By Barbara Peters Smith, Herald-Tribune
Tuesday, April 3, 2012
Academy Award-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws, The Goodbye Girl, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Mr. Holland’s Opus) was in Sarasota Saturday to speak on “Living With Mental Illness” for the Mental Health Community Centers. The event was sponsored by the Sarasota Memorial Healthcare Foundation and underwritten by The Isermann Family Foundation. Dreyfuss, who has bipolar disorder, sat down with Health+Fitness editor Barbara Peters Smith to describe what the world looks like through the prism of this disease.
Herald-Tribune: In all the reviews and profiles about you, a word that comes up a lot is an unusual one for a successful actor: “irritating.” That word also comes up a lot in the literature on bipolar disease.
Actor Richard Dreyfuss is seen in this 2004 file photo. (CREDIT: PETER KRAMER, via AP FILE)
Richard Dreyfuss: Society has norms, and most of us want to be in some kind of harmony or rhythm with those norms. When you’re a manic-depressive, as they say about technology, the question is: Do you run it or does it run you? When it’s running you, you can be — at the least — irritating.
Herald-Tribune: When did you know or suspect that you had this disease?
Dreyfuss: I knew it from birth. I thought that if other people had the same inner life that I had, the world would be a different place. Maybe better, maybe worse, but certainly different if people admitted to the vivid, roller-coaster quality of things. Because they didn’t, I realized that it wasn’t shared by everybody.
Herald-Tribune: How did you decide to seek treatment for bipolar disease?
Dreyfuss: I didn’t go to find out about that. I went to find out about me. The secret of therapy is that it’s the only time the culture allows you to spend time with yourself, on yourself, and it’s not called egomania.
WHAT IS BIPOLAR DISORDER?
Bipolar disorder is a condition in which people go back and forth between periods of a very good or irritable mood and depression. The “mood swings” between mania and depression can be very quick. Bipolar disorder affects men and women equally. It usually starts between ages 15 to 25. The exact cause is unknown.Symptoms of the manic phase:
• Little need for sleep
• Poor judgment and temper control
• Reckless behavior and lack of self control
• Binge eating, drinking, and/or drug use
• Sex with many partners
• Spending sprees
• Very elevated mood
• Excess activity (hyperactivity)
• Increased energy
• Racing thoughts
• Talking a lot
• Very high self-esteem (false beliefs about self or abilities)
• Very involved in activities
• Very upset (agitated or irritated)Symptoms of the depressed phase:
• Daily low mood or sadness
• Difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions
• Eating problems
• Loss of appetite and weight loss
• Overeating and weight gain
• Fatigue or lack of energy
• Feeling worthless, hopeless, or guilty
• Loss of pleasure in activities once enjoyed
• Loss of self-esteem
• Thoughts of death and suicide
• Trouble getting to sleep or sleeping too much
• Pulling away from friends or activities that were once enjoyedSource: National Institutes of Health
Herald-Tribune: You once said you were on Mulholland Drive, after you had started on the drug lithium, and everything for you “letterboxed.”
Dreyfuss: Yep, 10 days exactly after I started. I felt all of a sudden that my bottom and my top were inaccessible, and I was in the middle world. At the time, it was a great relief.
But after I had been doing it for 10 years, I really missed me.
Herald-Tribune: Are you taking something now?
Dreyfuss: Oh, yeah. I take a protocol.
The worst thing for me about manic-depression is that it is simply free-floating. You can have no reason whatsoever, and yet you are in the depths of an inarticulatable sadness and grief and self-hatred.
Knowing that it was free-floating was enough to drive me anywhere but there. You will go even to feeling worse as long as you can say to yourself, “It’s not me; it’s it.” If you think that it’s you, you will jump off a cliff.
Herald-Tribune: You said after a certain amount of time on lithium, you missed yourself. What was the interplay between being on these meds that helped you keep that darkness at bay and your ability to reach those highs and lows in acting?
