“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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(un)Happy Anniversary

As I am approaching the one-year anniversary of the day my husband told me he no longer loved me and wanted a separation, I have been getting a lot of advice from many sources on how to stay positive, how to get through this difficult time, knowing that anniversaries of the sad variety tend to be triggers for me. One friend suggested I write a letter to my husband, telling him how I’ve changed for the better and begging him for another chance at our marriage. I decided I would write a letter, not necessarily begging him to return, but sharing with him all of the realizations I’ve come to during the last 365 incredibly painful days. However, this letter will never be seen by my husband. I’m choosing not to share it with him because he has heard most of this before. Perhaps never in one place, but over the last 12 months he has heard bits and pieces of my story and quite frankly, I think seeing it all in one place would be incredibly annoying to him, as he is sick to death of my crying and begging and repeating my woes and apologies to him over and over. Maybe I am really writing this letter for myself, hoping to start Friday with a fresh outlook and a new lease on my lonely single life.

So here it goes:

“To my dear husband,

It goes without saying that I miss our life together. I am miserable without you, and even more so knowing that you are NOT miserable without me. If I could go back in time and change what I have done to you, I would give anything for that opportunity. But I do not have in my possession a time machine. I cannot undo any of my past. I could tell you for the 9 millionth time how sorry I am, how much remorse I have, how much I want my life back, but it would have no effect on you. You are done. I get it.

You will never see this letter. Instead, I’m sharing it with dozens of strangers who I can pretend are you. Typing this letter to the unknown masses is not going to do me any good other than to unburden myself from the sadness that has weighed me down for one year. But I can pretend.

Here’s what you do know: I was horrible to you in so many ways. I was unpredictable and difficult. I was unkind and unfaithful. I was selfish and and self-absorbed. I was sick and miserable. My life turned upside down when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I desperately didn’t want it to be true, and instead of punishing myself with the truth, I punished everyone around me. I took out my anger on my family and you tolerated and tolerated and tolerated until you simply couldn’t tolerate any more. You were not unbreakable, as I once believed. If something continues to bend and bend, eventually even the strongest branch will break. And although you promised to love me forever, your conscience and your morals simply couldn’t allow your love for me to continue. You didn’t give up on me, I realize that. You did what was best for yourself and what you believe to be best for your children. Our homelife was a mess and you deserved better.

Here’s what you don’t know: During that time, I never once stopped loving you. I loved every ounce of you because you were my forever mate. Nobody else would have put up with me, I thought. Nobody else would have stuck around, I believed. We were meant to be together. You were the only one who would ever take care of me. And I truly didn’t believe that it was “me” doing these things to you. It was a force I was not in control of. My manic self, that hateful and horrible woman who reared her ugly head during difficult times and couldn’t be subdued. I want to blame everything on her. But I realized she’s part of me. Not a part I want or like, but I part I have had to learn to deal with. But even that ugly part of me loved you, too.

And the thing I’ve never shared with you? In order for me to fully get well, I probably needed you to leave me. Not just because I deserved it, but because my bad behavior probably would have continued if it were not for the big fat slap in the face that our separation provided me.

In the first few months after you left me, I could hardly get out of bed. I couldn’t eat and I couldn’t sleep. I found it hard to be around my children. I begged you, in letters, on the phone, on my knees, to please take me back. I will change. I promise to change. I promise to get help. But you stuck to your guns and refused me. You told me I had ruined our family, which is true. You told me I had been selfish and untrustworthy, which is also true. You refused therapy. You told me it wouldn’t do any good because all the other times you’d dragged me to counseling I had lied to the therapist. Again, all true. You made a clean break. So clean, in fact, I wondered if you had ever loved me at all and were merely tolerating me because I am the mother of your three precious children. I understand now that you had to do it that way. You had to deal with your own anger and your own anguish over how I had treated you. You had no choice.

But during those first few months, I vowed to change. I promised myself I could become the woman you wanted in your life, the same woman you married with a heart full of love. I started to take my therapy seriously and concentrated fully on my recovery. But I was doing it for you, not for me. Why? Because I honestly and naively thought I could win you over. I thought for certain that if you saw how hard I was working that you would take me back, tell me it had all been a mistake. That you were just testing me. I was sure that we could be a family again.

