Saturday, June 16, 2012
Broadcast Journalist Jane Pauley Talks about Her Memoir and Her Struggle with Bi-Polar Disorder
By Michael Ireland
Senior International Correspondent, ASSIST News Service
ST.PAUL, MN (ANS) -- Veteran broadcaster Jane Pauley’s career spans morning, daytime, and primetime television, making her one of the most recognizable personalities in America.
Pauley spoke at People Incorporated’s 43rd Annual Luncheon in St. Paul, MN on June 14, basing her talk on her best-selling memoir, “Skywriting: A Life out of the Blue,” about her experiences of Bi-Polar Disorder. (See: http://tinyurl.com/7kh7she ).
“My goal in talking about mental illness is to help people with mental illness see themselves differently,” Pauley said, adding “and more importantly, to help everyone else see us in new and powerful ways.”
People Incorporated is a Twin Cities’-based nonprofit providing a spectrum of services for people with mental illness which got its start in 1969 when a St. Paul minister, Rev. Harry Maghakian, noticed that a residence next to his church was sheltering a number of otherwise homeless men.
People Incorporated now serves more than 7,500 clients per year through more than 40 programs throughout the Twin Cities metro area. Their annual budget is approximately $28 million.
“We’re known for creating innovative services tailored to the needs of each individual -- and we’ve been doing it successfully for more than 40 years,” says the organization’s website www.peopleincorporated.org .
Introducing Pauley at the lunchtime event, local NBC-affiliate KARE-11 reporter/anchor Rena Sarigianopoulos, herself an Edward R. Murrow- award recipient, said: “Many of you remember her debut back in 1979 on NBC’s Today Show and at the age of twenty-six no less we kind of watched her grow up on TV as we watched her go onto anchor the NBC Nightly News and then Dateline.
“She won many awards including the Walter Cronkite award for excellence in Journalism, The Edward R Murrow award for Outstanding Achievement, and multiple Emmy Awards. A pretty fine career if you ask me, and as a woman, I love to see women succeed and stay strong in this business for as long as Jane Pauley has.
“Less well known, however, is her struggle with Bi-Polar Disorder. Among many other things she’s now working as a mental health advocate. She’s hosted a PBS discussion on mental illness and serves on a number of boards and advisory councils including the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT.”
Pauley told the 500 guests that she was not raised to be famous.
“When I got my first job in TV in Indianapolis my father suggested I change my name. Jane Pauley didn’t have enough zip. He had a point -- when I was a little girl, my pretend name was Gisele!”
Pauley said that in 1968, she was taking the first baby steps in her life and about the same time People Incorporated mental health services was (doing the same).
“But to be honest I never really thought that much about mental illness until I was diagnosed with one,” Pauley said.
Pauley said that after thirty years in journalism she knew something about messaging and had the idea that putting a familiar face on mental illness might help people see it differently.
“Meanwhile I had a little radical adjustment to do on my own self-image. They talk about fame going to your head -- if I may say so, my claim to fame was that it didn’t. I’ve always assumed this was kind of a Midwestern thing. If we’re allowed to be vain about anything it’s our humility!”
Pauley said that she thought she was on pretty safe ground when her claim to fame was being normal.
“Seriously! I was having breakfast reading the newspaper just a few years ago an article about morning television. Near the end was this line ‘Morning show hosts are supposed to seem normal. That was the quality that got Jane Pauley her job on Today in 1976.’ This was not news to me!”
Pauley told the audience how the president of NBC news had once said Jane Pauley, “and I’m not making this up -- ‘has the best mental health in the business.’ I seconded that emotion; it was practically my brand.”
Pauley said that although her career was sometimes a metaphor for mood swings, she was twenty-four and the first woman to anchor a regular weekday newscast in Chicago.
