(Posted April 12) Actor Sean Astin, best-known for his film roles as Samwise Gamgee in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, as Mikey Walsh in “The Goonies” and the title character of “Rudy,” talked to a Flint audience of nearly 300 last week about his late mother Patty Duke’s lifelong struggle with bi-polar disorder.
Duke won an Academy Award as “Best Supporting Actress” in 1962 for her role as the young Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker.” Duke was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder some years later, acknowledged it publicly, and spent the rest of her life lecturing and being interviewed on the disease, also writing two groundbreaking books.
Astin, who is also a vocal advocate for literacy, mental health awareness, bi-polar disorder, civic engagement and other issues, appeared in Flint as the spring speaker in the Ballenger Eminent Persons Lecture Series, a program of Mott Community College.
Here is a transcript (the only one extant in the news media) of the salient points made by Astin in his April 7 talk:
“It’s April 7th, and it’s snowing! What’s up with that? … It’s such an intense time to be here in this town. A little gallows humor — maybe bi-polar disorder is like the water in Flint, but the solution is much more obvious in the one case than in the other. But if we live our lives with an intense sense of mission, it is possible to have purpose even while we struggle with these conditions …
“Seriously, thanks for your acknowledgement of my mother’s life, but this will not be a eulogy … To begin, she was in her mid-Thirties when she finally stopped resisting getting help and went to my dad’s psychiatrist. He diagnosed her with bi-polar disorder when she was 35. She preferred the old-fashioned term ‘manic-depressive,’ because it sounded to her like what she felt — the mania, and then the depression.
“She embraced her diagnosis. She decided to ‘come out.’ She wanted to unburden herself… When it comes to the mental health arena, I don’t pretend to be an expert. I’m unpolished; I can only give you my impressions. I come from a family of fast criers, quick talkers, lots of problems. My only response (to my mother’s condition) can be to talk about it, to try to create some value … My mother was a ‘scream from the rooftops’ type of person. She knew she had behaved really badly — (because of her condition) she was out of control. She couldn’t get out of bed for two-to-three months at a time, then there was all the excessive spending, the demands for grandeur, the promiscuity. She wanted to apologize, to explain, to destigmatize the condition.
“But she became a spokesperson before she was ready to be — she was giving speeches and testifying before Congress, but she still had miles of work to do to be credible to me. She would still have freak-outs, she would break stuff, crash the car in the driveway, throw things out the window for no reason … It felt to me like she was presenting herself to the public as a whole, stable person, but that wasn’t the reality I saw. So I had a difficult time with that, because she wasn’t healed. Her blow-ups caused a lot of people a lot of pain.
“Nevertheless, my mother was so bold because she regretted her behavior, and this is the way she dealt with it. We should all be the heroes of our own stories. We shouldn’t make ourselves the villains in someone else’s story. She had this condition, she announced it, and because of that I’ve had thousands of people come up to me and say, ‘Your mother saved my life.’ People came out of the woodwork in this past week, in every way you can imagine — cell phone, email, regular mail, personal contact, Instagram, texts, cards, flowers, everything …
“I don’t think that kind of public proclamation, what my mother did, is required for everyone in dealing with their own wellness. But living with the condition in secrecy is painful. Privacy can be very important. It should be the individual’s right to disclose whether they have an illness. It’s an OK secret, but I hate the idea that people should be burdened by this. With bi-polar disorder, there are different degrees of severity. I think that my mother’s was pretty extreme, but nowhere near as many of the people I’ve met…
“Let me say something at this point about the language of mental health. The vocabulary is designed by and for the medical community — the doctors, the psychiatrists, the pharmaceutical companies. That language can be discouraging for patients and victims — it seems to tell you you’re not going to get better. But we’ve got to remember — we’re the arbiters of our own destiny. The psychiatrists work for us. They’re a helpful ally in our journey, yes, but we should be in charge. They’re human beings, too, and they make mistakes. So we, or you, have to be partners in your own health. You’ve got to be the CEO of your own body, your own mind…
“Let’s talk about politics just for a minute. Take what (Republican presidential candidate) John Kasich said last week: “What has surprised me the most about this presidential campaign is how many lonely people there are out there. How many people there are who just want someone to make them feel special.” That was absolutely awesome!
