“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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When it rains, it pours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Portal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go looking……

Hi, everyone –

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

http://blackboxwarnings.wordpress.com

My piece is titled:  Much Ado About Nothing

Have a wonderful day.

Morning Prayer for my Healthy Brain

I recently came across some writing called “Morning Prayer”. I read it, then I read it again. And I loved it, thinking how directly it applies to me, but not for the reasons one might think.

I am trying hard to be a good Christian, and I have recently allowed religion back into my life, hoping it will guide me through my pain and misery. So please excuse the fact that while I’m going to share this prayer with you, I’m going to change it a little so that it applies more closely to my situation. I hope I will not offend any believers or better Christians than I.

Where the original prayer uses the phrase, “O Lord”, please allow me to substitute it instead with “My Healthy Brain”:

“Morning Prayer for my Healthy Brain”

My Healthy Brain, grant that I may meet all that this coming day brings me with tranquility. Grant that I may fully surrender myself to your good will.

At every hour of this day, direct and support me in all things. Whatsoever news may reach me in the course of the day, teach me to accept it with a calm soul and the firm conviction that all is subject to your will.

Direct my thoughts and feelings in all my words and actions. In all unexpected occurrences, do not let me forget that all is under your care.

Grant that I may deal straightforwardly and wisely with every member of my family, neither embarrassing nor saddening anyone.

My Healthy Brain, grant me the strength to endure the fatigue of the coming day and all the events that take place during it. Direct my will and teach me to pray, to believe, to hope, to be patient, to forgive, and to love. Amen.”

Amen

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.

“In My Room”

I have always been a huge fan of the Beach Boys.  I love that most of their songs seem to be about girls, surfing or cars, or a combination of all three.  However, I recently googled “songs about bipolar” and was surprised to see one of the Beach Boys’ biggest hits on that list:  “In My Room”.

Maybe I was surprised because I guess I always thought that the song was about a teenage boy and masturbation……

Anyway, here are the lyrics so you can decide for yourself:

“There’s a world where I can go and tell my secrets to
In my room, in my room
In this world I lock out all my worries and my fears
In my room, in my room

Do my dreaming and my scheming
Lie awake and pray
Do my crying and my sighing
Laugh at yesterday

Now it’s dark and I’m alone
But I won’t be afraid
In my room, in my room”