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Jane Pauley shares her story

Jane says she decided if only one good thing came out of her experience, it would be the opportunity to raise awareness about bipolar disorder. You can read an excerpt of her new book, "Skywriting: A Life Out of the Blue."

In a new autobiography, Jane Pauley reveals that several years ago she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It's a revelation that surprised her fans and colleagues alike. Most at NBC didn't know about her illness or that during a leave from the network, she'd been admitted to a psychiatric clinic. Jane says she decided if only one good thing came out of her experience, it would be the opportunity to raise awareness about bipolar disorder. You can read an excerpt of her new book, "Skywriting: A Life Out of the Blue," below.

Part  I
May 2001

The room was nice. Large and sunny. Inviting, almost. The layout was defined by three rectangles. One was an entry large enough to be a vestibule, which lent the space an aura of privacy. It opened into the principal area, but there was a little niche off to the side—so instead of a room with four walls, there were eight, and instead of four corners, there were six, plus the private bath. It gave the room a cozy complexity.

But the showstoppers were the two large windows facing east and two more facing south, which framed the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge a quarter of a mile or so away—the one immortalized by Simon and Garfunkel. It spanned the East River ten floors below.

New York City would never have a lazy river, would it? This one flows energetically to the south and then turns right around and flows to the north. . . . All day long it goes back and forth, back and forth, with the big Atlantic Ocean tides. Fast, but still not too fast for the ferries, which roar back and forth, insensible to the havoc left in their jumbo wake. Only the little tugboats go slowly— nudging enormous tankers through a narrow strip of commerce that never gets snarled like the three lanes of traffic heading south on the FDR Drive. It’s just the opposite of the song: The lanes heading north are on a lower level, so in effect the Bronx is down and the Battery’s up. I’m smack in midtown, the busiest place on earth—rush hour is every hour of the day, and sometimes the night.

And, of course, the sun moves around a lot, too, rising over Randalls Island with my breakfast, then climbing higher and higher. For lunch, it turns toward the Chrysler Building, and then
down and out of sight. Every day. But I’m not going anywhere.

This was my home for three weeks in the spring of 2001.

My tides were fluctuating, too—back and forth, back and forth—sometimes so fast they seemed to be spinning. They call this “rapid cycling.” It’s a marvel that a person can appear to be standing still when the mood tides are sloshing back and forth, sometimes sweeping in both directions at once. They call that a “mixed state.” It felt like a miniature motocross race going on in my head. It made a little hum, and my eyes sort of burned and felt a little too large for their sockets.

But it was a lovely room. When I checked in, late in May, I was lucky to get it. Evidently there were no other VIPs in residence at that time—not at this address, at least. I was allowed to bypass the usual chaos at admitting, a nod to my potential to be recognized, and though technically I was a patient at Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic, I was installed in a room on a general floor, another nod to my singularity. I never saw it, but I heard that the other floor had locked doors, that psychiatric patients were supposed to wear hospital gowns rather than the fancy pajamas I was given liberty to wear.

The special attention and fine accommodations had not been at my request, nor was I here because I wanted to show off my nice pj’s. I was here because they said I ought to be—I accepted that much—and had come, under my own steam, for a few days.

I became accustomed to mealtime trays with plastic utensils and no knives, to leaving the bathroom door open at least a crack, to sleeping with a lady in white sitting six feet away in the darkness, keeping an eye on me. No hands under the covers, she said on my first night away from home, which made me cry—acutely aware of where I was and why. I cried a little harder.

In time, my lovely, sunny room, with African violets thriving under my personal care in the morning light, came to feel like home. And I had to wear pajamas only at night—sweats and
T-shirts seemed perfectly appropriate for casual entertaining in my room with a view.

March 1999

Hives: I used to call them the seven-year itch, because they had first appeared when I was seven, then again at fourteen and, briefly, again when I was twenty-one. That last time, just before I finished college, everyone had a case of nerves: My roommates were either hyperventilating, suffering migraines, or getting married. When I was twenty-eight—at the next seven-year interval—the hives were silent and, I thought, gone for good.

