Thursday, September 4, 2014


In the quiet times, the times between time, my mind wanders back to this bitter news unbidden. It laps the edges of it and it tastes like tears. I wonder, as I often do with suicide, about those final moments. Those last few, completely unknown, utterly intimate moments before his life slipped away. These thoughts are ugly, familiar demons who clear the room of light and goodness and breathe out such dark, despairing loneliness. I shoo them away and force myself to breathe.

I haven't read many articles about Robin Williams' suicide. They've certainly been around, but I glide past them on my various newsfeeds the same way I skip anything about guns or homeschooling or all the things that will make you fat and die. I just don't want to think about it right now.

My husband gave me the news from 400 miles away. We shared a moment of silent disbelief and went on with our daily things. It was the end of summer vacation and there was so much living to do. There is always so much living to do.

Sometimes there is too much living to do. If you don't or haven't ever suffered from depression, that sentence might not translate. If you have, it might catch your breath a little bit. It might ignite a small fire of understanding.

Bipolar disorder is tiresome beyond belief sometimes. On either end of the spectrum, the intensity of roiling brain chemistry is just exhausting to both the sufferer and their long-suffering loved ones. I was diagnosed in my early 20's with bipolar disorder.

Have you ever had a head cold or gotten water stuck in your ears and couldn't hear very well for a few days? You know that fishbowl feeling of being trapped in your own head and the sound of your own voice echoes a little too loudly around your cranium and irritates you with its closeness while all the rest of the world is a little muffled, a beat behind and out of step with your suddenly audible, tangible heartbeat? That's kind of what depression feels like.

Take your same stuffed ears and assume that you've grown accustomed to the muffled, dull madness that surrounds you and suddenly one day they pop. The whole outside world comes rushing in and you can hear it in real time and there are all these tiny things that you've been missing and they're delicious. You want to gorge yourself on all the wonder and interact with it all at once. Your own trapped head-voice can escape and wander out among all this glorious cacophony and you feel simultaneously free, elated, and overwhelmed. That's kind of what the mania feels like.

A number of years ago I decided to take all this in hand and examine my options. Accepting the bald and speckled fact that I am prone to long and somewhat predictably exhausting pendulum swings of mood and affect was the first step. Recognizing them as they came was the second. The third is what brings me to Mr. Williams' demise.

If you can't depend fully on your brain chemistry to behave in a sensible way, you have to find a gyroscope. A powerful, constant balancing force around which this other nonsense can align so that when all else fails (and eventually it will) you have a center to snap back to and tell you which way is up. For me, this gyroscope is my faith. It is not enough, however, for me to simply believe things. My trickster brain tries to get me to believe all kinds of things - both awful and glorious. It can't always be trusted. No, it's action that sets the gyroscope of my faith in motion. I have to live this faith every day so when the electrical storms of my own faulty circuitry kick up a fuss, I have some tangible touchstones, some mechanisms already in place and spinning to keep me grounded.

The bedrock of my faith is compassion. So it has been for years that I have attempted to make compassion the bedrock of my life. If I find myself with an excess of energy and creativity, I focus that on serving others. If I find myself exhausted and despairing, I focus on serving others. If I find myself simply enjoying the fact that it's Tuesday, I focus on serving others. It's win-win-win. It channels what can sometimes be the wild, impractical raging torrent of mania into something productive and useful; it gets me out of my own head and my own bed when the fog of depression takes over; it gives my whole life purpose and productivity.

I read this post about how Robin Williams' requirement for performing or making a guest appearance was that the company or organization hire a certain number of homeless people and put them to work. The comment feed on Facebook was full of hundreds of strangers chiming in with their own personal stories of how he had reached out to them in numerous generous ways. I was moved by such a laudable use of his fame and the considerable clout it wields. I was filled with a kind of familiar breathless dread.

It is fairly common knowledge that humor is often used as a coping mechanism for depression - one I often employ, not nearly as effectively as Mr. Williams did. But the sinking recognition that this deeply intelligent, hilarious man was also a generous and thoughtful humanitarian, in fact widely known for his generosity of both material things and spirit, dropped like a cold stone into the well of my consciousness. He was coping.

