How Jean Claude Van Damme Beats Bipolar
The muscles from Brussels has battled many enemies, on and off screen. A martial arts superstar with a penchant for self-destruction, cocaine and the high lifestyle, Jean Claude Van Damme also has rapid cycling bipolar.
JCVD came from humble origins; his father was an accountant and flower salesman. He opened a gym in Brussels on the back of successful performances in karate tournaments, although his actual success in these tournaments is still a little questionable. He moved to Hollywood in the early eighties with not much money to his name, eyes fixed on stardom. He had to endure mediocre jobs and fairly lowing paying roles until he established a name for himself.
His breakthrough was the 1986 hit No Retreat No Surrender. He muscled his way into international stardom without the invincibility of Arnie or brute force of Stallone, but flexibility and poise, probably assisted by the ballet he learned in his youth. He starred in blockbusters such as Universal Solider and Timecop. He’s devoted to fitness and admits being a fitness fanatic. He can allegedly bench press 166 kg!
During the nineties he began to crash and burn. Excessive partying, a string of failed marriages and a cocaine addiction formed after the 1995 bomb Sudden Death. Van Damme admitted to doing about 10 grams a day at his worst. His marriage to Darcy La Pier, this third wife resulted in spousal abuse and an ugly public battle over child support.
He checked himself into a clinic in 1996 for substance addiction treatment, although prematurely exited seven days later, and relapsed only a few years later. Like many who face undiagnosed bipolar for years, substance abuse is often used to self-medicate the symptoms. Web MD points out all too clearly the link between bipolar and increased substance abuse:
People with bipolar disorder are also at higher risk for substance abuse. Nearly 60% of people with bipolar disorder abuse drugs or alcohol. Substance abuse is associated with more severe or poorly controlled bipolar disorder.*
It’s easy to judge people as drug addicts, but they are suffering a lot of psychological pain often tied to troubling and disturbing emotions that simply do not go away.
Things improved in 1998 when he was diagnosed with rapid cycling bipolar disorder. Rapid cycling bipolar is where mood swings between high and low are much more frequent. Diagnostically a person needs to experience four or more episodes of mania or depression in a year. He was prescribed sodium valproate, a mood stablising drug that is also used to treat epilepsy, and by his account responded very well:
You just have to take a little salt, and since I’m doing that it’s, like, BOOM! In one week, I felt it kick in. All the commotion around me, all the water around me, moving left and right around me, became like a lake.*
It’s noted that treatment with mood stabilizers continues even if the patient is not experiencing rapid cycling.
While getting his life back under control JCVD also reunited with a previous wife, Gladys Portugues, and has remained happily married since. Van Damme still struggles, but he’s open about those struggles and seems less and less to be fighting the world.
Another blog devoted to discussing the experience of bipolar mentions that it is important to be self-aware when you have bipolar, as going to the extremes is such a natural thing.
I’ll either be really close friends with someone or not talk to them at all. How I feel about someone can also change very quickly depending on my mood and if I feel a person has done something to hurt me. Going to extremes has positive and negative effects. It can lead to success if you are driven to achieve, care about your body, and avoid drugs. However, it can also lead to negative outcomes such as substance abuse, weight gain, loss of friends, career setbacks, and even death, and these things happen way too often. *
This emotional volatility and its associated repercussion rings true in JCVD’s case. Van Damme is very self-aware; he gives extremely candid interviews. In the recent film JCVD he shows himself as a defeated man with stunning clarity. Van Damme knows how to bare his soul openly. This is not dissimilar to other celebrities with bipolar including Carrie Fisher and Emma Thompson.
While it’s a little hard to say how he is really going, it’s clear that since the diagnosis, quitting cocaine and being honest in his life, he’s on the right track. Recent films such as The Expendables 2 and Kung Fu Panda 2 indicate this star continues to fight another day, and fight well. Best of luck to him and we hope he continues to stablilise his health and enjoy a life that is not so governed by the turbulent emotions of bipolar.
How Jean Claude Van Damme Beats Bipolar
Van Damme’s diagnosis assisted him in recognising the destructive behaviours in his life and allowed him to get the correct medications.
Cultivated healthier relationships
Van Damme remarried and settled into a healthier existence with one of his ex-wives, and the spousal abuse and dramas have settled.
JCVD went cold turkey on cocaine, knowing he had too. This has really helped his mental health.
References and further reading
Mental Health Realities A nice little piece from a bipolar sufferer.
DBS Alliance on Rapid Cycling Excellent article about rapid cycling
Excellent article about the trials of JCVD, written in the late 90s
JCVD on his Bipolar, candid as ever:
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