Stephen Hawking, a fellow alumnus of my adolescent alma mater, St Albans School, has just died, over 50-years after he was forecast to by doctors upon his diagnosis of Motor Neurone Disease. Stubborn and resilient to the last, he also added humour to help overcome his physical and mental health challenges.
“Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny.” – Stephen Hawking
“Keeping an active mind has been vital to my survival, as has been maintaining a sense of humour.”
Even in his older years he still regarded himself as a “child, who has never grown up”, maintaining his curiosity till the end. Best known for A Brief History of Time – on many people’s shelves but less often read, we were lucky to have had his challenging mind and courageous heart on this planet and in this universe for so long.
“We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special.”
Hawking was a profound thinker who found women more complex than the universe, questioned religious and scientific views alike, but for all his deep wisdom and intelligent theories, I like his saying that –
“It matters if you just don’t give up.”
At school, apart from traditional studies, he messed around manufacturing fireworks and building computers, the latter inspired and aided by his British-Armenian Maths teacher Dikran Tahta, of whom Hawking said:
“…behind every exceptional person, there is an exceptional teacher”.
Although intelligent, Hawking was initially not very hardworking nor academically successful and used risky tactics in both his studies and when coxing an Oxford University boat crew resulting in a few scrapes and crashes. Too busy “enjoying himself” rather than working, he spent an average of just an hour-a-day on his degree.
“I was never top of the class at school, but my classmates must have seen potential in me, because my nickname was ‘Einstein.'”
He described himself as essentially an introvert yet needing the stimulation of others. Speaking on Desert Island Discs, Stephen Hawking said:
“I need discussion with other people to stimulate me. I find it a great help in my work to describe my ideas to others. Even if they don’t offer any suggestions, the mere fact of having to organise my thoughts so that I can explain them to others often shows me a new way forward.”
He did not see progress as inevitably leading to utopian improvement, instead, he cautioned that greater inequality could result.
“Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.” – Hawking on Reddit
Given that the announcement of his death came on the same day as the reigniting of Cold War tit-for-tat expulsions between Britain and Russia, and sitting alongside the incendiary dialogue between North Korea and the US, one hopes that Hawking was wrong that:
“I believe alien life is quite common in the universe, although intelligent life is less so. Some say it has yet to appear on planet Earth.”
To most people, it is Stephen Hawking’s mind that inspires or his positive attitude in overcoming disability. To me, it was his attitude to life and his mental health that encourages me.
“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.”
His changing health being the biggest adaptation he had to choose to deal with. He recognised that you could not be angry with the world and be a part of educating it.
“People won’t have time for you if you are always angry or complaining.”
Focus on the good, on what you have, be a glass-half-full person:
“My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well, and don’t regret the things it interferes with. Don’t be disabled in spirit as well as physically.”
Not only intelligent but wise Stephen Hawking used humour to help overcome his physical and mental health challenges, his legacy is his spirit as much as his mind. He chose Je ne regrette rien, on Desert Island Discs, and that is as inspirational an attitude as all his writing.
As New Year 2018 breaks, and on a bright light January mid-winter dawn at that, I realise that 2017 has been a year of two halves or even four quarters, much like the seasons. I’ve diaried most of my non-married adult life, including the last 11 years. Along with an insomniac’s sleep spreadsheet and a bipolar mood diary, I’ve a fairly good idea of my moods and their seasons.
“I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness because it shows me the stars.” – Og Mandino
Light and Darkness
I’m going to pepper my reflections with random quotes about light and darkness, which diurnally deliver some of the starkest contrasts of daily existence, but which are at their hardest to endure when the nights are sixteen-hours long and the days excruciatingly short. And particularly hard, when one’s mood is low, insomnia debilitating, leaving one drawing the curtains at midday and getting up as the sun sets in deepest winter. I long for the lengthening days of 2018 as it progresses to June’s summer solstice.
