“Genie, you’re free” (goodbye to Robin Williams)

Last fall, my daughter’s 5th grade music class decided to put on a musical production of Disney’s “Aladdin”. Like every other ten-year old in the class, she wanted to audition for the role of the Genie. To prepare her for her audition, the two of us sat down in front of the television and watched the DVD of “Aladdin” to help get to know the character of the genie a little better. And while watching, I was reminded of the comic genius of the actor Robin Williams.

The genie in this film had the unique quality of being able to grant wishes to those who found his lamp. He had the ability to make people happy, and he had to do so unselfishly, knowing that he could never have what he truly wanted, which was to have no master. To have freedom from his lamp. To live life on his own terms. The genie made everyone laugh. He was larger than life, fast-talking and quick-witted, but always knowing that at the end of the day, he would have to return to his lamp. He returned depressed with the knowledge that he could help everyone but himself.

Much like the genie, Robin Williams was capable of just about anything. He could make everyone laugh. People clearly loved to be in his presence. Television hosts who had the great pleasure of interviewing him rarely were able to maintain their composures as he sat in chairs across from them, moving quickly from one comedic personality to another, able to imitate anyone, be anyone he wanted, always resulting in laughter. I’m a tough customer when it comes to things that make me laugh, that deep-from-the-belly laughter that hurts my stomach and brings tears to my eyes. But Robin Williams never failed me.

We all know of his accomplishments on screen and on stage. He was a brilliant actor and comedian, and received many awards for his efforts. But in addition to his contributions to the fine arts, he was also a generous philanthropist. A dear friend of mine who worked for MDA had the honor of meeting Mr. Williams at a fundraiser for the organization. She remembers him as being delightful and kind, truly concerned with wanting to promote awareness of the disease. Mr. Williams was involved with many charities and had the great desire to help others.

But what about helping himself? Like the Genie in “Aladdin”, was he only capable of helping others? And like the Genie, he also had a “master” that goes by the name of “depression”. Robin Williams suffered from deep depression, but did he also suffer from bipolar disorder? Was his comedic euphoria simply a well-balanced manic episode? He once told Matt Lauer in a TV interview that he had been advised to take medication for his depression, but that the medication brought him down. He said he didn’t feel like himself when he was on the meds, and he was unable to stay “up”. For myself, my manic episodes typically resulted in violence and not euphoria, and I was happy to find that medication and therapy helped me to avoid mania. But Robin William’s “ups” were what made him so funny, and funny brought success. They defined him. Was he afraid that he would lose his comedic abilities if he suppressed his mania with medication in an attempt to battle his depression?

Actor and producer Garry Marshall recalled his friendship with Robin Williams, saying, “Robin was hands-down a comedy genius and one of the most talented performers I have ever worked with in television or film. To lose him so young at the age of 63 is just a tragedy. I will forever be in awe of his timing, his talent and his pure and golden creativity. He could make everybody happy, but himself.”

“He could make everybody happy, but himself”.

Why didn’t someone step in to help the Genie? Why didn’t someone recognize his depression and help him? If he was afraid to lose his “high” because of meds, didn’t he know that there were other options? Or that there were other medications that could have had different results? He obviously was not afraid to admit that depression was an issue for him. We all know that the first step to wellness is admitting there is a problem to begin with. He didn’t try to hide it; he discussed it openly. He widely acknowledged that he had a problem. And he clearly had the financial resources to seek help, which is not an option for so many people suffering from mental illness. So often, those of us held down by mental incapacitation cannot afford our medications or therapy. And when I hear of someone taking their own life, I automatically want to blame it on a lack of resources. If someone with seemingly endless amounts of money, access to the best doctors and therapists, support from a loving family and community, and more friends than he could count could not overcome his depression, what does that mean for the rest of us? Robin Williams must have known he was loved. Loved by millions. How must that have felt to know that he brought laughter to so many people, but was unable to make himself happy? If someone that remarkable could not find happiness, where does that leave an ordinary me?

