“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.

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You either like me or you don’t…..

I just saw this quote posted by my friend on Facebook. I couldn’t resist sharing it, as I feel like it sums up my recent life:

“You either like me or you don’t. It took me twenty-something years to learn how to love myself. I don’t have that kind of time to convince somebody else……” (Daniel Franzese)

Of course, in my case, it’s more like forty-something years….

(Thanks, M.)

The Train Wreck

Trouble was brewing. I could sense it days ahead of time. My 10-year old daughter was headed for a major meltdown and although I could see it coming, there was no stopping it. And it was like knowing ahead of time there was going to be a terrible train wreck but also knowing I was helpless to prevent it. I knew people would get hurt, and I knew it would be a horrific mess, but the train wreck was destined to occur regardless of how hard I tried to prevent it.

My little girl has been “diagnosed” with a variety of mental shortcomings, among them ADHD and “oppositional defiance disorder”. It has also been suggested that she may have or eventually develop bipolar disorder. As a sufferer of the disease myself, I pray she’s not bipolar. It’s extremely difficult to diagnose in a child, and she does not exhibit signs of deep depression. But her “train wrecks” bear striking similarities to manic episodes and have definite cause for concern.

My daughter gets very anxious when there is a big event on the horizon, like a ceremony or school deadline or, in this case, a vacation. She is traveling tomorrow by plane, without me but in the company of her older siblings, to visit her grandma in California for a week. Although she is happy and excited to go, and although she is a very well-traveled young lady, the anxiety involved in preparing for the trip has left her nervous and short-tempered. I can sympathize with her, because getting ready to go away always caused many of the same feelings for me in the past.

The past couple of days I felt like I was tip-toeing around her, sensing her anxiety and trying to avoid confrontation of any kind. In these situations, when she is snappy and quick-tempered, it’s usually best to leave her alone. But today I needed her assistance in preparing for her big adventure and I asked her to put down her iPod in five minutes and help me get packed.

“No”, she replied.

Wrong answer.

I have tolerance for a great deal of her behavior. Those of you who are familiar with ADHD and ODD will understand that tolerance is a necessity when dealing with these children, but often they cross the line of respect and obedience. I had told her she could play for five more minutes because I’ve learned that spontaneity is not a strong suit with her – she needs advanced warning before we can switch gears. But this time she simply refused to comply, so I threatened to take the iPod and keep the device until she returned from her vacation if she did not go along with my request.

She again refused.

So I took the toy.

One thing I have always found astounding is how quickly my child can crumple. To say that she can collapse into a screaming, writhing heap on the floor in less than five seconds is no overstatement. Now, I know what you’re thinking: what a spoiled rotten brat. And believe me, I have thought the same thing on many occasions. But those of you who have experience with kids who are bipolar or who have ODD will recognize that in the middle of a tantrum or manic episode, their emotions are totally out of their control. There are no brakes on that train.

My daughter’s tantrum evolved quickly from sobbing to hysterical screaming, with my older children running through the house shutting the windows so the neighbors wouldn’t hear the hysterics and call Social Services. When she falls to pieces, we’ve learned that she doesn’t want comfort. She doesn’t want distractions. She doesn’t want to listen to reason. She simply wants the bloody iPod and she wants to get her way. But as a parent, no matter how hard I want to hold her and try to calm her, and no matter how much I want to scream back at her, or to give in and return the stupid toy just to shut her up, the only thing I can do is disengage. I walk away, leaving her in a screaming heap on the floor of the kitchen and I go to my “quiet place” and pray she exhausts herself. Typically, she cries herself out, then switches gears and lies on her bed, sobbing softly, “Why do I do this? Why can’t I stop myself? Why am I like this?” This is often followed by profuse apologies to anyone who witnessed the tantrum, and over-the-top exemplary behavior, trying to make up for her irrational antics for the rest of the day. Her remorse is heartfelt and genuine.