“That was news; it was not good news. The Chicago Tribune said I had the IQ of a cantaloupe. I was not a rip-roaring success in Chicago -- in fact when the boss stepped into my office one day I was expecting to be fired. Instead he asked if I’d be willing to go to New York for a few days to fill in on the Today show. I was unpacking in my hotel when the phone rang it was my sister -- peeved. She’d read in her Pittsburg paper that her little sister was auditioning for Barbara Walters’ job and why hadn’t I told her, because nobody had told me!”
Pauley said that in the summer of ’76, half-a-dozen women auditioned live for the vacancy created when Barbara left to anchor ABC World News. And the morning Tom Brokaw introduced her, she was actually twenty-five, her first words to the camera were “Maybe you’re wondering how I got here. So am I!”
Pauley then went on to say that’s what ‘Skywriting, A Life Out Of the Blue’ was about when she started writing it. But before she finished it, she had an unexpected illness.
“Every family has history, but mental illness was not on our list. We were just a typical family. But every typical family has a family history. And a family history that didn’t include some family secrets wouldn’t be very typical, would it? Perhaps the most intriguing factor about the Pauley family portrait was who was not in it. So it’s no wonder that family history and family secrets are sometimes the same thing. But I still don’t know if there was a family history of Bi-Polar, but I do know it doesn’t often come out of the blue, though it certainly seemed to eleven years ago,” she said.
Pauley said her encounter with Bi-Polar Disorder actually started twelve years ago with hives. “I never thought hives could kill a person, but after two visits to the ER with my throat swelling I was prescribed medicine a doctor described as ‘the big guns’, steroids. Now mood swings are a common side effect of steroids -- on the upside that Spring I got a lot done!”
Pauley said she spearheaded a voter registration drive in New York City high schools, “which was the first and only time in my life I spearheaded anything. Predictably though the upside had a downside, my mood didn’t stabilize like it was supposed to, but kept going down. I was prescribed for the first time antidepressants. After a while I felt better, but the better I felt the more worried my husband Garry [Trudeau, well-known cartoonist] became.”
Pauley said she was uncharacteristically expansive, and had a new idea every day. “I bought something new every day. Last month, I met a woman in Indiana who told me about her $2,000- spree at Walmart. Spending money is an odd symptom of Bi-polar,” she said.
At the time, Pauley had the option of a sabbatical in her contract, so she decided to take it so she could write the book. The first day of her sabbatical she happened to begin at a doctor’s office and was brimming with ideas. That day, her doctor said she ‘seemed to be racing.’ He explained later how exposure to certain medications could trigger a mood disorder if a person has a genetic predisposition to one.
“It was suddenly self-evident to him that I had had what he called an ‘unrecognized vulnerability’ to Bi-Polar Disorder. It was ten months from hives to hypomania,” she said.
Husband Garry had not been enthusiastic about Jane’s memoir project – “we’d always been pretty private about our personal lives. In fact my daughter, when she was a teen-ager once called me ‘a bad celebrity.’”
But that Spring, Garry appreciated that the book at least gave Jane something to do as they waited for my moods to sort themselves out.
“I enjoyed some weeks of ‘high octane creativity confidence.’ But after that it was just an idling engine on overdrive. The intensity of thought was exhausting, and bipolar can be an angry disease. Like a swarm of bees, the anger will look for a target, mine was Garry,” Pauley said.
“Feeling isolated is dangerous. The hypomania had started to break up and was giving way to a deepening depression. The doctor asked me if I might be more comfortable in a hospital and I said ‘yes.’
“That first night at the hospital was my ‘hard landing’. I noticed the nurse by my bed didn’t seem to be leaving, and when she told me I had to keep my hands above the covers I finally faced the reality of the words ‘mental illness.’ That six-week sabbatical quietly segued into a six month leave of absence. Finally, I went back to work.”
It was September 10, the next day was September 11, 2001.
Pauley said that with that the whole country was suffering from ‘unrecognized vulnerabilities.’
“Eventually our lives did return to normal didn’t they?” she said.