Out of the blue, in March 1999, while I was on vacation with my family and six months shy of my forty-ninth birthday, my unwelcome friends came back for the first time in my adult life
and settled. I didn’t see them every day, but often enough that any day they could show up for no reason. These were not red, patchy, itchy everyday hives; mine involved soft-tissue swelling in odd places such as the pads of my fingers and feet or the pressure point from a bracelet, but most typically on an upper eyelid or my lips—places most incompatible with a career on camera.

That would be the least of it.

Chronic recurrent idiopathic urticaria edema is the full name—a diagnosis more worthy of all the attention. After I first spoke publicly about it, scores of people wrote to me, thinking—mistakenly—that, being a TV personality, Jane Pauley would have been given the cure. I had not. But for me, as it turned out, the treatment was far worse than the disease.

April 2000

“We have to smack them down!” my doctor had said after my first trip to the ER. Steroids were the weapons of choice—the antiinflammatory kind, not the bodybuilding kind, but it felt like a
heavy dose of testosterone nonetheless. It was not a decision made lightly; these are powerful drugs that have to be taken in slowly increasing increments over a period of weeks. Tapering off is done in similar increments. The steroids had the desired effect—the hives subsided—but as a side effect of the drugs, I was revved!

I was so energized that I didn’t just walk down the hall, I felt like I was motoring down the hall. I was suddenly the equal of my high-energy friends who move fast and talk fast and loud. I
told everyone that I could understand why men felt like they could run the world, because I felt like that. This was a new me, and I liked her!

Earlier that spring, I had had a modest idea for a voter registration drive at New York City’s High School for Leadership and Public Service, where I was “principal for a day.” The faculty, staff, and kids ran with the idea—fifty-two students were added to the voter rolls at lunchtime in the cafeteria. It was very moving.

Later, I was back at the same high school, with a bigger idea. After weeks of steroids, I had a more ambitious agenda—a ramped-up voter registration drive. It would be like the first one,
but instead of confining the drive to the cafeteria, I said, “Let’s do it citywide!” Two thousand New York City school kids were registered before school was out.

May–June 2000

It was nearly midnight, and I could see the flashing lights approaching our apartment building from two blocks away—a fire truck and an ambulance. I was both relieved and embarrassed.
My throat was swelling up. My doctor had suggested I call 911 instead of looking for a taxi to the hospital. I had called 911, but I didn’t anticipate a convoy.

Before long, the doorbell rang and I went to answer it, finding two paramedics—a Hispanic woman and a black man, both middle-aged and experienced-looking—standing at the door
with two very big bags, ready to save a life.

“Where’s the patient?” they asked.

“It’s me,” I said sheepishly. Any kind of swelling that involves air passageways, I’ve learned, is taken pretty seriously by doctors. It has the potential to be life-threatening. But at that moment, with the flashing lights and the vehicles double-parked outside, somehow “potential” didn’t justify the response.

One paramedic went straight to the paperwork. The other tied off my upper arm and took a vial of blood. She apologized as she inserted a plastic tube in a vein. At first it burned, and a
stinging sensation raced all the way up my arm and flooded my throat with a sudden heat. Warmth filled my belly, and I felt safe in the competent hands of this experienced team. But on the ride in the ambulance I was aware that most people strapped in that gurney aren’t feeling as comfy-cozy as I was. When we arrived at the hospital, I saw three uniformed paramedics rush to the door, and all I could think was how preposterous it was: “Make way! Make way! HIVES!”

• • •

The steroids worked, until I stopped taking them. So I started a second round, and by June they were smacking me down! Instead of feeling powerful, I was just irritable. Instead of motoring me down the hall, my engine was just revving. I was going nowhere. It was hard to work, and I was exhausted. Dateline executive producer Neal Shapiro gave me two weeks to chill out and relax. I told a colleague that when I came back I wouldn’t be talking so loud. I barely worked during the summer of 2000.

The hives came and went, but that was incidental to the depression I could feel gathering around me. At the end of the summer, I was sent to a psychopharmacologist. He prescribed a
low-dose antidepressant and promised that I’d feel better “in weeks.” When I didn’t, he said, “Well, certainly by Thanksgiving.” After that, he stopped making promises. I sank lower and lower. I knew the difference between an afternoon nap and three hours in bed, two hours of which weren’t even spent sleeping, but just sinking into a state of captivity.

