By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
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By Charles Lam
By Charles Lam
Her condition led her to professional golf. And being honest about her bipolar disorder was a crucial factor in her decision to out herself.
Hellene Harrington Spencer was born Oct. 25, 1953, in Piqua, Ohio. Her father was a successful salesman in the newspaper-blanket industry (basically, rollers used by printing presses to dry ink on newspaper pages), and her mother, Pat, was a terrific golfer, winning an amateur championship in Western Pennsylvania. "Muffin" was a nickname given to her by her grandmother, who thought the tiny impressions on her infant head from the forceps used to pull her out of her mother's birth canal resembled marks on a muffin. Her parents divorced, and her mother married a Wall Street executive (Devlin was her stepfather's last name); the family moved to Long Island when Muffin was 7. She played some junior golf and in high school, but Spencer-Devlin never considered it as a career.
After high school, she spent a year studying in Switzerland, and then enrolled in Florida's Rollins College, a prestigious private institution. It was the early 1970s, and along with the books, there was plenty of drugs and alcohol to pass the time. In her first three months at Rollins, Spencer-Devlin switched majors three times: first to English, then anthropology, then sociology, and finally settling on theater. Her first big theater-related project was designing period costumes for William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. In the weeks before then, Spencer-Devlin recalled feeling out of sorts, sleeping a lot and hiding from people. Little did she know that manageable bout of depression was the precursor to the first of many manic episodes that would nearly derail her life.
"I had all these costumes to make, and I didn't know how to use a sewing machine, which is the main reason I agreed to do it, since I thought it'd be a fun thing to learn," she says. "But that also led me into my first manic episode."
Spencer-Devlin wound up not sleeping for days. She completed the job, but something wasn't right. She left college after three years, and then suffered her first full-blown manic episode. The details are sketchy to this day, but she remembers waking up not remembering the past few weeks and trying to piece together what she'd been doing by checking her flight receipts.
Her parents immediately took her to a doctor, who diagnosed manic depression and put her on lithium. She hated it.
"I couldn't stomach the idea of taking a pill for the rest of my life," she says. "I felt that my body had betrayed me, my mind was betraying me, and the only control I had was to take this pill."
Along with the sobering realization of her mental fragility, there was another reason Spencer-Devlin didn't like the lithium: She dug the mania.
"Yes it's very self-destructive," she says. "You pick fights with people, your temper is short, but you're also full of energy, have all these crazy ideas to do things, these grandiose thoughts. I didn't want to give up that amazing feeling."
But, as the mania lingered, she began to feel as though there was "a tornado or whirlwind in my chest cavity, so I'd look to quiet or quell that through alcohol, pot, any kind of downers."
And then, of course, there was the soul-sucking void of the depressive phases (which, for Spencer-Devlin, usually foreshadowed the manic phase), something that led, at best, to sleeping for days and, at worst, to attempts to kill herself. She tried to deal with the disease for two years after being diagnosed—sometimes on lithium, other times self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. A move to New York in hopes of acting or being a talent agent didn't work out, save for making her realize she was a lesbian. "It was the early 1970s, and there were a lot of couples-swapping parties," she recalls. "One night, I kissed a woman for the first time, and that was electrifying, one of those 'ah-ha' moments."
Sometime around 1976, after traveling with her parents to attend an LPGA tournament, another light bulb went on in her frenetic head: Why not try golf?
Spencer-Devlin thought that if she could dedicate herself to a game that took so much focus, concentration and regimentation in terms of practice and discipline, maybe she could get a handle on her illness. But she encountered a major obstacle when deciding to turn professional and whip her game into competitive shape on mini-tours. "There's a mind-body connection in everything creative and physical like, say, violin playing," she says. "Golf is the same. And I couldn't get that connection on lithium. There's a feel that you need in golf, whether it's cutting a drive, or hitting a delicate chip shot. There's a translation point from what your mind knows what it wants to do and when your body takes over. With lithium, it felt like that process was blocked."
Out went the lithium. Her game improved, but the manic episodes returned regularly—and with a vengeance. In a one-week period in 1977 or 1978 (she can't remember which), she was arrested twice for drunk driving and again for reckless driving. Shortly before qualifying for the LPGA Tour in 1979—at the relatively advanced age of 26—a friend turned her on to a doctor in Palm Springs, who told Spencer-Devlin he suspected the disorder wasn't mental as much as it was physical; it was, he said, a rather complicated sugar imbalance. He prescribed a combination of a rigid diet involving axing all the fun things to eat, drink and smoke, plus a regimen of nutritional supplements, including amino acids.