Terri Cheney nearly sank under depression and anxiety as an entertainment lawyer, then found salvation in a therapy project that became her best-selling memoir, Manic.
When I was a little girl, I wrote exceedingly bad and alarmingly dark poetry that my adoring father tried to get published. Looking back on those poems, which my father never threw away, I’m amazed that he didn’t try to get me into therapy instead. They’re proof of both his love and his willful, enduring blindness about my mental health.
Writing about my dark thoughts didn’t make me sad. I think it kept me alive. No matter how bad a day might be, it would wind up a good one if I could turn out a poem. I knew that as soon as Daddy came home, we’d snuggle together in his overstuffed armchair and I’d read it out loud to him while he blew thoughtful smoke rings. Nothing could touch me in that chair; it felt like the safest place in the world.
Words have always kept me safe. It doesn’t matter if I’m reading someone else’s or scratching out my own. Words reach inside me, take hold of my thoughts, and focus them into some semblance of clarity. Otherwise, I’d be wandering through the universe untethered, full of inchoate fears and nameless dread. Words give my shambolic mind structure, and without structure, I’d be lost.
I suppose it’s not surprising that I became a lawyer—a profession that relies so heavily on rules and writing skills. In retrospect, it was a train wreck of a decision, but I stuck it out for almost two decades as an entertainment litigator, representing clients like Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones and major motion picture studios.
Under the stress of constant deadlines and never-ending, high-stakes demands, my mental health deteriorated to the point where I spent a good part of my time crying and telling innumerable lies to cover my increasing absences. As my professional responsibilities intensified, so did my depressions, until finally I sank into a paralyzing despair that even my fear of being found out couldn’t surmount.
I reluctantly took a leave of absence from work. Twelve rounds of electroshock therapy catapulted me into the wildest bout of mania I’d ever experienced. When I inevitably crashed, the conclusion was obvious—I had a whopping case of bipolar disorder. Two little words, but it all made sense to me then: the intensity of my emotions, the periods of hyper-productivity that enabled me to function at such a high level, and the ever-lurking specter of depression.
I searched for a stability that constantly eluded me, until my last hospital stint at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute. There, on the cusp of a new century, I picked up a pen in an art therapy class and began to write my story. The real story of me, not my résumé. I wrote like a fiend, filling up countless legal pads and journals, all about what it felt like to have bipolar: how it colored my perceptions, controlled my body, and commandeered my emotions. For the first time in what felt like forever, I told the truth to myself and whoever would listen.
I came back to words, and they saved me.
Seven years of intensive writing later, I emerged with a book called Manic. I was astounded when it became a runaway success. I quit the law and dedicated myself to recovery (and naturally, more writing). While researching my latest book, Modern Madness: An Owner’s Manual, I’ve come across numerous studies that confirm what I’d discovered purely by accident: expressive writing can have a tremendously positive impact on psychological wellness, and even on physical immunity.
I’m finally doing what I know I was born to do—witness my life, and advocate for those who haven’t yet found their voice. And every day that I write, I learn something new: the language of survival.
Originally published as “On My Mind: Words to Live By,” Spring 2021
Terri Cheney, once a successful entertainment attorney representing the likes of Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones, has chronicled her lifelong battle with bipolar disorder in the New York Times bestseller Manic: A Memoir and The Dark Side of Innocence: Growing Up Bipolar. Her latest book, a collection of personal essays illuminating the mental health experience, is called Modern Madness: An Owner’s Manual. She now devotes her advocacy skills to the cause of mental illness. On the boards of directors of several mental health organizations, she also facilitates a weekly community support group at UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute. Her writings about bipolar disorder have been featured in the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and countless articles and blogs.
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