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{Guest Post} Vivien Leigh: How Her Struggle with Bipolar Disorder Helped Me Navigate My Own

Posted in - guest post, vivien leigh on October 9th 2011 11 Comments

31 days of Vivien Leigh and Laurence OlivierI have a bunch of magazine and newspaper articles left over from my dissertation research, so I’ve decided to do “31 Days of the Oliviers.” Each day I will post a new article or blog post, ending with Vivien Leigh’s birthday on November 5. These articles (most of which have Vivien as the main subject) span the years 1937-1967 and come from both American and British sources. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I do!

{Day 3} Today’s post was submitted by Vivien Brunning, a fan who shares the personal story of how reading about Vivien Leigh has helped her in her own battle with Bipolar Disorder. Thanks so much, Vivien, for the insightful and heartfelt post.

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By many accounts, Vivien Leigh had it all – she was a true renaissance woman. The public and Laurence Olivier adored her, she won two Academy Awards, had impeccable taste and several devoted, lifelong friends. She also suffered from a torment that took its toll, one that eventually she could not hide. In addition to suffering from tuberculosis, Vivien was Manic Depressive or as the disease is known today, Bipolar. Her plight may have been devastating and severe, but in a very profound way she also helped me successfully navigate my own journey through the lands of Bipolar Disorder.

By the time I was 20 years old I knew I was suffering from a mood disorder. I didn’t know it had a name but I knew I was in trouble. While I was investigating the origins of my first name, some miracle of fate brought a biography of Vivien Leigh into my hands. I read it. Then, I read another. And then another. By the time I had devoured all three I was dead certain I was just like her. I was cycling with highs and lows, and exhibiting a lot of the same behaviors and traits that Vivien had; little sleep needed, trouble with balance (Vivien could never ride a bicycle, I’m not much better), almost super-human productive periods followed by a ‘crash.’ Stressful events would set off manic periods for me, and were always followed by periods of long and crippling depressions, as they were for Vivien. For her, the news of Olivier’s impending knighthood set off a manic attack, with a deep and long depression following. At the time I was reading about her life, I was coming down from a high of my own, set off by receiving the extraordinary news I’d been accepted into every college to which I applied. I was spiraling down for no good reason and knew it, but thankfully, right in front of me were several accounts of someone who did the same. This thing had a name and I wasn’t alone. I also realized that left to my own devices, Vivien’s story would become my personal roadmap.

There are two main types of Bipolar Disorder. Bipolar I, which Vivien suffered from, is more severe and distinguished from the other forms of BD by the presence of psychotic features (hallucinations, hearing voices, paranoia, etc.). Bipolar II is the milder form wherein depressions are still experienced, but full blown mania does not occur. A condition called hypomania (below mania) is present. Hypomanic people do not suffer from any psychosis and often find they are most productive during bouts. All too often, however, hypomania carries with it the same risky behavior that mania does, such as overspending and lashing out. Although uncomfortable to read about, Vivien certainly and unfortunately suffered through her share of risky behavior and even at times, psychosis. She was known as being a lovely and very generous person, but exhibited odd and uncharacteristic behavior when manic. Although she didn’t remember much about the events which transpired while she was experiencing mania, Vivien always insisted on apologizing afterward for any transgressions she may have committed. This is a facet of the illness I am unfortunately also familiar with.

Another reason Vivien’s story convinced me to seek help when I was only 20 was the severity of her decline. One of the most distressing things about Bipolar Disorder is that it gets worse without treatment or careful supervision at onset, and without continued maintenance throughout one’s life. Although her treatment began relatively late in the course of her illness and ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) was given to Vivien, its administration was still rather crude in her times. Actually, most treatment of Bipolar was still in its infancy. Even medication for the condition was something of a novelty. An Australian psychiatrist named John Cade began treating patients with mania using lithium in 1948, but it was many years until it came into wide-spread use. Had Vivien been born 20 or even 10 years later, she would have most likely found more relief from her Manic Depression. But, then there’s the possibility she would never have played Scarlett O’Hara or Blanche DuBoise, and may never have had a relationship with Larry.

After reading about Vivien’s plight, I was prompted to see a physician and was diagnosed with Bipolar II. I am currently on an effective course of treatment, living a happy and productive life, and can’t stress enough that I would not be in this position were it not for learning about Vivien’s story. It may sound trite, but when I am hitting a rough patch in my own battle with Bipolar, I pull out one of my Vivien Leigh biographies. She is the epitome of discipline, professionalism and grace, whether or not she suffered from Manic Depression. Surely, if Vivien could accomplish the many things she did while battling a full-blown episode, like performing in various plays, winning Oscars and even a Tony, there is much strength to be gained from such a fine example.