January 2001

The doctor was frustrated and surprised that I hadn’t responded to the antidepressant. I was only getting worse, even with a different dosage. He recommended that I transition slowly to a
promising new medication. The buzz on Wall Street was sending the company’s stock through the roof. But after years of being the patient who defied every doctor’s predictions, I didn’t get my hopes up.

• • •

On the fifty-second floor at NBC, there are executive suites and large conference rooms with sweeping views of New York that offer startling confirmation that Manhattan really is an island, a magnificent partnership between sky and skyline. And you feel on top of it. It’s a heady sensation—but by January 2001, I was feeling something new.

It was a party for people who had twenty-five years with the company—and, incredibly, I was one of them. I arrived with my usual resistance, shyness, inertia—but as I almost always do, I
was soon thinking, I’m having a nice time! Making small talk didn’t seem such an effort. And chatting with Andy Lack, then president of NBC News, I felt unusually “on.” Finally, falling into an animated conversation with a New York Times reporter, I talked about my plans for writing a book, and she promised to send me a copy of her new novel, Glory. But I had a disquieting feeling that I had been a little carried away with myself.

I’m very conservative about medicine—I don’t even take aspirin casually. So when the doctor said to take it slow—gradually reduce the dose of the first medication while adding small increments of the new one—I went extra slow. After three weeks, I hadn’t exceeded 5 mg of the new prescription, but I could feel a big change. I had energy, for one thing, and ideas—many ideas. A show. A book. A magazine.

February 2001

My husband, Garry, was becoming concerned. When I started talking about my own line of clothing, his concern upgraded to alarm. The better I felt, it seemed to me, the worse he felt about it. I accused him of being happier when I was depressed. Everyone else seemed delighted. My agent, Wayne Kabak, had never seen me more energized and engaged. While full-throttle drive and ambition weren’t the norm for me, they were for everyone else on his client list. I’d always been the exception. My calendar for February was filling up with meetings. But March, April, and May were completely, deliciously blank.

Three years before, during my last contract negotiation, I had asked for time instead of money. If anyone at NBC had ever done such a thing, I wasn’t aware of it, but I had the idea that we could take the children to Europe for the whole summer; I had heard there were families who did things like that. Alas, mine wasn’t one of them. The kids were horrified: “She’s not going to make us do that, is she, Dad?” I surrendered. But I still had the time coming to me. I remembered it now, and it seemed just what I needed.

Asking only that I wait until the end of the key ratings period in February, Neal Shapiro generously agreed. He didn’t argue, as he could have, that the time period agreed to in the contract had been summer, not the regular TV season. Neal may have noticed something; Andy Lack did. After the party, he went to Tom Brokaw: “You know Jane so well. Is she okay?” I was starting to wonder myself. It seemed harder and harder to prepare for an interview—I either procrastinated or I wasn’t able to concentrate. I was of two minds about my new persona. On the one hand I was impressed with my new creative energy, but on the other hand I was suspicious that I didn’t have it completely under control. Sometimes I was raring to go; other times, just hanging on. I desperately wanted that sabbatical.

I was entitled to ten weeks but got a bonus. Dateline was preempted the entire week preceding the official start of my sabbatical. I didn’t waste a moment of it, arranging to accompany my sister on a business trip to Boca Raton. While she worked, I relaxed or wrote or read a little. I finished Glory—and liked it a lot. I was also in the market for real estate and roamed around the Internet looking for something nearby for my mother-in-law. I found a cottage she would have adored, but the timing was wrong for her. So I bought it for myself!

Garry could relax, knowing that Ann was keeping an eye on me. She assured him that I was great. He wasn’t very reassured. He said the doctor had asked him how I was sleeping. Funny he would ask, I thought. I had so much energy—even after dinner. I wasn’t at all sleepy, and the night before, I’d been up till midnight. That night at one a.m., after Ann had gone to sleep, I was not only awake but completely alert. Frankly, I did think that was a little odd.

