Zibby Owens: Welcome, Terri. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to talk about Modern Madness, which was so, so good.

Terri Cheney: Thank you. Thank you, Zibby, for having me.

Zibby: I have to say, I had seen the Modern Love episode on which this book was based, or on which the article — I’m not even saying this right. You wrote a Modern Love article. It became a TV show. You’ve written a book. I started by seeing the TV episode, which was great.

Terri: With Anne Hathaway playing me. That was incredible.

Zibby: What was that like for you?

Terri: Every woman’s dream to have — I looked so good. I never knew.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. How involved were you with that piece of this?

Terri: They were great. The producers realized — I contacted them when I found out the article was going to be turned into an episode. I said, “This is about mental health and mental illness. It really needs to be accurate.” They actually let me in on the process. I got to talk with Anne and with the director, John Carney. I think they did a really good job as far as portraying manic depression/bipolar disorder is concerned.

Zibby: It was a really gripping episode from the highs to the lows. You could just see how embarrassed, almost, that she was and having to cancel things. That was the TV. That was great.

Terri: That was wonderful.

Zibby: On to the book. In terms of timing, did you write the Modern Love piece and then you wrote the book? What happened?

Terri: I wrote the Modern Love piece back in 2008. Then a month later, my first book, Manic, came out and became a New York Times best seller, I think largely riding on that Modern Love piece because that reaches so many people.

Zibby: Now you’re coming out with this having nothing to do, almost, with that. This is so much later.

Terri: Right, this is my third book now.

Zibby: I’m sorry. I feel woefully unprepared, but having read this book at least, so that’s good. It starts with you talking about Michael Jackson’s feet, which is not the way most books begin. The reader is immediately gripped and wondering, what is going on here? Talk to me about your high-profile lawyerly life and then having to deal with mental illness at the same time, bipolar, how you were able to fuse the two, and now where you are.

Terri: I started as an entertainment lawyer. I live in Beverly Hills. I represented people like Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, and major motion picture studios. That was for about sixteen years. That entire time, I was hiding a very severe case of bipolar disorder. I didn’t tell anyone except my doctors. I didn’t tell my friends, my coworkers, nobody, because I was just terrified that somebody would find out and I’d be fired, first of all, and then ostracized and I’d never find work or love again. Somehow, I did manage to keep it secret. I think it’s because Hollywood is inherently bipolar when you think of it. It’s a crazy business. It’s very cyclical. Things are always happening. You want them faster, better, more, now. My manic episodes certainly fit in with that. When I was depressed, I would make up excuses or lies, frankly. I had all sorts of physical ailments that I pretended to have. Fortunately with bipolar disorder, you can make up a lot of the work that you miss because you go into this really productive mode where you can just churn stuff out. You’re very charismatic and engaging and just at the top of your game. That lasted until I finally had a depression I could not hide anymore. I was hospitalized for that episode. I started writing then about my illness. First, I just wrote about the clinical stuff that I was learning. Then I thought, anybody can write about that. I want to write about what’s really going on inside me, inside my body, and make it visceral so that other people understand what it’s like. I found I started to get better with the writing. I just kept writing and writing and seven years later emerged with the book called Manic. To my amazement, a month later, it’s a best seller. I’ve kept on writing ever since then.

Zibby: Why stop?

Terri: Why stop? I love it. I miss the money from practicing law, but I don’t miss the lifestyle. I don’t miss hiding out. That was the hardest part of my life.

Zibby: I think the corrosive power of secrets is one of the worst things. No matter what it is you’re hiding, having to shoulder that burden I think away at people quite a bit.

Terri: What I’ve learned is hiding a secret is often worse than the secret itself.

Zibby: I feel like a lot of books are an attempt to air those secrets and get them off of people’s shoulders. That’s just one way. It’s like repentance of some sort.

Terri: It really does help. It’s so cathartic to write about even the dark times. People often ask me, how do you go back to those suicide attempts and write about such horrible memories? For me, writing about it lets me own it. That’s another subtitle to my book, An Owner’s Manual. I think we all need to own our illnesses and learn about them, understand them, and acknowledge them in order to get better.