“Every human being is a mixture of light and darkness, trust and fear, love and hate.” – Jean Vanier
MAD, BAD, and SAD
For someone who is or has Bipolar Affective Disorder (BAD), with an annual accretion of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), it’s only appropriate that I confess to also being MAD. Whilst calling someone mad is deprecated, it is thoroughly modern to have a Mood Affective Disorder including various depressions, bipolar disorders, and anxiety disorders – yes I have a GAD (Generalised Anxiety Disorder) too. My OCD seems to be collecting three-letter mental health acronyms!
“Where there is much light the shade is deepest.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The low moods are so deep that you feel your world is going to crush you like suffocating under a mountainous avalanche of rocks and soil or at the depths of the ocean as the air runs out and the pressure crushes your lungs.
“The sunrise and sunset shows us that in life there are ups and downs. There is light and darkness.” – Debasish Mridha
Whilst many of these seriously affect my wellbeing I also regard them as part of the range and spectrum of personality and psychology. So whether one has the clinical diagnosis or not (I do), one is not one’s label, or doomed by it, since we all experience anxiety, low mood, and the seasons, to varying degrees. The difference is the degree to which we suffer and are immobilised in one’s ability to function in life, hold down a job, pay bills, or maintain a healthy functioning loving relationship.
“Light isn’t always buoyant and shadows aren’t always despair; yet both, I believe, are limitless in lessons that they share.” – Carolyn Riker
Housed but feeling temporarily not at home
The last quarter has been one of my worst in some six years. Brought low by overexertion and exhaustion, insomnia, arthritis, whiplash, chronic anxiety and panic attacks over benefits renewals and appraisals, and a near six-month long house rewire that upended my comfort nest, I became uprooted, homeless within my own home.
“The most precious light is the one that visits you in your darkest hour!” – Mehmet Murat Ildan
Yet, I appreciate that I have a roof over my head, just enough flexible work to meet the difference between housing benefit and rent, enough security from family on months I’m short, to avoid a past history of extensive rent arrears and three eviction notices and an unsecured debt-pile equivalent to a middle-class mortgage without any house to show for it.
Others, in worse situations, have seen a doubling of people living rough since 2010, alongside a 50% cut in homelessness funding, a rise in food bank use, people losing their DLA/PIP assessments, being stuck on six-week Universal Credit delays, and seeing mental health services in crisis and special measures as they fail to match ‘service user’ needs. Austerity has worsened our wellbeing and failed in its fiscal justification.
Suicide Safety Net
My own darkness arrived at a time of maximum therapeutic support. I’d just managed to get a second package of 6 therapy sessions within a few years. The first took 3 years of asking and the second, around 6 months. But even with weekly therapy (extended to fortnightly for a longer period), bi-monthly care team support, regular mental health team check-in calls, a loving longterm partner, and a veritable army of support cats – I still suffered 4 days in 3 months where I was suicidal.
“Always surround yourself with friends that have plenty of light in them. That way, you will always have candles around you when days are dark.” – Suzy Kassem
Getting through the immediate seemingly life-threatening panic or manic anger or the aching raw bawling sadness has taken every ounce of my energy, and drawn on the understanding of my lovely partner in ways that I never wanted to. I nearly broke my girlfriend! She is, however, heroic in her ability to separate my needs (without being needy) from any responsibility to solve or salve, only to be a supportive companion and a candle in my darkness.
“Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.” –Anne Frank
Fortunately, due to my most serious past suicide attempt five-and-a-half years ago, I’d ensured that my house was empty of the means to take my life (via pills at least). It didn’t stop me from feeling my fragility and emotional rawness of having the same suicidal ideation but a better safety net in place. Driving is dangerous when one feels the power to take one’s own life beneath the foot pedal on an angry with the world day.
Not so Superman/girl
My superpowers have more than once met their psychosocial Kryptonite. I say psychosocial because I’m well aware that it is my psychological wiring and emotional responses to social and financial situations that trigger my darkness, anger, and powerlessness.
Surviving rather than thriving is a temporary reward and respite. Living to face the terrors and panic attacks of another day. That is why dying feels like such a tempting relief, the only way to take a day off.