When a high-profile death occurs that can be attributed to drugs, alcohol or mental deficiency, there is always the opportunity to shed light on these issues. We sit up and take notice. These unfortunate opportunities perhaps help to reduce the stigmas associated with diseases like mental illness or addiction. We realize that we are not alone in our struggle, that even someone larger than life, someone like Robin Williams, must have at times felt alone and unable to cope with his internal demons. His death makes depression real, and hopefully it will raise awareness of mental illness. But in me, it also elicits fear. Because now I feel that if Robin Williams cannot successfully battle his depression, how will it be possible for me?

In the movie “The Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams’ character told his students, “No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world”. So here are some words and ideas for all of us to ponder: seek help. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, I promise. I have to promise, because I so desperately want to believe it myself. Please don’t let your depression ruin your opportunity for a healthy and happy life. Please think of those people you would leave behind. Is your unhappiness so great that you can disregard the feelings those you love will have after you leave? The devastation and loss they will feel without you in their lives?

Robin Williams had millions of fans. He was surrounded by love and support. But maybe it was the wrong kind of support, or not enough of it because in the end, he died alone in his room. The genie retreated to his bottle one last time.

Following Robin Williams’ death, I have felt a little lost. I want to believe I am strong enough to battle my own depression, but is it true? I want to take my own advice, follow my own “words and ideas”. But I doubt my abilities. I doubt my own strength.

In the movie “Aladdin”, the Genie turns a regular kid into a prince. He had the ability to make a common “street rat” into Prince Ali. But all the Genie wanted was to be happy. He wanted to be released from his bonds that held him down and kept him from being truly happy. And at the end of the film, Prince Ali granted the genie the ultimate wish:

“Genie, you’re free”. And Robin? So are you.

I’m back….. (and I’m a little upset)

Hi, everyone –

My friend called me a few weeks ago asking why I hadn’t posted anything to my blog in a while.  I gave her the usual excuses:  no time, writer’s block, I didn’t think anyone was reading me, etc.  Well, I realize that none of that really is true.  In fact, I think the only reason I haven’t written in so many months is simply because I’m feeling slumpy (is that even a word?).  I’m not depressed, clinically, and I’m not manic.  I’m just feeling blah.  I’ve been spending the last six months running kids to their activities, cleaning the house, working and trying to be better about volunteering and being an asset to my community.  And by the end of the day, I never wanted to write and share my feelings with the public.  I just wanted to crash in front of “Game of Thrones” and be drawn away by a fantasy life that is nothing like my own.  Again, not depressed.  Just not anything.  What I needed was a kick in the bottom to get me writing again.

Then, last week, someone who is very, very dear to me posted a link on Facebook that talked about all of the recent school violence that had occurred over the years.  The article discussed how each of the shooters had been on some kind of prescription medication.  And the title of the article read, “Facts Don’t Lie”.  I suddenly woke up.  I was hurt and amazed that the writer of this article could so easily place blame on medication as the reason that these young men went on shooting rampages in their own schools and in others.  I was also hurt to learn that this person who shared the link seemed to agree with its content.  It was hurtful because he knows my situation and that of my daughter.  We are both on a lot of medication to treat our variety of mental issues, including bipolar disorder, anxiety, ADHD and ODD.  These medications have been absolute lifesavers for us, and allow us to function like “normal” people in society.

I read through the article, and its basis was that all of these young men must have been spurned to violence because of the cocktail of prescribed medication in their bodies, something each “boy” had in common.  What about the other things they had in common?  They all had easy access to weapons, they were all caucasian, they all came from middle- to upper-middle class families.  Perhaps they all loved the color blue, or maybe they were all right-handed?  Do any of those shared traits and lifestyles point to violence?  Of course not.   Then why blame the medication?  Isn’t it possible that the kids weren’t taking enough medication, or the correct medication and that’s why they went on their shooting sprees?  I’m guessing the article’s author doesn’t have anyone in his family who suffers – truly suffers – from mental illness, and takes medication to keep them sane.  I’m going out on a limb here and will assume that this writer has never watched his child suffer in school, unable to function in public, unable to sleep, crying incessantly.  He has never seen his little girl throw uncontrollable tantrums over how a tag itches the back of her neck, or how her brain “talks to her at night” and keeps her from being able to sleep.  He probably has never had a wife who tried to kill herself because she was in such despair over the mental pain she was suffering.  He, himself, has probably never been unhappy and miserable for no reason, and unable to get out of bed for days at a time and unable to concentrate or focus on anything in his life, distraught over a mental illness that is not his fault.  How dare he blame the murders of so many innocent people on medication?

