“Terminator” fans know Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor — tough as nails and out to save the world. But in real life, Hamilton was having trouble saving herself.
In an exclusive interview with AP Radio, Hamilton revealed that she’s bipolar. She has struggled with depression most of her life and was a compulsive eater as a child. She knew something was wrong, but she didn’t know what.
For 20 years, she tried different therapies and treatments in a desperate search for answers. She was finally diagnosed 10 years ago. Once she got her illness under control, she decided (well before Jane Pauley’s similar announcement last month) to talk about it.
Why? So others don’t have to suffer as she did, and to promote a program that stresses exercise and good-eating for people who suffer from mental illness.
AP: The “Terminator” movies gave you an image as a tough cookie. Did you feel that way yourself?
Hamilton: I became this sort of iconic figure of fitness and toughness and I was like, “Oh, no, no no, you don’t want to be like her.” She was a woman in hell, a woman that was suffering horribly. Please don’t mistake who I am for who that character is.
AP: Were you tough to live with in those years?
Hamilton: If I was suffering or angry with my husband over the smallest slight, he would suffer. And if we happened to be with his brother and sister-in-law, they would suffer. There was no capacity to remove myself from my condition and think about other people in the room and how they might not want to have to be dragged into this, so it was all about me.
AP: How many years before you found out what was wrong?
Hamilton: I would say 20 full years of symptoms, not counting my childhood. From 20 to 40. I call them my lost years.
AP: Were you having severe mood swings?
Hamilton: Very severe. My first husband said you have the most incredible joy and the most incredible sorrow that goes with it. Without giving it a name, he had pretty much summed it up for me.
AP: What were your manic highs like?
Hamilton: It’s an amazingly brilliant time. You don’t need sleep. I think I existed on four hours sleep a night for four years. Sleep doesn’t seem necessary. You wake up feeling great. But it’s not all great feelings. A lot of the raging that I did I think was the manic part of my disorder. The capacity for fighting, war, taking everything on, taking too much on, overachieving and then raging because my system was so depleted.
AP: And how about the lows, what were they like?
Hamilton: Like falling into a manhole and not being able to climb out no matter what.
AP: How were you finally diagnosed?
Hamilton: About 10 years ago, when I really was crashing and burning, had spent many years, you know, not only looking for the answers but sort of self-medicating with drugs and alcohol as well, and was struggling to keep my marriages intact. It was at that point that someone wouldn’t let me out of his office. He said, 'You are so seriously bipolar. You should not leave this office without me calling your primary physician and we need to get you on medicine.’
AP: Were you afraid of what the meds might do to your personality?
Hamilton: A lot of my early career was based on that angry woman that was just an organic outgrowth of the chemical imbalance that I had. And I thought I’m going to become normal and I won’t have those extraordinary gifts as an actress. But there is nothing that has been diminished or dulled. I don’t feel that any of my greatness has been covered over.
AP: I understand that eating right and exercising also helps.
Hamilton: There is a definite correlation between the mind and the body. Being physically fit doesn’t mean anything if the mind isn’t fit and being fit in the mind is not worth much if the body is suffering. I recommend a balance between the therapies that are available, the medicines that are available but not to give up on the body as a result. Forty percent of the people who are being treated for mental illness are not addressing the physical body.
AP: What about exercise?
Hamilton: Exercise is an incredible key to feeling well. But for people with mental illness, taking care of the body is not an automatic thing. The mind is in such chaos it’s hard to come up with a plan. So to people like us, it’s more important than ever to follow a regimen.
AP: Why are you going public now?
Hamilton: My quality of life is more amazing than I ever could’ve imagined in those 20 years of struggling with illness. In those 20 years, I did not know the meaning of the word hope. It was just a bleak, difficult existence. With all the gifts, with all the successes that I had, it was still an incredibly bleak way of living and I want to be a messenger of hope. I have 20 years of self interest. It was all about Linda, Linda, Linda, Linda and I want to make up for that time and spread the word that there is help available. I want to destigmatize the words mental illness. Somebody needs to come out and make this OK for people to talk about and get help and take advantage of the resources.
AP: What should people do if they want to get help?
Hamilton: If you recognize some of the behavior that I talk about, those out of control responses, there are web sites. Get yourself informed, there are questionnaires you can fill out and take to your physician. Do your work. It is so worth it to get the help and to live the quality of life that I am living today. And I really believe that if it was possible for me, who lived in a dark hole for so long, it’s possible for anyone. There is hope. You can do it. Start now.