Pauley said her kids went away to college; she and Garry downsized. Their new apartment has nearly the same view as her hospital room, and a watercolor painting of African violets she painted that she kept there in the hospital, now hangs in her house.
Pauley recalled how one evening Garry was unpacking from a trip and she asked ‘How was your flight?’ He said ‘I had some good reading -- your book.’
Pauley had not thought about this book since before 9/11, but had apparently emailed him some sample chapters which he had not been inclined to read for a couple of years.
But, he continued on to say “If you still think you have a story to tell, I think you’re equipped to tell it.”
Pauley was surprised, flattered: “My husband is the writer, and I went right at it.”
When the book was done, Pauley was preparing for her first public talk about it and Garry suggested she read something from the book, and he had a particular passage in mind.
“It was a paragraph that spoke most graphically about what it feels like to be mentally ill. And that’s when the full impact of his original words came back to me. ‘If you still think you have a story to tell.’ My husband encouraged me to tell the story. If I didn’t feel safe at home, I don’t think I would feel so safe standing here at a podium; but I do feel safe. But I don’t read that particular passage any more. It’s the wrong story,” Pauley said.
“Positive emotions are powerful tools. We have a fight, but we have some new weapons,” Pauley said.
Pauley explained that her sister in-law is a medical reporter and a good ‘explainer.’
“She says the brain is made up of ‘many working parts’ as she describes it. One part of the brain she says is key in Bi-polar. A bundle of nerve cells called the singulate. The singulate is a kind of chemical electrical switch for people with Bi-polar -- it’s overly sensitive. It has a hair-trigger.”
Pauley continued: “My parents never had that thought that the brain is wired. My children wouldn’t think any other way. I describe putting information on my hard drive; I have the memory of an Etch-A-Sketch. Never mind that I don’t know what a hard drive is, or that I’m still pretty amazed by the Etch-A-Sketch!”
Pauley explained the technology we use every day has rewired our brains.
“We think differently about the brain today. Here’s a useful analogy. In my 1950’s childhood, ‘Outer Space’ was where Martians and invading ‘Space Aliens’ came from. But when I was a teen-ager in the sixties, the phrase ‘Outer Space’ was replaced by a new phrase – ‘Space Program.’ We were in a race to get there, to explore space.”
Pauley said that ‘messaging matters.’
“Now hope is far more potent to change minds than fear. When I think of hope, I think of Michael J. Fox,” said Pauley, who has interviewed Fox on several occasions, including quite recently.
“Now Parkinson’s will be conquered or cured by hope,” said Pauley, “but it will never be defeated without it. Fox told me a story. He talks about waiting for an elevator in the mirrored vestibule of his apartment building just as his meds were starting to wear off and catching a glimpse of a bent and shaking old man, and realized he was looking at his own reflection. What did he do? He winked!
“He is such an inspiration because of his commitment to find a cure for Parkinson’s, which by the way, is a neighbor to Bi-polar in the same deep region of the brain, but also for refusing to be defined by his limitations. Living his life as fully as it can be lived. Remember what he called his memoir? ‘Lucky Man.’”
Pauley said Michael J. Fox is the first to point out that he doesn’t happen to suffer from depression, which many people with Parkinson’s do suffer from, and depression produces isolation, and isolation is the curse of mental illness.
“This brings us back to People Incorporated which, by the way the name People Incorporated means ‘to incorporate people in our communities.’ Your mission is all about belonging,” she said.
Pauley concluded: “I’d like to close with a story that I heard told by a Nobel Laureate. The daughter of Sigmund Freud’s best friend -- which is kind of a funny thought that Sigmund Freud would have a best friend. So this is a young woman, who is studying to be a psychoanalyst who was finally required to undergo psychoanalysis herself, and she wanted the great man Freud to do it. He was reluctant because of their personal relationship, but finally he relented. And later, when the analysis was completed he is said to have told her ‘I always liked you, but now that I know you have problems, I like you more.’”
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