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Former Lawyer to the Stars Writes About Suicide Attempts: I Couldn't 'Let the Fresh Scars Show'

One day in 1992, Terri Cheney, a high-powered attorney to the stars, slipped on a white silk shirt with French cuffs.

The blouse was a strategic choice. It paired well with her gray Armani suit for her meeting with client Michael Jackson — and the sleeves were long enough to hide still-healing slashes on her wrists from her most recent suicide attempt.

"I had to be very careful when I was writing my notes not to let the fresh scars show," Cheney, 60, tells PEOPLE. At the time, she was helping the iconic performer navigate a messy lawsuit tied to one of his albums. "So that was a difficult deposition on many levels."

Cheney, now a speaker and mental health advocate, has struggled to manage her bipolar disorder for years. Her first memoir about her battle with mental illness, Manic, which published in 2008, brought her to national attention. In Cheney's latest book, Modern Madness, the author recounts the electrifying bouts of mania that escalated her career to dizzying heights and the terrifying depressions that brought her work — and desire to live — crashing down. Cheney explains that during her worst depression in the late 90s she tried to kill herself multiple times.

"I still have [the white shirt]. In fact, I've kept it as a reminder of those days," she says of that meeting 28 years ago, which she recounts in the opening scene of her new book.

The blouse serves as a connection to one of the bleakest times in her life, but Cheney says that writing is what pulled her from the darkness.

"I found that, unless I was writing, I wasn't thinking clearly. Or I was having trouble managing my illness," says Cheney, who wrote Manic when she was in a mental hospital and receiving electroshock therapy. "So I belong to a writing group that meets every week. I would just keep writing, and writing, and writing for them and, lo and behold, another book."

Modern Madness, which will publish on Tuesday, is an unflinching look at how Cheney's life has blown apart and been put back together as she's navigated the various mental states that come with bipolar disorder. Her memoir also dispels the misinformation and stigma that continues to plague those struggling with mental illness and provides insight into a vast array of treatments and recovery techniques. (Chapter sections range from "The Rules of Suicide" to "Vigilance: Am I Too, Too Wonderful?") According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five adults suffer from mental illness in the U.S. In 2018, suicide was the tenth leading cause of death of Americans, according to the Center for Disease Control.

Cheney hopes that people who read her book will learn that "mental health is physical health," especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But before Cheney found purpose in advocacy, she was an elite entertainment lawyer.

"I have this theory that Hollywood is inherently manic because you always want things bigger, better, faster, now and there's so much that's cyclical about the industry," she says. "So I fit in, in a strange way. I would hide out when I was depressed. Sometimes literally hide out, meaning hiding under my desk, and just hiding from the phone, and the constant pressure."

She continues: "Then when I would reappear I would be in a different mood. I'd be very, very functional. I'd be what we call hypomanic, which is the stage just before mania where you're very productive, and charismatic, and charming, and everybody seems to gravitate toward you."

But everything fell apart when Cheney's medication, Prozac, stopped working. She could no longer keep up the intense pace she'd set for herself in her hypomanic state.

"It broke my heart, I'll tell you," Cheney says of the moment she realized her medication wasn't working. "The memory of hypomania—knowing that you are capable of being that way and being so blissful, and euphoric, and creative—it's really awful to know that that's in you and you can't quite access it."

Cheney did all she could to hide her mental illness from her job because she was terrified of losing everything. Then, in 2008, the lawyer publicly opened up about her illness in a New York Times Modern Love essay “Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am," and Manic quickly followed. She says that, the night before Manic published, she thought of calling her publisher to stop the book's release.

Instead of rejection, Cheney received a national wave of support after Manic's release. (Her story was portrayed by Anne Hathaway in Amazon Prime Video's Modern Love TV series.) Cheney's candidness about her struggles has allowed her to connect with thousands of people — and even helped her forge a connection with a top performer. Cheney says that after Manic came out, she met a well-known musician who shared that he was also bipolar.

"We ended up having breakfast and he told me about being bipolar, but he just would not come out of the closet because he thought he would never work again," Cheney remembers. "And I thought that was so sad, because the impact his disclosure could have had on so many people would have been profound."

While Cheney has helped others and herself by publicly opening up about her bipolar disorder, her challenges haven't ended. In Modern Madness, Cheney writes about the cost of mania, depression, and all of the dangerous states in between.

"You don't remember a lot during manic episodes," the author says. "You only see the aftermath and that can be terrifying: waking up in a stranger's bed because you are sexually reckless when you're manic, hyper-sexuality they call it. Not knowing how you got somewhere. Spending all your money."

Cheney says that the "worst manic episode" she ever experienced happened after she received electroshock therapy. She spent 14 days — and all of the money in her savings and checking accounts — at an expensive resort in Big Sur, California.

"I finally had to come home because I had no more money," she remembers. "I had a great time, but the consequences of that are just tremendous."

The author's worst depression occurred after her father's death in 1997.

"I tried on several occasions to kill myself and I should not have lived, particularly after one of the episodes, but somehow I did," she says. "And it made me realize, finally, that there must be some reason I'm still around, there must be something I'm supposed to do."

Cheney is glad to have found purpose as a mental health advocate. One of the biggest lessons she teaches is that people need to take all suicidal ideation seriously.

"If you say to someone who's suffering, 'Tell me where it hurts,' and you sit back and you patiently listen, which isn't easy, they open up," she says. "They don't shutdown like they do with advice. They're able to express some of the darkness that's inside them, which is not always easy to listen to. But it can be lifesaving."

Cheney's bipolar disorder has impacted her career, her love life, her physical health, and her relationships with friends and family. But she wouldn't get rid of her disorder if she could.

Cheney says her illness has helped her develop her creativity — and an empathy for others that she didn't have when she was a lawyer working in Hollywood.

"My creativity really gives me meaning and purpose in life, and opens me up to the beauty of it," she says. "I've developed a lot of empathy that I don't think I would otherwise have — a humility, in a way."

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

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  • Posted on September 4, 2020