Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Make a year-end gift to NHPR!

Glenn Close's Family On Coping With Mental Illness


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Now we want to go "Behind Closed Doors." That's something we often do on Mondays. That's where we talk about issues people usually keep private. And you might remember that we recently spoke with Oscar-nominee Glenn Close. She told us about how mental illness has affected her family, and how she was motivated by her younger sister Jessie to co-found the nonprofit group Bring Change to Mind.

Jessie Close lives with bipolar disorder. It's a condition that causes people to cycle from depression to manic episodes. It can affect people's ability to do lots of things, like eating or sleeping. And there's no cure to bipolar disorder. And Jessie's 30-year-old son, Calen, is also affected. He lives with schizoaffective disorder. That's a combination of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

And they're both speaking out now about their lives, in the hopes that they can help other people living with conditions like theirs - and the people who love them. So we're glad that they agreed to talk with us, and they're both with us now from Bozeman, Montana. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

JESSIE CLOSE: Thank you.

CALEN PICK: Yeah. Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Let me just start by playing a short clip from the conversation, Jessie, that I had with your sister, Glenn Close. And I just want to play a short clip from that conversation because here, she's talking about how the family initially reacted to your illness. Here it is.


GLENN CLOSE: I think my parents said, well, she's just - you know - a cry for help, in a way; or, she just has to kind of pull up her socks and get back to work - and all that kind of thing. And it sounds almost hardhearted when you talk about it now, but we were so clueless.

MARTIN: So Jessie, I wanted to start by asking you: Were you also clueless? I'm just wondering how - or did you even feel that there was something wrong?

JESSIE CLOSE: I knew there was something wrong. In fact, when I was 16, I was living with our other sister, Tina, and I dropped out of high school, which is a - now I know is a huge indicator of mental illness. And I asked to see a psychiatrist. And she said, oh, no. We don't do that.

So things have changed.

MARTIN: So you were - you actually felt that there was something not right. Can you just talk a little bit more about - like, what you were feeling? I mean, that's a pretty bold step for a young person to say, I think I need help.

JESSIE CLOSE: I think the depression was getting to me. I was depressed more than manic back then, but I did get heavily into drugs. And I think the drugs alleviated a lot of the symptoms - not that I would recommend using drugs to alleviate symptoms, but it really muddied the waters for a very long time. I turned to alcohol, also. And that muddied the waters, also.

MARTIN: And you were saying - your sister said, well, we don't do that...


MARTIN: ...when you asked to see a psychiatrist.


MARTIN: Well, when you finally got a diagnosis, how did that feel? How did it sit with you?

JESSIE CLOSE: Well, it was a three-part diagnosis. I was diagnosed with depression in the early '80s and put on imipramine, which is an ancient drug. It just caused night sweats and nightmares, and was a - for me, anyway - it was not a good med. Then I was diagnosed with bipolar in the late '90s, but the psychotic part of my bipolar was not addressed.

So then I finally went to the hospital, and I was diagnosed with bipolar 1 with psychotic tendencies, and that was in 2004. And that diagnosis has stuck. And I don't even feel my medications anymore. I probably need a little bit more sleep than people who are not on medication, but that's OK.

MARTIN: Calen Pick, what about you? Do you mind if I ask, how was it...


MARTIN: ... for you? When did you start to feel that, something's not right here?

PICK: I did feel like something was missing, I guess you could say. I tended to be kind of uncommunicative about it. But, you know...

JESSIE CLOSE: And your friends stepped away from you because of your behavior.

PICK: Yeah, they did. You know, it was - I think that people around me noticed something was askew before I did, before I knew anything about it. So...

MARTIN: Jessie, do you think that your own experience informed, in a way, the way you dealt with him - or were you dealing with so much of your own stuff at the time, you weren't able to?

JESSIE CLOSE: No. I think what happened with Calen is his - the psychotic part, the schizophrenic part really freaked us out. His behavior was very bizarre, and I had never experienced behavior like that. So it was incredibly difficult.

