Homelessness, Addiction and Recovery: Inside Margot Kidder's Battle with Mental Health
“The reality of my life has been grand and wonderful, punctuated by these odd blips and burps of madness," Kidder told PEOPLE
While Margot Kidder is best known for her recurring role as Lois Lane in the original Superman films, she will also be remembered for her long and courageous battle with bipolar disorder, once known as manic depression.
The actress died at the age of 69 on Sunday at her home in Livingston, Montana, PEOPLE confirmed on Monday. Her cause of death is unknown.
“The reality of my life has been grand and wonderful, punctuated by these odd blips and burps of madness,” Kidder told PEOPLE for a cover story in 1996, not long after her last reported manic episode, which left her homeless for a time.
In the same interview, Kidder called the incident “the most public freak-out in history,” adding, “I was like one of those ladies you see talking to the space aliens on the street corner in New York.”
While the four-day disappearance was her most highly-publicized episode, it was not the first time she had made headlines since rising to prominence as Lois Lane in 1978’s Superman.
There were addictions and recoveries, husbands and divorces, a number of boyfriends (including Superman III costar Richard Pryor and former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau), episodes of bizarre behavior and an auto accident that left her bankrupt and partially paralyzed in 1990.
Kidder told PEOPLE that the root of most of her problems — which she said included “mood swings that could knock over a building” — was bipolar disorder. The disease affects over 9 million Americans and causes those who have it to vacillate between euphoric highs and desperate lows, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
She was first diagnosed with the condition by a Los Angeles-based psychiatrist in 1988. But, suspicious of medical opinion, Kidder refused to accept the finding — or to take lithium, the recommended treatment.
“It’s very hard to convince a manic person that there is anything wrong with them,” Kidder told PEOPLE. “You have no desire to sleep. You are full of ideas.”
But in 1996, when a computer virus accidentally deleted a memoir she had been working on for years, Kidder said she “went from really distressed to absolute delusion.” She flew to L.A. to see a computer specialist who told her that the files could not be recovered.
While waiting for her return flight at the airport, she became convinced that her first husband, novelist Thomas McGuane, and the CIA were “trying to kill” her because her memoir was powerful enough to change the world. She saw agents and assassins everywhere. “I know you’re looking at me!” she told PEOPLE she shouted at a passersby at the airport.
Still in the airport at 3 a.m., she spoke with a TV crew from WBIR in Knoxville, Tenn. “My ex-husband has hired people to kill me,” she said she told them. Anchorman Ted Hall later told PEOPLE: “I could see there was no plot. It was so sad. She was dirty, tired.”
By then, she had thrown away her purse because she thought there was a bomb in it. Later, she tried to take a taxi but didn’t have enough money for the trip. She tried to use her ATM card outside the airport but thought the cash machine was about to explode. “I took off running,” Kidder told PEOPLE.
“I slept in yards and on porches in a state of fear,” she added. By the following afternoon, Kidder had made her way downtown, a distance of some 20 miles, and was taken in by a homeless man named Charlie who gave her shelter in his cardboard shack.
He “took such incredible care of me,” Kidder told PEOPLE. “I was cold. I was hungry. I was terrified beyond belief. He stayed with me and held me.” She had lost some caps on her front teeth, which she cemented back in place with Krazy Glue. “When you’re having a manic episode,” she said, “you don’t always remember to pack the Krazy Glue.”
The next day another homeless man tried to rape her, she recalled, kicking her in the stomach, hitting her in the face and dislodging the last of the caps on her front teeth. Kidder said she hit back and remembers reasoning in desperation, “You’re a good person. You don’t want to do this.” The man backed off.
Meanwhile, family and friends were frantic. When Kidder hadn’t returned from L.A., her agent John Blake called her only child (with McGuane), Maggie Kern. Working with the L.A. police, Maggie made dozens of calls to friends. “I even tore apart my mother’s cabin looking for old phone books,” Maggie told Barbara Walters on 20/20. At one point the police told Maggie that they didn’t know whether they would find Margot alive. But her brother John (one of five Kidder siblings), a Vancouver, B.C., inventor, never lost faith. “Margot is incredibly strong,” he told PEOPLE at the time. “She’s a survivor.”
Three days after she was last seen at the airport, Kidder set off on foot to see her friend Shuster, a former Saturday Night Live writer who had a home some 12 miles north of downtown L.A. Margot had hacked off her hair close to her scalp as a further disguise. She spent the night in a motel room, arranged for by some Alcoholics Anonymous members she had met in her wanderings.