“And I find it kinda funny, I find it kinda sad
The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had” – Mad World
I have good days too, and in-between average days, that are nonetheless relief days. Being bipolar I’m never far from depression, nor elation. So I respect both. I can swing from scarily suicidal to aesthetic appreciation of art, beauty, food and kittens in just hours. Sadly, my rapid cycling rollercoaster can look fine, be engaged, and yet hours before or later be considering suicide or lying in the bath wondering what it would be like to drown in nihilistic comfort before the warm welcoming water got cold.
“If we never experience the chill of a dark winter, it is very unlikely that we will ever cherish the warmth of a bright summer’s day. Nothing stimulates our appetite for the simple joys of life more than the starvation caused by sadness or desperation. In order to complete our amazing life journey successfully, it is vital that we turn each and every dark tear into a pearl of wisdom, and find the blessing in every curse.” – Anthon St. Maarten
Life is full of light and dark, morning and night, summer and winter. Contrasts that make the extremes, well, more extreme. The highs are ecstatic and the lows are the end of the world.
“Life isn’t just about darkness or light, rather it’s about finding light within the darkness.” – Landon Parham
Yes, company, compassion, communication, the comfort of friends, are a solace though not a solution during those lonely days, weeks, months, and sadly, years. I’ve been anxious for 45 years, depressed for 15, bipolar (officially, at least) for 5. But, I’ve been alive for 50 years, continually by the thin thread of tenuous determination to live another day – despite several attempts, and many more close calls to end it.
“Why not dare yourself to become a shining positive light where darkness is the only thing known?” – Edmond Mbiaka
Getting through the night
Closing the curtains in winter at 4pm and waking at 4-5am some 3-4 hours before sunrise, leads to hours of wakeful darkness, and how to endure it. BBC iPlayer Radio plays are often an answer or cricket match commentary from Australian timezones.
The constant onslaught of dark days and anxious early mornings is like being pelted with a slinger’s stones or archer’s arrows from an infinite quiver where each one won’t kill you but like a death by a thousand cuts will make you weaker and even less likely to get up and face the next day.
My 50 years, which feel like 500 at times, have taught me a healthy respect for mental wellbeing and to take pleasure in the little things like the fact that I woke up well today, and that it wasn’t raining. The longest night is past and longer days are around the corner, the light is returning, spring is coming.
I guess getting through the night is my daily version of other people’s getting through the winter. My rapid cycling mood means I experience the seasons on a quotidian basis. But I also learn from nature, that as sure as spring follows winter and morning follows night, so too will my mood lift or circumstance change.
“I restore my book to the bracing and buoyant equilibrium of concrete outdoor Nature, the only permanent reliance for sanity of book or human life.” – Walt Whitman
Today, I walked among the trees, chatted with my partner, ate simple but tasty food, and stroked cats – lots of cats. I’ve survived another day.
The shift from pathologising terms like mental illness, disorder, nervous breakdown, has been gradual, and we are seeing more reference to mental health and wellbeing, differences, spectrum diversity etc. This has been a long time coming, since from 1-in-4 to 1-in-3 of us will experience a mental health condition or episode in our lives, if not more of us.
What keeps us from giving up?
The very tools of survival that I’ve learned to use to attempt to thrive rather than just die or dive back under the duvet covers actually aid all of us. They’re very basic, and not pharmaceutical, though some are chemical – or at least release the endorphins (endolphins as I like to call them) and oxytocin type chemistry that aids wellbeing.
When speaking at an event in London last weekend, I was asked how, “how do you keep going, how do you remain strong?” The answer, for me at least, is that I’m stubborn! Practically speaking, though, I talk and walk, and when it’s going well, I walk the talk.
Caring Talk Saves Lives
I talk to people, I talk to myself, to my thoughts – giving them voice and an opinion (but no power) at the table in my head, and I talk to my diary. Well, I write, I reflect, I repeat – yes, I realise that circumstances, feelings, moods, anxieties, they come round in repeating circles, and I begin to recognise that I survive, that I’m still here, despite my best efforts to end that.
