“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.

In Control

I like to feel sorry for myself.  I like hearing a “woe is me” story from a friend, knowing I can outdo her on any level of sadness.  No matter what bad thing has happened to someone else, should she choose to share it with me I can usually top it with some horror story from my past.  It’s a pretty selfish personality trait, one from which I derive almost no sympathy.  But it’s taken me years to realize I’m not doing it for the sympathy, or empathy of others.  I’m doing it because I like to believe my sorrowful past and present is a direct result of my bipolar disorder, and that gives me something on which to blame it all.

To shed some light on my past, I should give you a few examples of what I consider to be a life full of unfortunate happenings.  For starters, my sister died before I was born.  I never met her – I just like to tell people I lost a sister because it gives me an excuse to be sad.  Additionally, my older brother died in a plane crash when I was 23 and my father died of a heart attack on the floor of my children’s playroom while I stood and watched because I couldn’t remember how to do CPR.  My only surviving sibling doesn’t much like me or my disease and therefore doesn’t speak to me, my husband left me after 17 years of marriage, and I cannot find a full-time job to help pay my mounting pile of bills.  In addition, my non-smoking mom was just diagnosed with lung cancer and my 10-year old daughter has Oppositional Defiance Disorder and is likely also bipolar.

Yeah, yeah – I realize that my problems are trivial in comparison to what is going on in the world around me.  Wars and global warming and starving children.  I am aware of all that, and yet the selfish person who I am refuses to recognize that there is anything wrong with any part of the world that does not directly concern me.  It’s like I’m oblivious to anything or anyone other than myself and my problems.  Selfish?  You bet.  Incredibly, ridiculously selfish.  But it’s as if I can’t help myself.

I often refer to a great book called, “Loving Someone With Bipolar Disorder” by Julie A. Fast.  The book was intended for the spouse or partner of someone suffering from bipolar, but I don’t have a spouse or a partner anymore so I read it hoping to learn to love myself.  The book repeatedly references the selfishness of those suffering from bipolar disorder.  They can only think of themselves.  They think they are the only ones with real problems.  They believe their lives are worse than anyone’s around them.  I recognize that I am incredibly selfish, and it’s not a trait I’m proud of.  But as I mentioned earlier, I can’t seem to focus on any problems but mine.

In addition, bipolar people are often narcissists.  I believe there is a direct link between believing yourself to be better than everyone else and wanting everyone to feel sorry for you.  Part of being a narcissist is believing that you have control over the world and what happens in it.  For example, if only I had known CPR, perhaps my father would still be alive.  Control.  If only I had recognized my bipolar disorder earlier, then I could have sought treatment before my behavior became so intolerable that my husband could no longer remain with me.  Control.  If I had known that I was bipolar and that my future children had a 20% increased chance of becoming bipolar as a result of genetics, I could have prevented my young daughter from possibly developing the disorder by simply not having children.  Control.  Ridiculous and unrealistic expectations of control.

I also feel like my bad luck is contagious.  Don’t get too close, it might rub off on you.  Sometimes I believe my bad luck extends to the outcome of my son’s baseball game; I’ve had a rough day, so I shouldn’t attend or he will surely lose.  I probably shouldn’t go to the picnic or it might rain because of me.  Bad luck follows me around so be sure to keep your distance.  A pathetic state of mind, don’t you think?  My therapist thinks so.  Once, in the middle of a tirade about how I was directly or indirectly the cause of all bad things that had happened in my life or in the lives of those around me, she stopped me to declare, “My goodness.  I wish I had that kind of power.  Imagine what I could use it for.  The power to control people’s lives and the events of your own.  I would love being that powerful”

I felt like an idiot.

But she was right.  Who was I to think I had the kind of power to control whether or not someone dies, or someone’s team wins or loses, or whether my child develops bipolar or not?  My perception was that I was in control of all of these things, when the truth is that I am only in control of what happens to my own person on a day-to-day basis.  And what happens to me each day is largely dependent on my mood, which is largely dependent on the current state of my disorder.  I’m not really in control of my illness, even though my doctors assure me I should be.  Sure, I can do DBT and ECT and take medication to help control it, but the true reality is that it controls me.  My bipolar determines, indirectly, how I spend my days and whether I’m happy or sad.  It decides if I’m feeling up to going to the movies, or prefer to stay within the confines of my safe, warm bed all day.  It determines whether I yell at my kids or shower them with indulgences.  When it gets bad, it decides that I will undergo ECT with the hope that voluntary electrocution will set me straight, buying me a few more weeks of relative sanity.  My bipolar disorder defines me, because I let it.  Because it gives me an excuse to be pathetic.  Because it allows me to fall back on my stories of sorrow and woe.  My disorder allows me to be the “winner” of the “who has a more terrible life” competition.  At least I get to win at something.