True, medication is not for everyone.  I live in Boulder County, Colorado, where a lot of illnesses are treated herbally or holistically.  There are hundreds of families who do not vaccinate their children, or give them cough syrup or even a Tylenol.  Do you have any idea how much I wish I could be those people, who don’t rely on prescription medication to keep them happy and healthy?  Sadly, I’m not one of them.  I tried the “no-meds” route for years, and it simply didn’t work for me.  If it were not for medication, my daughter probably would not be allowed to attend public school, and she’d be unable to function as part of her softball team.  She would not have any friends, and she wouldn’t be able to sleep.  She would cry incessantly over nothing, then sob in the corner of her room, rocking and asking us, “Why am I like this?  I hate myself!”  I am so thankful for the availability of certain prescription medications because they have helped to save my family.  But of course I agree that they are not suitable for all people.  Some people have been blessed with perfect mental health.  I’m just not one of them.

In addition, who’s to say that medication for diabetes or cancer or Alzheimer’s won’t have dangerous long-term effects?  Everyone seems to be so concerned with the medications prescribed to children and adults for mental illnesses because we don’t know how they will play out years from now.  There is not enough research or history to know exactly how these medications will effect us later in life.  But that is a chance I am willing to take to live my life with health and happiness in this moment.  Bipolar disorder is a debilitating, life-threatening disease much like diabetes or cancer of Alzheimer’s.  None of those diseases can be cured.  We are stuck with them forever.  And medication can provide longevity and mental and physical security to those who truly need it.

So, getting back to “Facts Don’t Lie”.  The “facts” are probably yes, those boys had mental issues that needed help.  But don’t blame the medications.  Perhaps the blame is on the doctors for not prescribing the correct medications.  Maybe the boys were prescribed drugs, but didn’t take them as directed.  Maybe they were not taking advantage of medication’s essential partner, which is therapy.  Anyone taking prescription medication for mental illness should also be in some sort of therapy and seeing his or her psychiatrist regularly.  Can we blame the parents for looking the other way?  Probably not.  I know from experience that there are times when you have done so much to help your child and nothing works, and it is easy to turn away and hope the problem resolves itself.  Hopefully they believed they were doing everything they could for their children.  Can we blame society and the media?  Absolutely.  Violent video games and movies?  Possibly.  Lenient gun laws and easy access to weapons?  Sure.  These boys were all bullied at school, treated badly for being “weird” or “geeky”.  Their crimes were all sensationalized on television, practically encouraging that if they’re going to go out, they should go “big” so they can have their legacy live on with TV, magazines and big-selling biographies.  But I emphatically do not believe that we can solely blame the prescription medications.  These drugs are meant to help people with mental illnesses.  And if the boys had been diagnosed correctly, prescribed the correct medications, were monitored by their doctors and encouraged to attend therapy, then I do not think it’s fair to blame the drugs.  Just like it’s unfair to blame the lack of security at the schools or the parents for leaving gun cabinets unlocked.  It was a tragedy.  And we can blame the shooters.  But there are simply too many factors and too much is unknown about these boys to simply blame the meds exclusively for their actions.

My dear friend who shared the article with me, and who appeared to be in agreement with its content, said in a later post that there is simply too much not known about the long-term effects of these medications.  But these shooters, these children themselves, could not have possibly been on medication long enough to suffer yet any “long-term” effects.  They were teenagers.  Babies, really.  In my opinion, “long-term effects” pertains to what these drugs might do to us twenty or thirty or forty years down the road.  And we don’t have those answers.  But in my situation, I would much rather have happiness and sanity right now, when I’m raising my children and trying to contribute to society, and suffer side-effects later.  If they kill me dead after thirty years of taking them, at least I know I had those thirty happy years.

