© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Living with mental illness: Clever, creative and bipolar

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 16, 2010 -Looking back, Arlen Chaleff, 68, realizes a childhood anxiety attack was probably a sign. Gazing out the window of her Clayton bedroom one night, 10-year-old Chaleff was seized by the thought that she'd never see another sunrise. The intensity of the feeling left her unable to breathe.

Her parents called the doctor, who, after diagnosing the attack, pronounced her healthy. Relieved, Chaleff resumed normal breathing and continued her life of making straight-As, playing the cello and drawing portraits.

While Chaleff's younger years held more gloomy moments, it wasn't until she was 33 that she hit bottom following the end of a romantic relationship.

"The whole world was dark and surreal," Chaleff said.


"The earlier the onset of depression, the more likely it is to be bipolar disorder," according to Dr. Miggie Greenberg, a psychiatrist with Saint Louis University Hospital. That Chaleff's first significant downward spiral began with a romantic breakup is typical of the disease.

"There are environmental contributions to first episodes of depression and mania like big losses, stresses, etc., but the illness then takes on a life of its own," Greenberg said.

Mental illness, including bipolar disorder, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia, affects one in every five families, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, St. Louis chapter. Approximately 80,000 people in the St. Louis area are diagnosed or will be diagnosed with a severe mental illness, a brain disorder that affects thoughts, moods, insight, judgment and behavior.

Four of the leading 10 causes of disability are mental illnesses. Yet, with proper treatment, many mentally ill people can live full lives. In a three-part series, the Beacon introduces a trio of successful people with mental illness, including Chaleff, all of whom have channeled their challenges into helping others.


Looking like she had the world by the tail, Chaleff was involved in marketing at a Washington, D.C., radio station and working in the nascent field of computer processing in 1975. When her then-boyfriend told her he couldn't join her family for Thanksgiving, the change of plans turned out to be an excuse to break things off. Depressed and unable to work -- or even take care of herself -- she came back to St. Louis.

"I couldn't function," Chaleff said. "I don't know how you describe it to someone who hasn't had it. If somebody threw you down a hole and there was nothing you could do to stop the fall and you continued to drop, how would you feel?"

A psychiatrist prescribed antipsychotic medication, which caused jaundice. Still depressed and at her wit's end, Chaleff underwent the first of four electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) treatments at Barnes Hospital. It was the same year as the release of "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest," whose shock therapy-damaged, zombie-like characters were influential in discrediting the practice.

But for Chaleff, ECT was beneficial: "the booster shot that allowed the medicines to start working," she said. A few months after the treatments, diagnosed with bipolar disorder and on Lithium medication, she returned to Washington. But mild, continual depression, punctuated by manic episodes, defined her days and nights for the next few years.

Chaleff returned to St. Louis again in 1978, met another man and was engaged two months later. But before the February wedding date came, she'd broken it off.

"I wasn't well enough to commit to a relationship," Chaleff said. 

A few years later, she found her dream job: marketing for the Playhouse at Westport Plaza. Creative juices flowing and mind racing, she often worked all night. During this and other manic phases, she shoplifted, had multiple sexual encounters and worked at dozens of jobs.

"My behavior was outrageous. But in the middle of a manic episode you feel like 'Nothing's the matter with me, I can do anything in the world,'" Chaleff said. "The manic is like the sky's the limit or maybe there is no limit, but when you fall, the depths are deeper than you had ever thought."


The medicines that Chaleff took over the years made her gain weight, slur her words, endure hand tremors and shuffle when she walked. Along the way she experienced panic attacks and unrelated physical ailments including a cardiac condition that required open heart surgery.

Chaleff's sister, Vicki Litz, spent years worrying about her "clever, creative" younger sibling.

"In my heart, I didn't think she would do something to herself," Litz said. "But there were days I went over there and wondered if I was going to find her alive."

"There was a time some 25 years ago when I held a handful of pills and contemplated suicide," Chaleff recalled. "What I really wanted, though, was to be diagnosed with a terminal illness like cancer, something they could understand and accept, so that people would feel compassion and care for me."


Thirty years ago, Chaleff was asked to chair the publicity committee for the local Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. For many years, while still whip-sawed by her illness, she was active on the foundation's board. A transformation had begun, thanks to a number of factors that would knit her life back together.

Around 1990, she finally found an effective medication: Prozac. In 1993, she joined the board of Jewish Family and Children's Service, and helped to found WINGS, the organization's support and service program for adults and families living with mental illness. Around that same time, she began seeing a psychotherapist, at a time when she could "take in" the therapeutic process.

"It was a defining moment. It was like I started to walk away from my illness," Chaleff said.

The combination of therapy, the right medication and volunteering began to transform her existence. After WINGS folded, Chaleff joined the Alliance's board, where she is also a spokesperson for others with mental illness and their families. She's on the board of OWL, the Voice of Midlife and Older Women, an advisory committee member of the new Jewish Attention to Mental Illness, and the recipient of several honors, including the Suburban Journals' Woman of Achievement and an OWL Woman of Worth award.

Now planning to pen a book, "Slaying the Dragon: A Bipolar Memoir," Chaleff said she's the most emotionally healthy she's ever been. She credits some of her recovery to time spent with great-nieces and -nephews as resident grandmother while her sister lived away from St. Louis. Acknowledging that bipolar disease has prevented her from having her own children, a husband and a solid career, she spends little time in regret. Chaleff is happy that her days are spent helping others.

"My life is now purpose-driven," Chaleff said.


Chaleff credits her sister, her cousins and her friend Patti Teper with her survival. As her friend since 1967, Teper always knew Chaleff was much more than just her mental illness.

"In the middle of the bipolar episodes, she'd have periods of several months of being herself," Teper said. "Then she'd go off the deep end, but she'd always come back. I pretty much accepted it."

During the bad times, Teper mostly "took her cue and just listened." Being Chaleff's friend over the years was an educational experience, with some lessons learned the hard way.

"At one point when she was saying how bad everything was, I gave her an example of someone else who was in dire straits, like, 'See, things could really be worse,' " Teper remembered. "Big mistake. What I found is don't tell them things could be worse. Because in her mind it couldn't be."

Nancy Fowler Larson, a freelance writer in St. Louis, writes frequently on health-related issues. 

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.