Do I hope that someday I will be in completely in control of my bipolar disorder, instead of it being in control of me?  You betcha.  I’m just not there yet.

Checkmate

My 10-year old daughter and 12-year old son are sitting at the table behind me, playing a game of chess.  They are surprisingly strategic, and actually more likely to get through a game of chess without coming to blows than they would a game of Monopoly.  I try to pretend that I’m interested in their game, but to be perfectly honest, I’m too dumb for chess.  I can’t keep up with each piece and their various abilities.  So I sit by and occasionally throw out a “Good move, honey!” or “ooooh, you really got him there……”.

I can hear my son’s running commentary on the moves of his Queen.  He has had his sister’s King in “check” half a dozen times since they started, but she always manages to wiggle out of her predicament.  I’m fascinated by the way the Queen is the only piece allowed to move wherever she wants, as near or as far, backward or forward.  Yet as crafty as she is, she is often captured (at least the way my kids play).

Sometimes I feel like I have a lot in common with the Queen.  I can go anywhere, do anything, at whatever pace I like.  I can be powerful.  I have the widest range of abilities of any piece.  I can even survive (although barely…..) without my knight in shining armor on the board with me.  But I can be taken out of the game pretty easily if I’m not careful.  All I have to do is let down my guard and I’m a goner.  It’s flattering that the captured Queen is the first piece taken back when the pawn reaches the other side of the board, although that doesn’t happen very often.

But the Queen is feared.  I don’t want to be feared.  I want to be liked, plain and simple.  And nobody likes the Queen.  She’s conceived as manipulative and crafty, only interested in winning.  And that’s just not me.  It used to be me.  My life used to be about trying to get away with one trick or another, trying to think ahead and manipulate the actions of those around me.  But that’s not fun any more.  It’s hurtful.  And I don’t want to be that person.

I don’t want to be a pawn, either.  I don’t want to be the one taken advantage of, disposable and the always first piece sacrificed during play.   However, the pawn doesn’t ever move backward, only forward.  And in that regard, maybe being the pawn isn’t so bad.  I’ve spent the last year trying to move forward, instead of dwelling in the past and continually looking backward.

There has to be a happy medium in the game of life.  And I intend to find it.  I’m moving my piece forward, little by little, day by day.  I wish I could look into the future to see if I end up a winner.  But for now, I need to be content just moving my piece one space at a time, never backward, always forward.

Checkmate.

Who gets what?

For those of you who have read some of my previous posts, you already know that I have been separated from my husband for nearly a year.  A lot goes on in a separation that might be taken for granted by outsiders looking in.  The couple makes the announcement that the decision to separate has been made, and then nobody really knows what’s going on behind closed doors (because nobody wants to know) until the couple makes the announcement that the paperwork is complete, the judge has affixed his stamp, and the separation is now final.

It’s a well-known fact that divorced and separated couples split the “marital” or “mutually-acquired” assets.  Money gets split pretty evenly down the middle, and retirement packages are divided and redistributed.  Value is placed on everything, and the question of “who gets what” becomes the only topic of conversation that seems to matter for a while.  Obviously, the children are shared as equally as is realistic (and not cut down the middle, if possible), and someone usually ends up with the house.  Each person keeps his or her own car, but the rest of the “assets” have to be designated to someone.

In many cases, the couple hopes to amicably settle the “who gets what” without much disagreement.  The items in question might include the piano, china cabinet and its contents, artwork and maybe even season tickets to sporting events.  Much of the rest of it falls neatly into a “his” or “hers” pile:  pilates DVDs, the autographed hockey jersey, framed diplomas, and even jewelry.

But what about the friends?  Those “mutually acquired assets” that have been part of the couples’ life for a dozen years or more?  Surprisingly, and sadly, those decisions are typically made for you by the friends.  One of the most heartbreaking parts of my separation has been to see who chose me, and who chose him.  In only the rarest of cases did the friends choose us both.  And those have turned out to be the rarest and most valuable of friendships.  But those other friends, the ones I mistakenly thought were lifelong “acquisitions”?   Make no mistake, most of them do choose.  And most of them chose him.  I never realized that “who gets what” quickly turns into “who gets who”.  I never would have guessed that any choosing had to take place at all.

