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The Death of Margot Kidder: Learning from Substance Abuse and Suicide

DISCLAIMER: Margot Kidder waged a self-admitted battle with mental illness and substance abuse. Here, we document some of her struggles in the hope of providing greater context to her recent suicide at the age of 69. It is our hope that by taking a closer look at her life, we can gain enough insight to help others who might be experiencing similar issues right now. “The reality of my life has been grand and wonderful, punctuated by these odd blips and burps of madness.” ~ Margot Kidder in 1996, speaking to People magazine On May 13th this year, actress Margot Kidder was found dead in her Montana home. After a months-long formal inquest, her death was officially ruled a suicide. Coroner Richard Woods said the 69-year-old actress “died as a result of a self-inflicted drug and alcohol overdose”. This is a tragic end for a successful actress whose career spanned nearly 50 years. And although she will always be identified with the iconic role of Lois Lane in the Superman movies of the 1970s and 80s, she actually had well over 100 film and television roles. As an established leading lady, she starred opposite some of the biggest male stars of the time. But it wasn’t altogether unexpected, either. Margot Kidder dealt with mental illness and substance abuse issues for most of her life. And even though she had a long period of recovery during which she became an advocate for others, she ultimately could not completely vanquish her own demons. In an effort to help others who are struggling with their own mental or addictive disorders right now, let’s examine the life and untimely death of Margot Kidder.

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Bipolar Disorder—The Mental Illness that Shaped Kidder’s Life

“We are all, each and every one of you in this place, are a breath away from mental illness, homelessness, all of these things we tend to so look down on.” ~ Margot Kidder Kidder was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1988, after years of experiencing what she called “mood swings that could knock over a building”. Bipolar disorder is characterized by episodes of abnormally-elevated mood (mania), alternating with periods of deep depression. During a manic phase, a person is “up” – they feel extremely energetic and happy and have little need for sleep. While this might sound like a positive, judgment is also affected, meaning the individual will make poor decisions without to the possible consequences. Prolonged mania can result in psychosis. During a depressive phase, a person is “down” – they feel profound sadness without a corresponding reason, they have little to no energy to accomplish even basic life tasks, and they have a severely negative outlook on life. They may sleep excessively and have hours-long crying jags while awake. They withdraw socially and may have difficulty making eye contact with others. Women are three times more likely to have “rapid-cycling” BPD, quickly and continually moving from one phase to the next. Of special relevance to the story of Margot Kidder, the average age at which symptoms first manifest is 25. Although she exhibited possible symptomatic behaviors at an earlier age, Kidder wasn’t diagnosed with BPD until she was 40. In later interviews, she admitted that during the height of her Hollywood career, the public never knew of the many breakdowns she suffered in her 20s and 30s. That means that she may have struggled with BPD for over a decade before she was offered medical help. This is significant, because BPD is associated with other serious mental health conditions, including:

  • Anxiety – More than half of BPD patients also have comorbid anxiety.
  • Substance Abuse – Roughly 60% of BPD patients abuse alcohol or drugs at some point.
  • Attention Hyperactivity Deficit Disorder – Approximately 10% of BPD patients have ADHD, while up to 60% of ADHD patients have BPD.

BPD and the Risk of Suicide

But two of the biggest risks associated with bipolar disorder are self-harm and suicide. Up to 40% of BPD patients engage in self-harming behaviors. Some studies report that 80% will contemplate suicide, and at least half will actually attempt it. To put that in perspective, only about 1 out of every 12 people without the disorder think about taking their own life. 17% of people with BPD eventually kill themselves. This makes suicide their leading cause of premature death. This risk is particularly high among people with mixed-state BPD, where symptoms of mania and depression manifest simultaneously.

