Nature has an unsettling way about always returning us to balance. Bipolar disorder is no different. Although it often manifests in a person like Robin Williams, as a vibrant, often brilliant, creative force, ushered in by the gods. Inside, it is malevolently carving away, creating an even bigger psychological "hole," for its captor to fall back into.
Robin Williams was the ultimate "giver," as an artist. Always performing, always captivating, making us laugh until our sides hurt. We rarely heard of an interview where Robin was "off-puttingly quiet," or "unusually somber." He came from a time in Hollywood where it was never okay to be "off."
This unrealistic narrative so many comedians, actors, and entertainers are indoctrinated with, can be so dangerous in combination with a psychiatric illness such as bipolar disorder. One of the hallmark features of recovery from such a destructive illness is the practice of self-care. An idea often seen as "career suicide" to many artists coming up during Robin Williams' era.
One silver lining in the unfortunate tragedy of losing such a brilliant comedien so early, is that it brings the spotlight on bipolar disorder and how important it is that we create a common dialogue about it, so that we may recognize it before its too late. Here are 5 things you may or may not know about bipolar disorder:
1) It is categorized into two main sub-diagnoses; bipolar I and bipolar II (cyclothymia is also a new subset, but is more mild than BPD I and II). Bipolar I is the most severe. Separated from BPD II by manic episodes, oftentimes people with bipolar I are unable to carry out the functions of normal living during a manic episode. Many times people with bipolar I experience severe delusional thinking ("I am going to be the next President of the United States," or "Johnny Depp is obsessed with me.") or hallucinations (visual or audio). Bipolar I is usually characterized by some psychotic thinking, but not always.
People with bipolar II experience hypomanic episodes. These are more like periods of time where a person can go with very little sleep, decides to write their novel, paint the entire outside of their house, etc. The behaviors are still a bit unusual, but usually not to the degree that they impair the person's ability to function. This is often why many people with bipolar II go undetected.
2) There are evolutionary theories that bipolar was not culled out over time because it was actually an adaptive trait. Think of hunter gatherer societies who needed to have periods of high energy to get their food and resources before going into a long winter that required them to seek shelter for extended periods of time. Having BPD would have be a huge asset to someone forced to live under these conditions.
3) People with bipolar disorder are at greater risk of suicide versus those with depression. Why? People with depression often have suicidal thinking, but don't have the energy or motivation to create and carry out a plan. Yet, people with BPD have the depressive, suicidal thoughts, combined with the sporadic energy and motivation to actually carry it out.
4) At least 25-50 percent of those diagnosed with bipolar will attempt suicide at least once.
5) Many people with bipolar disorder fail to consistently take their medications. Why? Because most actually enjoy the periods of mania or hypomania afforded to them between depression cycles, no matter how low those cycles can be. If you want an example of why this happens: think back to those college days when you binge drank or maybe smoked pot for hours at a time. You didn't think "I'm going to keep doing this so I can be depressed and hung over all day tomorrow." Your pleasure centers were activated and the ability to have forethought and planning was highly disregulated.
At the end of the day, we all have moods. We all have ups and downs, periods where we feel on top of the world and moments where we want to lay in the fetal position and cry. This is part of being human. This is part of life. However, if you find that during these "ups," you have a flight of ideas, delusional or bizarre thinking, dangerous/impulsive/risk-taking behaviors, combined with severe, paralyzing "downs," it may be time to seek professional help.
Robin Williams inability to filter his thoughts and his manic behavior was often touted as his "genius." However, sadly it was this very aspect that put him in the hearts and homes of many that ended up taking his life in the end. Bipolar disorder can often look shiny, fun, and lively on the outside. But on the inside, lies a dark and surreptitious disease, spiraling out of control, and taking prisoner–its host.
Dr. Colleen Long is the author of Happiness in B.A.L.A.N.C.E; What We Know Now About Happiness as well as Meditation Medication. She is a licensed clinical psychologist and couples therapist with practices in Los Angeles and Manhattan Beach, California. You can follow her on twitter or facebook, or visit her website.