Little clues of lost friendships seeped in slowly at the beginning.  I would call and invite a “friend” to lunch or coffee, hoping to have a shoulder to lean on in my time of confusion and grief.  That’s what girlfriends are for, am I right?  But maybe I leaned a little too hard, because unreturned calls and texts became more and more frequent.  Sure, they made excuses at the beginning as to why they couldn’t meet up with me, but then they stopped contacting me altogether.  They stopped waving from their cars when we would pass on the street, and turned down the produce aisle to hide if they saw me headed up the dairy section at the grocery store.  I felt like a leper.

But as for my husband, suddenly he was being invited to dinner at people’s houses, happy hour at the bar, sporting events, and to other forms of entertainment and companionship with these same friends.  First the male half of the couple reached out to him, but then it became obvious that both halves of the pair had “chosen” him.  Friends I had introduced to him.  Friends who I had consoled during divorces and family deaths.  MY friends.  And they abandoned me in favor of my husband.

Now, my husband is a great guy.  Likable and friendly, handsome and kind.  And, maybe most importantly, emotionally stable.  If I were them, I would choose him, too.  Me?  I’m a wreck.  Most of our friends know I’m bi-polar and they also know I have not handled our separation well at all.  I’m messed up.  I have cried in nearly every restaurant and coffee shop and bookstore in town, to nearly every friend I thought I had.  Maybe that’s the problem.  These “friends” don’t want to be reminded that other people have troubles.  It’s too much work to be friends with someone who is grieving or sick.  And my kind of “sickness” does not evoke sympathy, like the bubonic plague or appendicitis might.  People don’t jump at the chance to bring meals or offer to watch kids for people with a mental illness.  They back away as if it’s contagious.  And a newly-separated bipolar person?  Forget about it.  That seems to be the worst possible combination.  Apparently, it’s easier to simply back away than to engage and offer help.  And friendship.

Today, a graduation announcement arrived in the mail for the daughter of a couple who my husband and I met at the same time.  It was addressed to him, and only him.  For whatever reason, this caused me half an hour of wasted tears.  I don’t even LIKE this family, but just the thought that a simple graduation can’t even be “announced” to both of us slid swiftly into my heart and caused me a great deal of sadness.

Maybe I’m blowing this all out of proportion.  Maybe they chose him because he’s simply a more desirable person to hang out with.  Maybe they just tolerated me because I was with him, and maybe they figured I had to be OK if a great guy like that had stuck with me all of those years.  But when he decided he’d had enough, so did they.

And it broke my heart.

But during the last few months, my realization of who my TRUE friends are has emerged.  They are the women who text me weekly (even daily!) just to say hi, to check in, to update me on their lives and make sure I’m still involved in mine.  My REAL friends return my calls, ask me to the movies and send me Christmas cards with more than just a generic name stamp at the bottom.  My FOREVER friends have stuck with me through the good and bad (and it seems like it has all been bad for the last year), and if they grow tired of my tears, they don’t let on.  Three of them have been divorced and they know what I’m going through.  Others I’ve known for a couple of decades and maybe it’s an “I knew her before he was around” kind of deal, but the fact remains that they remain.  And I really don’t see them going anywhere soon.  This group may be very small, but they are worth their weight in gold to me and I wouldn’t trade them for a world of “convenient” friendships.

As for the rest of them?  Good riddance.  It think it’s safe to assume they were never really my friends to begin with.  When the going got bad, they got going.  And I don’t need them in my life.  That kind of recognition hurts, but it’s reality.

So in terms of “who gets what”, I think I got what I deserved.  And it’s enough.

Passing time

I just saw a cool quote (author unknown):

“Never give up on a dream just because of the time it will take to accomplish it. The time will pass anyway”.

So true. This applies to many things – love, health, fame and fortune among them. But my dream is happiness. The time it will take to find my dream may be out of my hands, but what I do with myself in the meantime is entirely up to me. And I don’t intend to waste a single moment.

Look out happiness, here I come.

Nothing “purty” about it

My paternal grandmother, apparently, was bipolar. I didn’t learn this until just a few years ago. You see, I always thought she was just plain old mean.

