© Erika M. Schreck, Red Feather Lakes, CO
Like many of you, I’ve felt the reverberation of grief and heightened sensitivity these last few days after losing the lovely and talented Robin Williams, who had bipolar disorder. This loss is not only sad because of the impact Williams had on all of us but also heart-breaking for so many because he succumbed to the numbing, hopeless pain known all too well by those who have bipolar disorder and other forms of mental illness.
While reports continue to say that Robin Williams was depressed, let’s be clear that he was in a depressed state, which was part of having bipolar disorder. As a friend with bipolar said today, “It’s easy to just say he was depressed. We know depression, and we’re familiar with depression. But bipolar—that can be a bit too scary for people to talk about or acknowledge.”
Robin Williams has long been a sufferer of bipolar disorder, a mental illness where the person fluctuates between episodes of extreme energy, focus and productivity (mania) and severe depression. Apparently, he was in one of the episodes of depression when he took his own life.
John Grohol, “Robin Williams, Mental Illness Sufferer,
Dead at 63 Due to Suicide”
Bipolar disorder screams for more attention, along with all forms of mental illness—these conditions are very close to me. I know well and love several people who have bipolar disorder and other mental health challenges, and I have many clients who personally struggle with or who are partners or family members of people diagnosed with a mental disorder. I dream of days when we can destigmatize mental illness and all be more educated with these matters. I get very prickly and defensive when people loosely call people “crazy,” as that’s a trigger word for my dear ones who have mental illness. “Crazy” and all of the other related, stigmatized language choices—just look up “mental illness” in a thesaurus—are typically last in how they wish to be perceived. These tremendously sensitive beings fear being viewed as “crazy,” especially since the fleeting and fluctuating mood states are not really their true essence. We’ve got to be more careful with how we talk about mental illness and how we reference those who have it.
More recent literature offered that it’s more accurate to see mental illness as a condition and frame references as “he has bipolar disorder” or “she has depression,” rather than “he is bipolar” and so forth. While mental illness can be very consuming, especially when untreated, it’s not who the person is at his or her core. With more education, we can begin to see people struggling with mental illness with more compassion, especially because I guarantee that all of you know someone and often several people dealing with a form of mental illness.
What is mental illness?
A mental illness is a medical condition that disrupts a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning. Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illnesses are medical conditions that often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life.
Serious mental illnesses include major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and borderline personality disorder. The good news about mental illness is that recovery is possible.
National Alliance on Mental Illness
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of mental illness is that it’s not as visible as other illnesses are. I recently had a beloved friend who has bipolar say to me, “I wish I had cancer, Erika. At least then people would have no doubt I was sick and even try to understand the pain I’m in every single day with being bipolar.” While we may see actions that reflect this illness, such as an inability to get to work or even get out of bed, or an “elevated”/manic state of fast speech or even belligerent or anxious or irritable mood, some of these displays can be assumed as character flaws and not part of a much bigger, driving life force that bipolar disorder fuels. Or, we actually sometimes enjoy the elevated states, as we did with Robin Williams and his “comedic genius” as I’ve often heard—but we don’t realize the pain or masked compensation happening in those moments. And, often, how could we know?
© Erika M. Schreck, Red Feather Lakes, CO
Because I’ve been so close to it, and with several people in my life, even though I’m not a medical professional, I am keen on the evidence. But if you’re not familiar with mental health issues, you may not even know someone is bipolar, as he/she can learn to hide it—finding excuses for avoiding social invitations, explaining any situational behavior as the result of common stressors, or even keeping certain friends for the elevated times and other friends for the need-to-self-medicate (ex. drinking alcohol) times. None of us are perfect, and we often hide our vulnerabilities and sources of shame. The irony of bipolar disorder is that while “hiding” it often feels safer, people who are struggling with it are best served when loved ones—especially those willing to learn more and understand and love—know and are involved. Family and community support are keys to those experiencing bipolar overwhelm.
And it’s tough. It can be tough and exhausting to be a partner, family member, friend or even stranger stuck in an elevated or even depressed episode with someone struggling with bipolar disorder. It’s tough to be supportive, even when in a brief moment there are hurtful words spoken or even physical violence. I know. I’ve been there and am there. If you’re willing, research AND use the resources available, and use love and compassion. But keep yourself safe and know that enabling can happen, even when loving others who are sick—physically, emotionally, mentally. Just as anyone with a physical illness chooses and needs to have professional, informed help to be as healthy as possible, people with mental health challenges need professional, informed help. But if you’re enabling someone with mental illness, or even think you might be, I love the following insights and suggestion.