Denial Feeds Sickness

It’s very hard to convince a manic person that there is anything wrong with them. You have no desire to sleep. You are full of ideas.” ~ Margot Kidder The best treatment for bipolar disorder is a combination of psychotherapy – cognitive behavioral therapy and education – and medication. The most effective drug used to treat BPD is lithium. Not only does lithium treat bipolar mania and depression, it also helps prevent relapse and reduces the risk of self-harm and suicide. Because bipolar disorder is a serious and potentially-fatal disease, early intervention and adherence to a prescribed treatment plan is critical for successful management of the disease. Noncompliance can lead to worsened symptoms and even long-term hospitalization. This was the case for Margot Kidder. After her initial diagnosis in 1988, she rejected the doctor’s findings. She also refused to take the medication. This, of course, meant that her illness continued to worsen.

BPD and Substance Abuse: Self-Medicating the Highs and Lows

“If I felt myself starting to go manic, I’d get drunk. Better drunk than crazy.” ~ Margot Kidder Like a lot of people struggling with untreated mental illness, Kidder tried desperately to find her own solutions. In her case, she tried to “self-medicate” by drinking. BPD patients use intoxicants to:

  • “Dial down” symptoms of mania
  • Ease the emotional pain of depression
  • Feel more “normal”

Opioid painkillers, stimulants, and most especially, alcohol are used and abused in an attempt to reduce BPD symptoms. But here’s the unfortunate reality — the use of intoxicating substances actually makes bipolar disorder WORSE.

  • Marijuana may trigger manic episodes.
  • Stimulants like methamphetamine or cocaine produce rapid highs and debilitating low crashes that resemble BPD.
  • Opioid drugs and alcohol contribute to deeper depression.

Significantly, substance abuse results in serious consequences—relationship issues, legal problems, health concerns —that also cause added stress, depression, and anxiety.

The Car Wrecks that Changed Everything or Margot Kidder

There were days I just desperately wanted to die.” ~ Margot Kidder In 1990, Kidder was involved in a serious automobile accident while on the set of a television series. Partially paralyzed, she was confined to a wheelchair and unable to work for two years. In later interviews, she said that the painkillers she received left her mind “muddied”. To make matters even worse, she was left in lingering pain from her injuries and developed an addiction to painkillers and alcohol. Based on modern research, this is hardly surprising. According to a 2016 study, people who are in moderate-to-severe pain are 41% more likely to develop an addiction to opioid painkillers than patients who are pain-free.

The Role That Stress Plays in Addiction

The loss of income and over $600,000 in medical bills forced Kidder into bankruptcy. She lost her home and had to sell her jewelry to raise cash. Faster than a speeding bullet, the woman who was at one time the highest-paid Canadian woman in Hollywood was living in a one-bedroom apartment and driving a six-year-old Chevy Blazer. In addition, within a two-year period, her father died and Maggie, her only child, developed an eating disorder. All of this is relevant, because in there is now scientific evidence highlighting how stress drives alcoholism. After acutely stressful events, the neurons in the brain that moderate alcohol consumption are “flipped” to the “off” position. In essence, stress incentivizes heavy drinking.

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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: When Survival Hurts

While psychological trauma is characterized by disruptions in a person’s sense of control, addiction can also be viewed as a disorder of control, or more accurately, an inability to control. The loss of control is insidious, often unrecognized by the addict until, in Alcoholics Anonymous terms, life becomes unmanageable.”Psychological Trauma and Addiction Treatment, edited by Dr. Bruce Carruth, PhD, LCSW Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is the reaction to the experience of any physically or emotionally painful event that has become psychologically disruptive. When people experience events such as

  • witnessing a death
  • serious injury or illness—either one’s self of a loved one
  • physical or sexual abuse
  • accidents or natural disasters

Violent accidents are psychologically traumatic, as is chronic pain resulting from any suffered injuries. But even nonviolent events can be severely traumatizing – the death of a parent or a child with a life-threatening illness. Between 1990 and 1992, Margot Kidder experienced all of these. Several studies have suggested a link between trauma and addiction:

  • Victims of sexual or physical abuse or assault are at tripled risk of substance abuse.
  • Over 70% of people in alcohol or drug rehab have a personal history of trauma.
  • Nearly 60% of people diagnosed with PTSD will develop a Substance Use Disorder

