by Sylvain Comeau
Journalist Bill Lichtenstein is something of an expert on mental illness. He came by his knowledge the hard way.
Lichtenstein described his ordeal in the annual Hans Low-Beer Memorial Lecture, given September 29 under the auspices of AMI-Quebec and Concordia's Psychology Department.
In 1986, at the peak of his career working as a producer for ABC news, "my thought processes began to unravel over a two-to-three-week period. I became paranoid and delusional. I began to read things into what people were saying. I had trouble sleeping; I was up at 4 in the morning scribbling notes to myself. I didn't know it at the time, but these were the classic signs of hypomania and mania, two aspects of manic depression."
At one point, after an unproductive stay in the hospital, "I became convinced that the New York City Senior Investigator's Office was spying on me through a hidden camera inside my TV. I actually threw a Sony 13-inch television out of a five-story building as a message to the people across the street that I didn't like to be spied on."
Lichtenstein was eventually diagnosed as having manic depression, in which sufferers undergo wild mood swings from elation and boundless energy to deep depression. "I was relieved to learn that there was a reason for what I had been going through."
He started to take medication to control it, "and that really should have been the end of the story. But because of the system that I was up against, I found out that it wasn't all right to tell people that I had manic depression. I began to realize that there's a terrible stigma attached to mental illness.
"As I began to tell people about this, friends stopped coming over, people I had worked with for five to 10 years stopped returning my phone calls. It was extraordinary, and I got the message very quickly: it's simply better not to have this."
His honesty in telling people what had happened to him cost him his livelihood. "At one point, a local news reporter offered me a job. I went in to discuss some details, like salary and starting date. He said, 'I heard you had an episode when you were working at ABC.' I said, 'I was a little exhausted, and I ended up in the hospital for a couple of weeks. I'm fine now.' The job disappeared."
Lichtenstein stopped taking his medication, and in 1989, found himself back in the hospital. "At that point, I really lost my career. I was doing temp work as a typist in offices, and things were getting progressively worse." The turning point came when he learned about a New York support group for manic depressives.
"It was the most empowering thing for me to be in a room full of people who had had similar experiences, including the things I was most ashamed of, such as being handcuffed when taken to the hospital during my manic episodes. That's standard procedure, because it's the only way to control a manic person."
Lichtenstein started to learn about his illness, but realized that there was very little material that provided insight into the mentally ill, their history and their experiences. He produced a one-hour public radio program titled Manic Depression: Voices of an Illness, which included interviews with recovering manic-depressives, and leading doctors and researchers in the field.
He went on to produce two similar shows, on schizophrenia and on clinical depression, and eventually created his production company, Lichtenstein Creative Media. Among other projects, LCM produces a weekly public radio show titled The Infinite Mind, which explores all aspects of the human mind.
Lichtenstein notes that many recovering mental patients find self employment more hospitable than the workplace, where the stigma can be an oppressive burden, or a barrier to entry. He still makes a point of openly discussing his past, particularly in public lectures.
"The most important thing you can do is to tell your own personal story. When people find out that you have been through the same thing they have, and that you got better, it can provide inspiration when they need it most."