“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 State of Bipolar

I was chatting in the yard yesterday with my new neighbor, who just moved here to Colorado from Texas.  She was telling me that they used to refer to Texas as the “Bipolar State” because of its crazy weather fluctuations, but claims that Colorado has weirder highs and lows than any place she’s ever lived until now.  She said that Colorado has now assumed the label of “Bipolar State” in her household because here it’s not unusual to have weather in the 70s in the middle of winter, and then two feet of heavy wet snow in April.  When she told me this, I giggled politely and agreed with her synopsis.

Funny, two years ago this sort of misuse of the term “bipolar” would have probably sent me over the edge.  I was always so offended when people used the label incorrectly.  “My husband must be bipolar because he was so depressed about the outcome of the U.S. Open, but ten minutes later was over the moon because we had steaks for dinner”.  I’ve also heard, “Yeah, that kid at school must be bipolar or something because he’s so weird”.  The best yet?  “My cat is so bipolar!  She flips out if her food dish isn’t full!”

I wonder if any of these people are actually familiar with the reality behind the term “bipolar”? It is a medical diagnosis, not a description for erratic behavior.  It is a noun, not an adjective.  Would people walk around claiming, “OMG, that guy is acting soooooo diabetic”, or “That grass is growing as fast as cancer”.  Those diseases deserve respect and tolerance, and it’s rare that someone would dare express ignorance by misusing those words in a way that could be derogatory.  So why does the term “bipolar” not demand the same respect?

It all goes back to the stigma associated with my disorder.  It’s something only “crazy” people have, it’s “all in her head”, it’s not a real disease.  But it is real.  And I mean no disrespect for those suffering from diabetes or cancer, but sometimes I wish I had something different because bipolar disorder does not elicit the kind of sympathy and tolerance that patients suffering from the previously mentioned diseases might receive.  Instead, it’s the families of those who are bipolar who seem to be the only ones receiving any empathy or attention.  “I’m so sorry you have to deal with a mentally ill spouse……”.

In retrospect, I realize that my neighbor wasn’t making light of my disorder.  She doesn’t know anything about my bipolar-ness.  She wasn’t trying to diminish the importance of my disease.  She was merely making conversation, and in her defense, “bipolar state” is probably a pretty accurate description for Colorado’s “crazy” weather.  And I clearly have learned tolerance of these kind of remarks because I didn’t lecture her, then turn on my heel and march out of her yard while flipping her off as I might have done a couple of years ago.  Instead, we are meeting for coffee next week.

The “State of Bipolar” remains the same.  We need to continue to decrease stigma and increase awareness and tolerance of our disorder.  We need to stand up for ourselves and educate those around us. Maybe at coffee next week, I can step forward and tell my new neighbor about my illness and maybe the next time she describes Colorado’s weather, she will use the term “unpredictable”, instead.

In the meantime, a “bipolar state” and the “state of bipolar” will provide me with lots to talk about in the future.

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.

Hello. My name is……

The Associated Press released an article today regarding President Obama’s desire to “end the stigma of mental illness”.  Yes!!!!  Obama made public his intentions at a conference that was actually organized to discuss the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings.  Attending the conference was actor Bradley Cooper, who recently portrayed to high acclaim a man suffering with bipolar disorder.  Also in attendance was Glenn Close, who has recently been seen with her bipolar sister in television commercials promoting awareness of mental illness.  The National Association of Broadcasters has announced its new campaign to promote positive awareness of mental illness through a series of TV commercials, radio ads and other social media outlets.  On a personal level, Ms. Close helped to start an organization called “Bring Change 2 Mind”.  This non-profit group produces public service announcements designed to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness.

President Obama is quoted as saying his goal in hosting the conference is to “bring mental illness out of the shadows”.  He commented that, “We whisper about mental health issues and avoid asking too many questions…..  There should be no shame in discussing or seeking help for treatable illnesses that affect too many people that we love.  We’ve got to get rid of that embarrassment.  We’ve got to get rid of that stigma”.  I have previously quoted author Terri Cheney in several past posts, loving what she says about how “disease thrives on shame, and shame thrives on silence”.  Obama gets that.  He recognizes that in order to reduce the stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness, we have to open up.  We have to promote awareness.  We have to talk about our disorders.  We have to show the public that there should be no shame in mental illness, and to do that we must not remain silent.