Zibby: You mention in the book later that you developed hypothyroidism and that in that instance it was diagnosed, and you got a pill and you went about your business, and how easy was that versus mental illness which comes with stigma and shame and varying medication and so much else, so much baggage versus a simply physiological issue.

Terri: I actually went around and told people, “I have hypothyroidism.” I was proud of having something I could talk about as opposed to bipolar disorder. People were sympathetic.

Zibby: I always kind of am hoping — I shouldn’t say this. I’m always hoping that there’s something wrong with my thyroid to explain weight gain.

Terri: I know. A quick fix.

Zibby: I’ll take one of those thyroid medicines, and I’ll be fine. I’m kidding. It’s true, the contrast of why we don’t medicate in such a black and white way for something that is just as pronounced and specific as all these other things is ridiculous.

Terri: I’m so glad you bring that up. If you look at mental illness, the brain is an organ. It’s not in your mind. The mental illness is not really in your mind. It’s in your brain. The brain is just a three-and-a-half-pound organ. Robin Williams said that. It is like any other organ in the body like your liver. You wouldn’t tell somebody with liver disease to make lemonade out of lemons. You wouldn’t tell Stephen Hawking to just snap out of it and get up out of his chair. It’s really a physical illness. It needs to be regarded that way.

Zibby: Then you have the double isolation of, A, feeling it, and then B, being made to not feel validated in it.

Terri: Right. It is a double whammy, yes.

Zibby: You write about that so beautifully even in the very beginning when you were describing mania. Then later when you described depression, you were saying like this, “I thought faster. I wrote better. I could argue the devil out of his soul when I was manic. I was glorious, bionic, at the top of my game, and I knew it and used it against anyone who came too close. Sex was mine for the asking, money and influence too, and I owed it all to mania, including my proximity to Michael Jackson and his like. But no matter how lofty and impervious I appeared, depression could swoop in and lay me low without a word, without warning, the devil demanding a rematch. Then it was back to hiding all over again.” Wow, so awesome. I mean, not awesome that it happened. Awesome that you wrote about it that way. These are so funny when you have all these things, the ten sacred rules you have to abide by when you’re bipolar.

Terri: My manic cheat sheet.

Zibby: Change into something sexier. Wear granny panties and flats. Party do’s and don’ts. It’s so funny have such a great sense of humor about all this.

Terri: I’m so glad you say that. Of all the compliments I ever get about my writing, I love when people apologize for saying, “I’m really sorry, but I laughed throughout your book.” That makes me feel so good because I know I touched them the way I wanted to. So much of mental illness can become extreme. In extremity, there’s absurdity. You have to sometimes stand back and just say, this is ridiculous, what I’m going through. It can be funny, in a very dark way, but nonetheless.

Zibby: In a very dark way. It’s similar in a way to grief. It knocks you off your feet. Yet there are moments where you can’t help but find the absurdity and humor. You just have to laugh.

Terri: You feel a little guilty about that. I don’t know quite why one would feel guilty about relieving yourself of the doom for a few seconds, but sometimes they do.

Zibby: We can find ways to feel guilty about everything. If you can’t, just call me. I’ll find another way to it. You talked about depression saying that you always knew you were depressed when you couldn’t manage to get into the shower.

Terri: The shower is my nemesis. I just have the worst time. I suffer from something called psychomotor retardation when I’m depressed. That means my body and my will are paralyzed. I’m looking at pen right now on my desk that’s about a foot away. If I wanted to pick up that pen, I would have to stare at it for fifteen or twenty minutes just to get my arm to move over to the pen and pick it up. I’m noticing, COVID-19, a lot of people are complaining about lack of productivity. That’s what it feels like. You just cannot do what you need to do. Showering, for me, is the number-one worst thing I have to do. I hate it. I hate getting wet. I like being clean, but I hate everything else about it.

Zibby: It’s so funny. My mother-in-law had these two dogs who are now staying with us. One of them hates to get wet. You’re just like, okay, the dog doesn’t need to get — you just won’t shower them. If you’re a human being, you can’t be like, I don’t like getting wet. Doesn’t fly so easily.