Dual Diagnosis: Mental Illness and Addiction

“I was like one of those ladies you see talking to the space aliens on the street corner in New York.” ~ Margot Kidder Mental illness and SUD co-occur much more frequently than you might think:

  • Depression—67%
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)—66%
  • Schizophrenia65%
  • Narcissistic Personality Disorder—64%
  • Bipolar Disorder—56%
  • Disordered Eating—50%
  • Anxiety45%
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder—25%
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)—25%

The relationship between mental and addictive disorders is reciprocal, because each can cause—and be caused by—the other. Left untreated, they also worsen each other, creating a tragic cycle of dysfunction. For example, someone who has experienced severe unprocessed trauma might start drinking in an attempt to cope with painful memories or emotions. But because alcohol abuse often results in NEW trauma that creates even more pain. Which leads to more self-meditation. And on and on and on… And here’s the thing – a dual diagnosis complicates recovery. The only effective treatment is to deal with both illnesses simultaneously, rather than one at a time. But because most therapists aren’t equipped to handle SUD, and most rehab programs can’t address severe psychological disorders, just 5% of people with dual diagnoses are receiving specialized care for both disorders.

Illnesses Require Treatment

“I was OK for long stretches of time, and then there were pieces of time where I definitely wasn’t.” ~ Margot Kidder By rejecting her BPD diagnosis, Kidder cut herself off from the medical care that she needed. And because mental illness and addiction don’t just go away, her condition eventually got worse. In 1996, a source close to her family was quoted as saying, “There have been past incidents in which she was delusional, paranoid. It was total lunacy – saying that other people were out to get her, were after her money. Just generally unstable behavior.” But is professional, specialized treatment REALLY necessary? Take alcohol or drug rehab, for instance. The “gold standard” of evidenced-based SUD treatment is a combination of education, psychological counseling, behavior modification AND FDA-approved medications that can reduce cravings and ease symptoms of withdrawal. When this standard is correctly met, the results are extremely positive.  As Dr. Raj Masih, with the Potomac Highland Guild’s Substance Abuse Anti-Stigma Initiative, reports, “…success rates are over 70 percent – 70 percent of people will be abstinent in one year.”

The Effects of a Dual Diagnosis on Personal Relationships

“I was whipping through husbands a mile a minute.” ~ Margot Kidder Margot Kidder was a self-professed “serial dater”, and she was married and divorced three times. None of her marriages ever made it to the three-year anniversary mark. This is typical, because mental illness and substance abuse can put a terrific strain on any relationship.

  • Arguments
  • Poor Communication
  • Money Problems
  • Infidelity
  • Separations
  • Divorce
  • Domestic Violence
  • Child Protective Services

Because of the mood swings and the unpredictable roller coaster of daily life, some statistics put the divorce rate among people with BPD as high as 90%. Author Thomas McGuane, who was married to Kidder for less than a year, said, “We did not have a successful marriage. We had a brief marriage, and I left it with a tremendous sense of relief.”

Losing Her Memoirs: “From Really Distressed to Absolute Delusion”

In 1996, Kidder was working on her memoirs, but her computer was infected by a virus and when it crashed, she lost three years’ worth of work. Desperate, Kidder flew to Los Angeles to work with a data retrieval company. When they were unable to retrieve the lost files, the stress and grief pushed her over the line. Kidder had a psychotic bipolar episode, what she later called “the most public freak-out in history.” While at the airport, she suddenly became convinced that her lost book could change the world. She believed that her ex-husband was working with the CIA to have her killed to prevent her from rewriting it. She yelled at random passers-by and even threw her purse away because she thought it contained a bomb. She refused to use an ATM because she feared it would explode. Unable to pay for a taxi, Kidder took off, running away from the airport. For the next four days, she slept in peoples’ yards, porches, and at one point, even shared a cardboard shack with a homeless person. Somehow, some of the caps on her front teeth fell out, so she put them back in place with Krazy Glue. To disguise herself from her imagined enemies, hacked her hair off. When another man tried to rape Kidder, he hit her in the mouth and knocked out the rest of the front caps. This is what untreated mental illness looks like.