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Vivien Brunning is an IT Architect, Viv and Larry fan and author who loves to hear from her readers.  You can reach her at manicmuses {at} gmail {dot } com.

As of now (11) people have had something to say...

  • Rita - Reply

    October 9, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    I’ve always loved biographies as a way to achieve a better understanding not only of the famous people involved but of human nature and life in general. This touching and honest post proves that it can do much more than this, it can ispire and even save your life.

    • Vivien Brunning - Reply

      October 10, 2011 at 8:24 am

      Thanks for the kind words, Rita. You’re right – isn’t it amazing the places one can find inspiration and insight? I’m so glad you enjoyed the post! Take care – V

  • Shawna - Reply

    October 9, 2011 at 3:32 pm

    Brilliant article! My story is very similar to yours and viv is an inspiration to me daily. Thanks for sharing and being an inspiration as well! If you ever need anyone to talk to feel free to email me. -shawna :-)

    • Vivien Brunning - Reply

      October 10, 2011 at 8:40 am

      Hi, Shawna. It’s great to know that Vivien has inspired both of us. I hope you’re doing well. And the same goes for you – if you’d like to chat just drop me a line! V

  • Daniel B - Reply

    October 10, 2011 at 4:26 am

    I recently saw Gone With the Wind for the first time since I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder myself, and I was so impressed by Vivien Leigh’s performance. I don’t know if it was an illusion, but I thought I could see some of the touches of bipolar disorder in her character.

    It must have been extremely difficult for past generations to go through bipolar disorder without any medications at all. I also have bipolar-I, and without treatment, I know I’d be in a spiral of manias that get worse and worse. It’s really sad to think of people like Vivien Leigh who had to go through it without that sort of support.

    • Vivien Brunning - Reply

      October 11, 2011 at 1:17 pm

      It’s very interesting you say you could see some shades of Vivien’s BP in her GWTW performance. Which scenes? I always thought the corset lacing scene with Mammy was where I could see just a touch of mania when she defiantly said, “No, I’m not!”

      I hope you’re doing well, Daniel. If you ever want to chat please drop me a line.

  • Minnie - Reply

    October 10, 2011 at 8:06 pm

    That’s wonderfully explained, makes you think that you have heard that previously.

  • Rebecca - Reply

    October 12, 2011 at 8:57 am

    Thank you for sharing, Vivien. How special it must be to even share the same name with the inimitable Vivien Leigh!
    I relate to your story, as I am bipolar as well. I have not been as high functioning as some others, and it has robbed me of many things, partially because I was not properly diagnosed. I went to many psychiatrists and psychologists but they didn’t make my condition very clear to me. I was hospitalized three times; there I was diagnosed but a few years later I began to think I was “better”, and was busy dealing with many physical issues so therefore distracted. I am closer to Vivien’s age at her death than her age in her prime. (Although 50s is still prime in high functioning people!) I too was a performer (soprano, pianist, actress, musical director, and rock musician/songwriter) and experienced many highs and lows in that life, but also destroyed my marriage and things that were dear to me. My life came crashing down.
    Close relationships are extremely difficult with this condition. To this day my husband and I who are are kind of “worlds apart”, stay in touch (even though we had no children), much like Vivien did with her spouse(s). He married and adopted children. Even though I drove him away with my BD, and I have a boyfriend, it was devastating to me in every way, including financially. And, like Viv with Larry, I will never completely get over my marriage’s ending.

    Thanks again for your transparency about your own BD, and I also must commend you for how informative and well written your blog is.
    God bless!
    ~Rebecca

  • Rebecca - Reply

    October 12, 2011 at 8:59 am

    PS – I would like to write you, if that is okay. :) I don’t have that many friends who are bipolar.

    • Vivien Brunning - Reply

      October 12, 2011 at 9:22 am

      HI, Rebecca:

      Of course you can write to me – I’d love to hear from you :) I don’t have a lot of BP friends either. Drop me a line when you get a chance manicmuses {at} gmail {dot} com.

  • Heather Leigh - Reply

    October 25, 2015 at 4:37 am

    Indeed. Wonderfully written, thank you. I myself, have been a fan since I was 12 after my mother introduced my middle namesake to me. My own daughter is named Vivien. I was diagnosed with bpd1 two years ago. I almost feel like it was divine intervention that my mother loved our Vivien so, which in turn made me love her and scour her biographies growing up- only to prepare me later for having the same disease. I am a theatre teacher and have been acting since I was 13 years old. Vivien Leigh is the most beautiful woman still today and I devour her onscreen performances always. Thank you for writing this, another dear Vivien. Xo

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