Terri: I really do like being clean. That’s what’s so ironic about it.

Zibby: They have dry shampoo now.

Terri: Believe me, I have stock in it. I know.

Zibby: You wrote in the book too, sadly, as you referenced earlier, about times where you really wanted to die and how depression is just like fighting death. It’s the death march in a way. You were in the snow, and then your body actually is the one that made you snap out of it. Tell me about that moment a little bit.

Terri: I was in New Mexico, in Santa Fe. My father had died. After that, I had attempted a very, very serious suicide attempt which I shockingly survived. I wrote about it in the first story of Manic. I’m walking out after I got out of the hospital in the snow at night. I come to this park. I just realize I can’t go any further. I don’t want to go on. I thought, maybe I’ll just freeze to death in the snow. That’s got to be an easy way to go. It probably doesn’t hurt very much because you’re frozen. I lay down in the snow. Sure enough, it started to really hurt. Unconsciously or subconsciously, I just started flapping my arms up and down, and my legs, to get the circulation going. I stood up. I looked around. I realized I’d made angel wings in the snow. That was such a beautiful moment. I thought, you know, there is a reason I survived that suicide attempt. It’s got to be that I’m supposed to give witness to the pain of what other people are suffering with this disease. It’s hard to remember that now, but it was a moment. It was an epiphany.

Zibby: I’m sorry that you have anointed yourself the storyteller for this, but you write about it really poignantly and beautifully. If it had to be anyone, life picked a good storyteller.

Terri: I think the reasons were given. The gifts were given. That had to be mine.

Zibby: When you’re doing the actual writing — first of all, do you still go through the highs and lows in the same way? Have you found some medications that have stabilized things completely or more? Then what happens when you’re writing? Can you still write through one of the hypo-paralyzed states? Tell me about that.

Terri: I’m pretty stable now, relatively, compared to what I used to be. I don’t have the extreme highs that I used to or, fingers crossed here, the extreme lows. I do sometimes get depressed, mostly in response to external triggers like relationship problems. Who doesn’t get depressed? It can trigger a chemical depression. My medication is working. I’m really lucky. I work closely with a psychopharmacologist who manages the medications especially. As for writing, I can’t write when I’m depressed because that involves the moving the pen thing, and I can’t move. I try to write when I’m manic, but I write in this really tiny, tiny, tiny, illegible script that you can’t hardly see or else my fingers fly so fast over the keyboard. It’s just rubbish. There’s a sweet spot. Fortunately, I’ve been in the sweet spot for a while where I can write and make sense and have some perspective about my illness.

Zibby: Wow. What do you do to get through the pandemic? What do you do now? Are you working on another book? How do you make sure you don’t slip? Do you carry that fear with you all the time? I feel like I would be very nervous.

Terri: That’s a really good question. I’m always afraid of depression. You said earlier it’s like battling death. I don’t think I ever thought of it in those terms before. I may just have to steal that from you. That’s really powerful. It is like that. Yes, I’m afraid, but for some weird reason — I’m not the only person with a mental illness who feels this way. I’ve had a lot of readers write in and tell me that, I feel like I’ve been in training for COVID because I’m used to isolating. I’m used to binge-watching Netflix. I’m used to eating everything in my refrigerator and not talking to people on the phone. I have my coping skills that I developed during depressions. I’m using them to good stead now. I think I’m doing pretty well. Surprised me.

Zibby: See? Silver linings here.

Terri: Definitely a silver lining.

Zibby: Did the writing and the style and all of it just come naturally to you? Did you get any sort of training or writing classes or anything like that?

Terri: I wanted to be a writer since I was a little girl and my father read to me every night before, I think, I could even speak. I’ve always wanted to write. I’ve always written. I went to Vassar College and was an English major, had a creative thesis there. Somehow, I just got derailed with the entertainment litigation. That was the wrong direction for my life to go in. Even while I was practicing law, I was taking classes. I belong to a wonderful writing group that I’ve been in for about fifteen or twenty years now. Writing has always been a huge part of my life. It’s how I stay sane.

