Understanding Bipolar Disorder
Sinéad O'Connor
With her shaved head and edgy songs, Grammy-winning singer Sinéad O'Connor was an unmistakable pop star in the late '80s and early '90s. She was notoriously rebellious, most famously causing controversy when she ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul II during a 1992 performance on Saturday Night Live. A few days later, a crowd at Madison Square Garden booed her off the stage. The incident played out for months in the media, and for years afterward, she was a tabloid target with London and Irish papers following her every move.

Now a 40-year-old mother of four, Sinéad says even as she was being hailed at age 23 as one of the most influential figures of her generation, she was suffering. Her legendarily erratic behavior stemmed from a terror-filled childhood and an undiagnosed bipolar disorder. "I was watching the previous show you did about bipolar disorder and you had that lovely woman—[Jenifer Lewis] on—and I really identified with her about this thing of when you close the dressing room door after the show, your whole other mind-set would kick in."
Sinéad O'Connor and Oprah
Sinéad says her depression started as she grew up in an abusive household. "I was always kind of very anxious and not necessarily able to experience happiness or fun or whatever," she says.

As her fame rose in her 20s, she says she began to suffer from depression. At 28, she says she began therapy. On her 33rd birthday, she had her first serious suicide attempt. At 37, Sinéad says she finally was diagnosed as bipolar. In those years between 23 and 37 the depression had been getting steadily worse. "The volume just slowly went up and up and up," she says.

"It's almost very difficult to explain when you are the person that suffers from the thing, but the best way I can describe it is it's almost like before you get ill, you are a solid wall," Sinéad says. "And while you're ill, it's like the bricks are falling away and it's one teetering little brick."

Sinéad says her depression manifested itself in debilitating ways. "I think people experience it differently. I'm very frightened of everything," she says.
Sinéad O'Connor says music was her outlet.
Shortly after her mother died when she was 17, Sinéad left her abusive home and moved to England to begin her music career. "I started making records and suddenly became this pop star thing, but I never had time to form my own identity, if you like, or recover from my upbringing," she says. "It really confused me. I didn't know who I was or what I was. And I didn't have anybody around me who I knew before, so you're not seeing yourself reflected back at yourself from anyone around you. It can be a massive identity crisis."

Sinéad says even as she struggled to deal with her abusive upbringing and her fame, the music remained an outlet. "In Ireland, we're still quite behind in terms of recovery and therapy and all that kind of stuff," she says. "So when I was growing up there was no such thing as talking to anyone about abuse and what you've been through—there was no such thing as therapy and no such thing as recovery, basically. So for me, music was where I kind of put everything."
Sinéad O'Connor at her home in Ireland
At home in Ireland, Sinéad says her four kids—Jake, Róisín, Shane and Yeshua—keep her going. "I'd be a headless chicken without the kids, yeah, definitely," she says. "They create a routine."

On a wall in her kitchen, Sinéad wrote a note to herself: It doesn't matter if it's not perfect! "I was worried about making sure when I went away that all the childcare was all arranged and perfect, perfect, perfect," she says. "But I have to remind myself it doesn't matter if things aren't perfect."

When the medications were prescribed to her, Sinéad says she was scared to take them at first. "But I said, 'I've got nothing to lose,'" and, she says, she took them for the first time. "It was brilliant because I felt this huge hole. And when I took the meds, within half an hour, it was literally like I felt concrete coming in to fill the hole."

Sinéad says she used to feel suicidal but medication has given her a new outlook on life. "Everything just became too much, and the best way I can describe it to you is you're so sad, just terribly sad, that you're like a bucket of water with holes in it. Every pore of you is crying and you don't even understand why or what," Sinéad says. "I actually kind of died and got born again as a result of taking the meds and having a chance to, you know, build a life."
Sinéad O'Connor with her friends Angela and Hilly
In the dark times of Sinéad's depression, two of her best friends saw the worst. Angela and Hilly remember occasions when Sinéad would leave a note that spoke of suicide, and then she'd disappear. When Angela found these notes, she says she'd call all her friends and they'd organize a search party. "There's one particular day ... I found her in the street, up in the town," she says. "And she was just sitting on the street, distraught."
"You could see in her face," Hilly says. "You could see her mind was just starting to go out of control." Sinéad says she remembers how she felt in those times. "You're carrying so much pain that you couldn't know where to put it," she says.
Sinéad O'Connor talks about media pressure
Sinéad O'Connor believes her bipolar disorder was caused by a number of outside pressures. "I don't think I was born with bipolar disorder—I believe it was created as a result of the violence I experienced," Sinéad says. But then her condition only worsened with pressure she felt as a pop singer. "It didn't really help in terms of being well or a stable person the fact that I really was getting kicked around, metaphorically speaking, by the media for years," she says. "It seemed every time I went to work, all I was getting told was what a dreadful, terrible person I was. And I couldn't really manage all of that on top of everything else."

