The world was recently rocked by the untimely death of Robin Williams by suicide. Some called him weak and a coward. Some wondered how he could just leave his friends and loved ones so callously. Some wondered how such a funny and talented person could just give it all up so horribly. The truth is he didn’t die by suicide. That may have been his final act but it didn’t kill him. It was his depression that killed him long before he finally hung himself.
Depression by itself or as part of a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder is an illness that is often apparent from early childhood but, very unfortunately, is not understood or diagnosed until young adulthood or later, if at all. Bipolar Disorder presents itself as wild mood swings from deep depression to hyper mania and places on the spectrum in between, including deep anger and despair. Both are types of mental illness and, as such, often carry a heavy stigma and burden.
How do I know these things? I am Bipolar but wasn’t properly diagnosed until my early thirties and even then, wasn’t properly managed by therapist after psychiatrist after therapist after psychiatrist and so on to whom I went when I finally agreed I needed help. I have been hospitalized, whether voluntarily or not, many more times than I can count. I have tried more medications than I can remember. Some worked, some didn’t and many I just quit taking because I hated the side effects. This is not uncommon. I even went through two courses of ECT (electro-convulsive therapy) in my forties, unsuccessfully. Talk about Stigma! (Anyone remember Thomas Eagleton?) Not even some of my closest friends and family have ever known about that. ECT is not intended as a quick fix but it was terribly disappointing that neither therapy nor medication nor any other modalities were working for me at the time I tried it.
So, what is it like to live with this mental illness? From the time I was very young, I was considered “moody.” I remember an incident when it was time for school pictures. I was in Pre-School, then called “Nursery-School” and not yet bound by the tyranny of a dress code! I wanted to wear my usual jeans and my mother wanted me all frilly and girlie. That just wasn’t me and I exploded in anger and frustration. I vividly recall beating my arms and legs on the kitchen floor. I never did make it to school that day. Another time two or three years later, my little friend down the block wrongfully accused me of stealing a candy bar, an act she actually had done herself. My parents refused to believe me and I first swung my arms across the shelves where some of my books and toys were kept. They went crashing into the walls. I also took a scissors to the top of a brand new, very expensive dolly buggy. I can remember the blue mechanical tape that was used as a fix to this day. It was days before I came out of my depression and was ready to go out and play again.
On the other hand, I remember being at a classmate’s birthday party when we were in the first or second grade. We were playing “Button, Button” and I suddenly started giggling uncontrollably and running like a wild animal around the house. The mother called mine to pick me up and told me I would never be invited back to their home again. I can actually remember the physical reaction that came over me as I realized the consequences of what I had done, including expulsion from that so-important social circle. None of these incidents were isolated to these early years and continued even on through grammar school, high school, college, post-graduate school and beyond.
Adulthood brought other incidents, other challenges. My intelligence served me well through my education but it did not help me maintain employment. I would have a great job, then have a breakdown and be refused to return to work no matter how well I had been doing before I became ill. That’s against the law, isn’t it? I actually did sue a couple of times and succeed but how many times could I go through that without ruining my reputation? After all, that was my real ticket to succeed as an attorney. By the late 1990’s, I finally could no longer go on like that and my doctor told me not to go back as he feared for my life. More suicide attempts and hospitalizations followed.
What, you may ask, has contributed to my ability to escape the outcome to which people like Robin Williams and other everyday people who walk my path? I have dear friends and family and a husband who supports me through every up and down. I have a great sense of humor. I have a strong but kind psychiatrist who refuses to take any guff from me. I stay on my meds (finally) and otherwise remain a compliant patient. Many other sufferers of this illness have the same support. In the end, however, I somehow cling to hope. I have my activities and my dogs which comfort me. I have my friends and family who check in with me. And I maintain the hope that someday, somehow, this disease will be curable and I can finally be a truly happy person.