On the eve of the first anniversary of Robin Williams’ death, we’d like to share this essay, written and submitted to us by the disability artist David Feingold, to shed some light on what it is like to live with bipolar disorder. Although Robin Williams had never stated himself that he suffered from any mental illhealth, it has long been speculated that he had been suffering from bipolar disorder. We would like to make it clear that we are not practising armchair psychologists, or wish to diagnose anyone. In the light of speculation, which has encouraged many people to speak out about their own experiences, or reflect on whether Robin Williams may have had similar experiences, we’re happy to share this article with you all.
We have exhibited David’s work recently, at our Mental Spaghetti exhibition at Studio 3 Arts. You can see more of his work here.
All artwork © David Feingold, 2015
Robin Williams may have been bigger than life on and off the stage and screen, but in the end a mere speck in the battle of an illness that dwarfed his fame, fortune, family and friends.
“Many of us ask how someone who presented himself as happy, vibrant and creative as Robin Williams could pull the rug out from the entire world. He fooled us. He took us by surprise. He disappointed us. He let us down.
Williams was our unofficial patron saint of happiness and hope. He was a beacon of light in our darkness of boredom, despair and mediocrity. He made us laugh, leave our troubles behind and give us the possibility that life could be better than it is.
Other articles I’ve read focus on the life of Robin Williams—his substance and alcohol abuse, his many accomplishments and heightened status in the world of nobodies. There is no reason to go into these things once again. We need something more informative. We need something substantial. We need something left behind by this genius of comedy and ultimately a slave to despair.
I have a masters in social work and a doctorate in disability studies, but this piece is not written in jargon or academic hyperbole. It is written for all of us, no matter our education, IQ score or bank account. The only prerequisite for getting something out of this essay is a beating heart and an open mind. It is simple, profound in its directness and educational. It will show that there was something other than Robin Williams’ will at play in ending his life. As you will see, it goes much deeper than that.
The following is my own experience with bipolar disorder, taken directly from my dissertation on the subject. Hopefully it will give you some closure to Robin’s death and satisfy your desire to know ‘why’.
‘Hitting Rock Bottom’
Hitting rock bottom
One of the worst things about having bipolar disorder is hitting rock bottom in a major depressed state. Ever wonder what happens to a body when it falls to the ground from a skyscraper? Well, the physical result of that fall is equivalent to the way you feel when you hit rock bottom in a bipolar depressed state. There is as much emotional life in that depressed state as there is physical life in an abrupt 60 story landing on pavement.
You are empty, void and nowhere to be found. There’s just a vacuum of a life you used to have, a name you used to claim, a person you used to know, now depleted of everything you used to be and have, like planets, stars and light itself being suck into a black hole in an abandoned, endless universe. This condition is usually referred to as an illness or a disorder. That’s like calling WWII a spat or the Holocaust bullying.
Manic depression, as it used to be called, can be a monster. All the horror stories you used to know as a child combined into one entity that lives inside you. I takes over…in the form of emptiness. All that’s left is the smoldering.
Ah, mania, sweet mania. It is a major high than cannot be measured by ordinary means. Why? Because it is the opposite of its evil twin, depression. How do you describe the opposite of total, personal emptiness? How do you explain the feeling that was previously dark and void and totally emotionally painful, is now incredibly freeing with limitless happiness, confidence, creativity, and the amount of energy equivalent two ten pots of espresso? Now, just like its opposite, depression, mania can last hours, days or weeks. Days without sleep and days filled with doing things you likely would have never done, had you not been ‘blessed’ with the presence of bipolar disorder.
Typical behaviour and vices associated with manic phases of bipolar disorder are pressured speech, feelings of grandeur, overly confident, belief in one’s ability to accomplish things that otherwise would seem unrealistic, extreme impulsivity, irritability, verbal aggressiveness, sudden obsessive interest and immersion in religion and spirituality, social inappropriateness, and denial of one’s own malfunctioning behaviour.
By the way, my visual interpretation of mania is pictured above. It’s how I feel when I manage to escape the black hole of depression, just anticipating making up for lost time.
‘So What If I’m Bipolar, I’m Just Like Everyone Else’
So what if I’m bipolar, I’m just like everyone else!
The title of this section may be the name of my art piece above, but it certainly isn’t my actual belief. There is something disconcerting about having a mental illness and feeling different than anyone else, but there is something even more disconcerting about pretending or living in denial about not being like everyone else. The word, “phoney” comes to mind, as well as identity confusion. When I’m manic, I feel how the picture above looks — different. There’s no confusing this for a regular looking person or a manic person for a regular acting person.
What is bipolar disorder, anyway? You hear about it on TV and radio reports of some deranged shooter that had it, you read about it in the newspapers and magazines as part of a special interest stories. and you hear anecdotes about students and parents who have it by teachers in the staff lounge. Quite simply, bipolar disorder is considered to be a biological disease in which there are abnormal mood shifts of elevated and depressed moods, caused by alterations in brain chemistry.
Bipolar disorder is a treatable illness, which can be controlled by medication. I have already described the major symptoms of bipolar disorder from my own direct experience with the illness, so I won’t repeat that here. Instead, I’d like to present the different episodes of bipolar disorder. In addition to the depressive and manic episodes, there is the mixed episode.
Bipolar patterns present themselves different ways to different people. For example, without medication, initially infrequent episodes can increase to more frequent occurrences. Seasons of the year can ind some people becoming more manic in the spring and more depressed in winter. Individuals with rapid cycling can experience such mixed episodes continuously all year long. The episodes can also last anywhere from days to months, to years. Some with bipolar disorder can go years without symptoms, while others can have continual or frequent mild mood swings. It is important to seek a diagnosis as soon as possible, should you suspect you might be having bipolar symptoms.
The reason for doing so is to best avoid the fallout of having bipolar disorder, which includes suicide, alcohol and substance abuse, problems with one’s marriage and work, and the illness is harder to treat over time without early intervention. Bipolar disorder is found to be either genetically inherited or brought about by a problem with brain chemistry that triggers the bipolar disorder through stress, lack of sleep, substance use and different life events.
Medication, education and psychotherapy helping one deal with the illness has been found to be the most effective way of treating the disorder. For additional information, check out the Depression and Bipolar Alliance: www.dbsalliance.org.
‘Can’t See Past My Depression’
Can’t See Past My Depression
This is as true today as it was 10 years ago when I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder. You can’t see past it because you can’t see, period. Everything is murky, muddled and blanketed in darkness. Every once in a while there is a momentary sliver of light to ‘see’ your pain, but not beyond it. You can’t see out and it’s nearly impossible for others to reach in. I know they are there, trying to make contact with me, but I may as well be light years away. It is that futile. Without an emotional tether or human connection, we’re like a lost asteroid out of orbit and on its way to nowhere.
Depression is a lonely place. If it was located on a map, it would be on the edge, in the margin, outside of anything on this Earth. Medication is like cut and paste on a word processing application. It can take you off the margin and put you on the map. Where on the map is not known straightaway. You might find yourself on a floating iceberg, wearing nothing but a scarf, in a tropical rainforest, without as much as insect repellent, or at the bottom of the ocean, near a fault spewing steaming hot lava. At least you’re somewhere. But for how long?
Robin’s Dark Cloud
Robin’s abilities were extremely unique and held sway in both the world of acting and comedy. In light of his success and professional prowess, how hopeless was Williams’ world that he would enter that eternal darkness and never look back? Hopefully, I have given you a glimpse of what Robin could no longer endure and why he chose no longer to remain. It was the dark cloud that covered him and rained on his reign.”
This essay, complete with David’s accompanying artwork, is available to download here.