Part of President Obama’s health care initiative includes improvements to mental health coverage.  In fact, next year there will be a ban on denying coverage to people suffering with mental illness.  Public spending on services to aid the mentally ill has been greatly reduced in recent years, leading to closures of psychiatric hospitals and a reduction in care available to patients who need it the most.  It is commonly believed that until community services intended to help the mentally ill can be funded by the government, the stigma will remain.  Vice President Biden was quoted as saying, “Think of the irony here if through your great efforts, we encourage people to come forward and they find out there’s no one there to help them or they have to wait a long time”.  It reminds me of the line from the movie, “Field of Dreams”:  “If you build it, they will come”.  If the government provides federally funded assistance to patients suffering with mental illness, they will step forward.  They will emerge out of “the shadows”.  And perhaps they will do so shamelessly, as they should.

Bringing someone like Bradley Cooper on board is a great move.  He may not be directly affected himself by bipolar disorder or another mental illness as was his character in “Silver Linings Playbook”, but for those of us who are shallow (as I am) and easily influenced by a handsome man in a well-tailored suit, he could by a great spokesmodel.  He’s been actively promoting awareness of mental illness for several months and is publicly acknowledging that it had been part of his life without realizing it.  He says he has friends who have suffered silently for years who finally worked up the courage to come forward following his Oscar-nominated portrayal of a bipolar man re-emerging into society following a short stint at a psychiatric hospital.

But even Bradley, Glenn and Barack can’t do this without some public support.  And that’s where we come in.  We need to start speaking up.  How many of our friends don’t know that we suffer?  How many of us are silent?  How many of us don’t publicly admit that we have a mental illness?  Silence breeds shame.  We need to not worry what our neighbors would think if they knew we have mental diseases.  We have to stop living in the shadows of the stigma, and step forward and admit that we are ill and need public resources to help us to get better.

I’ll go first:

Hello.  My name is Cecily, and I am bipolar.

There.  That wasn’t so bad.  Your turn.

Who needs help?

I’ve previously shared on this site a few quotes from a woman named Glennon Doyle Melton, founder of “Momastery” and author of “Carry On, Warrior”.  I found one more I’d like to pass along:

“People who need help sometimes look a lot like people who don’t need help”

I think we all have pre-formed images in our minds of what a “helpless” person looks like.  I honestly believe that many people might view me as someone who is fairly put together – in fact, when I’ve confessed my bipolar to people, I often hear, “Really?  I never would have guessed!  You seem so “with it”!”  But, in fact, I’m far from “with it”.  I’m an internal wreck.  I put on a happy face and push myself through my days, hoping to make it to the end of the night without losing myself in my illness, my misery, my dread and fear of what my future holds.  I do it for my kids, because it kills me for them to see me not operating at full capacity.  They need stability and reliability in a mother, and I wear a mask all day that tells the world how together I am, that assures my kids that I can be a good mother.  They know I’m sick, but they also believe I can do everything, and they know that I will will do anything for them.  In truth, I can barely help myself, which leads me to wonder how I’m every going to effectively help them?

When I crawl into bed at night, after my kids are safely tucked in, I lay awake lonely and scared, wondering how I’m every going to get through the next day.  I psyche myself up, hoping to convince myself that if I can get through today, I can get through tomorrow.  It works – sometimes.

But ask for help?  Forget it.  Never.  I publish this post anonymously because I don’t want people I know to find out I’m barely getting by.  I don’t want anyone to learn that I am scraping by mentally.  Would I love for someone to reach out and offer help?  You betcha.  But how will they ever know unless I ask for it?  Because I don’t look like the kind of person who matches the image of someone society pictures as needing help.  So nobody offers.

It’s my own fault.  Don’t ask, don’t tell.  I’m not ashamed of the stigma attached to bipolar.  I’ve rambled on and on to people about bipolar and how important it is to have awareness of mental illnesses.  But not unless I’m asked.  Which brings me back to my original point:  nobody is going to ask because I don’t look like I need help.  Lots of people in my town know I am bipolar.  They just don’t know I suffer from it.  See the difference?

If you have a friend or acquaintance living with mental illness, please reach out.  Ask if you can help.  Chances are, she’s dying to talk to someone.  She’s desperate to be offered assistance, or even just a shoulder to cry on.  But she’s not going to ask.  Not ever.  Believe me, I know.

May the Force Be With You (with a little “Magic” thrown in)

Princess Leia is bipolar.

I read recently that, in addition to Carrie Fisher’s drug and alcohol addictions, she has also admitted to being bipolar. For those of us who carry this disease as a burden, we all know that addiction is a common “side effect” of manic depression, a way of self-medicating. So I’m not surprised at the Princess’ most recent admission.

But it got me thinking: how many of Hollywood’s other famous celebrities suffer from bipolar and are willing to admit it? I started doing a little research and found a surprisingly long list of names: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Kurt Cobain, Mariel Hemingway (her grandfather, Ernest, famously so), Britney Spears, Patty Duke, Marilyn Monroe, and Axl Rose, to name a few. I also found a few similarities surrounding this group of people.