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I May Not Look Like It, but I’m Margot Kidder.”

On the fourth day of her episode, hid in a backyard in Glendale, and when she encountered the homeowner, she identified herself. Initially skeptical, the woman called the police. Kidder was picked up and placed under observation until she could prove that she wasn’t a danger to herself or others. While laying low in a rented house to avoid the press, Kidder was introduced by her brother to the writings of Kay Redfield Jamison, a Psychology Professor with Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Not only is Jamison an expert in bipolar disorder, she herself struggled with the illness. Like Kidder, Jamison initially refused to take lithium, but she changed her mind after a severe attack of bipolar depression. And, like Kidder and many other bipolar patients, her disease once caused her to attempt suicide. In her book, An Unquiet Mind: a Memoir of Moods and Madness, Jamison wrote, “There is a particular kind of pain, elation, loneliness, and terror involved in this kind of madness. When you’re high it’s tremendous. The ideas and feelings are fast and frequent like shooting stars, and you follow them until you find better and brighter ones…But, somewhere, this changes…you are irritable, angry, frightened, uncontrollable, and enmeshed totally in the blackest caves of the mind. You never knew those caves were there. It will never end, for madness carves its own reality.” Kidder was shocked to recognize a kindred spirit in Jamison. She says, “Finally, I was able to accept the diagnosis.”

Acceptance Allows the Healing to Begin

“I’m not saying it’s all over. I’m saying this is the pattern of my life. In three years I might be having another wig-out. I have no idea. I just have to accept the fact that this is me, or I ain’t gonna make it.” ~ Margot Kidder This initial admission—acknowledging the problem—is the most important step in the entire recovery process. In fact, the First of the Twelve Steps of Recovery reads: “We admitted that we were powerless over our addiction/disease—that our lives had become unmanageable.” Why is this so necessary? It is the honest admission that we are not in control of the disease – BPD, alcoholism, drug addiction, etc. It acknowledges that we can’t get better on our own – we need help from others. And in the case of mental illness or SUD, we need specialized help. This removes the biggest barrier to successful recovery— DENIAL.  Addiction and other mental disease are both fed by denial, deflection, dishonesty, and deceit. As long as a person can lie about their illness, or try to hide the damage it causes, they will never have a reason to change. Honesty, on the other hand, opens the door and lets other people in.  These are the therapists, counselors, specialists, medical personnel, sponsors, and family members who want the best for us and who will help us during recovery. Margot Kidder took an unorthodox approach.  Like many people new to recovery, she joined a 12-Step fellowship program, but she also tended to eschew structured rehab programs for alternative options such as acupuncture, mega-vitamin therapy, and native American herbal remedies. While these did help to a limited degree, the long-term results of these unscientific approaches were decidedly mixed.

Giving Back in Recovery

…I totally understood the need to abolish the stigma attached to people with thought disorders. Those people tend to be treated, even by psychiatrists, as separate from the population, rather than as part of it, but with a problem.” ~ Margot Kidder Kidder continued to work regularly in film, television, and the stage – even winning a Daytime Emmy award in 2015 for her work on a children’s program. She was also an ardent activist who strongly supported environmental protectionism and antiwar efforts. But during the last few years of her life, her growing passion was advocacy for people struggling with mental health or substance abuse problems. To that end, Kidder reportedly opened her Montana home to local drug addicts in attempt to “fix” them. And although her heart was in the right place, Kidder was not a professional addiction specialist, and her efforts ultimately caused problems in her own life.