But this train wreck was a real doozy. She simply could not pull it together. First of all, she hates to be ignored and when we all walk away, it infuriates her. That is typically what leads to a manic-like episode during which she doesn’t even know why she’s upset any longer. She’s just beside herself with screaming and hysteria and cannot recover.

And then comes the hurt. My sweet, beautiful and kind daughter evolved into this hurtful, hateful monster. Paranoid and delusional, she screamed “I hate you!” over and over. It was like a dagger through my heart, which she then twisted around inside me when she yelled, “You are a horrible mother!” through the closed doors of my bedroom. She then went off on a tangent and accused us all of lying to her and stealing her things, and then she put the icing on the cake when she screamed, “YOU are the reason I’m like this”. A hateful blow from a 10-year old girl who knows exactly what button to push on her bipolar mother to drive her to tears of her own.

And then, just like the snap of fingers, her train came to an immediate stop. After crashing through all of her anxieties and steamrolling across my heart, her episode was over. She lay outside my door panting from exhaustion and wiping her tears, and then came the whispered apologies. 27 minutes of screaming had finally come to an end. She asked to come in, and stood hesitantly at the foot of my bed, watching me dry tears of my own. She said she understood when I told her she would not be getting back the iPod for a while, following such horrific behavior. And I struggled, as I always do, with whether this IS my fault. Did she inherit my bipolar? Are her meltdowns a result of the biological or behavioral forces at work? Is my little girl a manic mess with genetics working against her, or is she just a brat? Maybe a little of both? Nobody seems to know for certain. And my biggest fear is that she’s going to grow up to be just like her mom.

But there is a difference between our separate train rides. My life was a series of wrecks that eventually caused my husband to leave me. He couldn’t deal with my behavior any longer, so he got off the ride. He just could not love me anymore. And although he makes allowances for our daughter’s behavior that he never made for mine, allowances for which I am envious because he loves her unconditionally and could not do the same for me, I recognize myself in her behavior. And I cry because she says such hurtful and mean things when she is out if control, and I realize that I have said those same hateful things to my husband. Things that can never be taken back because my train doesn’t do reverse.

But I can’t divorce my daughter, no matter how bad things get. And I’m angry with her father because he gave up on me. He didn’t want to stick around to see if my train slowed down. I love my daughter so very much, and her behavior hurts me and it hurts her but it doesn’t in any way lessen my love for her, and I’m angry with her father because I wonder why he couldn’t love me in the same way. Why did he give up on me when I know he has the strength to not give up on her? We are both committed to helping her get better, but I wish every day that he could see my potential for mental well-being as he sees hers.

So, to my little girl, I can only say that I will never give up on you. Not ever. Even if I have to throw myself in front of your train to prove it.

Go looking……

Hi, everyone –

Today I am fortunate enough to have my writing posted on an amazing website called Black Box Warnings.  I hope you will look for me there.  Thank you!

http://blackboxwarnings.wordpress.com

My piece is titled:  Much Ado About Nothing

Have a wonderful day.

Play With Me

I’ve just been watching my 10-year old daughter play with our new neighbor, also a 10-year old little girl.  Her family just moved in next door a few weeks ago, and my daughter was delighted that the new family included a same-age girl.  They’ve been tossing a softball back and forth for twenty minutes now, exchanging casual banter and discussing which of them is more likely to grow up and marry Justin Bieber.

This impromptu playdate brought tears to my eyes, for two reasons.  The first is because I am so unbelievably happy to see my daughter making a new friend.  The second is because I am worried it won’t last.

My 10-year old daughter is bipolar, or at least is believed to be (since bipolar disorder is extremely hard to diagnose in young children).  As a result, her life (and that of her family) is very hard.  Too hard for such a young girl, in my opinion.