Plenty of people are philanthropic. Plenty of people both famous and otherwise spend their time and energy serving others in the ways that they can. I would argue that this is always a good thing, regardless of the motivation. Not all acts of kindness are motivated by a sense of self-preservation. Not all people who seek out ways to serve others are coping with their own inner demons. Maybe Robin Williams wasn't either. Maybe I project too much and he was just a really nice guy. But he was a nice guy who suffered from at least depression and probably bipolar disorder. He spent his life turning his pain into laughter and his hopelessness into service to others. This is not the whole of who he was or the entirety of why he did these things, but it rings particularly true to me. He was complex and he was coping.

He was coping and in the final moments, it wasn't enough. I sit with that and try to feel my way around it. At what point did it become "not enough"? I have no idea what was going on in his life. I would suspect that even the people closest to him didn't know the full extent of his pain. As I add him to the pantheon of people whose work I admire who succumbed in one way or another to the tumult of bipolar disorder, I have to pause and reset my gyroscope.

Well-meaning people suggest hugs, positive thoughts, believing in oneself and other innocuous remedies for those who are hurting. "If only he'd reached out..." and other such wistful and wishful thinking accompany a suicide like this. While hugs and positive thoughts and reaching out and all these other things are good and they go a long way toward staving off the ravages of depression or bipolar disorder, there is no cure.

There is only this day, with so much living to do. Sometimes this day feels like it has too much living to do and the siren's song of taking a really long nap - or maybe a permanent nap - sings a little sweeter. There is sultry seduction in the idea of ultimate quiet, of peace from the constant work of quieting the mind with all its nattering, chattering, lying, denying, belittling, elating and deflating. It is another lie that illness tells you. So you plug up your inner ears and look outward for someone to serve, a way to ease the chaos of living by giving to someone else. You grab hold of your touchstones, you locate your gyroscope, and you pray that today - just for this day - it is enough.


  1. There were so many thoughts going through my head as I read this. Thoughts of compassion, of love, of understanding, of frustration and anger, of resignation, of hope, of determination ... so many thinking things. The only real thing I can say to you is that this is amazing. This is honest and candid and raw and appropriate and real. And gol' dangit, I loves you! Thank you for opening your heart and sharing this.

  2. God bless you, Tangled Lou. I love you.

  3. The first thought that popped into my head was "and if all else fails, there's pie."

    And I wasn't going to write it. I thought perhaps someone reading your post, and then reading my comment would find it a little irreverent, if not outright disrespectful.

    I thought, however, that you might understand. Sometimes, the thinky thoughts get too heavy, and you get scared they might crush you, so you need to put them down to pick up something lighter. Like nonsensical pie references.

    It's always nice to hear your voice, Lou.

  4. Lou how do you manage to take something, anything and make it beautiful with your honesty and eloquence?

    I have so many friends that suffer with depression or bipolar or anxiety and no matter how much I want to fix it all for them, for you, my overiding emotion is uselessness! I just hope I am rock enough for them when times are really hard. And I hope that every day continues to be more than enough! Thank you for sharing and giving me a better understanding of what it feels like on the inside.

  5. "So you plug up your inner ears and look outward for someone to serve" This is advice for all of us, the best remedy for any of our trials and troubles.

  6. "Have you ever...?" Yes, yes I have. Love this. Love you.

  7. I read this a week or more ago, but was interrupted when trying to comment. I'm not even sure what I want to say. I did not know your diagnosis. I have my own diagnosis, but cannot relate to mania. My first feeling upon hearing the news about Mr. Williams was... jealousy? Ugly, but there it is. I have two things that keep me from taking drastic action in the moments that I want to: 1. I firmly believe that trying to end the pain only causes more for myself, and 2. I know that so much that is painful in my life would fall on my children. So over and over I choose patience. Over and over I choose to be the shield that keeps some of the dysfunction from falling on them. Sometimes I can be more hopeful than at other times. Sometimes I beg for hope.

    I take comfort also from Jesus' sorrowful mother, and from Mother Teresa, who also turned her pain into help for others.



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