I also walk, I get outside as often as I can. Although, that’s not often enough as insomnia and mood disorders often keep me in bed half the day. Inertia destroys all my best intentions. Last weekend, though, I managed something rare, to swim twice and walk 5 miles in a day, taking in my environment and the beauty of the world around me. Fresh air and exercise help, if only we can kick the black dog off long enough to get outside.
Being bipolar, my mood can shift drastically and quickly in the same day. I’ve learnt to be kind to myself, and to forgive, be in the moment, and treat or reward myself for getting stuff done that would otherwise pile up and compound my anxiety.
Laughter is good medicine
I’ve also learned to both respect my mental health conditions, and to healthily take the piss out of them – not others, not the suffering, not the issues, but to occasionally make light of them so that they have less of a hold over me.
Speaking of laughter – Stephen Fry has said of suicide:
“There is no ‘why’, it’s not the right question. There’s no reason. If there were a reason for it, you could reason someone out of it, and you could tell them why they shouldn’t take their own life”
He is spot on. Although every story is different, mine nearly ended 5 years ago, but I am happy to be here now.
Seeking help early before one is neither in the mood or position to seek help is important. Sadly, waiting lists are such that it can be a year or more wait for short dose CBT and that is often such a sticking plaster rather than a long-term improvement to wellbeing or coping.
I’m back in therapy for the second time in ten years, and it feels incredibly healthy. It’s not a sign of failure but of active involvement in one’s own health management.
MAD, BAD, GAD, and quite possibly SAD
I seem to collect three-letter-acronym conditions, so that I’ve been diagnosed with multiple Affective and Anxiety Disorders. Their intensity varies and sometimes I’m the boss, sometimes they try to be. Again, a diary helps me see that I do bounce (well hobble) back eventually, and they never, any longer, keep me down permanently.
Again, a diary helps me see that I do bounce (well hobble) back eventually, and they never, any longer – I hope, keep me down permanently.
Kurt Cobain, was born in 1967, and died 5 April by taking his own life, back in 1994, aged just 27. He flitted between narcissism, empathy, love and pain, trying to enjoy his life and simply be himself, but not feeling it, over-feeling everything else instead. He’d have been in his 50s now, just a month older than me. Some years ago, I also attempted suicide, after a lifelong struggle with identity and feeling too much.
Whilst Cobain is in nirvana now, where are we 20+ years on? Still struggling for identity, as individuals, and a generation? Cobain struggled with being seen as the voice of a generation. His band, Nirvana, was labelled “the flagship band” of Generation X, and Cobain himself proclaimed as “the spokesman of a generation”, something that did not sit well with him.
“Wanting to be someone else is a waste of who you are.” – Kurt Cobain
Cobain was trying to work out how to be himself amidst the pressures of fame, parental divorce, love and loss, and mental health conditions including bipolar mood swings between depression and mania, as described by his cousin, a nurse, who noted his childhood diagnosis of ADHD and as an adult Bipolar (unconfirmed?). Several relatives had also committed suicide in the same way.
He struggled to feel what he thought he was meant to feel or enjoy. He couldn’t fake the enjoyment of fame, or life itself.
“I’ve tried everything within my power to appreciate it” – Kurt Cobain, suicide note
“The worst crime is faking it.” – Kurt Cobain
Empathy and Fame
He mentioned empathy four times in his suicide note, and the struggle between feeling too much and yet not feeling anything – or what he thought was the right thing, at all.
“I think I simply love people too much, so much that it makes me feel too fucking sad. The sad little, sensitive, unappreciative, Pisces, Jesus, man, ‘Why don’t you just enjoy it?’ I don’t know!” – Kurt Cobain, suicide note
Nirvana sold over 25 million albums in the US, and over 75 million worldwide, but fame and success do not fill the void. He hated the fame, and was envious of Freddie Mercury and how he seemed to relish it.
