Wednesday, August 13, 2014

One Little Spark of Madness: Thoughts on Bipolar Disorder and the Death of Robin Williams.

I am surrounded by bipolar disorder these days, from the tragic loss of Robin Williams, to my new novel, and my own demons. I recently finished reading An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison which is basically the preeminent work on manic depression. Dr. Jamison is both a renowned psychiatrist and a survivor of bipolar disorder which gives her a unique perspective on the disease that affects around 5.5 million adults in the United States.

I was diagnosed with Bipolar I when I was 18 or 19. It took a long time to get a proper diagnoses, and I was originally treated with antidepressants with disastrous consequences. Eventually I was put on a mood stabilizer which actually worked to suppress the extreme cycling between mania and depression. Most people (including an earlier version of myself), don't understand how treatment, once you find a medication that works, is still nearly impossible. But in my case, my meds took away a large part of who I am: my writing. It took a long time, but I've finally decided that it's not worth it. I need to write. If I can't write, I don't want to be "normal."

For Dr. Jamison, medication was the only thing that kept her from self-destructing. That was the decision that worked for her, and in the end, it's all about survival. What do you need to make it to the next day?

Robin Williams fought that fight for a long time. Sixty-three years seems like an impossibly long time to me. But in the end, his disease caught up with him. And that's what bipolar disease is. It's just as inevitable - and just as physical - as cancer. For those of you who are interested, here's a medical article about the physiological aberrations - from differences in brain structure to neurochemical changes - that are part and parcel with bipolar disorder. And like cancer, bipolar disorder can be fatal.

Robin Williams's death has brought mental illness into the public eye in a heart-wrenching and visceral fashion. "How could someone so funny be so sad?" people ask. But that question is flawed. His humor was part of his pain. Watching him at his highest, his funniest, his most improvisational, was like watching an advertisement for mania. When I found out that he was bipolar, it made so much sense. And it gave me hope. He was brilliant - having finished four years at Julliard - and successful. He'd not only survived, but he seemed to thrive. That gave me hope for my own future, for my own fight. He was more than a comedian for me. He was in no small  part a hero. He'd won the fight.

And then he lost.

When I first heard the news, I refused to process it. Denial.

Then I was illogically angry that everyone was saying he had depression. Yes, depression was part of it, but it was more than that. He was bipolar. Just like me. For some inexplicable reason, it felt like they were diminishing him. Anger.

Maybe if people only understood. Maybe we should be more open to the discussion, because many people still have no basic frame of reference when it comes to mental illness. Maybe if we lived in a society where his pain - and not only his humor - could have been part of his public identity, he would have found the way to keep fighting. Bargaining.

I should have known. There really isn't any hope. This disease kills. Ernest Hemingway. Sylvia Plath. Vincent Van Gogh. Jack London. And many others whom history doesn't remember.

And now Robin Williams.

So what hope is there for me?


Honestly, I intended this post to be a review of Kay Redfield Jamison's memoir and I'll probably write another post about that incredible book. But instead it's become a eulogy. A love letter to the struggle. A desperate attempt to understand so that maybe, just maybe, I can move on to that final stage - both in terms of this recent loss and my own struggle.


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