“I know the devastating combination of having a ‘major’ psychiatric disorder while being young and female.”
On June 23, singer Britney Spears testified to the nightmare she’s been living since 2008, the year her father, Jamie, was appointed her conservator. Even the “Free Britney” movement couldn’t have imagined the details of her testimony: forced to take a drug that made her feel “drunk”; touring against her will; unable to remove the IUD placed in her body.
Conservatorships are designed to protect those who cannot in any way manage their own affairs, often because of conditions like dementia. They are legal last resorts. Spears, in her 13 years as a conservatee, has created hit albums, done a wildly successful Las Vegas residency and cared for two sons. She even made the canny decision that her court hearing be open, unlike previous hearings where, she testified, she wasn’t “heard on any level.”
I share Spears’ reported diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and I know the devastating combination of having a “major” psychiatric disorder while being young and female.
At 15, I was given rounds of electroconvulsive therapy, or shock treatment. It is the most obliterating and most physically traumatic thing that’s ever happened to me, a procedure that (deliberately) sent my body into grand mal seizures that left my muscles aching as if I’d been beaten.
I recall conducting gel on my temples, the cold paste smeared on like butter on toast. Then a nurse put a bit my mouth, to protect me from biting through my tongue.
I recall this experience in hard, terrifying fragments. One of the side effects of shock is memory loss, especially of the time around treatment. I lost months.
At the time I had it, shock treatment was given about 70% of the time to women and young girls. Medical literature openly discussed the need to protect the male brain. And women were often regarded as untrustworthy, emotional, in need of correction.
Clinicians are more likely to diagnose women with mental disorders than they are men, even with similar symptoms, as Psychology Today notes. Women, according to the World Health Organization, are more likely to be prescribed psychotropic medications, which can make it difficult or impossible to work, parent, be social, or even move. Plenty of people who are prescribed certain medications end up in poverty or returning to a family home. Women with a diagnosis are also more likely to be hospitalized.
Any parent with a psychiatric diagnosis is at risk of losing custody of their children. Given that women are more likely to be diagnosed and to be custodial parents, you can connect the dots on this one.
Many of the photos of Britney that made front pages years ago showed her with a shaved head, attacking a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella. Male celebs from Justin Bieber to Lamar Odom to Alec Baldwin have attacked the paparazzi, with weapons ranging from metal jacks to their hands. What drew headlines was Spears’ look of fury, along with her choice to raze her signature blonde hair.
She’d gone from the Princess of Pop to Charlize Theron in “Fury Road,” not an acceptable change for a girl who’d once giggled shyly while affirming that yes, she was a virgin.
As an adult in my 20s, around the age Britney was when she was put into conservatorship, I had mood swings. I had psychotic experiences and wanted control. I did not want medication to rewire me. But it was difficult, or impossible, for me to be “heard.” The word “bipolar” was often the beginning and the end of what doctors wanted or felt they needed to know.
I learned that, as much as he cared, I couldn’t allow my husband to be in the room with me when I saw doctors. They would speak only to him, passing their eyes over me as if I didn’t exist.
One psychiatrist I saw kept prescribing a drug called Haldol, a tranquilizer that for me was unbearably sedating ― “gorking,” in the words of a refreshingly honest doctor I saw later. Haldol gave me tremors and gait problems. It suddenly felt strange and awkward just to walk.
When I told this doctor the drug made me feel terrible and didn’t help, he said: “I can tell you what I’ll give you. I’ll give you more Haldol.” Then he suggested that if I didn’t take it, I might commit suicide, as if mental fog or death were my only options.
Britney has spoken about her mood swings and anxiety. In her conservatorship testimony, she said that she had in fact been taking medication—what she called her “normal meds.” Lithium, the drug that made her feel “drunk,” wasn’t allowing her to live life the way she wanted to. And when she told her people that, they ignored her.
After Haldol, I went on lithium, which didn’t address my mood swings either. It did, however, have the same effect it had on Spears. I became dizzy and had to quit exercising, though I’d been doing regular aerobics classes.
And I gained weight. Weight gain and obesity are side effects of many psychiatric drugs, and controlling that wasn’t a matter of watching what I ate. Gaining weight, like diabetes and higher cholesterol, is called a “metabolic” side effect for a reason. My metabolism changed. I gained weight eating what had previously been normal. And my appetite grew: I remember feeling as if I’d swallowed tapeworms, as if something inside me was ferociously hungry.
I have a Britney Spears memory from a time after lithium. At this point I was taking a drug called Depakote, another one that can have severe metabolic side effects. I gained weight again, 30 pounds or more. I was somewhere poolside with my husband. As I was about to jump in the water, a young man nearby hissed, “Do you know how much bigger your thighs are than Britney’s?”
Yes, it was that Britney he meant. And yes, I did know. How bitterly ironic, I thought, reading Spears’ testimony, the forced touring. What’s the one thing that might get Britney a different drug besides lithium? It wouldn’t be her feeling terrible; it would be her developing bigger thighs.
Though I’m older now, I still don’t consider my female bipolar body safe. Research indicates that doctors and psychiatrists share the same psychiatric stigma as the general population, if not more. My bipolar body makes it far less likely that doctors will believe my reports of my own symptoms of illness, a problem called “diagnostic overshadowing.”
This is just a fancy way of saying that once doctors know a patient has a psychiatric disorder, they often don’t trust the patient. I’ve faced this too, including being ambulanced to the hospital last year after a collapse I still don’t know the cause of. Part of the reason I don’t know may be that shortly after I arrived at the ER, the doctor tested me for a few seconds and said I could move if I wanted to.
There was a moment in Spears’ testimony that broke my heart. It happened when she was describing how hard and invasive the conservatorship has been. “It’s insane,” she said.
I realize she used that term, “insane,” in the general, “isn’t this awful” way we employ it in our culture. But how sad that she’d describe her abusive treatment by using a word once hurled at her, a word that helped put her into that conservatorship in the first place.
Maybe it’s time to stop. Maybe we should acknowledge that what we describe as “insanity” isn’t a synonym for the worst thing possible. And that a diagnosis like bipolar can belong to someone with a rich, complete and self-directed life.
I believe in the strength of neurodiversity. The world needs a plenitude of minds and a healthy skepticism about “normative” behavior. Research psychiatrists like Nancy Andreasen have done long-term studies of creative people, and plenty of creatives are bipolar. Maybe if Britney is bipolar, it’s part of the creativity, the whole self, that has enabled her to make those albums and those shows. I don’t believe I’m broken, and I would not choose to have a different kind of mind.
Whatever Spears’ experiences, I hope she gets the control over her life she deserves, and a chance to manage her own care ― to manage her life and her mind in the ways that work for her.
Susanne Paola Antonetta’s newest book is “The Terrible Unlikelihood of Our Being Here.”
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