August 30, 2004 12:00 PM

With her new daily syndicated talkfest, The Jane Pauley Show, making its debut on Aug. 30 and her just finished memoir, Skywriting, hitting bookstores on Aug. 24, veteran journalist Jane Pauley calls this summer “one of the most stressful periods of my life.” The good news, she says, is that “I’m doing great” No surprise to those who’ve always thought of her as an upbeat sort whose distinguishing characteristic is being “Painfully normal,” as she puts it. But as Pauley reveals in her wide-ranging book—which covers milestones form her pregnancies with twins Rickie and Ross (now 20) and son Tom, 18, to the deaths of her parents—she experienced a mood disorder in 2001 that seemed to come from left field. Triggered by rare reaction to prescription drugs—one of them prescribed for a case of hives—Pauley’s brush with bipolar disease changed her life. “I felt [for a while] that I’d lost my sense of who I was,” she says now. “But I eventually saw myself more clearly than I’d ever done.”

In the late spring of 2001, at 50, Jane Pauley—then a correspondent on Dateline NBC—was treated for a mood disorder during a stay of almost three weeks at New York Hospital. Ironically, she didn’t feel ill. Instead, she says, she had “a lot of confidence, an uncommon amount of energy, and I was making plans, plans,” Told by her psychiatrist that she was experiencing “hypomania” (meaning a moderate upswing in her mood). (Pauley says “was troubled because I didn’t like being sick—mental health was my thing.” But when her psychiatrist suggested that hospitalization might help stabilize her, “I didn’t quibble,” she says now.

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 59th Street Bridge a quarter of a mile or so away—the one immortalized by Simon & Garfunkel. It spanned the East River ten floors Below.

This was my home for three weeks in the spring of 2001. My tides were fluctuating—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.

Like other patients, though, Pauley was required to give up her privacy.

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.

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.

The syndrome that had brought Pauley to her aerie had been triggered by a seemingly minor physical complaint: hives.

Hives: I used to call them the seven-year itch, because they first appeared when I was 7, then again at 14 and, briefly, again when I was 21. 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 28—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 49th 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.

The hives had lingered, causing swelling. After the fact, Pauley would explain the problem in a Ladies’ Home Journal story about her ‘health scare.’

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.

Pauley had agreed to a course of steroids in April ’00 after a severe attack.

“We have to smack them down!” my doctor had said. Steroids were the weapon of choice—the anti-inflammatory 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!

Beyond that, the steroids helped ward off minor dramas like the one that had sent her to the ER that April. Pauley tells the story in a flashback:

It was nearly midnight, and I could see the flashing lights approaching our apartment building—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.

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 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!”

On her doctor’s advice, Jane tapered down on the steroids after her hives disappeared, but another severe episode followed in May 2000.

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 irritable. Instead of motoring me down the hall, my engine was just revving. I was going nowhere. I was exhausted. Dateline executive producer Neal Shapiro gave me two weeks to chill out. 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 [of 2000], I was sent to a psychopharmacologist. He prescribed a low-dose antidepressant and promised 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.

I’m very conservative about medicine—I don’t even take aspirin casually. So when the doctor said to 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 the 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.

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 for me 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. I still had the time coming to me. I remembered it now, and it seemed just what I needed.

Neal Shapiro generously agreed. He didn’t argue 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 [a party in January ’01 at NBC], 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 of 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.

At the beginning of March ’01, on the first Monday of my sabbatical, I [had] 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 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-before-suspected vulnerability to bipolar depression. In a person with bipolar disease, an antidepressant 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 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.

Assuming that Pauley would want to keep her mood swings from becoming public, her psychopharmacologist suggested that she quietly extend her leave.

The doctor was frankly not enthusiastic about seeing his patient haplessly turn herself into the poster child for manic-depressive 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!

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.

Nevertheless, Pauley would enter the hospital that spring and assume a new persona.

I was in the hospital under an assumed name as if people who recognized me couldn’t put the right name to my face anyway! People were in and out all day with the rolling blood-pressure stand and vials for blood and thermometers and meds and mops and buckets and trays. But after a week or 10 days, people started calling me Jane. And there was some curiosity—I didn’t seem sick, my meds weren’t familiar, and I had a fake name. The question What are you in for? came one way or another. Even though they knew my real name, I was a mystery patient.

If you didn’t know me well, you might not have noticed anything strange; I was strange only for me. New Yorkers, by reputation, are fast-talking, assertive and easily annoyed; I fit right in. All of my normal emotional states, from sad to angry, were intensified—but never pathologically so. I was never manic as I’d always understood the word.

Now, though “no one can tell me whether I’ll ever have another bipolar episode,” Pauley writes, she’s free of mood swings, thanks to lithium, and grateful to be able to share her story.

[Even in the hospital], I had already decided that if only one good thing came out of this mess it would be the opportunity to talk about the disease. No one I cared about was likely to love me less—virtually all of our friends and the whole family already knew. Beyond that, it seemed as easy as writing a big check to the United Way; I could afford it. Most people living courageously with mental illness fear losing everything—they can’t afford to give people the benefit of the doubt. I can. It seemed pretty simple.

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