PICK: Yeah.

JESSIE CLOSE: There was one time we were out in the backyard, and he was behaving normally, and then he looked up at the TV antenna and said, you know what that's for? And I was like, no. And he said, that's to keep track of me.

And it's bizarre. Thought disorders are very bizarre because you can speak to the person who has a thought disorder, and they sound perfectly normal, but what they're saying is incredibly bizarre.

PICK: Mm-hmm.

JESSIE CLOSE: He was afraid of the people walking past our house - we lived in the town of Bozeman at the time - and he said that they were trying to keep track of him also.

PICK: Yeah. So there is a large element of paranoia. There's a large element of feeling combined with thought. And so it was a huge network of feelings, thoughts, and trying to communicate. You know, I'll admit that one of my delusions, I guess you could say, was in thinking that people could read my mind. And so when someone actually believes - when I - I'll say this, when I actually believed that people could read my mind, obviously that's going to alter what I say.

JESSIE CLOSE: And it's terrifying. It's not just terrifying for people who are - I think it's even more terrifying for the person who's experiencing it.

MARTIN: Well, that's what I was going to say. That's what's interesting about the two of you, is that each of you - you both, together, have as a family the experience of living with the illness, and also living with someone who's dealing with it. You know what I mean?

PICK: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.


MARTIN: So you both have an experience of being afraid for yourself or being afraid for the person you love, and then also trying to deal with your own stuff.


MARTIN: So I just wanted to ask each of you, what was the hardest part of the worst times? And I don't know, Calen, you want to go first?

PICK: I will. The hardest part of the worst times?

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

PICK: Was not being able to communicate to those people who were there to help, that love me. And, you know, I felt a lot of guilt for a long time about my behavior and, you know, think I was aware of myself more than I was able to actually kind of communicate.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Makes sense. Jessie, what about you? What was the worst part of the worst time?

JESSIE CLOSE: For me or for Calen?

MARTIN: Either. For either. Whatever.

JESSIE CLOSE: My depression has always been the worst. I mean, mania also feels very uncomfortable after a while, but it's a lot more fun than depression. When I was drinking, I would become suicidal while I was depressed, and that was bad news. I haven't had a drink for 11 and a half years, and that - you know, you can't live with a mental illness and drink. It just doesn't work.

And when Calen came home, he was what I would call institutionalized after two years. And he - my symptoms of bipolar got worse when he came home - which had nothing to do with him, but I still hadn't gone to the hospital yet. And I was finally sent to the hospital, but - OK, you want to say that again, Michel?

MARTIN: No. I was just asking what was the hardest part of the thing. And you - I think you answered that.

And if you're just joining us, we're talking about living with mental illness. We're speaking with Jessie Close, who has bipolar disorder; and her son, Calen Pick, who has schizoaffective disorder. They are both relatives of the award-winning actress Glenn Close, who has become an activist on trying to bring awareness and change for people who live with mental illness.

Can I ask about a sensitive subject, though, with both of you? And that is the fear factor. I think many people have a fear of people with mental illness because they're afraid that they'll do something to harm other people or themselves. Right? And then you have to live with it.

PICK: Yeah.

MARTIN: And that - just that unpredictability becomes very frightening for a lot of people.

PICK: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And I just kind of wondered if there's anything that you could say about that.

JESSIE CLOSE: Well, if you want...


JESSIE CLOSE: ...a glimpse into what - yeah. Calen was living in a loft over the garage at one of our homes in Bozeman, and I remember coming upstairs to see him. And he was very belligerent - and scary. He was very scary. And I lost all of my understanding at the moment, and I just started screaming at him, please stop what you're saying and the horrible paintings you're painting. And of course, he couldn't help himself. So that was a really, really hard thing.

PICK: Yeah. So it's like, you know, at this point, I look back onto all that and, you know, it's embarrassing, honestly, you know? I mean, fear drove a lot of my action and my thinking. So it's been, for me, a very, very slow process to learn how to deal with myself first, and others. And so, I don't know. The fear - I'd say people with mental illness, a lot of times, you know, if they're struggling, you know, I would go as far as to say that there's more fear in them than others are afraid of...