“People are a mess. Most of the time they’re scared, or they’re suffering, and it’s just sloppy … We have to be patient with other people while they’re getting help. My mom had lots of suicide attempts; a lot of that time we were little kids. I heard the talk about how such attempts are ‘cries for help.’ That doesn’t get the job done for me. It’s pain that’s expressing itself. It’s hard in this life to determine whose pain deserves to be focused on first. I mean, does a child’s life deserve to be involved in your pain? During one of my mom’s episodes, my little brother was freaking out, but I was just like ‘Nope! Nope!’ I had an absolute sense of certainty that I would not allow myself to be manipulated in that way.
“If you’re religious or spiritual, God can maybe play a wonderful part in how you’re trying to cope, but there can also be a misapplication of that. Maybe if some religious figures didn’t try to ‘show us the Truth’ by speaking in such a hard way and just be more open to listening to you, they could be more helpful.
“So, if you think a person is having problems, how do you help? Here is what I would say: 1) Protect yourself in all ways, physically, emotionally, mentally, before you go to other people, like the medical experts; 2) Realize you might fail — no matter how hard you try, that person still may commit suicide. There are certain times when people are beyond your reach. You’ve got to have humility — you can’t be driven by obsession with ‘getting results’; 3) Approach the person with sensitivity but also strength. The thing I hated about living with my mom was ‘walking on eggshells.’ There was nothing you could seem to do right. You were on tiptoes — she might freak out. You have to find the right words. If you behave with a noble purpose, the words will come. It doesn’t mean being what we call ‘strong.’ It’s hard to navigate between humility and certainty (about what should be done). Just being aware of that divide can be enough; 4) There may be others who can help you. Be patient. If you move too fast and you get it wrong, it can be catastrophic; 5) Don’t regret the situation you find yourself in; and 6) There no rules for what you should do. There may be ‘best practices’ — that’s all you can hope for. You’re in the ‘Wild West.’ That may not be a great comfort, but just knowing it may be because you can arm yourself against the results of what you’re doing if they don’t turn out right.
“What I’ll remember most about my mom was that she was always a good person, a decent person. She always loved us. I don’t know anyone who didn’t forgive her. Forgiveness is the most empowering thing you can do because it just sucks away the power that anybody else may have over you.
“Do we worry that her condition could be passed down to us genetically? Do we worry? We’re aware of it. It’s always something we think about. We discuss it as a family (Astin is married and has three children). It’s a consideration. We’re processing it.
“Is there any way you can be proactive, to fend off a possible recurrence of the condition in the family? Not really, but I’d say three things may help — nutrition, hygiene, fitness. For instance, I’m a runner. Above all, if you’re confronted with this terrible condition, try to be creative. That requires imagination and it’s exhausting, but you should try. It’s liberating when you think like that. Come up with tactics. You might fail, but be as creative as you can.”
The Ballenger Lecture Series, named for benefactor William S. Ballenger, Sr., was chaired this past academic year by Michelle Montpas, a professor of nursing at Mott CC. The series began in 1955 and is one of the longest-running, most prestigious such academic forums in Michigan. Speakers have included scientists Wernher von Braun and Jared Diamond, journalists Alistaire Cooke and Peter Jennings, government leaders like former British Prime Minister Sir Harold Wilson and Polish President Lech Walesa, talk show host Geraldo Rivera, writers Alex Haley and William F. Buckley, Jr., musicians Harry Belafonte and Patti Smith, film director Spike Lee, actor Tony Shaloub, and entrepreneur Daymond John.