(Although my name is at the top of the post, the author is Kent Ballard, one of my great guest columnists.)
By Kent Ballard
When the news reports came about the death of Robin Williams, most folks were stunned. How could one of the funniest men in America be gone so suddenly, with no warning? Within hours the press informed us it was a suicide. Further reports went into more detail—damn their eyes—that he’d hanged himself with his belt and there were superficial cuts on his arms. I think that information should have been kept private for his family’s sake, but then I’m not a mega-conglomerate interested only in how much money I can rake in selling dog food and beer commercials.
Yes, I was offended. Because Robin Williams and I were from the same family, in a manner of speaking.
In 1991 I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, Type II. For 23 years I’ve been with the same psychiatrist. In that length of time he’s risen through the ranks to become the head of the Indianapolis Psychiatric Association, because he’s good, very good, at what he does. I’m lucky to have him. I clearly remember our first few talks. There is actually very little known about Bipolar Disorder, much less than you might think. Even the discovery that lithium can treat some portions of it was made by accident. To this day no one has a clue what it does or how it works but it’s the prime drug prescribed to bipolars. Everything about Bipolar Disorder is mysterious in some way. It used to simply be known as “manic-depression” which is actually more descriptive, but now considered politically incorrect.
The symptoms usually manifest themselves in the late teens to early twenties, but there are many exceptions. People can develop this in their 40′s or 50′s. In my case, when I pressed my shrink, asking him when Bipolar Disorder took over my head, he gave me a straight answer: “Kent, you should have had lithium in your baby bottle. As nearly as I can tell, you were born with it. That’s rare, but not unheard of.” He then leaned in a bit closer, as if he wanted to get a point across to me in a manner that I would never forget. “Do you realize what that means? It means your entire sum total of life experience was lived as a bipolar. Every book you ever read, every movie you ever saw, every conversation in your life, every friend you ever made, everything you ever learned, every date you ever went on, all of your experiences, every one, was lived through and understood and became part of you filtered through Bipolar Disorder. You’ve never known anything else. You probably never will.”
As you might guess, THAT rocked me back on my heels. I sat there and blinked for some time, then quietly asked, “Doctor, are you telling me that…that I’m crazy?”
No, quite the opposite was the case. Take a moment and do something interesting. Google “famous bipolars” and see what you get. You’ll see a list of some of the world’s greatest artists, military leaders, composers, physicists, doctors, a whole galaxy of people you’ve studied in school or know about from their sheer fame. In that sense, I’m in wonderful company. What made them famous, regardless of their field of expertise, was their ability to think outside the box, to see around corners, to think thoughts and dream up concepts no one ever had before. As Patty Duke Austin wrote in her magnificent autobiography of a bipolar life, “A Brilliant Madness,” “Manic-depression is the only mental disorder with a GOOD side.”
And it is. Believe me when I tell you there is no high like a bipolar high. If they could put that into a bottle the world would become addicted overnight. I’ve had moments of nearly superhuman strength, of being involved in affairs where people would later say I was either the bravest—or the craziest—person they had ever met, of days when I required no sleep, of having every child I ever met fall in love with me, the ability to tell almost instantly when I am being lied to, and ten thousand other things that have been pretty handy over the years. But it’s no free ride. There is a price to pay for all this, one so heavy it literally kills people.
And this is what took Robin Williams. Sir Winston Churchill used to write about the “black dog” of depression in his private journals. Many bipolars have days when they cannot force themselves out of bed. And all bipolars drink. And they will drink to excess as soon as they can supply themselves with alcohol. I started at age 13 and never stopped until 1999, and it damned near killed me in the process. Science at least has an answer for that. They now know it to be a misguided–almost pitiful– attempt at self-medication.
Go through YouTube and look at some of Williams’ work. Can you imagine how incredibly fast he must have been thinking? How he seems to come at you from all sides at once? How he appears to be almost maniacal in his thoughts? He wasn’t acting. Bipolars think faster than other people. But they often think so fast they become erratic. Watch enough of his films and sooner or later you’ll see spots where he was not controlling it. It was controlling him.
The leading cause of death among those with Bipolar Disorder is suicide. More bipolars die of that than any other cause. With typical perversity, it can simply pop into a bipolar’s mind that this is the answer to the questions they’ve asked all their lives. It can and will kill bipolars in mere minutes. A sudden depression so deep no human can withstand it. Also perversely, bipolars tend to leave behind cheerful suicide notes. My shrink told me fascinating stories of some he had read. Many were actually so happy and funny that he found himself laughing until he remembered what he was reading.
Bipolar Disorder is not genetic. It is not passed via genes from parent to child. But it is “familial,” meaning it tends to run in families in odd spurts here and there. There were once three bipolars in my family. When my niece committed suicide she left a warm, loving note telling everyone how much she cared for them. Later, when they were cleaning her apartment, they found a note they’d overlooked. In her handwriting, Gina said there were clothes still running in the dryer, and would someone take them out?
Whatever overcame her took her that fast. She could not and would not wait for the dryer to finish its cycle.
When I got the telephone call in 2008 that my only daughter, Annie, had taken her life my mind flashed back to the several conversations we’d had about the subject. I warned her time and again this was a possibility for all of us, to be frightened of it and to call me, her mother, anyone if she ever felt suicidal. She never had the time to do that. It was as if she’d been cut down by a sniper. Annie loved life and ate it in big bites. She had more friends than I could count, had recently gotten an impressive promotion at her job and a new apartment. Everything was going great for her. Right up until the end.
So don’t think me cruel or uncaring when I say that Robin Williams’ death came as no surprise to me. I’ve had 23 years of training and counseling, learning never to listen to the voice of Death calling me. He’s never far away and I know that. He’s whispered to me more than once and I had the ability to run away. I’ve been careful and lucky so far. Mostly lucky.
If you know someone who’s bipolar, tell them they can call you at any hour. You might make the difference for them. Generally, suicide is preventable among normally depressed people who’ve simply suffered a string of bad things which have happened to them. With bipolars it’s a crap shoot. Whatever hits us so suddenly, and with such speed and overwhelming force, there’s often nothing you can do except listen to your heart rip apart when you get the news they’re gone.
But were these lives wasted? Not really, not in my opinion. Because when they were riding that high bipolar wave they had more fun than you will ever know. They laughed and enjoyed life and were brilliant and deeply, truly, knew they were loved and gave tremendous love in return. They were not candles in the wind. They were, and are, more like skyrockets. It’s only after they roar and shriek up to their zenith and dazzle us all with blinding lights of many colors that, after a moment, we realize how dark the night really is. But friend, when they were firing, they were magnificent.
“My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night
But oh my foes, and oh my friends
It gives a lovely light” ~ Edna St. Vincent Millay