updated 04/20/2011 AT 5:00 PM ET
•originally published 04/21/2011 AT 9:00 AM ET
Catherine Zeta-Jones took a courageous step on April 19 by revealing to the world that she suffers from bipolar II disorder, says former Today show and Dateline NBC host Jane Pauley, who also suffers from the disease.
“When I saw her story, I felt the world shift a little bit,” says Pauley, 60, who chronicled her struggle with the disorder in her 2004 memoir, Skywriting: A Life Out of the Blue. “It’s not an exaggeration to say she has made the world a safer place for people who have the diagnosis, are afraid of being diagnosed or will one day be diagnosed. Her impact in the world of the arts has been considerable. But this might be bigger.”
Pauley was diagnosed in 2001, when her doctor told her that the steroids she was prescribed for a life-threatening allergic reaction – and antidepressants she was later given – triggered her rare form of the disorder.
Pauley suffered periods of deep depression in the 10 months after she began taking the medications, with bouts of “low energy” and a “bleak, sinking feeling,” she says. “It goes away. And it comes back.”
Pauley also suffered her first and only hypomanic (a mild form of mania) episode during that time. “I was uncharacteristically ambitious,” she says. “I had brief feelings of grandiosity – lots of plans and projects. I had good ideas – just too many of them.”
She says she had “unusual stamina” when she began writing her memoir in 2001. “Then it became an engine idling in overdrive,” she says. “It was exhausting. It was very unpleasant to live with me. Any book I would have written during that time would have been co-authored by Cruella de Vil.”
Her diagnosis “was the worst news I’d ever been given,” says Pauley, who had no family history of bipolar disorder. “I didn’t argue. My acceptance was instantaneous.”
She sought help at a psychiatric hospital during a hiatus from Dateline.
To avoid another episode, she now takes good care of herself, by taking her medication, exercising, getting enough sleep and keeping track of her moods. Pauley also tries to manage stress, which can trigger a hypomanic episode. “When stress comes, as it has in Catherine Zeta-Jones s family’s life in buckets,” she says, “you don’t have a lot of control over that.”
Pauley praises Zeta-Jones for seeking help and says the actress’s “straightforward” revelation will help demystify the disorder. “Mental illness is a biological and medical problem,” says Pauley. “It needs to be dealt with as a lifelong condition, just as heart disease is. She will get better. I wish her the best.”
For more information, please visit the Web site for the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT.