Curing Mental Illness Through Life Engagement: The Jane Pauley Story

While other mass media hosts rose, fell, retired, and fizzled, one modest woman pursued a successful career for a half century while raising a family despite her “illness”.

 

Jane Pauley has several life stories. She was a monument of American daytime talk television as co-host of NBC’s Today show, where she was paired first with Tom Brokaw, then Bryant Gumble, beginning from the age of 25. She held the Today job from 1976 to 1989, when she was ousted because of her age (she was not yet 40).

And Pauley was one of the first sufferers of bipolar disorder to bravely reveal her ordeal.

That’s two stories. But Pauley, now 71, has had a remarkable third act. In 2016 she succeeded the legendary Charles Osgood as host of CBS Sunday Morning. In her 60s, this was her first anchor job on a regular morning news program in over 25 years, and her first job as the host of any television program since 2005.

What a comeback! How did that happen?

Her Family

Pauley has been married to another legend, cartoonist Garry Trudeau, creator of the comic strip Doonesbury, since 1980. They have three children and two grandchildren.

Her Disease

As to the ordeal of her bipolar disease, in 2004 Pauley published a memoir, “’Skywriting: A Life Out of the Blue.” She described her unexceptional youth in Indiana and her exceptional career in television—which has become even more extraordinary in the decades since.

In the book she revealed her struggle with bipolar disorder. She said that she only incurred it recently—it appeared during, and interfered with, her efforts to maintain and resuscitate her broadcasting career.

How America Sees Bipolar

Googling “bipolar” leads to this defining statement, foundationed on the Mayo Clinic’s definition. (All italicized statements represent my additions for emphasis.)

Bipolar disorder

Also called: manic depression

Image:

One side of the image shows a man during a manic phase, actively cleaning his stove in the middle of the night. The other side of the image shows the same man, several months later, in a depressive phase, sleeping in the middle of the day.

Description

A disorder associated with episodes of mood swings ranging from depressive lows to manic highs. The exact cause of bipolar disorder isn’t known, but a combination of genetics, environment, and altered brain structure and chemistry may play a role.

Very common

More than 3 million US cases per year. Treatment can help, but this condition can’t be cured

Chronic: can last for years or be lifelong

Requires a medical diagnosis

Lab tests or imaging not required

Is it a contradiction that BPD can’t be cured but may only last for years in some cases or else be lifelong in others? Is it paradoxical that the disorder requires a medical diagnosis yet has no determinative lab tests or imaging?

Her Career

Pauley’s career has had a number of twists and turns, ups and downs. In 1990, shortly after leaving Today, in the introduction to an NBC primetime special titled “Changes: Conversations with Jane Pauley,” Pauley announced, “Change is not always an option. Change is not always the right choice. But change is almost always the most interesting.”

A summary of her 50-year career includes: 

1972: graduated Indiana University and entered local media

1975: first woman co-anchor of a Chicago nightly newscast

1976-1989: co-anchor NBC Today Show 

1980-1982: anchor Sunday edition NBC Nightly News (the first woman to anchor a nightly newscast after Barbara Walters)

1992-2003: co-anchor NBC Dateline 

2004-2005: syndicated Jane Pauley Show

2009-: Today Show weekly contributor “Your Life Calling” (sponsored by AARP)

2016-present: anchor CBS Sunday Morning

 

Jane Pauley, American Symbol

As Pauley’s role was being diminished at Today and she was replaced by Deborah Norville, she attempted to renegotiate her contract to spend more time with her children. The result was her leaving Today altogether in December 1989 to work on special projects at NBC.

These machinations—where Pauley was seen to be cast aside by a younger woman—led to the show being supplanted as the leading network morning show by ABC’s Good Morning America. Today experienced a ratings slump of 22 percent at an estimated cost to NBC and its affiliates of $10 million for the year.

Pauley meanwhile retained her personal popularity. A 1990 New York Magazine article was titled, “Back From the Brink, Jane Pauley Has Become America’s Favorite Newswoman.” She was featured in a cover story in Life magazine with the headline “Our Loss, Her Dream: How Jane Pauley got what she wanted – time for her kids, prime time for herself.” The New York Magazine story dubbed her “The Loved One” on its cover.

But, despite several efforts, she was unable during the following decades, until 2016, to translate her personal popularity and image into a regular media anchor spot.

The Course of Pauley’s Mental Disorder

It was in the middle of this period, in 2004, that she incurred/discovered her Bipolar Disorder.

Strangely, her disorder, although widely noted at the time, is no longer part of Pauley’s persona. She doesn’t discuss it publicly—for example, in public service announcements. Viewers of CBS Sunday Morning don’t think of her as burdened by a mental disorder.

After all, does an attractive, self-possessed 71-year-old with a half-century career who has a national television presence while maintaining a stable family life seem like a person with an emotional disability?

Why aren’t we aware of how Pauley overcame this serious condition?

Indeed, why aren’t we aware that bipolar and other disorders, such as addiction, are reparable?

Public presentations of these conditions heavily emphasize their severity and permanence, instead of their manageability and transience.

Yet real-world improvements, linked to life connections such as family and career accomplishments like Pauley’s regularly occur.

Isn’t this misemphasis a problem for our cultural ability to deal with emotional problems like BPD?

And might subordinating your disease trauma in pursuit of life goals, as Pauley did, be the best approach to overcoming emotional adversity?


Stanton Peele, Ph.D., J.D., is the author (with Archie Brodsky) of the 1975 Love and Addiction. His memoir is A Scientific Life on the Edge: My Lonely Quest to Change How We See Addiction.


 

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