IT IS MY PRIVILEGE to share with you this powerful, courageous and very moving entry my dear friend shared on Facebook. In the light of the recent premature death of Robin Williams and the large volume of discussion concerning depression and suicide, Liz choose to be vulnerable and open about her own personal struggles. This is a must read. I stand in awe of her bravery and strength. I am sure this will touch many of you and please share this along so many more can be helped and encouraged.
"I didn’t think this would be the way I would “come out” of the proverbial closet so to speak but one never knows the ways of God. I am not one to follow the celebrity cult but, I too, felt such shock, horror and utter sadness upon hearing of the death of Robin Williams. So gifted, touching so many hearts and so very lost in the depths of his struggle with mental illness and the overwhelming pressures of life’s circumstances and choices. Many have written beautifully about this special man, giving dignity to his life and offering insights and encouragement that will undoubtedly help others struggling with similar crosses. Others, in their well-meaning efforts to make sense of such a tragedy and how it fits into God’s plan of life-giving salvation, may have spoken too soon or attempted to provide explanations that were not fully formed with what we know about mental illness today and the Catholic church’s response to those who are battling with these demons and the dark urges to end it all.
So what qualifies me to speak on this subject, exactly? Inspired by the courage of others who have shared their experiences of mental unwellness [most recently by my friend Linda Padgett on her newsfeed and in her beautiful website Primal Happy Place, primalhappyplace.com] it is time for me to come into the light and say, “And that’s me too.”
And that’s me too in the tertiary sense of responding to an internal call to obtain my masters in counseling and become a licensed professional counselor working to support, encourage, mentor and suffer alongside individuals with a variety of disabilities, including mental health disabilities. An incredible journey getting to know and love the most amazing people who have given me far more than I have ever given them, my true heroes in this life……
And that’s me too in the secondary sense of losing my mom, who had bipolar disease, to suicide when I was eight years old and struggled for so long to make sense of this in my life, to understand who my mom was in the fullness of her humanity (not just her mental illness and suicide), to wrestle with shame and anger swapping this for forgiveness and love, to deeply ponder how her tragic loss has affected my family and how her untimely and violent death has shaped my life, my identity and my destiny.
And, finally, that’s me too in the primary sense of someone who has personally grappled with what had been thought of as depression for many years and recently, with advances in diagnosis and treatment, now finds herself embracing the more accurate label of bipolar II disorder. Yep….that’s me too…and about 5.7 million adult Americans including Robin Williams, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jesse Jackson, Jr., Carrie Fisher, Jane Pauley, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Linda Hamilton, Ernest Hemmingway, Rosemary Clooney, Vivien Leigh, Vincent van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, and so many others.
Yes, approximately 5.7 million, over 18-year old Americans suffer from some sort of bipolar disorder, that’s roughly 2.6% of the population. While not being the most statistically significant mental illness (there are 40 million Americans suffering from some form of anxiety disorder for instance), the numbers are not small. Yet despite being surrounded by so many famous and not so famous average-joe compatriots, why so hard to fess up and openly talk about my illness?
Well the first and most simple answer is…I just want to be L-I-Z, Liz. I never wanted to think of myself or to have others think of me as “bipolar Liz, Liz who struggles with depression, Liz who needs to take medication, Liz who has the same illness as her mother and so on and so forth…” I, like so many others, want to be more than this label. While mental illness is me too, I am also goofy funny Liz, happily married for 20 years to my BFF Liz, love my family and friends Liz, two pregnancies that have not come to term Liz, pray for heaven when I can meet my babies Liz, cancer and life threatening fungus survivor Liz, dog-crazy Liz, daughter of God Liz, Catholic Liz, Carmelite Liz, sinner Liz, grateful Liz, failure Liz, success Liz, screw-up Liz, hurtful Liz, hurting Liz, I got it right Liz, let people down Liz, I need your forgiveness Liz, lifted people up Liz and every other part of Liz that God made me to be.