 

On a separate note:  one of my recent readers commented that “this blog does seem like a drug company website”.  I can assure you, it is not.  Blogs are a way for people to express their opinions and share their thoughts and feelings.  I have had success with certain medications and I share those successes with my readers because I want them to know what else is available to them.  Many of you haven’t heard of certain medications, or combinations of medications, that have proved helpful.  I myself learned of my current drug combination from someone’s personal website and asked my doctor about it, tried it and found it was the right mixture for me.  I am, in no way, promoting medications on behalf of any drug company, and never will.  I do this simply because I want to share my positive experience with anyone willing to read about them.  Thank you.

The Volunteer Effect

People volunteer for a variety of reasons: some do it because they have infinite amounts of free time and need a way to fill it, others because they truly enjoy helping people. There are the folks who volunteer because they want to change lives, or perhaps as payback for having their own lives changed by a volunteer once upon a time. And there are yet others who volunteer as a way to avoid jail time through community service.

And then there’s me. I volunteer for purely selfish reasons. I volunteer for that sense of appreciation that I don’t get at home from my family.

Maybe this is a widespread feeling amongst busy moms who feel as if their many daily tasks go unappreciated, or are taken for granted. But I have lately felt an overwhelming sense of monotony and ingratitude at home, so six weeks ago I went looking for a way to show I am good for more than just the role of chef, nanny, chauffeur, laundress and housekeeper. And I found myself at my daughter’s elementary school.

I will admit that I did not initially take on my job as volunteer because I wanted to feel appreciated. I think I initially did it to keep myself distracted from the black hole that is my current life. I spend my days caring for my three children, trying to keep my head above water from the weight of bipolar that continues to drag me down, desperately trying to get through my days with the belief that there is likely no light at the end of my tunnel. My husband and I are separated and I do not have the kind of love in my life that used to sustain me during my darkest times.

So when the school sent out a mass email looking for a costume director to help with their yearly school musical, I stepped forward. It was the perfect opportunity for me to spend time with my daughter who was part of the play, it would allow me to be creative, and I would get to be in charge, something I’m definitely not at home. And control is a fabulous feeling.

I admit that I felt some stress when I realized there would be two shows with 118 fifth graders divided between them, and that they all needed costumes. The show was “Aladdin”, which meant costumes for all manner of desert creature, royalty, servants and beggars. Not to mention a genie and a magic carpet. But I was excited. People were asking for my opinions. They listened to my input and actually heeded my advice, something unheard of at home. I felt needed. I felt important. I felt valued.

A couple of weeks ago, my ex-husband suggested I had taken on too much by volunteering for this position. He felt I was maybe in over my head. True, I was neglecting some of my household duties. I was up late every night, sewing and designing. I had a feeling of anxiety at the back of my head, but my overwhelming emotion during the entire process was definitely satisfaction. I felt satisfied with not only my ability to take on and complete a big project, but with the results that were coming together.

Each day at rehearsal, I would show my progress on the costumes to the director, and she was delighted with everything. I heard the words, “thank you” and “you’re doing a terrific job” more times than I could count. My ego and self-esteem soared. When the children finally got to try on the fruits of my labor for the dress rehearsal, they were so excited. And so was I. These kids appreciated me, and were not shy about telling me. They thanked me profusely, and told me I was great. And as a double bonus, they told my daughter that she had a cool mom, which caused her to positively glow.

Last night was the final performance, and on stage in front of hundreds of children and parents, the music director singled out me in her thank-you speech. That has never happened to me before. She praised me for my creativity and hard work, my love for the children and for making her show a success. She pulled me up onto stage and I was presented with flowers. I felt like a beauty queen. Nobody has given me flowers in months. In fact, it’s been months since anyone gave me anything, including flowers or praise. I was overwhelmed with emotion and my heart felt full for the first time in many months. I was valued by the community, even if it was just for one night. People thought I was special, and they told me so. It was wonderful.

And then I went home to my messy house, with my mile-long to-do list and my hungry kids wondering when dinner would be ready. It was a short-lived high, but one I will never forget. I felt important, even if for a short while. I felt appreciated. I felt loved.