But I was wrong.

It took about six months to realize that you are never coming back. Not just because you have assured me you will never marry again because marriage was awful to you, but because when I look in your eyes (when you can bear to look into mine), I see nothing. No compassion, no caring, no love. I see anger and hatred and the inability to forget what I did to your life. And though I have made huge strides in my own recovery, and although I know you recognize my efforts and their results, I knew six months ago that you would never ask me back. That we would never be a traditional family again. You have told me time and time again, “There’s nothing wrong with being divorced. 50% of couples end up divorced”. I want to respond that there’s nothing wrong with being married, either. That 50% of couples stay married. But you don’t want to hear that. Your experience with marriage was horrible. And I don’t blame you for leaving.

My biggest heartbreak, besides knowing I will never be with you again and knowing our children will never have us as an “intact” family again, is knowing that when you made your clean break 12 months ago, you stopped loving me. I can look into your eyes and see that no love exists there. You neither love me nor miss me, and for that I am so sorry. Because I caused that. I wanted to show you that I have enough love for the both of us, and maybe eventually it would wear off on you and one day you might actually love me back. I wanted to offer myself to you for all of the wrong reasons. I had a whole list: If we were together again, there would only be one mortgage. That means that we would have the money to do things that are important to our family. Our son wants bass guitar lessons and wants to learn a martial art, but we cannot afford it. Our oldest daughter is going to college in three years and that will be financially tough. And our baby girl needs to go to therapy every week to stay happy and mentally well. But we can’t afford those things. We promised the children a dream trip to Australia, and now I know that will never happen. All because of what I’ve done. It is all my fault. I also thought I would convince you to take me back based on your needs: I can cook and clean and do the laundry and care for the house and drive kids to their activities, which will free up your time so that when you come home after a stressful day at work, to OUR home, you could spend your time playing with the kids and enjoying the short time we have them together as a family, instead of having to make them dinner and do their laundry and help them with homework before bed. I could take on all the responsibilities I never did while we were married. You did everything, and I never realized it until you left me.

But I have realized that I don’t want you to want me simply because I’m an able cook or laundress. I don’t want you to take me back to save money. I don’t want to live with you so I can be the chauffeur or the nanny. I want you to take me back because you miss me and love me and want to give me, give us, another chance.

But you don’t miss me, and you don’t love me. And I don’t think you ever will again. Actually, I KNOW you never will again. There is no “another chance”.

So for the last six months, I have concentrated on my recovery from my bipolar disorder, not with you in mind. I am doing it for me, and for my beautiful children. And I have noticed a huge difference between the person I am today and the pathetic excuse for a mother and wife I was a year ago. I have used a combination of ECT, DBT, medication, and the love and support of my remaining friends and family to try to get well. To regain a sense of balance and to have a life again. And I have worked very, very hard. I almost gave up six months ago, because I finally had realized that all of this hard work would never bring you back to me, and that is what I thought I wanted more than anything.

But I realize now that I had to lose you in order to find myself.

So here I am. I am found. I know who I am and who I want to be. And do I still want you? Of course I do. But there is a difference between wanting and knowing. For example, I WANT for there to be a Santa Claus, but I KNOW he doesn’t really exist. I want you back in my life as my lover and my best friend and my partner for all of eternity. But I know you will never return. You have moved on. You have told me that you need to find your “path to happiness”, that you deserve to be happy. And I’m not on that path. How I wish you would give me the chance to make you happy. I know now what it takes to be a good wife and a good mother. That person who treated you badly is probably still here, but she now knows how to behave. She recognizes that there are consequences to her actions. And the part of her that used to be too strong and used to take over my sensibilities and send me on a downward spiral to disaster and manic episodes? Well, she most likely still exists. Somewhere. But she is no longer stronger than the “good me”. She is weak and she will not get the best of me again. Not ever. I know how to hold her down and control her. Maybe, if I’m lucky, she will give up and go away. But until that time, I have the strength and the tools and the confidence to keep her out of my daily life.

