In her 2008 Modern Love essay “Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am,” Terri Cheney, then an entertainment lawyer, writes about her struggles with bipolar disorder, revealing how she hid her condition from boyfriends, colleagues and others who were close to her before ultimately going public.
Now her story has been adapted for the small screen, in the new “Modern Love” television series on Amazon Prime Video.
I recently caught up with Ms. Cheney; our conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.
You can also read my interviews with the writers Ann Leary (“Rallying to Keep the Game Alive”), Deborah Copaken (“When Cupid Is a Prying Journalist”) and Julie Margaret Hogben (“When the Doorman Is Your Main Man”), whose essays also inspired episodes.
Daniel Jones: Your story is about how, for so long, you completely hid the fact that you were bipolar. Then you wrote about it for Modern Love, wrote a best-selling book about it, and now it’s an episode of the Modern Love series, revealing you to even more people all around the world. How scared were you in the first place about going public with this?
Terri Cheney: I was terrified. Other than my doctors, very few people knew what was going on with me. I would just disappear from the world so nobody saw. And at work, I was productive and on top of my game. I was able to make up all the work that I had fallen behind on, and it had been the same with school. But I was continuously terrified that someone would find out and I would get fired or no one would ever love me.
And what happened after the essay came out?
It was astonishing. So many people contacted me. A lot by people who identified with me, but also people asking me to do speaking engagements. I also got a marriage proposal.
Yeah, some guy who’d read the Modern Love column and thought I deserved love.
By email or some other way?
By email. It was one of my regrets that I didn’t respond because I was so overwhelmed by emails at that point. I was getting hundreds and hundreds of them. It was such a wonderful and stressful time because I felt like everybody suddenly knew me and I started getting contacted by all sorts of people from my past, particularly people I had worked with who said, “You know, we always wondered about you, but we never really knew what it was.” I think they were trying to be nice.
Was it a relief to you when people would say, “We always wondered?” Or was that sort of retroactively disturbing?
It was disturbing. I thought I had hid it better. I thought I was pretty neutral in my presentation. But, of course, I wasn’t, and being bipolar wasn’t as well known as it is today. This was back in 2008.
Were they clued in by both ends of your behavior, your highs and your lows? I mean, was it that you were overly productive or manic but also you’d had a bad attendance record and would you just stay away when you were depressive?
I think it was my disappearances that people wondered about. But I never lost a single job. I never got any kind of recrimination professionally, but I would just disappear. And people didn’t work from home then as much as they do now. I ended up going part-time to be a little more invisible and did even better part-time than I did full-time. That again was astonishing to me.
When you would disappear, were you still working but didn’t want people to see you? Or could you just not work?
I couldn’t do anything. I would be curled up in a fetal position in bed, unable to move. The worst part of my depression is what they call psychomotor retardation, where I simply cannot move. I can barely get up to go to the kitchen or the bathroom and I just lie there and can’t answer the phone.
Yeah. The messages would pile up. That was the worst part, not being able to answer all the messages. I became very creative with excuses, as you can imagine, because I’ve had this since I was a child. Back then I would disappear and I always had physical ailments that I came up with. My mother was a nurse and we always had medical books around the house. I was very creative with my symptoms.
You would create the excuses for different ailments?
I would read the Merck manual and come up with something that I was sick with.
Your mother was in on that with you?
My parents didn’t know what to make of me because I was such a stellar student. I always got straight A’s, and because I performed so well at school and I wasn’t a bad kid, they just thought I was eccentric. Again, it was not talked about when I was growing up, but I certainly would hope that any parent now would realize it’s not normal for your child to stay in bed for days at a time and not be able to move and cry.
This episode will certainly make a lot of people more aware of it. The way Anne Hathaway portrays a lot of what you went through is so powerful.
I had a terrific conversation with her about portraying depression and what it feels like and how everything slows down, and she seemed to really get it.
I know that John Carney, who wrote and directed the episode, and Anne both wanted to be really careful about how this was portrayed.
They were so sensitive to it and I was so happy after I talked to them because they seemed to want to know what it was like from the inside, not just the stereotype. I remember Anne asking about the depression, what it looked like, and I told her about movement being extremely slow. Like you were carrying a really heavy burden all the time and you couldn’t move. With John, he mentioned wanting to do the manic episode like “La La Land,” and I thought that was brilliant because that’s the way it is. Everything’s so bright. You are Mary Tyler Moore in her opening sequence.
Bring us up to today, if you would, with your love life, your personal life. What’s happening? It’s been almost 12 years since you published the essay.
Well, I stopped being a lawyer. My book, “Manic,” became a New York Times best seller and an L.A. Times best seller and was translated into eight foreign languages.
I wrote a second book a few years later, “The Dark Side of Innocence,” about my childhood growing up bipolar. And I just finished my third book that will come out next fall. It’s called “Tell Me Where It Hurts: A Manual to Modern Madness.”
What about your love life, your personal life?
When I decided to write again after I got out of the hospital, I was much healthier and I dated a lot and had a few long-term relationships. Right now I’d say I’m in love and I’m loved back. I don’t know necessarily if I’m in a relationship. I do love. I am in love. So that’s great.
People don’t like to put labels on relationships these days.
No, it’s too complicated. The men that I’ve dated have almost all read “Manic.” It’s almost like a prerequisite. If you’re going to get involved with me, here are the things you need to know.
I was going to ask you because it seems like by writing about it you’ve got yourself off the hook of having to explain, of having to break that news.
It’s a relief. At first, it’s a little weird because they know all about me and I know nothing about them on the first date, which makes for a very lopsided relationship early on. But anybody who knows I’m bipolar and wants to date me is going to be so far ahead of the game for me. It’s been a great weeding out process.
If someone Googles you, I imagine they quickly find the Modern Love essay. Do you become known for that immediately?
Yes. Many men have asked me about Jeff and whether Jeff is back in my life or not, and unfortunately, I never heard from him again. I had hoped when the Modern Love piece came out that he might contact me, but I never did hear from him. I still go to the same grocery store, sometimes hoping I’ll see him, but I never have.
In the fruit aisle?
At the end of the essay, you say it’s five years since the Jeff experience and your moods have stabilized and that you had found a good medication plan.
Yes, I have a terrific treatment team that manages my medication; they’ve been with me for about 15 years. But I still experience mood swings, not to the same extent with mania, but certainly with depression. It’s not a disease that can be cured, but it can be managed. One of the most important things is being open and honest about it and getting support. I’m still scared of telling people I’m bipolar and I’m still amazed by the number of people who come back and say, “Well, so is my sister,” or “I am too,” or “My best friend is.” I really think the stigma, although it still exists, is much, much less than it used to be.
I hope that viewers will have the same experience that my readers have had — that they’re not alone. My new book is geared toward that, toward loved ones and friends and family who just don’t know what to do about it. I’m hoping that the more it’s demythologized, the better we’re all going to be.
I think the reach of this episode will go a long way.
It’s easy to sensationalize manic depression, but you want it to be truthful and that’s really been important to me. In an interview, Anne Hathaway said she was relieved to be able to walk away, and it gave her so much empathy for people who have to live with illness every single day. That touched me.