“We’re so trendy we can’t even escape ourselves…I really miss being able to blend in with people.” – Kurt Cobain
Reading, Writing & Lyrics
Cobain “occasionally took refuge in the counter-cultural writings of authors such as William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Samuel Beckett and Charles Bukowski”. Yet, described himself as having the “tongue of an experienced simpleton”, and hating the Freudian analysis that people subjected his lyrics to. Another reason, to explore him in his own words, not the interpretation of others.
“I’m not well-read, but when I read, I read well.” – Kurt Cobain
“I like to have strong opinions with nothing to back them up with besides my primal sincerity. I like sincerity. I lack sincerity.” – Kurt Cobain
Kurt Cobain was seemingly bisexual, though gave mixed interviews on that side of his personal life, calling himself “gay for a while” yet “more sexually attracted to women”. As a teen he was arrested and fined $180 for graffitiing “Homosex Rules” on a wall. He once said, “I started being really proud of the fact that I was gay even though I wasn’t.” It is not clear if he ever consummated this part of his persona, despite saying:
“If I wouldn’t have found Courtney, I probably would have carried on with a bisexual lifestyle.” – Kurt Cobain
Whilst Generation Y, born early 80s to 2000, followed Cobain’s Generation X, we are now on the Gen Z cohort, born since the Millennium. A group happy to be neither gay nor straight, to question gender and express it fluidly.
Cobain wrote about women’s rights in his songs, including concerning the rape of a 14yo girl after a concert (not one of his).
“I definitely feel closer to the feminine side of the human being than I do the male – or the American idea of what a male is supposed to be.” – Kurt Cobain
“He was himself”
Canadian musician and writer, Dave Bidini, in an article for the National Post entitled “Kurt Cobain, who died 20 years ago today, wasn’t a hero, martyr or vampire. He was himself” ended with this comment:
“He looked like he didn’t care (because he didn’t) … His arms hang down and he turns sideways from the crowd, as if he’s trying not to be seen, even though 20 million people have their eyes trained on him. In a society where ‘bringing it’ and ‘all or nothing’ and ‘going for it’ are sicknesses pumped by fools who aspire to drive people apart rather than draw them together, Cobain’s sense of oblivion was, in a way, brave and confrontational, and that’s why he cracked even the hardest edifice and ate through misplaced pop culture like a creeping disease. In the end, he made an enormous impression for someone who wasn’t even there.” – Dave Bidini, National Post
Cobain did escape, “Rather be dead than cool”, others need not take that route if they can follow his other wisdom, to be yourself and find someone you can be yourself with and talk to.
Remember him alive though, here’s an awesome unplugged hour-long Kurt Cobain MTV concert in NYC November 1993 just months before his suicide, my favourite line of which was “like this is my third cup of tea already” – how Rock’n’Roll!
I will remember him, as much for the angst music of a tortured soul, as the desire to find and be himself, a journey I am also on, aren’t we all to a degree?
“I’d rather be hated for who I am, than loved for who I am not.” – Kurt Cobain
Yesterday was #InternationalMensDay (IMD) – not a simple awareness retaliation day to Women’s Day but an acknowledgement, since 1999, that privilege and difference are often relative and contextual. Society does make it harder for men to talk, share, open up, acknowledge depression, career pressures etc. Men’s mental health is such that suicide can be their biggest killer, indeed, silence kills. Yes, feminists can argue that every day is men’s day, but in the particular sphere of suicide, there needs to be a spotlight on men and the fiscal and fragile crises that so often masculinity prefers to conceal. Similarly, whilst young LGBT people have high suicide risks, one group most prone to it is white men aged 85+ whose suicide rate in the US is six times the national average, closely followed by Native American males.
World Suicide Prevention Day, 10 Sep
Men are more than 3 times as likely to take their lives as women (4 times in the USA), with rates of 16.8 per 100,000 for men and 5.2 per 100,000 for women in the UK. Women try suicide more than men, but male suicide methods are more likely to result in death.
