Patty Duke tells Peninsula audience of her life balancing fame with mental illness

PORT ANGELES ­— Patty Duke, Academy Award-winning actress, longtime sufferer of manic depression and advocate for people with mental illness, started her address at the Port Angeles CrabHouse Restaurant on Friday night with “It’s appalling!”

She was reacting to Peninsula Community Mental Health Center board member Carol Barnes’ reminding the packed room that Duke’s career “spans 50-plus years.”

That self-effacing approach turned Duke’s speech into an applause-punctuated stroll from comedy to triumph to tragedy and back again.

Her life has been like that.

In 1962, Duke, then 16, won the Oscar for her portrayal of Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker”; she went on to star in “The Patty Duke Show” on television through the mid-1960s and appeared in 88 movies for the big and small screen.

Then, as she approached age 35 — plagued by extreme highs and lows that had wrought havoc on her life — Duke was diagnosed with manic depression.

At that time, mental illness was something that provoked fear in the general population, but she embraced the news.

“My reaction was: Thank God! It has a name,” and doctors could offer her treatment.

Duke’s mission as an advocate brought her to the North Olympic Peninsula on Friday to give the keynote speech in “Inspiring Hope, Supporting Change,” a fundraiser for the Peninsula Community Mental Health Centers in Port Angeles and Sequim.

The event, a $100-per-plate dinner, sold out, and Duke seized the opportunity to praise the agency.

“I was overwhelmed,” she said, “at what you make available — on a shoestring. We are not going to let that shoestring get frayed any further.”

Peninsula Community Mental Health — whose main number is 360-457-0431 — offers a range of counseling, case management and emergency services to adults, veterans, children, families and seniors, along with a crisis hotline at 360-452-4500.

Soon after her diagnosis, Duke’s doctors put her on lithium, a medication she said has served her well for the past 28 years.

And while continuing her acting work, she began speaking about the then-unspeakable topic of mental illness.

This was against Hollywood-industry advice, of course. Lawyers and executives told her she was risking her livelihood.

None of that stopped her.

“I don’t know how it affected my career,” she said of going public about her illness.

She well knows, however, that “getting old has a big effect on my career.”

Duke said this with a big smile, clearly enjoying the laughter that washed over the room.

In an interview Friday evening, she expressed gratitude that in the years since she wrote her books, Call Me Anna (1987) and A Brilliant Madness: Living with Manic Depressive Illness (1992), she has had two careers.

“It was like a whole new door opened to me,” Duke said of her work to promote understanding of mental illness.

She does not mind at all being defined as that actress who’s manic-depressive.

Some years ago, Duke asked herself: “Why am I here? What the hell is my purpose in life?”

The answer, she believes, is that “the universe chose me to be an actress — to give me that little bit of celebrity,” so people would pay attention to her message.

That message is about the need for community resources and for the awareness that those who suffer from mental illness can get help and lead healthy lives.

Seeking treatment is essential, she said, because if you’re suffering from a condition such as manic depression, “you’re doing damage not only to yourself, but also to your family members.”

During her 30s, Duke had children at home, two sons who could never be sure of whom they would find when they came home after school: a deeply depressed mom or a woman who was “a witch,” as she put it.

“I would downgrade and denigrate them; that embarrasses me . . . and it embarrasses me more,” she added, “that I became physical. No one would ever have thought that Patty Duke beat her children.”

Yet just as Duke herself learned to forgive her own parents — an alcoholic father and a mother who was too depressed to care for her daughter — her sons, Sean and Mackenzie Astin, learned to forgive her.

Before, during and after Duke’s talk Friday, people told her their stories: of their own diagnoses with manic depression or that of family members.

Duke listened intently to each person who approached her, thanking them for sharing something so personal.

When an audience member asked about an ill loved one who is refusing to take medication, Duke said that without it, the chances are slim to none that the person will wind up healthy and balanced.

“The person who loves them,” she added, “should take care of themselves.”

Duke believes her illness runs in her family; she has learned that her parents and other relatives showed clear signs of severe depression.

Her father, John Duke, “self-medicated” with alcohol and died young of cirrhosis of the liver.

Her late mother, Frances Duke, was diagnosed with the illness at age 65 and went on medication — which transformed her, her daughter said.

“The last 15 years of her life were joy-filled,” Duke remembered. “Thank God we had those years.”

Yet there are still too many people suffering from undiagnosed conditions, she said.

“In these 30 years, I’ve learned that fear keeps most of us from getting the help we need . . . but I believe more people would go for help if they knew it is a genetic [illness] and not a character flaw.”

Duke, who lives with her husband of 25 years, Mike Pearce, in northern Idaho, is still active in both of her careers.

She’s the director of “The Miracle Worker” on stage this month at the Interplayers Theatre in Spokane, and she has every intention of continuing to tour the country advocating for stronger support of centers such as Peninsula Community Mental Health.

Duke is aghast, she added, that centers across the United States are slipping to the bottom of funding priority lists.

“That,” she said, “is insanity.”


Features Editor Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3550 or at [email protected]

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