Don’t get me wrong – given the opportunity to have you back, I would jump at the chance. I would love nothing more in my life than to be part of a complete family again. To know that I had someone to grow old with, to sit next to at our childrens’ graduations and weddings. To have someone next to me holding my hand at the movies and embracing me in warm hugs every morning as we wake would be heaven to me. To know that I would never be alone again is more than I could ever hope for. But I will never find your love again. And you? Well, I learned last week that you have joined “Match.com” so I know now, for a fact, that I am not anywhere in your future except to be the mother of your children. And that is devastating to me. Because it means my dream of being a family again will never be realized. It means that you don’t believe I can ever be enough for you again. That even when I’m well, I’m not the woman you want to be with. And it makes me question whether I ever was. Maybe my misbehavior was just an excuse to get out of a marriage that you didn’t want in the first place. Maybe I was never the right woman for you, regardless of how much love I thought I could give you. All I know is that I was not worth fighting for. After I was well, you did not resume that fight. You didn’t stick around to see who I could become. You didn’t want to. You walked away. You had to. And that’s a tough pill to swallow, but it’s what you believed to be best for you. It was your turn to be selfish; you deserve happiness.

But I can still be well without you. I don’t really want wellness without you to share it with, but I do need it for myself. One day when my children are grown and have families of their own, it will be all I have left.

So there you have it. The letter you will never read. Everything in my heart I could think to tell you on this day, one year following my worst day.

With as much love as I can fathom, Happy Anniversary from your wife.”

What’s in a name?

When my husband and I were expecting our children, a lot of thought went into choosing their names. We wanted their monikers to have meaning, and not just decide their lifelong label by choosing from the “top ten most popular girls names of 1998”, or naming them after celebrities or famous athletes. Of course, we couldn’t possibly know that our three children would grow into their names like they grew into hand-me-down clothing. It’s almost as if we pre-destined them to have these amazing personalities just by naming them for traits we admired.

My first daughter’s name means “strength”, and she is the epitome of all things strong. She is a little mother to her siblings and someone her friends look up to and admire. She stays tough, even when most people would bend or break. Her name fits her perfectly.

My son’s name means “defender, protector”, and he is living up to that meaning as a loving brother to his two sisters. He is the first person to throw his arms around me and tell me he loves me when he sees I’m having a bad day (which sadly, is more often than not). He sticks up for anyone being teased, and he is a true defender and protector of his girls (myself included) and his friends. He is a little man with a strong sense of family responsibility.

My baby, my ten-year old daughter who suffers from mental illness, has the most suitable name of all. Her name stands for “little hero”, and she has suffered more in her short ten years than most people might have the misfortune to experience in a lifetime. She falls two steps backward, but leaps three steps forward. She just keeps trudging along, pointing forward, trying to stay positive. She is a hero to her parents and to her brother and sister because she never gives up. She knows that life for her is going to be tougher than for other kids her age, but she tries so hard not to let that get her down. She is my hero, and will continue to be even when she is grown.

My husband (if you’re a regular follower you know we are separated) is also my hero. But his name has an even more fitting meaning: “mighty king, ruler, chieftain”. Did his mother know when she named him that he would grow to be this amazing man who “rules” over his family with love and compassion? Who would take charge of the issues surrounding his family and stay strong in the face of adversity? Did she know how aptly his name would suit him, as the president of a small corporation and the head of a growing household? That he would make decisions he believed to be best for the welfare of his children? That he would be king of his castle, never backing down, always standing his ground and never, ever going back on his decisions?

I should mention, finally, that after we investigated names for all of our children, I decided to look up the meaning of my name. I received my name as a “gift” from my father – it is the feminized version of his name, and of his father before him. I have always hated it. It is unusual and non-phonetic, making it impossible for others to spell, pronounce or remember. When I discovered its meaning, I hated it even more. And in the last year, I have come to find that for me, the meaning of my name suits me better than I wish to admit.

My name means “blind”.

Blind to the dangers of bipolar disorder. Blind to the consequences of bad behavior on account of my illness. Blind to my illness in general, refusing to seek help when first diagnosed, blind to the fact that if I didn’t reach out I would lose my world. Blind to realizing that my actions and inactions would cost me some of my friends and family, my home, my faith, my children’s trust, and the man who loved me.

Blind. How fitting.