Whatever your reasons, volunteering is a terrific outlet for people with mental illnesses. It’s a terrific outlet for “normal” people, too. It provides a distraction from daily life, and it makes you feel good about doing something for others, even if your main objection is to do it to gain something for yourself.

And the best part of all? This morning, my daughter sat down next to me and gave me a huge hug, and told me how glad she was that I helped with her school play. Volunteering is salary-free, but that hug, along with the feeling of satisfaction and appreciation I felt for doing something good for myself and others, was all the payment I needed.

When it rains, it pours

If you’ve been watching the U.S. national news, you might have heard about the torrential rainstorms that are ravaging Colorado this week. My neighborhood in Boulder County has received the equivalent of one year’s worth of rainfall in three short days. Streets are now rivers, fields are now lakes. It’s as if the heavens opened up and decided to have one big cry.

Which led me to think about how often I’m now having emotional breakdowns. Just yesterday, I completely fell to pieces for really no reason at all.  I just started crying, and the waterworks went on for nearly three hours. The last time I had myself a good cry was months ago. I think it had been early summer since I completely fell apart. I feel a lot like those rainstorms: months of strong emotions with no place to go until suddenly, my brain and my heart simply release, opening the floodgates and allowing all of those tears to pour out.

And the analogy applies not only to hours of crying. It could also be used to describe not just tearful breakdowns, but my history of manic episodes, as well.  My last manic episode was February.  A huge span of time for me, by all accounts.  And before that, it had been 8 or 9 months between complete losses of control.  I can’t help but make comparisons between the weather and my emotional ups and downs.

Like a devastating rainstorm, my breakdowns now only happen on an occasional basis, thanks to a combination of ECT, DBT and medication.  As our weatherman predicted the unavoidable storm, tensions rose among the people living in the areas involved.  Anxiety was high, and people were nervous.  I feel the same when I start to sense an impending manic episode or complete meltdown.  I know it’s coming, but there’s nothing I can do about it.  I feel anxious and I do whatever I can to prevent the inevitable.  But in my case, sandbags bear no assistance.  I might increase my meds, or try to get extra sleep, but there is no way to stop the storm that is brewing in my head.  I become more sensitive to my triggers, and even the slightest annoyance grows into something much greater.

No matter how many warning signals I encounter leading up to the storm, there is never enough time to prepare.  And even if I had the time, what could I possibly do to prevent or dull the onset of the disaster?  Like Mother Nature and her forces, my emotions are completely out of my control.  I can only brace myself for what will likely prove to be disastrous to myself and those around me.

In the event of a manic episode, my family is typically forewarned.  They have witnessed enough of them to recognize the signs and they do what they can to relieve my anxiety and avert disaster, but in the end the best thing they can do is to save themselves and move to higher ground.  They brace themselves for the worst, and hope that their predictions are unwarranted.  But unlike the unpredictable science of determining the weather, I typically never fail to “disappoint”.  When all the signs are there, we are usually doomed.  In the event of a devastating storm in the forecast, we can always hope that the meteorologists are wrong in their predictions of how, when, and to what extent.  Sometimes the storms turn out to be not so violent, and sometimes they don’t occur at all.  They just disperse in the atmosphere and never materialize on the ground.  But with me, there are no mis-predictions.  The episode is on the horizon, but the how, when, and to what extent of it can vary.  I never know how violent my personal storm will be.  I only know that once it starts, it’s unstoppable.

In the wake of a massive storm system like the one that swept through Boulder County this week, there is so much damage, so much confusion and pain.  Some of the damage will take years to repair and recover from, and it is not unlike the hurt I have caused in the midst of a manic episode.  Some of the damage will never be repaired – I can only hope that in time, the people I have hurt will forgive me, or in the least, forget the full extent of the pain.  Repairs can be attempted, but sometimes the damage is permanent.  But I don’t have the assistance of the National Guard to save my friends and family from the worst parts of my storms.  The most I can hope for is that instead of a manic episode, I simply break down and cry for hours.  That’s much easier on everyone, including myself.

