Star of the legendary Alfred Hitchcock thriller Vertigo, actress Kim Novak recently returned to San Francisco, the city that served as the backdrop for her most famous role, to talk about plans for an upcoming art show to benefit mental health groups in the Bay area. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Novak candidly reveals that her desire to raise money for mental health stems from her own bipolar disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
Now 78 years old, Novak believes the first recognizable signs of bipolar disorder emerged during her early years in Hollywood.
“Part of the syndrome is that I just would get very depressed, and I couldn’t handle things. I didn’t know what was wrong with me and didn’t have medication to take,” says Novak, who was formally diagnosed with bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder about 10 years ago.
Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, leads to extreme shifts in mood, energy, thinking, and behavior — from the highs of mania on one extreme, to the lows of depression on the other. Symptoms of bipolar disorder are severe and more than just a fleeting good or bad mood. For many people diagnosed with bipolar, cycles of mania or depression can last for days, weeks, or months.
Novak’s dual diagnosis is not uncommon. There is a very strong association between bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder, an anxiety disorder in which people experience unwanted and repeated thoughts, feelings, ideas, sensations (obsessions) or feel driven to do something (compulsions). Between 10 to 35% of people with bipolar disorder also display symptoms OCD, according to various estimates; OCD is thought to be the most frequently occurring anxiety disorder among people with bipolar disorder. People affected by both bipolar disorder and OCD also appear to have higher rates of other forms of mental illness, including panic disorder and impulse control disorders.
This seems to be the case with Novak. “I am more than bipolar. I am obsessive-compulsive. I’ve got lots of different things, but all are in check…[with treatment],” she confirms.
When it comes to a family history for mental disorders, Novak explains that her father was mentally ill and “suffered a lot” because he wasn’t treated for it. “It made it very hard for me growing up,” she remembers. Even though she made it in Hollywood and went on to star in a string of hit films in the 1950s and 60s, including Picnic, Pal Joey, Bell, Book and Candle, and Vertigo, her untreated bipolar disorder eventually interfered with her ability to work.
Labeled as “difficult” by Hollywood studios due to her increasingly erratic behavior (a common side effect of untreated bipolar disorder), Novak left Hollywood in the early 1970s and moved to Big Sur to focus on her talent and love for painting. Now living in Oregon with her longtime husband, Novak says her artwork has helped her get through depressive episodes in the past, and recommends to anyone struggling with bipolar disorder to try doing something creative.
Novak’s current art exhibit in San Francisco is a fundraiser for local arts and cultural institutions. She hopes someone from a mental health organization will be inspired to create a larger show for 2013 in which proceeds from the sale of her work will go to help those suffering from mental illness.
“I haven’t worked out all the details,” Novak says, though she is confident this dream can come to fruition in the city that helped make her a star.
Kim Novak returning to S.F. to share her art