Zibby: You’re the accidental litigator.

Terri: Yes. That may be the title of my next book. Thank you.

Zibby: Great. Just take the transcript of this and use it for whatever you want. Be my guest. That’s funny.

Terri: I’m writing it down.

Zibby: What about reading? Do you love to read? Were you always a reader from a young ago too?

Terri: I’m a book hound. I’m looking at your living room or wherever you’re sitting right now and absolutely devouring the books behind you. You have such a wonderful library there.

Zibby: This is my whole — all the way around.

Terri: Oh, my god, that’s my dream. That is my dream. I have books everywhere in my house, but you can’t see them from my Zoom feed. I do read, yes.

Zibby: I believe you.

Terri: They’re all under my bed, too, gathering moss.

Zibby: Do you gravitate toward memoir? Do you have a genre you like?

Terri: I tend to read nineteenth century and before. I’m very much the Jane Austen girl. I love Fitzgerald too. I love people who love words. I love an author, Nabokov, anyone who can just make me look at phrase and say, oh, that’s what language is supposed to do. That gives me a thrill. I think that’s almost as good as sex. It’s great.

Zibby: Sentences versus sex. Who will win? Do you have any advice for, twofold, one for aspiring authors, but also for anybody out there who might have a mental illness and maybe hasn’t been as forthcoming as you have and is still more in the hiding phase?

Terri: First of all, I think everybody who has a mental illness should at least be keeping some kind of mood journal where you track your episodes because that’s the only way you can really get a handle on something as tricky as bipolar disorder, is to see the pattern of it as it plays out. I can only go by my own experience which has been, before Manic was published, the night before, literally, I wanted to call my editor and just call the whole off. I thought, what am I doing? This is crazy. Nobody’s going to understand what I’m writing about. The response to coming out of the closet, which was a very deep closet for me and lasted for many, many years, has been incredible. The support, the compassion that people have shown me, I never would’ve guessed in a million years that people could be so understanding. I’m always hearing about my courage. I just felt backed up against a wall. It was either stop hiding or die. Those were my choices. I don’t know how much courage was involved in that.

Zibby: Maybe you’re selling yourself a little short.

Terri: Maybe.

Zibby: I think maybe courage isn’t the right word, but it still takes such a strong sense of self to be able to articulate it all and share it.

Terri: I think that’s where writing comes in too. The writing group that I referenced, we write our personal stories. We learn to find our own voice. That’s been really influential for me to just keep digging and digging and digging. I am surrounded by journals. You can’t see them right now. I still journal every day.

Zibby: I have all mine hidden under here from when I was a kid. My mom cleaned out my room years ago and was like, “Take everything.”

Terri: Don’t ever get rid of them. They come in so handy when you decide to write your memoirs. Believe me.

Zibby: They’re all pre-twenty-two or something. Now I’m debating if I should share them with my kids. I better read them.

Terri: Oh, yes. Read them first.

Zibby: There’s some stuff I’m not so sure I’d want them to read. For people like you and me and so many other people who do write to sort things out, not having that, I don’t know how anybody else does it.

Terri: I know. How do they have a conversation, even? I would have the words floating around in my head just like a jigsaw puzzle if I didn’t write. I don’t know how people function.

Zibby: Even for my podcast, I used to write out every question first. Now I don’t do that because it’s more a conversation. I wanted to have it all clear. Everything had to be clear and out of the chaos.

Terri: When I was a litigator, I wrote every single thing I was going to say to the court down, including “and” and “the.” I was very, very much that way.

Zibby: I get it. Thank you. Thanks for chatting with me today and coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Terri: It was so fun.

Zibby: I have to go back now and read Manic. That’ll be my next Amazon purchase. I shouldn’t say Amazon. Whatever independent bookstore purchase that’s open.

Terri: There you go.

Zibby: Anyway, thank you. I really enjoyed chatting with you. Again, your book was absolutely beautiful and so important.

Terri: I’m so glad you liked it. Thank you. It was really great chatting with you.

Zibby: You too. Have a great day.

Terri: Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.