The highest suicide rate in the UK in 2014 was for men aged 45-49 at 26.5 per 100,000 with the North East of England most vulnerable. Whilst the overall suicide rate fell 1981 to 2007, austerity and cuts to services have seen annual rises since with the male rate last year, the worst since 2001.
385 men-a-month take their own lives in the UK; it is even worse in the USA, at 2759, 1.5x more likely per capita. In Japan, it is the leading cause of death in men aged 20-44.
Even so, Japan is not the worst. Lithuania is twice as high at 51 per 100,000 and Guyana at 71 per 100k is ashamedly the world ‘leader’. The USA ranks #46 and the UK #101 for male suicide.
Not a laughing matter
Men’s mental health is not a joke. November 19 was also World Toilet Day, and whilst jokes about leaving the toilet seat up abounded on twitter – including by me, whilst not directly aimed at men’s health, sanitation and sanity are not laughing matters when one billion lack a toilet and half-a-million men each year die by suicide and many millions more try. Whilst depression and mental health issues account for the majority of cases, for men in particular, financial and career pressures are significant factors. Education, because it brings with it greater economic opportunities and perhaps better communication skills, is a reducing factor, except among certain professions whose jobs give them access to pharmaceutical drugs.
Learn to Talk & Listen
The old Second World War adage and poster campaign that “Careless talk costs lives” could be turned on its head – “Learn to talk and save lives”. Partners and friends of men in crisis, similarly, need to learn to listen and not diminish the pressures that drive them to drink, depression and suicide. Suicide, at one every 40 seconds and on the rise (predicted to be one every 20s by 2020) is preventable is we make it ok for everyone to talk about mental health, men in particular, and we also end the worst effects of austerity where health and welfare cuts are exacerbating the problem and denying access to solutions.
Today and every day is bipolar day for 2-3% of the population who have a Mood Affective Disorder including Cyclothymia and Bipolar I & II. A day to recognise the issues, struggles, and occasional joys and spurts of creativity – sometimes manic, experienced by people with Bipolar Affective Disorder (BAD), was created to coincide with Vincent van Gogh’s birthday, 30 March, since he was posthumously believed to have had a Bipolar type condition. World Bipolar Day aims to:
Whilst 1-in-100 or 2.6% are commonly cited figures, some studies have shown wide variations, ranging from 2.6 to 20.0 per 100,000 per year, in the incidence of Bipolar Affective Disorder (Lloyd & Jones, 2002). These variations have been e.g., regional, SE London is twice that of Nottingham and Bristol, or by ethnicity, by socio-economic class, by childhood intelligence – especially high verbal IQ, or by hormones and gender – some studies show a much higher incidence in the female population, sometimes 2-3x.
“estrogen fluctuations may be an important factor in the etiology of bipolar disorder and it is obvious that more research on this topic is needed to clarify the role of estrogen in women with bipolar disorder…Why is it that rapid cycling occurs more often in women?” – www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23510130
Link to Creativity?
It also alleged that among artistic and creative types there is a higher incidence of bipolar mood disorders, that may be genetic. Indeed, as many as 40x the national incidence, among a group of 30 American authors, studied over 15 years:
“43 per cent of them had bipolar disorder compared to only 10 per cent of the control group and 1 per cent of the general population.” – Bipolar Disorder and Creativity
A further survey of 47 British authors and visual artists from the British Royal Academy found that 38% had been treated for a mood disorder.
“A recent study carried out at Stanford University by Santosa and colleagues found that people with bipolar disorder and creative discipline controls scored significantly more highly than healthy controls on a measure of creativity called the Barron-Welsh Art Scale. In a related study the same authors sought to identify temperamental traits that people with bipolar disorder and creative people have in common. They found that both shared tendencies for mild elation and depression with gradual shifts from one to the other, openness, irritability, and neuroticism (roughly speaking, a combination of anxiety and perfectionism).” – Bipolar Disorder and Creativity
Vincent van Gogh
The famous Dutch post-Impressionist painter, Vincent van Gogh suffered quite wild swings in his mental health and many paintings were produced from his asylum room. Van Gogh is thought to have shot himself, after struggling with declining mental health in his mid-30s. He had spent most of the last 18-months of his life in an asylum, but two months later was dead as the result of a presumably, though not proven, self-induced shooting incident or suicide attempt.