Associating with The Wrong People

“She hadn’t realized what was going on. She couldn’t understand why all these strange cars were turning up at her home at odd hours of the day and night.” ~ Louisa Wilcox, a friend of Kidder’s for over 30 years Wilcox says meth addicts taken in by Kidder basically took over her home. “Margie was a real bad judge of people… ‘She became a target for Livingston’s meth scene. They took her jewelry, her silver, anything they could get their hands on.” In addition to the thefts, they were also allegedly using Kidder’s basement to cook methamphetamine. Wilcox said it got so bad that Kidder took to hiding her prescription medications inside her bra for safekeeping. One of the first lessons learned during recovery is the importance of avoiding situations and people who could trigger a relapse into substance use or dangerous behaviors.  Being surrounded by drug addicts who were taking advantage of her could have been an overwhelming situation for Margot Kidder.

Old Bad Habits: Kidder was Still Drinking

Her habits were getting the better of her. She would go on benders and drink too much. From what I heard, she was recovering from one of those and went to sleep and never woke up again. I hauled her into rehab any number of times, most recently a couple of years ago. But she never really stopped drinking.” ~ Doug Peacock, a close friend of Kidder’s Although she was in recovery for both substance abuse and mental illness, Kidder’s friends say she hadn’t embraced a life of abstinence. By their accounts, she was still drinking regularly—and often heavily. Many people with co-occurring mental illness and substance abuse mistakenly believe that only one of their illness is their “real” problem. Kidder may have felt that since it had been so long since she suffered a major bipolar episode, it was now safe for her to drink “like other people”. But dual diagnoses are more complicated than that. In fact, because BPD and substance abuse affect similar areas of the brain, an incidence of one “primes” the brain for the other.  In other words, abusing alcohol or drugs can trigger manic or depressive episodes. And here’s the thing – SUD is an incurable, lifelong condition. Because Kidder had struggled with alcoholism and prescription medication addiction in the past, that meant she was ALWAYS going to be vulnerable. Drinking “like other people” was simply not an option. The drug use and criminal activity in her home may have created a toxic environment that undermined Kidder’s ability to maintain either her sobriety or her optimal mental health.

Not Her First Suicide Attempt

“It never occurred to anyone to send me to a shrink. I was just a teenager with a broken heart.” ~ Margot Kidder When she was 14 years old, Kidder tried to kill herself by swallowing a handful of codeine pills.  While some would be quick to write this off as nothing more than a hysterical overreaction of a teenage girl who had just been dumped by her boyfriend, the truth is more complicated, as is the relevance 55 years later. Relevant to Kidder, research published in the British Medical Journal suggests that any person who has ever made a suicide attempt in the past will remain at elevated risk of suicide for the rest of their lives. Even after more than 20 years after the initial attempt, the suicide risk is nearly two-and-a-half times that of someone without a previous attempt. Dr. Gary R. Jenkins said, “…a previous attempt is a predictive factor even if it is more than two decades after the first act.”

A Deadly Perfect Storm: Mental Illness, Substance Abuse, And Suicide

Mental illness – such as bipolar disorder – is the leading cause of suicide.  Significantly, 90% of completed suicides are committed by someone with a mental disorder. But equally significant is the fact that substance abuse– is the second-leading cause.  Active addicts and alcoholics are six times more likely to take their own lives than the general population.  Roughly 60% of completed suicides are committed by someone who is intoxicated or under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol. But recent research is even more germane to the specific case of Margot Kidder. In 2013, research scientists with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health determined that opioid abusers think about killing themselves more often than the general population.  This study, supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, revealed that the likelihood of suicidal ideation stays elevated even after the person stops using drugs According to the study, 7% of former opioid addicts who had not taken a painkiller non-medically or used heroin for at least a year still thought about taking their own lives. This rate is over twice that of people who did not abuse opioids. And among current opioid abusers who meet the criteria for a medical diagnosis of SUD, the rate of suicidal ideation increases dramatically, to 23%. These conclusions agree with 2016 research that uncovered a link between major depression long-term opioid use.  Nearly 1 out of every 5 people who take opioids for over three months will show signs of depression.