I’d been reading books about management and organizations for a long time, recreationally. On our February trip to Boca Raton, my sister recommended Now, Discover Your Strengths, by Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton, who argue that it’s far more productive to develop a strength than to strengthen a weakness. A provocative idea—assuming I had strengths. I was dubious.

I went online and, with the pass-code that came with the book, registered and answered the questions. Experts call it a “testing instrument”—it’s not apparent to a layperson like me
how the questions produce accurate results. Instantly, I got mine and my first thought was that I didn’t recognize this person they said I was.

My strengths were as strong as a cup of espresso. This was definitely not my self-image: Janie, the delightful little girl. I alone didn’t see the resemblance; Garry, Ann, the kids, friends—everyone else smiled with recognition, and they even had evidence to back it up. How was it possible to present one way and feel the opposite?

The first sign of trouble brewing was that my strengths were finally growing palpable even to me. Back in New York, on the first Monday of my sabbatical, I buzzed into my doctor’s office,
settled into the chair, and rattled off the events of my busy weekend, along with all my plans! I was darn proud that I’d not wasted a minute. At the end of the session, he said, “You’re a little hyper.” And he called Garry and said, “Your wife is very sick.”

He scheduled an urgent visit with the psychopharmacologist, who asked me if I’d made any big decisions or major purchases. Dropping my head and my voice, I said, “Well, I bought a house.” He knew immediately what had happened. He explained that he had prescribed an antidepressant for a common unipolar depression I was evidently suffering from. It had unmasked a never-beforesuspected vulnerability to bipolar depression. Strongly heritable, the disease was unknown in my family, though it might have existed below the radar. (The idea of mania in my family is almost laughable.) But in a person with bipolar disease, an antidepressant, without the addition of a mood-stabilizing medication, can be dangerous. It produces a bungee-cord effect. From the depths of depression, a person can be flung to the heights of mania and, inevitably, to the depths again, and so on, in a wild wave of ups
and downs. That it took five months to provoke the mood swings also known as manic depression was pretty surprising. And four months on steroids before that!

Steroids—they’re another thing you would be cautious in giving to a person at risk of bipolar disease. The months on steroids had produced a milder sequence of highs and lows. In fact, the steroids are what drove me to tears. And what drove me to steroids was hives.

The doctor was frankly not enthusiastic about seeing his patient haplessly turn herself into the poster child for manicdepressive disease and advised me to tell my boss that I would extend my eight-week sabbatical into a medical leave of absence due to a thyroid disorder that needed attention. This had the advantage of being true, if not the entire truth. Instead of taking his advice, I informed him I was already writing a book!

The rush of ideas that had impressed many people and worried Garry was symptomatic of hypomania. This was a new word for me, which I interpreted—incorrectly—to mean “big-time mania.” I knew that manic-depressive disorder was now called bipolar disorder. The little I knew about it came from Sally Field’s portrayal of a psychotic mother in full-blown mania on the TV show ER. I never visited that place, thank God. When I looked up hypomania (hypo meaning “mild,” not big-time), I recognized myself right away.

On new medication, I was told to expect to be back out of the deep woods in a couple of weeks. What a godsend to be able to recuperate in privacy. Working on “the book” at least gave each day some structure and purpose. I could write all morning long, literally. One day I wondered: Why had I thought Skyrocketing was such a good idea for a title? Books and newspapers, even my own writing, were hard to read, a symptom of hypomania, but material came spewing forth unedited.

Feelings came shooting in and out at the speed of bullet trains, along with ideas, followed by phone calls that produced action plans. My mind was racing. Mostly it was good, but I was aware that I was in hyper mode from the moment I woke up at six-thirty and started the day with a bang. When the phone rang at about eight o’clock one morning, it felt like half the day was already done, and I asked my mother-in-law if I could change phones because I was standing in the utility room with a hammer in my hand. Me wandering the house with a hammer in my hand had become almost a metaphor for my home life.