The next day, Kidder told PEOPLE, “I was walking up this endless mountain and had the wondrous realization that though I was stripped of all traditional forms of identity, I was still me.” That moment of relative clarity finally led to her rescue. Feeling less driven to hide, the actress took refuge in a backyard in Glendale, where she encountered homeowner Elaine Lamb and told her, “I may not look like it, but I’m Margot Kidder.”
Tipped off by a 911 call from Lamb, the Glendale police found Kidder and took her to Olive View Medical Center in nearby Sylmar, where she was placed under observation. She was later transferred to UCLA Medical Center, and, five days after she was found, a judge ruled that she was no danger to herself or others and was allowed to leave UCLA.
To avoid the press, Margot went to a rented house on an island near Vancouver. There, her brother John introduced her to bipolar author Jamison’s writings, and Kidder had a shock of recognition. “Finally,” Kidder told PEOPLE, “I was able to accept the diagnosis.”
That realization was a long time coming. Although she hid it from teachers, parents and peers, Kidder was already experiencing bouts of suicidal depression and odd flights of fancy as a teenager. At age 14 she swallowed a handful of codeine pills because a boyfriend had dumped her. “It never occurred to anyone to send me to a shrink,” she said. “I was just a teenager with a broken heart.”
Another time, she became enthralled with a pine tree, believing that if she could climb to the top and spin around it fast enough, she would somehow “become one” with it. “I’ve always called it ‘keeping the monsters in,’” she told PEOPLE of her demons. “I knew it wasn’t socially acceptable at a high school dance to talk about the time you got homogenized with pine cones.”
Always a natural performer, Kidder added, “I thought in acting I could let my real self out and no one would know it was me.” Around age 21, she began seeing psychiatrists for her mood swings but never trusted their approaches. “Trying to help someone who suffers from a surfeit of feeling by encouraging them to let out more feelings is absurd,” she said.
In 1990, when she was working on the TV series Nancy Drew and Daughter, an auto accident left her legs partially paralyzed. A back operation for a herniated disk in 1992 restored her ability to walk, though she still has a somewhat flat-footed gait. More than $600,000 in medical bills drove her into bankruptcy, however, and the pain led to an addiction to pills and alcohol. She later joined a 12-step group. “If I felt myself starting to go manic, I’d get drunk. Better drunk than crazy,” Kidder told PEOPLE.
Still, Kidder did take some pride in aspects of her disease, noting that Lord Byron, her favorite poet, and novelist Thomas Wolfe also had bipolar disorder. “When you listen to Beethoven’s Ninth, you get pleasure,” she said. “A manic-depressive gets rapture.”
The greatest gift of her recovery, however, was an improved relationship with her daughter, which Kidder had seen in the past as her “bottomless well of grief.”
“Nothing was ever stable for Maggie. Manics run through a lot of money, so there was no financial security,” she said. As for emotional stability, she added, “I was whipping through husbands a mile a minute.” When Kidder spoke with PEOPLE in 1996, she said that she and Maggie had reached a new and better place in their relationship.
Yet even in recovery, Kidder had to do things her own way. “I hate lithium because it works just under the level at which it is toxic,” she explained. She was helped, she said, by Canadian acupuncturist and therapist Elena Crippen, and was trying Depakote, an anti-seizure medicine that has had some success treating bipolar disorder.
With the assistance of her friend, actor Russell Means, she also explored Native American herbal remedies. “I’m not saying it’s all over,” she admitted at the time. “I’m saying this is the pattern of my life. In three years I might be having another wig-out. I have no idea. I just have to accept the fact that this is me, or I ain’t gonna make it.”
Fortunately, the treatments started to work, and Kidder never experienced another episode like she did in 1996. Speaking about her struggles with mental health in a 2012 interview with CBC, Kidder said, “It’s old news. I flipped out about 17 years ago now and still I have people in airports going, ‘Are you ok?’ And it’s sort of sweet and touching but at the same time you want to go, ‘It was 17 years ago!’ ”
She added, “I feel very lucky that I got the kind of help that I did. And it was sheer luck, it certainly wasn’t any brilliance of mine. I got people who didn’t insist I got drugged to the gills with a lot of mind numbing things that basically turn you into a vegetable. [They] taught me how to get better naturally. So I feel really, really, really blessed by that.”