My baby’s mood disorder makes it nearly impossible for her to maintain friendships.  As I watch my two older children decide with whom they want to hang out on any given day, I realize how fortunate they are to have such a large circle of friends from whom to choose.  They take for granted their friendships, because they each have so many.  But my youngest?  Her personality makes it very difficult for her to keep friends.  She makes friends very easily – upon meeting her, you see that she is personable and friendly, pretty and sweet.  She is compassionate and helpful, thoughtful and well-spoken.  She loves American Girl dolls and One Direction.  All things other little girls might find attractive in a new friend.  But sadly, her friendships do not last.  At some point, my daughter becomes jealous of “third parties”, her feelings are easily bruised, and she is possessive with her friends.  She also has to be in charge, a trait not popular with the pre-teen group.  She is hypersensitive.  She becomes bossy and irrational when she doesn’t get her way, and cries easily because she believes that she is always being treated unfairly.  Eventually, the friendships end.  Nearly every one. My daughter hasn’t been invited to a birthday party in 7 months, and in this neighborhood when there are parties nearly every weekend, that is a true slap in the face for her.  She is very, very rarely asked to a friend’s house to play.  She eats lunch alone at school most days of the week, and teachers have to assign a partner to her when students are asked to work on a project together because nobody volunteers to work with her.

The worst part?  My little girl is fully aware of all of this.  And it kills me to know how much it hurts her.

My daughter does a lot of therapy with a fabulous counselor who teaches her skills and tools to deal with her strong emotions.  She is trying to teach my baby how to be a good friend, how to maintain friendships and how to control her feelings when she notices things going south.  But because the other little girls in her class are vaguely aware of her mental shortcomings, they have very little tolerance for her behavior.  They don’t know how to deal with her intense feelings.  They treat her as if she’s defective.  I notice the same fate occurring with the children in my daughter’s class who suffer from autism or severe ADHD.  Ignorance and intolerance toward anyone who is different.

My child has two friends who she plays with, off and on, once or twice a month.  Both little girls have been her friends since they were toddlers, and their parents are aware that my daughter can be emotionally unstable, and have explained in their own words that instability to their girls.  For that I am thankful, because although those two little girls frequently take “breaks” from playing with my daughter just to avoid tiring of her, they are still her friends.  But they are the only two she has, and we purposely limit their exposure to each other in order to preserve the friendship.

And as I watch my daughter play with our new neighbor, who is still largely oblivious to my little girl’s intense emotions, I have begun to think about my own friendships, or lack thereof.  And I wonder if my dwindling number of true friendships is a direct result of my bipolar disorder.  I started to recognize that I had lost friends last year when my husband and I separated.  I wrote about it in a recent post called “Who Gets What”, discussing how many of our mutual friends somehow felt the need to choose between my husband and myself, perhaps not believing that they could maintain friendships with both of us separately.  For the most part, our mutual friends chose him.  But as I think back to when many of my friendships started to wane, I realize that their demise coincides largely with when I started to “come out” and disclose my mental illness to my acquaintances, a couple of years prior to my separation.

I initially began telling people I am bipolar partially to help explain my occasional erratic behavior and moodiness, and perhaps partially because I needed a little sympathy.  Unlike cancer or heart disease, mental illness does not elicit much sympathy.  And although I believe bipolar disorder to be more of a curse than many other life-threatening diseases, it is always surprising to me that nobody else seems to agree.  At least, nobody who isn’t mentally ill agrees.  And even though mental illness indirectly claims as many lives as several “mainstream” diseases on a yearly basis, it doesn’t receive enough attention or the compassion that I believe it deserves.

Like my daughter, I feel as if I make a good first impression.  I think that, initially, people like me.  And then they learn about my mental illness, and I feel them backing off.  The invitations for coffee or neighborhood walks or book clubs taper, and eventually my “new” friendships fade and disappear.  Sure, people are friendly at the grocery store and chat with me by the sidelines of kids’ sporting events, but I am rarely invited to “play”.  I haven’t been asked to participate in clubs or gatherings by the neighborhood women in many, many months.  And before I stepped forward with my disclosure of bipolar disorder, I had something to do and someplace to go a couple of times a week.

