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Bad news of Zeta-Jones’ bipolar may be good news for others

It’s good, I guess, that disease is no respecter of fame. An illness stalks alone and seemingly unnoticed until it attacks a famous person — and then everybody is aware of it for a while.
It happened with Ronald Reagan and Alzheimer’s; it happened with Michael J. Fox and Parkinson’s; it happened with Patrick Swayze and cancer and Barbara Walters and heart disease.
In 2002, TV news anchor Katie Couric underwent a screening for colon cancer while millions of people watched on television. She showed the world that the procedure was easy and painless, and the world responded. The number of colonoscopies increased dramatically. In 2003-2004, the death rate for colon cancer dropped more than that of any other cancer.
Couric’s husband had died in 1998 of colon cancer. Had he been screened earlier, he might have lived a long life. Good resulted from a bad thing.
Maybe some good will come of the revelation that actress Catherine Zeta-Jones has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This is one of those diseases—mental diseases — that unfortunately carries a stigma, something people are uncomfortable talking about. But if a beautiful, outwardly calm and together person like Catherine Zeta-Jones can seek treatment, other sufferers might think it’s OK to do the same thing.
Bipolar disorder also is known as manic depressive illness. Its victims are subject to wide mood swings, going from euphoria on top of the world to depression in the deepest pit. Zeta-Jones suffers from bipolar II, which means she drags through longer low periods.
We Hudgins siblings don’t know if our mother had bipolar II or plain old bipolar, but she had one of them. Her moods soared and plummeted.
One day, my sister visited our parents’ home and found every kitchen drawer pulled out and sitting on counters. Mother was afraid she was going blind with macular degeneration, so she was rushing to get everything organized just in case. And then, a few days later, depression set in, and she didn’t have the energy to put the drawers back. They just sat there.
Another time, Mother called to say that she and her caregiver were leaving for Alabama to see her sister-in-law. She was on a high and wanted to travel.
Mother had been a stay-at-home mom most of her life, and she was always there when we needed her. She was a loving, compassionate friend, a devoted wife and mother, a talented seamstress and a queen in the kitchen, where she reigned with confidence. But in her late 40s, bipolar disorder got its foot inside the kitchen door.
Our mother wasn’t crazy, the word that comes to mind when “mental illness” is mentioned. She had a disease that was treatable.
Catherine Zeta-Jones isn’t crazy. She has a disease that is treatable. The good thing is that she is famous, and other sufferers surely will notice. And if they haven’t already done so, let’s hope they’ll follow the lead of this lovely actress: Let’s hope they’ll seek help.

Phil Hudgins’ column is published in many newspapers around the Southeast.