Patty Duke speaks about mental illness at local fundraiser

Star of stage and screen supports efforts of Children's Center

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian arts & features reporter



Children's Center buys land for future home

Just weeks ago, The Children's Center purchased vacant land on the northwest corner of Southeast Seventh Street and 136th Avenue. The site will become the new home of The Children's Center, after a capital campaign raises enough to build the building. The roughly 1.6 acres of space sold for $585,000, according to county property records. Board member Lisa Schauer said a new building will allow the Children's Center to serve all who need help. The center plans to raise $6.2 million to build and furnish a new center.

To learn more, visit thechildrenscente... or call 360-699-2244.

Fans of the old Patty Duke television show know that the star played two completely different characters — cousins — who looked identical. It made for lots of fun comedic mix-ups.

They may not know that Patty Duke really was two people throughout much of her life, and the mix-ups were anything but funny.

"My children had no idea what mom was going to show up," she said on Tuesday. "The lovey-dovey one, or the wicked witch of the wickedest west there was."

Duke was keynote speaker at a fundraising banquet for The Children's Center, a mental health clinic for low-income children and families. A crowd of 370 listened to Duke's story.

The child star of television and movies such as The Miracle Worker, which earned her an Academy Award at age 16 for Best Supporting Actress, said she grew up in a broken home and probably suffered from bipolar disorder since birth -- but it wasn't diagnosed until she was 35 years old. By then, she said, she'd spent years strewing "chaos, utter chaos" across the lives of everyone she knew -- especially her own family.

"The fact that my children talk to me today is a miracle," she said. "They have forgiven me."

Family has been key to her recovery, Duke said during an unscripted talk that sometimes verged on standup comedy but other times had tears catching in Duke's own throat. She paid lengthy tribute to her fourth husband, Michael Pearce, an Army drill sergeant who trained her to play a military role in a movie in the 1980s; Duke and Pearce live in Idaho, and she made clear that he is the foundation of her current life. Pearce was in attendance at the banquet on Tuesday.

Also speaking during the banquet were several Children's Center board members, who spoke about their own experiences with children's mental health needs. One was attorney Tonya Rulli, who remembered that The Children's Center was the only support available for two young sisters who were under extreme emotional pressure while their stepfather was prosecuted for sexual abuse. Another was Brian Willoughby, a spokesman for Legacy Salmon Creek Hospital, whose family life has been affected by depression.

Willoughby said that children's mental health challenges become "an isolating world" that people don't like talking about. The Children's Center is working to remove that stigma, he said, so conversations can start earlier in life, "and help can come."

The Children's Center, a private nonprofit licensed by the state, served more than 1,300 children last year who are dealing with mental health concerns as well as trauma including sexual and physical abuse, severe family disruption and affects of methamphetamine. Ninety-five percent of its clients live in poverty and nearly a quarter are crime victims.

Making a fundraising pitch, Willoughby said: "I worry about that one child who won't be served because there isn't enough money."

It has a name

Duke, now 66, wasn't served as a child, but not because there was no money. Mental illness was far less understood and far more stigmatized during her youth than it is now, she said.

Beside the undiagnosed mental illness, she said, she grew up the daughter of a severely depressed mother and an alcoholic father. Already a child star at age 7, she was handed over to a couple who managed her career and changed her name to Patty from her birth name, Anna Marie.

All of which certainly added up to a mountain of personal problems for the child star. "Even if I didn't have a chemical imbalance in my brain, I'd be on the psychiatrist's couch every day," she said.

But she did have that chemical imbalance. Duke was 35 years old and out of cash -- but feeling no pain and out on a shopping spree for three Mercedes Benzes -- when her doctor put his finger on it. "Don't be afraid," he told her, "but you have manic depression."

Her reaction was anything but fear: "Thank God it has a name!" The uncontrollable mood swings and extreme behaviors that had plagued her, all her life, was identifiable and treatable. In some ways, she said, that day was her "real birthday."

Lithium was the prescription. Within three weeks, she said, her mind was no longer racing and crashing, racing and crashing -- no longer cycling between mania and depression.

It made her a big fan of medication, she said. "Sometimes we like to think we're above that," she said. "But if you need it, you gotta take it."

This was proven to her a few months later when she nearly caught a burglar in her home, and screamed with fright; when her 8-year-old son heard what the problem really was -- a burglar, not mom's brain -- he was relieved: "Thank God, I thought you forgot to take your lithium."

Stay on your meds, she told the room. If not for yourself, then for the children who need a "whole and balanced" parent.

Duke added that she recently came off lithium because of kidney damage, a common side effect, and is working to find the right combination of replacement medications. "It was my best friend for years," she said.

Speaking out

In 1987, Duke published "Call Me Anna," an autobiography, that frankly revealed her mental illness. She is considered the first celebrity to "go public" with a personal diagnosis. Since then, Duke has consistently spoken out about mental illness while continuing to work as an actor in Hollywood. She also published a second book: "Brilliant Madness: Living with Manic Depressive Illness."

Duke added that she reconciled with her mother, who wasn't diagnosed as depressed until age 65, years before she died. She doesn't miss her mother too badly, she said, because she sees her face in the mirror every day.

"I am very moved by the fact that people who don't have mental illness have dedicated themselves to people like me," she told the room of Children's Center supporters. "I represent the people who've gotten their lives back. You all made that possible."

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525;;;