This was not the sabbatical I had planned, filled with meetings reading, and travel. I told Wayne Kabak not to schedule anything, explaining that doctors said I had too many ideas circling, and too close together. He understood, but assured me they were good ideas nonetheless. My afternoons were free and I still had energy to burn and money to spend. I was seen around town, generally alone, and often in department stores.

One day, when I was prowling a room filled with marked down home furnishings, a young clerk asked me if I liked red and showed me three different red pillows. On sale. I picked up the
smallest one and, feeling rather proud of how knowing and womanly I sounded, said, “A little red goes a long way.”

I went back to the gym for the first time in months—to get my nails done. I’ve never been much of a manicure lady, not since I was told in an interview on Today twenty years ago how much time and money I’d be saving if I skipped weekly manicures.

On my way to my locker, NBC correspondent Betty Rollin happened by, wearing nothing but a towel and looking darn cute in it. I probably violated some code of the locker room when I said, “Hi, Betty. I’ve never seen you seminude before!” By then, I was wearing ten sparkling fingernails and ten sparkling toenails and shuffling noisily in a pair of paper-bag shoes. Otherwise, I was still fully clothed and in the company of a locker-room attendant, who had insightfully taken on the tone of a hospital orderly as she guided me to my locker. I did remember where it was, but after so many months, I had no hope of remembering my locker combination. When I got it open and saw my makeup bag, the shower bag, and the mesh bag with my clean shorts and shirt and socks just back from the laundry (four seasons ago), and my shoes and other odd stuff, I felt like I’d come by to clean out the earthly goods of some departed soul.What a forlorn assortment of stuff I’d left behind. I felt so sad.

As I stood before my locker, realizing that I’d had a vulnerability to bipolar disorder, that I was suffering now from hypo-mania, I recognized the symptoms from long before I ever knew
I was having symptoms. In fact, wasn’t it only a month ago, sitting at my sister’s kitchen table, that I had asked a provocative question: What is it about us Pauley sisters, a couple of Midwestern girls? We seem to like it up here on the high wire.

I wasn’t swinging from the chandelier. It was a spectrum of agitation that could pass before your eyes in a single conversation. But the turbulence affected the whole family. Although the villain was the illness and the victim was me, only a doctor could make such a distinction. My daughter, Rickie, was the most overtly affected by an alien presence. She did battle with it openly, which is to say, with me. She seemed to think I was trying to get away with something. She deduced that Garry was the default target of my anger and aligned herself with him like a little Athena.

I was sensitive about giving the appearance of grandiosity, like a person who knows he’s straddling the line between being sober and being a little drunk and wonders whether it’s obvious when he orders the next drink. But the new cottage gave me a cover for shopping—sheets and pillows and wool blankets (on sale in April!), coffee mugs (on sale!), orchids (on sale!)—and prowling for bargains surely made all the shopping seem only 40 percent “off.”

In a memo to the architect, I described a dozen ideas; none are outrageous, and some are pretty good. But I can now see that together they add up to more than the sum of their parts. I appear to be self-conscious about that, and with subtle phrasing try to minimize the impact: Instead of ideas, for instance, I call them “goals.” I acknowledge “having already gotten ahead of myself” and doing something “but within reason.” I emphasize the modesty of my ambition with references to “cottage-scale,” “cottagelike,” and ”charming-no-drama.” And finally (fobbing this idea off on a little girl), I mention that my daughter wants me to ask: Is
there nowhere on this hilly terrain for a pool?

I learned that the manic side of the manic-depressive combo is, weirdly, linked to a shopping impulse. As Garry put it, the druggist who sells lithium knows he’s likely to sell a few other
items, too. I did have a robust hunting-and-gathering impulse. Garry had marveled at the service I provided local merchants that spring, mopping up their excess merchandise before tax time. That was later, when he finally understood what was happening. Before, it had been only one more symptom that his wife was becoming a person he couldn’t recognize. “It seems like you’re trying to buy happiness,” he’d said.

I knew I wasn’t well, but I didn’t seem to be at serious risk for more than some turbulence, though my doctors alluded to the possibility of a hard landing. I never had morbid thoughts. I never suffered the severe kind of depressive disorder that William Styron and others have written so movingly about.

Excerpted from Skywriting by Jane Pauley. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.