MARTIN: Hmm. Tell me about the long pauses. What is that? Are you thinking, or is that what's - something kicking in there?

PICK: Yeah, I'd say for me, it's - it's - my brain just kind of goes blank. I think they call it like, derailing. And you know, it's sort of an annoying thing for me.

MARTIN: Is that something that talking to strangers brings out in you, or is that just the way it is?

PICK: I think, you know, sometimes, you know, when there's an element of stress, you know, imposed, then it makes it worse, you know. But, you know...

MARTIN: But you push through it, and you kind of put yourself out there. So I'm impressed by that.

PICK: Yeah.

MARTIN: Yeah. What would make it better? I remember when I talked - Jessie, when I talked to your sister Glenn Close, one of the things she made a point of saying is, I'm not just about nice words. I'm really - I'm about wanting things to change.

PICK: Hmm.


MARTIN: In fact, the name of the group is Bring Change 2 Mind. So I wanted to ask each of you, what do you think would make it better?

JESSIE CLOSE: I think that someone with a mental illness - first of all, they need a good doctor, and they need to go through the drug trials - which is quite trying, to say the least; getting the right medication. And then if their family can kind of put their arms around them, and let them know that they're loved no matter what's going on - I think is extremely important.

PICK: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Calen, what about you? What would make things better?

PICK: Well, I think for me, medication is a very important element of my recovery. But it's also the decision, and the insight into myself, that I'm going to focus on changing myself for the better. And it's my responsibility to really, you know - I don't know, I just, you know, I used to say to myself all the time that, you know, I've changed a lot; I'm doing all right, but I've got a really long way to go. Now, I don't feel that way, necessarily - that I've got a long way to go - but it's a hard road to hoe, you know?

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

PICK: And I think if maybe there's a little bit of change in perception towards those with mental illness - you know, just education, just information, I think, is very important.

JESSIE CLOSE: To talk about it is very important.

PICK: Yeah.

JESSIE CLOSE: And for people to realize that mental illness is just an illness like any other illness, and to be patient and kind and nonjudgmental.

PICK: Yeah. And the recovery is - recovery is a possibility. Like now, I'm sitting in the studio and I'm, you know, I'm talking. I'm trying to relate and, you know, can be - it can be tough.

MARTIN: You wouldn't have been able to do this 10 years ago.

PICK: No, I don't think I would've been able to. No.

MARTIN: What made you both decide to talk about it? And when your sister and your aunt, Glenn Close, said that she - she told us that when she wanted to become active around this issue, she came and asked you first because she wanted to know if it was OK for her to talk publicly, you know, about the family. Why did you say yes? Calen, why did you say yes?

PICK: Why did I say...


PICK: I said yes because, you know, it's something that is not about me, necessarily. I think there's a lot of potential to help others.

JESSIE CLOSE: Actually, when Calen was in the hospital, I asked Glenn if she would help, if she would do something to make it possible for people with - living with mental illness to be treated like regular human beings. And she was great. She went to Fountain House in New York first, and worked with the people there, and really got an understanding of what was going on. And then she came out with Bring Change 2 Mind. And now, here it is 2012, and Calen and I speak around the country and...

PICK: Believe it or not.



PICK: I said, believe it or not.



JESSIE CLOSE: Yeah. So it's very inspiring for me to have people come up after we speak, and tell me their stories. I probably get just as much out of speaking as the people listening do.

MARTIN: Well, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

JESSIE CLOSE: You're welcome.

PICK: Oh, you're very welcome.

MARTIN: Calen Pick and his mother, Jessie Close, are both public speakers on mental illness. We found them through Jessie's sister Glenn Close, who has been working with them to raise awareness about mental illness. And they joined us from Bozeman, Montana. Thank you both so much for speaking with us, again.

JESSIE CLOSE: Thank you.

PICK: No problem. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.