Eric Millegan on Living (and Acting) with Bipolar Disorder: Part 2

If you know people who are suicidal, or if you know people who are bipolar, depressed, have panic attack disorder, just be there for them. They're going through something that's very, very hard.
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(For Part 1 of this story, click here.)

Going on medication to treat mental illness is yet another painful aspect of the disease. First admitting that there is a problem, but then coming to grips with the fact that one's brain cannot function without pharmaceutical intervention is especially difficult. Those already suffering from a mental illness are forced to accept that the very organ controlling every part of their body and mind is not working correctly, is "defective," and can only be helped with drugs. As if to think, "I'm not just mentally screwed up, I'm also organically, naturally screwed up. There was no escaping this." It is admitting defeat.

Hart Hanson on getting Eric Millegan to trust medications: "I just kept telling him that the drugs gave him a fighting chance at starting from the same place everyone else started. And it wasn't something extra, it was that he lacked something that needed to be replaced with these medications. And he was good about that. Every once in a while, he'd think that there was a slight conspiracy to make him take his drugs, between me and his manager and his doctor. But he got by that pretty quickly. And the odd thing was that, of course, we were conspiring against him to get him to take his drugs. [Laughs]"

Again, Eric in his own words:

On medication:

Over a two-year period, we fiddled with the amounts of medication and certain kinds of medication that would make everything fall into place for me. And it did, and we have, and I feel great now. And it's been a year or two years or so since I've really had any problems at all.

Right from the get-go, I was all worried, "Am I going to lose my creativity? What am I going to lose if I go on this medication?" Well it was all very slow. The very first thing we tried was Lamictal. A therapeutic dose is considered around 100 to 200 mg. We started at 25 mg. I was still getting worse and worse, not because of the medication, but the medication was "chasing it," if you know what I mean. It was like if I wasn't on medication, it was [still] going to get worse and worse and worse. So we upped it to 50, and we upped it to 100, and we upped it to 150. Ultimately, at about 150, I finally had a day that wasn't bad. And we eventually went up to 550.

And then we went on a different medication called Zyprexa, which has two things it does that I've had to come to terms with and deal with. One thing is it makes people gain weight. It really, really increases your appetite. And I heard all sorts of stories about people saying they took it and gained 60 pounds, and I was like, "No! I can't have that!" But it made my mania go away and I gained a little weight, but I was like, "I'd rather gain a little weight and be happy." The other thing is that it really does knock you out. On this medication, I tend to want to sleep between 12 to 13 hours a day, and that's very hard if you have auditions and work to do.

Then I went on Lexapro. Zyprexa kind of slowed down my manias, stopped my manias altogether. But I would still occasionally have some depression. So I went on 5 mg of Lexapro. And there were some side effects I wasn't very cool with. And I had to cut the teeny little tablets in half, to make it 2.5 mg - perfect. It had no side effects, and no depression.

On the worst of it:

I used to be a mess, I was really mentally ill, going through these horrible emotional episodes. I used to wonder before this befell me, Why do people get depressed, or why does anyone want to kill themselves? You realize when you have a mental illness like this, you don't want to kill yourself for any specific reason. You want to kill yourself because your brain is actually programmed to want to kill itself. When you live this illness, you end up just being wired to want to kill yourself. And it's very painful.

As a supporter, Hanson felt "in over [his] head" and sought advice from professionals on how to help. "[Eric] was in big, big trouble, and it was very easy for me to imagine standing over a grave, and having not done the right thing. So I got a lot of very good advice on what to do with it. But I've raised two boys, and as I've said, I had a bipolar girlfriend for a year [whom] I lived with, and my pal [from college], and I've lived a life. I'm an old guy, I'm a middle-aged man, but I was way over my head. This was big, serious business, someone in real distress and real trouble. So I couldn't just say, 'Oh, common sense is the way to deal with this.' It's not common sense, it's a whole different thing."

On going public:

I was hoping that I could say stuff about mental illness that maybe people didn't know. You know, speak up for bipolar disorder and let people know a little bit more about it that they may not have known. And hopefully give inspiration, or consolation, or comfort to other people who are bipolar. To hear someone else say, "Yes, I'm bipolar too." To come out, like coming out as a gay man, letting other young gay men know like "Look, there's this guy on a TV show and he's gay." Just to let people know, too, that you can be bipolar, you can be going through can get through it.

Bipolar disorder is a scary disease, but it is manageable. And I feel blessed that I was able to get the right attention and the right medication to deal with my specific illness. And if you have it, just take your medicine, get to people who are supportive of you, and know that you can get through it. You can do it. And if you're not bipolar, and you're just wondering what it is, just know that it's very real, it's very painful, and it's not who the people are. Once you get the right combination of medicine, you can find out and be who you really are and not this illness that is making you go nuts.

If you know people who are suicidal, or if you know people who are bipolar, depressed, have panic attack disorder, just be there for them. They're going through something that's very, very hard. And even if you don't understand it, understand that it's hard for them. If you have a friend or a family member who's bipolar, or has panic attack disorder, or is depressed, read up on it a little bit so you can get to know where they're coming from. I, luckily, had someone like that in my life who called the bipolar hotline, went on the Internet and looked up bipolar disorder, and was very supportive and understanding, and that man was Hart Hanson. He was very understanding and well read on everything that was going on with me.

Hanson on Millegan's fight:

I think that one of the things that's toughest is that if you're suffering from something, you have to become suspicious of your feelings. All of a sudden, you can't trust your feelings. And you have to have your brain or your intellect go "Wait a minute, what I'm feeling is not correct." Eric went between great happiness and great sadness. Despair and euphoria. And he is rapid-cycling, so that would happen several times a day. It would kill a regular human being. And I could see it happening in moments. And Eric has never been good at not trusting his gut.

Things are so much better now, and he's just so strong now. He's just such a strong human being for having gone through hell. Hell he went through. I mean, I get breathless thinking back on it.

Hanson on being a support system:

I would say, "Watch out - you're not a white knight." You can't save anyone. You cannot save anyone. I say that because I think people have a romantic idea of going in and being the savior for someone who is mentally ill. And you can't do it. You cannot do it. It's a big, big deal. Also, you have to acquaint yourself. You have to make yourself knowledgeable in what they are going through so that you know how to respond to them. Because 90% of the time you want to say, "Oh, stop it." If Eric was crying, I would say, "Everything is all right." Well, it's not. It is on the outside, but it's not. You have to find out how to deal with that. And then, you know, hang on. It's a rough road. It's a tough go. I would say on the plus side, Eric and I were strangers when we met. And all of a sudden, we were in a war together, a quiet war. So you get to know someone. And luckily for me, Eric is someone worth knowing. There's a mighty soul in there. It was kind of a privilege to be standing there with him when he was going through all of this, to get to know someone like that. To see them in their worst and their best and all that, and that doesn't come along every day.

For more information on bipolar disorder and mental illness, visit the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance.

To watch Eric Millegan talk further about his story (and other things, including basketball), visit his YouTube channel.

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