Not anymore.

So although I can blame some of these lost friendships on my marital devastation, I truly believe that people prefer to leave me alone mostly because they are ignorant and uninformed, intolerant of anything that isn’t “normal”, and unwilling to do the work that is required to be the friend of someone with a mental illness.  Because as many of you know, it definitely is a lot of work.

However, like my daughter, I have a couple of friends who are well aware of my situation, and who have continued to love and support me, regardless of my diagnosis.  And for them, I am unbelievably, truly, blissfully thankful.  They stepped forward when my best friend, my husband, stepped back.  Without them, my sweet friends, I would be a lonely disaster.  And although I recognize that they, too, might occasionally need to take breaks from me, I know with certainty that they will always be back.  They check in on me often, they listen to me cry on their shoulders (sometimes every day for weeks), they offer advice and tolerate my outbursts.  They are my true and lifelong friends, and I love them.  When I count my blessings, they are among them.

You know who you are, and without you, I would be lost.

Thank you for playing with me.

Namaste (strike a pose)

I went to a yoga class last week.  For those of you who know me, you might be surprised to hear that I made an attempt at exercising.  But I’ve been told by so many people lately that yoga would be therapeutic.  And again, for those of you who know me, you know I’m willing to try anything.  I thought to myself, “what can be bad about a sport for which I can be barefoot?”

What I learned is that yoga is not for lazy people.  Thus, it was kinda difficult for me because I don’t like to work hard.  Now please don’t get me wrong – I am a hard worker.  I just don’t like it.  I felt great for the first five minutes of the class – soft, soothing music, dim lights, lying on a soft mat on my back wiggling my toes while breathing in the smell of the scented candles.

Then the real work began.  Enough with the stretching, it was time to get serious.  Suddenly, I was no longer relaxed.  I was sweating.  While in something called Sphinx position, you have to look down at your hands, which are supporting the majority of your weight, and all I could think was how badly I needed a manicure.  I was unfocused and definitely unrelaxed.  Yoga seemed like a variety of moves through what sounded to me like a three-ring circus:  the camel position, the cobra, the downward dog.  We moved from cow position to cat position, back to cow, and back to cat.  I realized I’m really more of a cow than I am a cat, feeling completely ungraceful and heavy.  If there was a “bull in a china cabinet pose”, I’d be really good at that one.  The best part about yoga so far?  I was told that I could relax my stomach muscles – finally, I had found a place where I didn’t have to “suck it in”.  But when we flipped to our backs for another animal pose I can’t recall, the tag in my pants was digging into my lower back and I couldn’t concentrate on what I was supposed to be doing.  I was thinking of how looooong an hour class seemed to be lasting, and how I couldn’t wait to be done with this torturous exercise.  The soft music had taken on a droning foghorn effect and just because the volume was low doesn’t mean it wasn’t suddenly incredibly annoying.  I was worried about what position she would require next – could I do it?  Would I tumble over mid-“Warrior” and humiliate myself?  I kept praying she’d command us to assume “child’s pose” (my favorite so far) just so I could get a little break.

The instructor had a soft, soothing voice and throughout the class, she reminded us to “just breathe”, to stretch ourselves farther “little by little, inch by inch”.  Funny, she sounded just like my therapist telling me to proceed through my life “day by day, little by little, one step at a time”.  My therapist is always reminding me to “just breathe”, and to stretch myself a little bit farther every day.  The instructor also kept telling us to “open your heart”.  Well, that’s one thing I certainly wasn’t going to do.  I’d opened my heart plenty this year, and it’s gotten me nowhere.  And it hurts.  Forget about it.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, the instructor had us lie on our backs with our legs straight up in the air.  I’m thinking, “I can do this.  This isn’t so bad”.  That is, until she came around and placed 10lb sandbags on the bottoms of our feet, which were now pointing up toward the ceiling.  Things had started to get easier, and an uncomfortable weight is suddenly added to my already-heavy burden.  Yoga hurts.  This class was starting to mimic my life.

