The Elephant in the Room is Bipolar

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In the wake of Robin Williams’s suicide something surprising has happened; sufferers of depression have come out of the shadows to share their struggles with this terrible illness. Even before this the stigma that has surrounded depression for many decades has begun to slowly be erased with sport athletes opening up about their struggles with depression. And now acceptance for depression as a real mental disorder is higher than ever and it coincides with ABC TV Australia’s announcement about a new initiative to raise awareness and end the stigma surrounding mental illness, which will happen in October. People have not only started to share their stories about living with depression but those who have been untreated for so long have finally gone out to seek help. Lifeline has been inundated with calls of people who may have been on the very brink of suicide. Real lives have been saved.

This is fantastic and I’m very happy to see the stigma of depression disappearing but I only wish the same would happen for sufferers of bipolar disorder. It’s well known that Robin Williams fits the description of someone with bipolar disorder. You just have to watch him in interviews. He himself has also called himself manic a number of times. Few who have that much hyperactivity rarely have bipolar disorder, unless they have ADHD but it begins in childhood and Robin was shy as a child, as was I – I’m actually glad we have that in common. One other I can think of on the bipolar spectrum who was shy as a child was 60s folk singer Phil Ochs who took his own life at 35.

Out of all my reading up of news articles about Robin Williams’s death only one says he was suspected to have bipolar. Now I’m not saying I know for sure what the cause of his depression was – we now know he had depression from having heart surgery and Parkinson’s disease – but I still think bipolar needs to be properly explained. There are still people out there who can’t understand how someone so funny could end his own life. And from some programs I’ve watched they have tried to find a link between comedians and depression. I used to think such things myself but it’s more likely the depression is manic depression.

I can understand why people would rather leave the bipolar issue out, because they want to remember the man as a man, not as a diagnosis or label. We can still say he struggled with bipolar as much as we are saying he suffered from depression. I just think it will help those confused by his suicide understand his choice a lot better. Soon I will talk in detail about bipolar, especially the depression as it manifests as a comedown from mania. First I want to talk about who Robin Williams was to me and how I will remember him.

The first memory I had of becoming familiar with the name ‘Robin Williams’ was from watching Aladdin. It was my favourite Disney film at the time. I love him as Genie and soon began to quote him every chance I got. Kids like me just loved the energy he gave to the role, the switching between personalities and I even got a bit choked up around his emotional moments. To adults on the outside I looked like an emotionless kid who didn’t have a clue what was going on around me. Later I would be diagnosed with autism. But when I could really connect with a character I began to empathise more, even if on the outside I was as solid and as expressionless as a rock.

I watched a lot of Robin’s family films in the 90s. His soft gentle voice made me think of him as either that favourite teacher or a father figure. Father figures would come in many forms for me as I didn’t see a lot of my father. I’m glad I didn’t see any of his stand up or his more adult movies because given my Christian upbringing I may have been turned off of him by it, but now that I’m an adult and have a pretty dirty mind myself and I had to push those thoughts deep down inside me while I attended church, I enjoy all that stuff now. I think his best film for me was Dead Poets Society even if my young eyes were focused more on the shy character Ethan Hawke played. I have not seen the film in years so I may have to revisit it. I just remember watching that movie over and over again and loving it. I loved Jack too because I loved how believable he was as a 10 year old. I was probably around that age myself when I saw the film. An adult that had the personality of a child was something I aspired to be, although I really didn’t have to put much work into it.

Like I mentioned before I was a shy child and I’m still surprised by how much I’ve changed. I used to tag along behind my friends and now I’m like the class clown. Sometimes I think my humor is a little bit too weird, too crude and about things no one can relate with, but people seem to like me. Now, I suspect I may have bipolar and the reason why I talk like I’m sure I have it is I don’t think I’ll ever be diagnosed or medicated for it properly. Doctors are either too biased so shut down my suggestions for an assessment just to rule it out, or unqualified, or their fees are too steep. It makes it hard for me to get help. And lately I’ve been wrestling with the thought that mania could actually be a bad thing. Last time I was constantly on the move for two days, I spent over $300 and I crashed so hard and it was my first depressive episode since being on anti-depressants but I’m always so energetic, the creative ideas come so fast they are spilling out of my brain, I’m more social, more willing to take risks and I just know people think I’m a lot of fun.