Let’s start with Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Cobain and Marilyn Monroe. All incredible talents. All who lost their lives presumably to drug overdoses, presumably because the pain of their illness was too much to bear, all before more traditional methods of therapy and assistance were available. Add Vincent Van Gogh to that list, who of course lost his battle to a disease that probably didn’t even have a name during his lifetime.

The next group falls into the “fading celebrity status” list. Catherine Zeta-Jones was popular for a while back in the ’80s and ’90s but it seems as her star status began to dwindle, suddenly she was willing to “come forward” and admit her illness. Do some of these stars use their bipolar as an excuse for not having worked in years? Do they made the public admission to gain a small amount of attention, hoping to use it to work their way back into the spotlight? Actors like Fisher and Duke haven’t seen a spotlight in decades, and Axl Rose faded twenty years ago. Suddenly, it’s ok to admit they have bipolar. But why are they stepping forward now to inform the world of their illness?

Of course, singers like Britney Spears seem to use their illness to excuse their horrific public behavior and whacky antics. I wouldn’t be surprised if Lindsay Lohan was next on the list of celebrities who claim bipolar as an affliction that prevents them from showing up on time to press dates and keeps them from being able to pay their taxes.

As someone with bipolar disorder, I recognize the shame involved and the stigma attached to the disease. It is crippling. And I am guilty of not telling anyone for a long time for those exact reasons. But why are celebrities suddenly stepping forward and “pleading insanity”? Is it for the attention? Is it in an effort to try to regain a little stardom by way of sympathy? Is it a way to say, “Look at me! Here I am! The only reason I haven’t worked in years is because I’m bipolar! But I’m broke and need the money so I’m stepping forward hoping for a resurgence in popularity”.

When you Google “list of celebrities who are bipolar”, the list is very long but it does not contain many names you might have heard of. Lots of authors and poets, lots of artists and public figures from decades ago. But since roughly 1 in 4 adults suffers from some sort of mental illness, many of those bipolar, why isn’t the list longer? Or more updated? Why aren’t there names of more popular celebrities? Are movie stars exempt from having bipolar? Or is that list longer than we think and they just aren’t owning up to their illness?

I think it’s the latter. And I wish that wasn’t the case. Celebrities are in the unique position of having a large public following of people who have such adoration for them that they’d be willing to do just about anything for their favorite star. Celebrities with bipolar could step forward to promote awareness, reduce stigma and help to eliminate the shame that comes with this lifelong affliction. You know they’re out there. Are they afraid to admit they have a mental illness?

I saw on TV recently that Magic Johnson was publicly offering love and support to his openly gay son. He commented that there are no publicly homosexual athletes in professional sports. We know that can’t possibly be true. They have to exist. But those people, too, are afraid to admit their lifestyle for fear of how their teammates or fans would react. I remember when Johnson stepped forward to admit having contracted HIV/AIDS nearly twenty years ago. Since that time, he has lost his basketball career, but he has used his illness to promote awareness and reduce the stigma associated with his disease. He has used his “disadvantage” to the public’s advantage. He has done amazing work raising money and supporting organizations involved with the work being done with HIV/AIDS and in my opinion, he is more of a hero now than he was playing basketball.

I think mentally ill celebrities are also afraid of “coming out” and admitting their illness. I hope those who are making the admission are not stepping forward for the mere purpose of re-igniting a dying career. I hope they are doing it to make an effort to reduce the shame and stigma attached with bipolar disorder. I hope they are doing it to help make a difference. They have a public voice, and they could use it to help make such fantastic and much-needed progress in the world of misunderstood mental illnesses if they would just ‘fess up. Kind of like Magic Johnson. His illness affected his career, but perhaps it changed his life for the better. I’d like to think that he is happier now knowing that he is doing good work for good people.

Princess Leia’s Carrie Fisher has done just that. Sure, her acting career may have faded. But she is responsible for such fabulously “truthful” accounts (disguised as fiction) like “Wishful Drinking”, “Postcards from the Edge” and “The Best Awful”. Ms. Fisher is candid and frank about her disorders and she has stepped forward and is helping to raise awareness.

So listen up, Hollywood. Don’t be afraid. Come forward and make yourselves heard. You may find that the work you do for mental illness is priceless and worth more than that shiny little statue you probably won’t ever win, anyway. Use your public image to promote awareness. You may learn that it’s more rewarding than the red carpet. Who says you can’t be both an actor and an advocate?

May the Force Be With You.