And there’s the shame. Mental illness is cloaked in secrecy despite centuries of learning and the ‘Decade of the Brain’. It is still perceived as an indulgence, a sign of weakness (even by those of us who personally suffer from a disorder and know to our very core that we are neither indulgent nor weak – at least not because of our illness :-)). A quick quiz demonstrates this internal struggle very well:
You have friends coming over for dinner, and your antidepressant is in its usual place, the kitchen counter. Do you: A) Leave it where it is, since you have nothing to hide? B) Put it in the cupboard to make more room for food? C) Stick it in the dog food bag, where no one will find it? D) Put it on the table so you’ll remember to compare notes with your friends who are on other medications? Would your answer be different if your medication was for diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer? Yeah...that’s what I thought. Sometimes there’s the honest to goodness truth that you just want to forget about it for a while and just be like “everyone else”….whatever that means. It’s a strong urge to resist, especially in our perfection-saturated culture where no one should be fat, less than genius intellectually, sick, poor, boring, lazy or average without even one superhero power available. Can you blame me for wanting to be in denial on occasion or put the pills in the bag of dog food (she says with a wink and a grin)?
So now that I’ve come clean and sprung myself from the clutches of denial, at least for a moment, let’s talk a little bit about what bipolar disorder is. Instead of taking you through a technical explanation outlined in the bible used by all mental health professionals, the Diagnositic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-V), I’d like to quote Dr. Gregory Bottaro, Psy. D, whose mental health practice integrates empirically sound psychology with Catholic philosophy and theology. He has captured the definition and experience of this disorder in a very educated, responsible and relatable way.
Dr. Bottaro notes the following:
“There are two types of bipolar, labeled type I and type II. Type I bipolar includes experiences of mania and depression at different times. Mania is an extremely dangerous state of hyper-arousal that affects every part of the person. Think Jim Carrey in The Mask. People who suffer from this disorder typically end up in the hospital and under strict medication management, though they don’t always adhere to their prescriptions. Bipolar II is more difficult to spot, but can be equally dangerous as a result. There was a good portrayal of this disorder by Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook. A person suffering from bipolar II will have experiences of very deep depression along with a state called hypomania. Hypomania is less manic than full-blown mania, but it is still a state of hyper-arousal. Hypomania can manifest itself as extremely excited energy, when one is able to feel energized for long periods of time with only a few hours of sleep, or having a high level of irritability or anger (like in Silver Linings Playbook)
In relating this disorder to the recent situation with Robin Williams, Dr. Bottaro states:
”It’s been really difficult for people to understand how someone like Robin Williams could have been capable of something so devastating. This is precisely the chaos of Bipolar II. In a hypomanic state, he would have had a magnetic energy – the type of energy that would allow him to feed off of other peoples’ emotion and respond brilliantly and creatively to any situation. The other side of this disorder, though, is the deep depression that makes a person feel devastatingly isolated even if surrounded by love.”
Wow, that last sentence gets me every time, “…the deep depression that make a person feel devastatingly isolated even if surround by love.” …even if surrounded by love…like Robin Williams, like my mother, like so many who have for whatever reason succumbed fully to the illness and taken their lives as a result.
Yes, it is heartbreakingly true that the rate of suicide is high for people who suffer from bipolar disorder especially when the cycle bottoms out into a deep depression. At that low point, the disease becomes very selfish, as opposed to the person who is very, very ill. Merriam Webster defines selfish as being “concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself: seeking or concentrating on one's own circumstance, without regard for others.” The illness is ruthless at this point, and one forgets what life was like before one entered this dark and desolate prison. Yes, one literally forgets…it’s as if no other feeling, experience, source of pleasure or love ever existed. Only one who has walked through this valley of death would know the exact horror of this hollow desperate place, and words fail at describing it.
At the same time, while educating ourselves about mental illness, nurturing our own compassion and trying to wrap our heads around the temptation of suicide, we can never be fully okay with someone cutting their life short this way. While we pray for the repose of the person’s precious soul, for God’s mercy and for the deep healing of all affected, always trusting that eternal salvation can await those who have taken their own lives, we must also acknowledge the act of suicide as being contrary to the Divine plan and we must do everything we can to not lose one more soul in this manner. We are meant for life because we are beautifully made by the one who loves us, the author of all life. Life is humanity’s most precious gift…
So why share this with you? Maybe wisdom is catching up with me finally, helping me to realize that we can’t keep what God has given to us to ourselves, and this includes the crosses that he sends. In being real with you, it is my fervent prayer that any soul that needs to hear this will be touched and lives will be changed for the better. Wanting this, desiring this…well that’s me too! "