There had been plenty of minor incidents when I was growing up during which I experienced my grandmother’s curious behavior. Oddly, she was always either high or she was very low. But there was no in-between that i can recall. We always thought she was just bitchy. And when she wasn’t being incredibly unpleasant, she was in her bed, seemingly feeling sorry for herself. She lived 1000 miles from our home so we didn’t see her often, but when we were together it was always the same routine. She was a miserable witch.

It had always been clear that I was no favorite of my grandmother’s. She had told me on many occasions that I was too much like my mother, who she referred to as a “Goddamned heathen immigrant”. My grandmother was a Methodist with a thick Southern accent (not the charming kind of drawl, either, but the hick dialect of an uneducated farm girl from the South). My mom was an obedient woman, a Russian Orthodox who was not the first choice of a wife for her perfect and only son. And my grandmother hated her; by relation, she also despised me.

I remember a couple of incidents quite clearly, which I now recognize to have been manic episodes. The first was at my high school graduation party. My friends and guests were milling about, congratulating me and paying me attention. But my grandmother was being largely ignored, and her narcissism and her disorder couldn’t handle the slight. So she worked her way into the center of the small crowd with whom I was conversing, and I was starting to introduce her when she announced quite loudly, “Ya know, if you were half as nice as you are purty, you mighta turned out okay….”. The crowd was still and silent, and I did my best to choke back my tears and hide my shame. My father quickly escorted his mother from the patio and brought her inside. She spent the next day in bed, never once rising until the following afternoon. I was devastated that she had embarrassed me in front of my friends, and I received no apology. It was as if, in her mind, the incident had never occurred.

The second episode was at the dinner table on Christmas night when both my grandmothers were present: my father’s mother, and my little Russian babushka who everyone adored. They had both traveled to join us for the holiday to celebrate my older brother’s engagement that day to his longtime girlfriend. Looking back on that night, I remember my grandmother’s agitation and restlessness. She had been sarcastic and antsy all day. By the time we sat for dinner, she could no longer hold in her angst. She began by telling me I shouldn’t eat so much or I’d end up “fat like your mother”. She pretended she couldn’t understand my Babushka, asking if she was ever going to learn to speak “real English”. She then asked my brother’s stunned fiancée if she was sure she wanted to be part of this family. My father asked her several times to apologize, to quiet down, but when my grandmother told my mom that her beautiful Christmas meal “tastes like shit”, my father threw his chair back from the table and lifted his 75-year old mother from her seat and carried her, kicking and screaming, from the table and into her room. My mother cried, my brother apologized on his grandmothers behalf, and my father returned to the table and pretended nothing had happened. The next morning when I woke, my father and grandmother were gone. He had taken her to the airport to return home. She never again was invited to visit, although she did attend my brother’s funeral four years later, at which time she spent the night in a hotel and was not allowed to stay in our home.

My mom told me only recently that my grandmother was bipolar, and that when I was a toddler my grandfather had her “institutionalized”. During her 6-week stay at a mental hospital, she underwent ECT. This was the early 1970’s and my grandfather believed it was her only chance. Sadly, ECT was not an effective treatment for her and she took lithium for the rest of her life, another 25 years. During that time, my mother tells me, my grandmother was unfaithful to my grandfather as a means of punishing him for “forcing” her to do ECT, for shaming and humiliating her. So, she shamed and humiliated him back by publicly carrying on a two-year affair with another man. Her indiscretion was, in her mind, payback for the terrible way he had treated her, forcing her to receive treatment for a disease that in her mind didn’t exist. And my poor grandpa was well aware of her behavior, of her cheating. He was a man who missed his wife and the woman she used to be, and was willing to do anything to make her well because he believed somewhere behind her illness was that woman he still loved. He forgave her the affair because he loved her, and instead blamed her illness for it.

He died before she could truly be well. So did she.

My grandmother’s life was anything but “purty”. She refused to acknowledge her illness, and it consumed most of her years. It stole from her relationships with her son and grandchildren. It left the people in her life with nothing but ugly memories of her. She missed out on blue skies and friendships and the warm embraces of children because she was sick and refused to ask for help. She denied the disease existed, and as a result she denied herself the possibility of a happy life.

Bipolar disorder may run in the family, but the way it’s handled doesn’t. I refuse to turn out like her.

I absolutely refuse.