When Leslie Jackson Chihuly met the artist who would become her husband, Dale Chihuly was a firecracker — talkative, compelling, upbeat. “He was interested in everything. He wanted to look at vintage clothing. He wanted to talk about books,” she recalled of their first days 25 years ago.
A few months later, the couple went to an art opening, and Leslie found Dale transformed: uninterested in window-shopping, inexplicably silent, gloomy.
For Leslie, the pattern felt familiar. Her mother had also seesawed emotionally, one day playing bridge and entertaining guests, the next shuttered in a darkened room.
But this time Leslie knew the name of the affliction that so hurt and baffled her as a child: bipolar disorder, a mental illness featuring periods of elevated mood and high energy followed by depression. She couldn’t help her mother, who died by suicide in 2003, but she thought she could help this brilliant artist, renowned for his elaborate, curling glass sculptures and chandeliers. (His “Lime Green Icicle Tower” is part of the permanent collection at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.)
And today, Leslie Chihuly also wants to help others.
“It can be very scary and isolating to either have a mental illness or be the caregiver or wife” of someone who does, she said. She wants to tell such people they are not alone.
Leslie has joined McLean Hospital’s three-year-old Deconstructing Stigma project, a photo exhibit and speakers bureau that takes stories of mental illness into places where people don’t expect to find them — like the airport.
A giant poster bearing Leslie’s photo and some text about her life was installed last week alongside dozens of others in the corridor between Terminals B and C at Logan Airport. Deconstructing Stigma opened in December 2016, displaying 34 stories of mental illness, some of them by famous people. Now a new series of images is going up at the airport.
Adriana Bobinchock, a McLean Hospital spokeswoman who conceived of the project with a colleague, said she hoped the photos would catch people off guard, and perhaps change their thinking. She never imagined that travelers would pause to read every one — but many did, according to the e-mails she received praising the exhibit.
As word spread, McLean, a Harvard-affiliated psychiatric hospital in Belmont, has taken versions of the exhibit to 10 states and seven countries, and has started a related podcast. Deconstructing Stigma also joined with the NAACP’s Boston chapter to develop a program specific to the African-American community, which has traditionally been reluctant to acknowledge mental illness.
Leslie Chihuly, 58, who serves as president and CEO of her husband’s studio, is the first participant who does not herself suffer from a mental illness. Instead, she speaks of the toll it takes on family members. It’s also the first time she has shared her mother’s story. The Chihulys live in Seattle, but Leslie is expected to arrive in Boston Tuesday to see the Logan exhibit and speak to a private gathering at McLean.
Leslie’s involvement comes two years after she joined Dale in disclosing his illness to an Associated Press reporter.
Dale had been diagnosed a couple of years before Leslie met him, but he wasn’t yet in treatment, she said.
“In the early days, it was tough for him. He had a couple of very deep depressions,” she said. “It was clear he really needed to make some changes and stick with a treatment plan.”
Leslie said she helped her husband adjust and adhere to a treatment regimen, and understood how frustrating that can be.
“None of these treatment plans are great, even when you do everything right,” she said. “The illness is still there.” She admires how much the 78-year-old artist has accomplished nevertheless.
Leslie helps by serving as a sympathetic friend, one who doesn’t judge or demand good cheer.
When Dale is feeling down, she said, “There’s nothing I can do. That’s what you have to learn.” During these times, they go out to lunch and the movies, and she takes no offense at his silence. “It’s really important to just accept the person where they are. The last thing somebody who’s depressed wants to be asked is, ‘How are you feeling?’ ”
Leslie believes bipolar disorder may play a role in Dale’s creativity. A therapist once cautioned her, “He’s an artist in spite of his illness not because of it,” but Leslie adds, “You could look at it another way.” The sparkle of mania, the flood of ideas it engenders, seems to have fueled his creativity. Would his achievements have occurred without it? “It’s really hard to know,” she said.
Leslie also makes sure to take care of herself; that means walking, skiing, diving, bicycling, and maintaining a network of close friends. She also sees a therapist regularly; she says her own moods fluctuate seasonally, but not as dramatically as Dale’s. Although Dale goes to the studio every day no matter how he’s feeling, Leslie handles the business side, often traveling without him.
“I’m in a lucky position to be able to share a story about what is possible,” she said. “Dale has had bipolar disorder for a long time and yet he’s been able to have a family, have a very full career, have wonderful friends who stayed by him.”
She wants young people struggling with mental illness to know: “You can go on to have a full life, a family — if you choose, if you’re willing to do the work.”