I started off my recent life thinking things wouldn’t be so bad, that I can get through this.  It starts off slowly and calmly.  And then I’m forced into a number of uncomfortable positions, carrying around a heavy weight and having a hard time taking slow, deep breaths.  I’m completely unwilling to open my heart, and nervous that I won’t be able to handle what comes next.  My inability to be flexible is holding me back.  I am trying to proceed “little by little, inch by inch”.  I’m trying to remember to “just breathe”.  I’m set off by small annoyances like a scratchy tag and bad music.  And then there’s the pain.  Much like my first experience with yoga, I find that life hurts.

But at the end of the class, we did something called “shavasana” (which, incidentally, means “death pose”).  We all laid on our backs and stretched out our arms and legs, and were instructed to simply “relax”.  We were told to let all of our worries fall away from our minds, to relax each muscle from toe to finger, one by one.  To let each bone in our spines sink into the floor, one at a time.  The instructor spoke softly, and led us in slow, relaxed breathing.  For the first time, I felt like I could take a full, deep breath.  My eyes closed and I was suddenly less annoyed by the foghorn music.  My body was cooling off and I felt very relaxed.  It was magical.  I felt calm.

I didn’t want to get up.  But when I did, the instructor provided us with a closing blessing:

“May you find peace above you, peace below you, and peace throughout your body and soul.  Namaste”.  It was lovely.

For the record, I’ll be back at yoga this week.

Namaste.

Fractured Fairy Tales

My 4th grade daughter is writing a fairy tale for class, but the students have been instructed not to create a story in the traditional “happily ever after…..” manner. Instead, they’ve been asked to compose a “fractured fairy tale”. The teacher cited some examples: Cinderella gets a blister from the glass slippers, the gingerbread man is not gluten-free, and Jack falls from the beanstalk and needs a hip replacement. And then there’s the princess who kisses the slimy frog after he promises he’ll turn into a handsome prince, but after receiving the kiss, the frog tells the princess she’s a sucker and hops away laughing.

Fractured fairy tales. What a concept. As a little girl, fairy tales were wonderful to hear. I based my future dreams on the outcomes of these short stories: the sad princess discovers her handsome prince, he saves her from the terrible ogre and he whisks her away to his beautiful castle where they live happily ever after.

Up until a year ago, that was my life. I met my knight in shining armor shortly after losing my brother, and he saved me from the terrible ogre that was depression and heartache. We bought a castle together and filled it with two beautiful princesses and a darling prince. We had dreams of “happily ever after” in which we would spend the rest of our lives together, as happy as was humanly possible. People were envious of our beautiful life. They commented on how our little family “had it all”.

But “all” included a queen with a terrible secret. My secret was my bipolar disorder. I hid it from everyone, including myself. When I was “officially” diagnosed a few years ago, my handsome prince begged me to seek help. He read books on the subject and sought out the best doctors for my care. He tried to slay the dragons for me. But I refused his help because I didn’t want to admit that I was sick. And I let my disease rule my life. And I chased away my shining knight. My shame and denial helped me ruin my fairy tale life.

My life will never be a fairy tale again. My children wish for an “intact” family that will never again be together. My dreams of growing old happily with my husband by my side will never be realized. I cannot afford my castle. I pray every day that this is not my life, that a kind sorceress will wave her magic wand and make everything okay again. But I don’t know any good witches with magic spells that can fix my story or its ending.

My life is a fractured fairy tale. But that doesn’t mean I can’t create my own “happily ever after”. My story is just going to have to take on a new look, and my future will be going in a different direction than I had originally planned. But I vow to still be happy. Even if I can’t use pixie dust to help me get there.

The End.