Spears' obituary within the past month. 'We are not wishing it, but if Britney passed away, it's easily one of the biggest stories in a long time,' AP entertainment editor Jesse Washington said. 'I think one would agree that Britney seems to be at risk right now.'"
It stopped me cold. All at once I remembered why I had written my book: not just to chronicle my own bizarre odyssey into and out of insanity, but to give a voice to the other 5.7 million people who are silently suffering from the disease. Whatever entertainment value there may be in Britney's escapades, the fact remains that this is serious stuff. Bipolar disorder is the sixth leading cause of disability in the world. As many as one in five persons with the illness commits suicide. It's as serious as statistics can make it.
God knows I myself should have been dead a dozen times over. I certainly tried every means of escape -- pills, drowning, the noose. The fact that I survived long enough to write a book about my adventures is nothing short of a miracle to me. It makes me want to honor this life, to live it cleanly and with integrity.
So does the fact that the specter of Britney Spears' obituary looms over all her publicity mean that I should, by all rights, refuse to participate in the madness? The next time a reporter asks me whether I think Britney's bipolar, should I simply walk away? Should I put down the paper, pass by the tabloids, scroll straight through the Internet? Should I -- should we all, for that matter -- boycott Britney out of respect for a serious disease?
The truth is, Britney's done more to raise awareness of bipolar disorder than all the efforts of doctors, patients and drug companies combined. Whether or not she actually turns out to be one of us, I'm grateful for what she's accomplished. Everybody knows what bipolar is now. The fact that they're only seeing the froth doesn't matter. It's a start -- or so I tell myself, picking up People magazine. The real story can't be far behind.