No one lives an entire life without the wherewithal to make a different choice. Ask anyone with a serious mental illness. They did it. Others can too.
And I share with you this sentiment that interventionists have shared with people dealing with drug addicts:
There is nothing I won’t do to help you get better, but there is nothing I will do to help you remain ill.
Yes, that means you still support that person and love that person but that doesn’t mean that you have to sit around and watch them destroy themselves. Any time they want to stop you’ll be there for them, but until that point, you have to choose your own sanity over their destruction.
Natasha Tracy, bipolarburble blog
“When You Leave Someone with a Mental Illness”
Education is necessary. I’ve so often witnessed—and, yes, can understand—the anger that erupts when a loved one who has bipolar disorder isn’t getting out of bed for work yet another day or again exploded in rage and threw an object across the room. Education and support. Education and support. And then you will feel better and informed as you decide how you respond and how you support or how you not support.
Another friend who has bipolar disorder introduced me to a fantastic, FREE documentary that’s currently on YouTube. Stephen Fry, known as English actor, comedian, writer and activist, also has bipolar disorder and produced an incredible documentary called The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive. Click here for Part One, and click here for Part Two. Each segment is about an hour, and people including actors Carrie Fisher and Richard Dreyfuss are interviewed about having bipolar disorder. Stephen Fry has attempted suicide more than once and is very candid about the highs and lows of bipolar disorder, even exploring the times of mania as helpful for creative people like himself.
Fry, who is president of the mental health charity Mind, said: “I am the victim of my own moods, more than most people are perhaps, in as much as I have a condition which requires me to take medication so that I don’t get either too hyper or too depressed to the point of suicide.
“I would go as far as to tell you that I attempted it last year, so I’m not always happy – this is the first time I’ve said this in public, but I might as well. I’m president of Mind, and the whole point in my role, as I see it, is not to be shy and to be forthcoming about the morbidity and genuine nature of the likelihood of death amongst people with certain mood disorders.”
David Batty, The Guardian, 5 June 2013
Celebrities, for as public as they are, can even hide bipolar disorder, but their struggles are so real, especially when self-medicating and not receiving professional support. Jimi Hendrix. Beethoven. Kurt Cobain. Agatha Christie. Mel Gibson. Abraham Lincoln. Catherine Zeta Jones. Sting. Ben Stiller. Axl Rose. The list goes on: Click here.
Bipolar disorder is an illness that is eased with family and friend support, but professional help and a personal, medical-professional-informed treatment plan are essential. I’ve been so moved by Robin Williams’ passing and know that we can do so much more with being educated and less judgmental about mental illness in our own lives.
With misinforming media and widespread misunderstanding about Robin Williams’ bipolar disorder, I also realized how concerned I am for my own loved ones who are so pained by their mental conditions and experiencing so much life disruption. Many people in our lives don’t even know or cannot grasp the daily struggle.
I do know and appreciate the amazing conversations and increased awareness about mental illness resulting this week, though, which is more of what we need. And I had to speak up.
Resources for Education and Support
Amazing, nationwide resources for people who have mental illness and for loved ones include
♦ NAMI [National Alliance on Mental Illness] (http://www.nami.org/) and
♦ NIMH [National Institute of Mental Health] (http://www.nimh.nih.gov/index.shtml).
If you’re in the Boulder, Colorado, area, I highly recommend the Sutherland Center [Robert D. Sutherland Center for the Evaluation and Treatment of Bipolar Disorder] and the Raimy Psychology Clinic (mainly for depression and other mental health issues); these two resources are sliding-scale, very supportive services.
And books, book, books, such as
♥ The Bipolar Disorder Survival Guide: What You and Your Family Need to Know
David J. Miklowitz, PhD
♥ Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder: A 4-Step Plan for You and Your Loved Ones to
Manage the Illness and Create Lasting Stability
Julie A. Fast and John Preston, PsyD
♥ Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder
Julie A. Fast and John D. Preston, PsyD
♥ Why Am I Still Depressed? Recognizing and Managing the Ups and Downs
of Bipolar II and Soft Bipolar Disorder
© Erika M. Schreck, 2014. All rights reserved.