This article was written back in 2008 when Brittany Spears was sectioned but I thought it was quite an interesting read.
Around 11pm last Wednesday night, Britney Spears was taken, by ambulance, into a three-day hold at the UCLA Medical Centre and labelled ‘gravely disabled’, which is to say, in legal terms, that a mental disorder leaves her unable to provide for her own basic needs, such as food and shelter.
It was Spears’s appearance at the MTV Awards in September, with her spray-tanned skin, bright blue contact lenses and blonde extensions – as if to say ‘this is not my hair, these are not my eyes, this is not my skin, I don’t know who I am’ – that started my flashbacks.
Because mental illness is not tangible, not a broken leg or a tumour, people suffering from it tend to offer as many physical signs as they can. It can be as dramatic as self-harming or as seemingly innocuous as changing your hair colour week to week. I did both.
I don’t like relating to Britney Spears and I’m grateful for the ways in which I don’t. I haven’t given birth to two children in two years, I’ve not been through divorce and I don’t have multiple-personality disorder. People ‘out to get me’ because they think I’m chubby or rubbish at my job have posted those opinions online, but they’ve never followed me with cameras and then plastered the web with upskirt shots of my menses-stained underwear. I have, however, earned a living in a glamorous arena – writing journalism and books – since I was 15, had a massive nervous breakdown and ended up, in my twenties, committed to a psychiatric hospital.
I was 22 in 2000, living in New York on contract to this newspaper and about to have my first book hit the shelves. What I could write wasn’t good but, basically, I couldn’t write. I didn’t have the words. Beginning as writer’s block, it evolved into a profound self-loathing made visible around my studio apartment by a knee-deep mess of newspapers, magazines, books, clothes. Many of the clothes were bought but never worn, just dumped on the floor – inky black Rorschach tests that always looked like doom to me.
It starts to be a psychotic break when one moves from depression to being afraid of opening the refrigerator because the monster that yells, ‘Zool!’ at Sigourney Weaver in Ghostbusters might be there. But I didn’t see how crazy that was and my family, if we’d been in the same country, mightn’t have been too alarmed given that, as a child, I once whipped myself into a fit of hysterical terror over a life-sized poster of Paul McCartney.
By the end of 2000, I was self mutilating a few times a week and having four scaldingly hot baths a day, trying to feel something and trying to make the hours pass, like Britney, driving in circles, padding out her days. I watch Britney’s boutique costume changes and remember how I’d walk from store to store. In the first mirror I’d think I was the ugliest thing in the world, so I’d buy and walk out in a new outfit. If I was on a super manic swing, the mirror in the next store would say the same thing, so I’d buy and walk out in a newer outfit to replace the one I’d just purchased.
Manic swings, when you’re better, are funny. In a world where Britney is saved, she’ll laugh about the morning she decided, ‘I’m gonna put on my wedding dress and go shop for a Mercedes!’ Like, I get to laugh about those Chekhov plays I sent to Gordon Brown. And how I probably didn’t need to FedEx an incarcerated Robert Downey Jr a Walkman. But in my manic state I knew I was the only one who could help.
Cutting always came like a fever, so I’d be looking at my arm or my thigh or my stomach, a surprised spectator. When, eventually, I tried to kill myself, my suicide note wasn’t anything to do with despair; I was mentally divergent, sleepless from mania. I’d come from a showing of Jim Jarmusch’s film Ghost Dog and thought that I, too, was a samurai and that my family needed protection, but for that to happen I needed to die.
My mum was there by the time I woke up in hospital. Since I was one of America’s 44 million uninsured, she had to get me back to England for treatment. The day before they checked me into the Priory I smashed up my parents’ bathroom. I opened my eyes and the room had half sentences all over the walls – in lipstick. I had no idea I’d done it and was terrified when I realised I had. My dad came home early from work and only let a few tears fall as he put his arms around me and said: ‘It’s just objects. It doesn’t matter. How can we help you?’
I didn’t fight hospitalisation, partly because I was so tired. I wanted someone to take over my life, and the Priory did, giving me pills to go to sleep and pills to wake up. But I also went to hospital at my mum and dad’s behest because, even in the worst of it, I never doubted for a second that my parents loved me more than anything. I am sure Britney’s parents are the same, but I see how easy it is to doubt that when they’ve lived off you and been complicit in selling you sexually before adulthood. They helped to create that sex-kitten identity. I do think it was a facet in her deterioration because what happens to Lolita after she’s had two children? In the novel, she dies in childbirth.
During my stay in hospital, they floated borderline personality disorder, hypermania, rapid cycle manic-depression, dissociative personality disorder. I certainly didn’t get better straight away, but it gave me pause to catch my breath and start from scratch. I went back to New York, where it took three different runs at medication over several years and the help of a brilliant psychiatrist, Dr Jeffrey Rosecan, who in his intellect and warmth reminded me of my parents. Psychiatry is vital to recovery, when you’re ready, because your friends love you, but they have their own problems. At some point a medical doctor has to take over.
Perhaps the most appropriate role model of mental illness is diabetes. You inherit the ability to become diabetic but it takes environmental factors to bring on the disease. With bipolar disorder, studies have shown that the risk to an identical twin developing it alongside their sibling is 50 per cent not 100 per cent. Genetic vulnerability is, obviously, more likely to be expressed if you abuse drugs or experience other severe stress – two kids in a year-and-a-half, divorce, a paparazzi pack so threatening that one just resigned in protest. Yes, she could have avoided mental illness if she’d never got swept up in a life of celebrity and drugs. Or not.
I hope that after her three-day hold at UCLA medical centre, Britney is able to remain under a doctor’s care. But it seems a long shot. It is difficult to keep even the chronically mentally ill hospitalised once they improve through medication, even when it is clear they have no insight that they are ill and will stop medication and relapse on discharge. Doctors call it ‘rotting with your rights’.
I accept that I will be on medicine for the rest of my life and I have no problem with that because the quality of my life is so vastly improved. And, far from dimming my creativity, medicine has only helped. I also know now that there is mental illness on record as far back as the Bible. Rabbi David Wolpe, who held a mental-health conference at the synagogue I attend, explained: ‘If you read the first book of Samuel, it’s clear that King Saul has a mental illness. He becomes paranoid, draws him close and then tries to kill him.’
And still it remains the last taboo. If you can no longer make fun of someone for being black or gay or even disabled, you can laugh at them for being ‘wacko’. Perhaps Heat magazine or TMZ.com would argue that once you know all there is to know about a celebrity’s life, all you can be interested in is their death. ‘To lose your humanity in the face of celebrity,’ says Wolpe, ‘is still to lose your humanity.’
The saddest thing about seeing Britney dehumanised by photographers in the parking lot of a grim Valley drugstore is that, for me, living in California – with its glorious natural bounty – has shown me how big my world can be. Which isn’t to say that there are no moments of numbness or unhappiness, but that there are also mountains, sky, bobcats, coyotes, things that could bite you and you could die, things that remind me daily, in the best possible way, that I really don’t matter. As Britney waits out her three-day hold, I think about how much I love Elizabeth Taylor, who so famously transitioned from child star to adult. Once I loved her because I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world. I love her now because, despite having a youthful suicide attempt to her name, unlike Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner, James Dean, Natalie Wood, she never did go over the rainbow. I love her because, despite it all, she is still alive.