But regardless the extent of my own storms, there is always one certainty.  Storms can be very cleansing.  Following my breakdowns, there is always calm.  The calm might last for weeks, or it might last for months.  But I savor it while is lasts.  And I try to use that time to prepare myself for what comes next, and to try to recover from the damage that was done in the midst of the disaster.

The aerial video footage of the flood damage here in Colorado showed entire families being led to safety in big rubber rafts.  My raft is my family.  Regardless of how much I have hurt them, or how much damage I cause, they always seem to be willing to lead me to safety.  They could have given up on me and left me to float out there alone, but they continue to be there for me and lead me toward the healing process that must follow any emotional breakdown.  And for that I am eternally grateful.

I hope that, in the future, meteorologists can more accurately forecast damaging storms so that the public has more time to prepare for what can be devastating and painful.  I hope the same for myself.

The Portal

My daughter, who is a sophomore in high school, introduced me to this great app for my iPhone. It’s called the “Infinite Campus Portal” and it’s basically a tool for parents to use to spy on their kids at school.

The app is awesome. It allows me to see if she gets to school on time or skips out early. I can use it to check attendance or to see what her homework assignments are going to be. Additionally, it sends me these text notifications telling me her scores on tests or recent homework assignments. She’s been back in school for less than a week, and already this app is my new best friend. It allows me to monitor her activities and comings and goings at high school, and provides me with a way to keep tabs on her without nagging.

It also got me thinking: what if my family had a nifty little “portal” into my mentally ill world?  Wouldn’t it be great if my family members could download an app onto their smart phones or tablets that allowed them to see how I’m doing during the day?  For example, if I forget to take my meds, a little text message would come across the screen informing the viewer so he or she could call and remind me.  Or if I skipped an appointment with my psychiatrist or counselor, the app would rat me out.  And if I was feeling particularly depressed or manic?  The portal app would send a quick notification to all interested parties so they knew to steer clear or intervene.  “Big Brother” for the mentally ill?  Maybe.

I wondered why my daughter would share her campus portal app with me.  What teenager wants her parents to know everything she does?  Doesn’t it seem like too much information?   Isn’t she afraid that if she skips a class and I get a message, she’ll get in trouble?  Or if she receives a bad grade or misses an assignment, will I be upset?  She doesn’t have a chance to make amends before the notifications come flashing across my screen – she doesn’t get the chance to make up the assingment before I’m alerted that she did poorly the first time around.  Why would a 15-year old girl ask me to put this app on my phone?  Why would she want me to know everything she’s doing during her school day?

Because she wants accountability.  She wants to feel secure.  She wants me to know that she’s doing OK or not.  She wants me to see what she’s up to during the day when she’s not home with me.  She wants to know that I care, and she wants me to be involved.  And I love that.

Maybe that’s all I want, as well.  Accountability.  Maybe I want my family to have an app, a portal, that allows them to see into my world.  Something that lets them know when I’m down, even when the mask I wear pretends otherwise.  Perhaps I just want to know that someone cares enough to check in on me, to spy on my emotions, without nagging me.  I think I simply want my family to have a head’s up so they know what they can expect from my moods on a daily basis.  I want them to know that I’ve not taken my meds or cancelled a therapy appointment, because those things don’t happen accidentally.  It’s a cry for help without having to reach out to someone.  They would just look at the portal and they would know without asking.  Because I hate communicating with my family about my illness.  I despise discussing my bipolar disorder because it makes me feel weak and unstable.  It makes me feel needy.  And I hate asking for help.

With my daughter, I also know that because she’s an excellent student and a responsible young woman, I will only receive positive messages through the portal.  And she knows that, too.  She realizes that I will be proud when I receive those messages, and that I can then tell her “great job” or “nice work” without her having to feel like she’s soliciting compliments.  She wants to know that I care enough to look for those notifications every day, to verify that she’s doing well and that she’s where she’s supposed to be.

And that’s all I really need, as well.  To know that someone cares enough to check in once in a while to make sure I’m still here and still moving forward, even if I’m moving forward slowly.