Suicide in America: A Hidden Epidemic?

“We have a serious, national problem in terms of adequate recognition of psychiatric illnesses and their treatment.” ~ Dr. John Mann, a scientist and neurochemist with Columbia University Because September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, let’s take a moment to look at the larger picture. As tragic as Margot Kidder’s  is on an individual level, it reflects a wider-spread, more disturbing trend in this country. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates in America have spiked 28% within the past generation.  In 2016, nearly 45,000 people in the United States took their own lives. To put that number in perspective, there are only three causes of death that have risen over the past 20 years – drug overdoses, Alzheimer’s disease, and suicides. Kidder’s death qualifies as two of those, because 75% of all overdose – including 98% of those that are fatal – involve multiple substances. Other relevant statistics about suicide:

  • 2000-2016: The suicide rate among women jumped by 50%.
  • Among teenage girls, it tripled.
  • Right now, the highest female suicide rate is among women between the ages of 25 and 64.
  • Suicide has become the second-leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 10 and 34.
  • Among mental illness factors, untreated depression is the #1 cause of suicide.

This last number is especially relevant because in June of this year, the Journal of American Medicine reported that 37% of American adults are currently taking at least one medication listing depression as a possible side effect.

Red Flags: Warning Signs of Suicide

If someone exhibits several of the following warning signs, immediate intervention is needed:

  • Experiencing a negative major life change—divorce, breakup, death of a loved one, job loss, etc.
  • Substance abuse
  • Mental illness, especially if it is not properly managed
  • Suffering extreme stress
  • Appearing overly-sad or depressed for long periods of time
  • Talking or writing about death or suicide
  • Sudden drop-off in school or work performance
  • Feelings of powerlessness or despair
  • Showing uncontrollable anger or rage
  • Excessive guilt or shame
  • Feeling “trapped”
  • Social withdrawal, even from family events
  • Loss of interest in formerly-enjoyed activities and hobbies
  • Dramatic mood swings
  • Personality changes
  • Uncharacteristically acting recklessly, without regards to consequences
  • A major change in sleeping or eating habits
  • Giving away personal possessions
  • Writing a will

Pay attention—75% of people who attempt suicide exhibit warnings signs. If a suicidal person is in immediate physical danger, CALL 911 right away. The National Suicide Prevention Line has caring people waiting to help 24 hours a day, seven days a week– 1-800-273-8255.

What Can We Learn from the Life and Death of Margot Kidder?

“Acting’s fun, but life’s more important.” ~ Margot Kidder The first takeaway from an examination of Margot Kidder’s struggles in life and untimely death is this—mental illness and substance abuse can affect ANYONE—even someone who is beautiful, talented, and successful. Disease does not discriminate. The next takeaway is how unregulated mental illness can wreak havoc on every aspect of a person’s life. Margot Kidder is a perfect example of this – multiple episodes of bizarre behavior, relationship problems, cyclical addiction and recovery, and suicide. The third takeaway is that mental illness and addiction require specialized professional care that utilizes evidence-based treatment protocols—such as behavioral counseling, groups therapy, and medical assistance. This need becomes even more urgent when the illness occur simultaneously. The fourth thing we can learn is that there is no cure or quick fix for mental or addictive disorders. Recovery from either requires professional help, approved medications, a strong personal support system, and long-term lifestyle changes. And because relapse can happen at any time, success hinges upon constant vigilance to avoid slipping into old bad habits and behaviors. The next lesson is that mental illness and substance abuse are NEVER to be taken lightly. These are serious health conditions that have the potential to be fatal, either through accidents, disease, overdose, or suicide. The best time to get help is always RIGHT NOW. Finally, the biggest takeaway from the cautionary tale of Margot Kidder is that if you are struggling with mental illness, substance abuse issues, self-harm, or suicidal thoughts—YOU ARE NOT ALONE. Caring, help, and support ARE available, and it IS possible to return to a happier and more peaceful life. If you or someone you care about you care about needs help, click here.