Dreyfuss: Well, first of all, it took me until I was in my late 40s and early 50s before I really understood what the phrase “medicating yourself” meant. Until then, I had accepted all the phrases that came at me in the culture: You’re a drug addict, you’re drug-dependent, you’re drug-this, you’re drug-that.
I saw very vividly when I was 17 or 18 years old, working the midnight shift at L.A. County Hospital — I was a conscientious objector during Vietnam — a kid came in one night and said, “Anyone want a bennie to stay up?” And I said, “Yeah.”
Ten minutes later, my head jerked up, and I felt all 16 Richards become one.
You had to drag me away from that experience with a crowbar and a gun. I had never known that that was possible — not to have to spend so many ergs of energy trying to corral all the Richards.
I was a convert.
The spiritual question is: Am I Richard inclusive of my drugs or am I Richard, and the drugs are an add-on? I’ve answered that question for myself, which is that the drugs are part of me.
If someone — a doctor, a parent, a wife, a child — evaluated me too quickly or too easily or glibly, as an addict, I would say with all disrespect, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I remember saying to a doctor in New York once — I was thanking him for allowing me the courage to not be imprisoned in my own body. And he looked up very sharply, and said, “It is not courage I give you; it is an absence of anxiety.”
I had said to him earlier, “I can’t help but think that I’m scamming you, to try to get prescriptions.” He said, “I am your doctor; I’m not your dealer.”
Herald-Tribune: A lot of manic-depressives come to that diagnosis through illegal drugs. They’re getting help for some kind of drug problem.
Dreyfuss: They medicate themselves.
Herald-Tribune: You hit adulthood at a time and culture when we were all medicating ourselves. Did that complicate things for you, because it was so much a part of the milieu that it wasn’t easy to see who might have a problem and who didn’t?
Dreyfuss: It never occurred to me, even in the midst of it, that what I was achieving by scoring and using was being normal. I never went to heaven; I went to earth.
One of the phrases that Timothy Leary had in those days was “the pristine clarity.” That was something that one had, or sought. Aldous Huxley told you about it. It wasn’t until I had really understood “The Doors of Perception” that I understood me. That was when going to therapy stopped being an entertainment for me, and started serious stuff.
I was in a depression at one point, and on an airplane the Delta magazine had an article about corporate executive depression. It said, “If you have any four of the next 14 …” and I had all 14.I got off the plane and called my psychiatrist and said, “we have to kick this into high gear. We have to start and get a solution. If we don’t, there really is no reason for me to go on.”
Herald-Tribune: About what time was this?
Dreyfuss: This was in the middle ‘90s. He said the wisest thing I’d ever heard. He said, “Richard, somewhere in your head is a faucet that is dripping either too quickly or too slowly, and we can help you.”
I can’t tell you the relief that lifted off my shoulders at that moment.
It took four years to find the protocol. I lived within that protocol where I was a wonderful person — a good father, a good husband. I was a good citizen, and I had no fear. And then one of the manufacturers stopped making a linchpin drug.
Herald-Tribune: What was that drug?
Dreyfuss: Dextrostat, by the Shire company. They said I wrote them the most sincere letter they’d ever received. The guy called me, and he said, “I know that we left 3,000 people hanging in midair, but there just wasn’t any profit in it.”
Herald-Tribune: Did you get a replacement for it?
Dreyfuss: No, I’ve been faking it for quite a while.
It’s the difference between a 3-D picture of an orange, and an orange. It’s called white-knuckling.
Herald-Tribune: How is your health now, in terms of this disease?
Dreyfuss: It’s funny, because I don’t separate it. How is Richard?
My son said to me once, “Your brother looks at the world straight-ahead, and you look at the world up.”
I’m thrilled that he said that. If that’s due to this illness, I don’t know. Nor do I care. I know that I am very proud of my acting. And I’m very proud of my politics. And I’m very proud of my children.
BARBARA PETERS SMITH