“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.

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.

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.

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.

DBT, anyone?

I’m being “required” by both my ECT doc and my psychiatrist to try something called “DBT” (Dialectical Behavior Therapy). They even wrote it out on a prescription pad and handed the “Rx” to me with a warning that if I didn’t try the 10-week program, they would no longer be willing to treat me. I don’t think that’s actually true – I think they were trying to force my hand because they believe this will really work for me.

It had its desired effect.

My teenage daughter saw the “prescription” and because it was written in typical illegible doctor handwriting (no offense, Ted Danson….), she thought it said, “DiaBOLICAL Behavior Therapy”. I suppose that wouldn’t be much of a reach, considering a lot of my past behavior.

So, I’m now 3 weeks into the program. And I’m curious: have any of you done this? Your thoughts? Has it worked? I’d love some opinions and maybe some personal insight into DBT.

And if it was diabolical, well, I guess I’d be interested in hearing that, too.

Thanks in advance.