I also know I come up with questions people never want to answer, like would Robin Williams be the same without his mania? People who have received treatment for bipolar always seem to avoid talking about the good parts of mania and I tried my best to name it as a negative force, just a part of the mental illness, but I fell behind in my productivity. I’m a very logical person. I can put things together. It’s still a question I don’t want to answer. One could say if Robin Williams didn’t have mania he wouldn’t have killed himself, but maybe even without there would still be depression. I just remember when I was coming off Ritalin because it was basically speed to me and I knew it would take a whole lot away from me. I even warned people I might not be as social as I was on the meds. That didn’t exactly happen. The change was permanent. The only difference was I didn’t speed through my sentences. Now I’m not saying everyone’s experience with Ritalin will be like this but it’s more likely to be if you have bipolar or a family history of it.

The most important part I want to touch on is the depression that follows mania. There are the usual symptoms of depression; they sort of bleed through while still manic. You can start to doubt yourself after having so much confidence about yourself, or something in the environment can trigger you; someone giving you negative feedback or hearing some sad news, or simply being unable to sweep your disappointed about something under the rug. I usually choose to ignore the trigger but once it happens depression is going to rear its ugly head and may stick around for some days, or for the most common types of bipolar, many weeks and months. For me, the positive kind of mania begins to disappear and is replaced with this monstrous angry monster, sometimes known as dark mania or agitated depression. I would get in some very ferocious fights with friends that when my mood returned to normal I would decide it was best if I got those people out of my life to save myself from them. I did this once a month and almost decided to end it with my best friend, but she wasn’t having it, so I had to learn to really empathise with her a bit more and things have been fine ever since. Once the mania is over you are left with exhaustion. Both cognitive and motor functions slow down. You barely get to complete a thought, your memory worsens, and it’s a lot harder to get a coherent sentence out of your mouth. You can barely get out of bed or make your own meals. You’re either full of intense and painful melancholy or extreme anger.

You don’t want to be around people. They anger you for just being there, particularly if they’re in a cheerful mood. You begin to feel guilty for the way you acted during the manic episode, especially the money you spent. There’s a lot of memory loss about what you got up to. Sometimes you want that memory so you can remember how happy you were because happiness seems the hardest emotion to achieve right now. You’re full of self-doubt, hate and may become cynical. Eventually, the lingering thoughts turn to how difficult everything is suddenly for you and it’s just too hard to go on. Then the suicidal thoughts start. For me and my highly vivid imagination they always end up being graphic scenes involving the moments before the attempt and the reaction of people after it. Blame my imagination and lifelong obsession with film and desire to be a screenwriter, but I can always turn these thoughts and images around to lead to a positive conclusion and the whole depressive episode ends.

What I’m trying to illustrate here is that the depression in bipolar is different than just stand alone depression. All depression is really serious but that added exhaustion and guilt has really made an impact on my own plans for suicide. There is more hope for those of us who cycle from one mood into the other: the depression will end, but when?

Robin Williams’s death is a real tragedy and for a few of us with bipolar disorder who have more of a handle on our depression we’re now unsure of our own future. Not only was Robin Williams more successful than us (some of us don’t even have jobs or have any hope to get into another romantic relationship) but he was older than us and I was led to believe the more experience you have with depression the more you have a handle on those thoughts, but that’s not always the case. Maybe it was simple matter of having depression x3 including a chronic illness that just made him give up, but we’re all just so shaken by it.

Whatever the reason he is gone now and that hurts a whole lot of people. From the 90s kids who enjoyed his family movies, to the older generation who loved his stand-up, even got so influenced by it it shows up in their own comedy routine (Jimmy Fallon), to those who enjoyed his later more mature films.

But he’ll always be my Captain.

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