Sinéad says she feels sorry for the scrutiny today's pop stars like Britney Spears live with. "I think it's terrible what the media are doing to her here," Sinéad says. "I feel so sorry for celebrities in this country [the United States]. It's absolutely impossible to live a normal life being followed around, poor girl. We all mess up, don't we, as moms. We never always get it right."

The rebel rocker says she's resolved to let her tabloid persona "rest in peace," and though she had announced her retirement from music, Sinéad is on tour with a her album, Theology. "I'd actually really like to start with a clean slate without all that baggage and not be kicked around really, either," she says.
Pat fears for her bipolar son.
After Exclusive: Did Bipolar Disorder Drive a Mother to Kill her Child? aired, Pat Roeller was one of the thousands of viewers who wrote to The Oprah Show with a story of her own. Pat's son Chris suffers from bipolar disorder and she fears what will happen if he does not receive proper care. "The greatest fear I have is that I'll lose him completely, and he'll die before somebody helps me save him," Pat says. "There's nights that I'll just sit up in the middle of the night and I'll be having a panic attack and I'll just cry and pray, 'Oh God, please send somebody to help me.'"

Back when Chris was a young boy, Pat says he was a great kid—a swimmer, Boy Scout and ball boy for the Indiana Pacers. "He just smiled a lot and he just lit up a room with the way he smiled," Pat says.

But when Chris reached his mid-20s, Pat says he began showing signs of bipolar disorder. "He was like Jekyll and Hyde, and it wasn't the boy that I ever knew. His personality changed. He just struggled. I mean, he tried so hard to be normal, and it just wasn't there."
Chris describes life with bipolar disorder.
Chris knows that his bipolar disorder is hurting his family. ""This disease has infected everything—social life, married life. Friendships are gone. I can't hold a job down," he says. "Living with bipolar—it's like a train wreck. It could be total chaos, or it could be smooth as ice, you know. It's terrible."

During his rage, Chris says that he has thrown a television down the stairs, punched holes in walls, broken expensive furniture and kicked in the fenders of his car after it got stuck in the mud. "I'm not allowed to be alone with my kids because they think I'm going to hurt them and I won't know it," Chris says.

Chris gives his family an emotional apology for his behavior. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to do the stuff I do. I want to change but I don't know how."
Autumn explains how Chris's bipolar disorder affects the family.
Autumn says she has been with Chris for 11 years and married to him for three years. "It's hard," she says. "You know, because I have to do everything myself. I get no help with the kids. It's like being a single parent with an additional child to take care of."

Chris's anger is also an issue at home. "It's just hard never knowing what mood he's gonna be in. The violent temper tantrums. Verbal abuse."

Autumn believes that Chris's bipolar disorder is affecting their children. "They don't like it," she says. "It makes them mad and sad at the same time. They just don't know what to do."

Oprah asks if Chris believes he could truly cause harm to his family. "Hopefully not, but I've blacked out," Chris says.

"I always loved when Anderson Cooper was down in [New Orleans after] Katrina and he said, 'Hope is not a plan.' So, you all need a plan. 'Hopefully not' is not good enough," Oprah says.
Chris and Oscar-winner Patty Duke
Desperately seeking advice and someone who could help her son, Pat sent an e-mail to Oscar® winner Patty Duke, who has been traveling the country helping people affected by bipolar disorder since she was diagnosed more than 25 years ago. To Pat's surprise, she received an e-mail response from Patty's husband Michael and The Oprah Show arranged a face-to-face meeting. Patty and Michael flew in to meet with Pat, Autumn and Chris.

Patty, who has spoken publicly about her own struggle with bipolar disorder, advises Chris and his family to try support groups. "There are peer groups here and I think it would behoove you to take a shot at going to one or more of the meetings," Patty says.

Patty gives Chris encouragement and tells him to hang on. "I pray that the pain you're feeling right now and the fear eases when you realize, number one, you're on the road, and number two, your family, they love you," Patty says. "I attempted suicide a few times. I realized only later, of course, that I don't want to die—I just wanted the pain to stop. You're now acquiring the tools to make the pain stop."

Although recovery is not an easy process, Patty tells Chris, "I know that this pain will lift—never as fast as we want it to—but you've got to hang onto the idea."

Afterwards, Chris says that meeting Patty helped to give him a little hope. "I've never talked to somebody that's recovered from this illness," he says. "It felt comforting."
Dr. Kay Jamison
Dr. Kay Jamison, one of the country's foremost experts on bipolar disorder, has this advice for Chris and his family—and anyone suffering from bipolar disorder. "I think Patty Duke's advice was really great, which was to get into a support group and again to read as much as you can. Have your family read as much as you can about this illness and about the various treatments and your options."

Another recommendation is for Chris and his family to write a list of questions and concerns for his doctor. "The three of you, sit down and just make up a list while you're thinking well, at the top of your game, and then go in and talk about it," she says.

Dr. Jamison says it's unusual that Chris has been suffering from bipolar disorder on medication for as long as he has, but he should not lose hope. "The important thing to realize is it is treatable. This is a very, very, very treatable illness," Dr. Jamison says.

Think you or someone you know has symptoms of bipolar disorder?

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