Ironically, it was a period when he produced many iconic paintings, some en plein air. His famous image titled ‘The Starry Night’ was a pre-sunrise nocturne as seen from his East-facing asylum window, but finished in the asylum studio, as he was only allowed to draw in his room, not paint. Van Gogh’s beautiful and happier ‘Village Street and Steps in Auvers’ was painted just days after release from the asylum:
Barely weeks later, and days before his death, he was painting several large wheat fields canvases and in a letter to his brother Theo, he wrote:
“I have painted three more large canvases. They are vast stretches of corn under troubled skies, and I did not have to go out of my way very much in order to try to express sadness and extreme loneliness….I’m fairly sure that these canvases will tell you what I cannot say in words, that is, how healthy and invigorating I find the countryside.” – Vincent van Gogh, Letter to Theo van Gogh, 10 July 1890
His late paintings demonstrate an artist at the height of his talent, yet also the depths of his troubles, for whom art and the outdoor landscape was creative catharsis and therapy. What would the art world have witnessed had he lived on?
Bipolar Mood Scale Diary
It is typical for accurate bipolar diagnosis to take a decade and work through several misdiagnoses en route. I was first diagnosed with Cyclothymia over 4 years ago, but subsequently told it was Mood Affective Disorder and then Bipolar II, along with rapid cycling and mixed mode variations, and exacerbated by Seasonal Affective Disorder during winter months.
CBT – Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, aided my own self-management, but so did self-knowledge, awareness, and diarying. I enjoy my hypomanic periods, less so the depressions which I’ve fought for 12 years or so. Finding balance when you only exist at the poles is a tricky act to accomplish and may involve staying in when you feel like going out and going out when you feel like staying in!
Risks, when hypomanic, for me include inappropriate conversation, loss of impulse control, manic spending, flirting, obsessional behaviours, and risk-seeking. Yet, the benefits when high are hyperactive stamina and energy, stream of consciousness ideas flooding, huge reading and writing output, charismatic and entertaining confidence and loquaciousness.
“I managed to rack up £300k of credit, hardly average! I was, and indeed am, very convincing when hypomanic, it made me a good salesperson, deal-maker, innovator, public speaker but terrible at time and money management.” – May 2013
Having been in a balanced mood state for nearly 3 months now, a rare occurrence, possibly due to recent endocrine changes, I miss the hyper states. I also realise, however, how destructive they could be to life, economics, and relationships, whilst at the same time being a creative buzz. I don’t miss the lethargic, inactive, hopeless depressive episodes at all, although they were a great way of avoiding life and its stresses.
The best advice I was given was to monitor my mood on a daily basis, as I was already doing with my insomnia diary and general personal diary. The catharsis of writing and recording also came with the recognition that moods, highs, lows, sleeplessness all came in phases, that changed – they got better, and they got worse. Unlike, when I suffered with depression for 6-8 years as that felt like nothing would ever get better. The Bipolar Mood Scale diary has helped me to hold out for the good days, and to manage my moods better.
Bipolar Mood Scale
Total loss of judgement, exorbitant spending, religious delusions and hallucinations.
Lost touch with reality, incoherent, no sleep, paranoid and vindictive, reckless behaviour.
Inflated self-esteem, rapid thoughts and speech, counter-productive simultaneous tasks.
Very productive, everything to excess (phone calls, writing, smoking, tea), charming and talkative.)
Balanced Mood (Euthymia)
Self-esteem good, optimistic, sociable and articulate, good decisions and get work done.
Mood in balance, no symptoms of depression or mania. Life is going well and the outlook is good.
Slight withdrawal from social situations, concentration less than usual, slight agitation.
Mild to Moderate Depression
Feelings of panic and anxiety, concentration difficult and memory poor, some comfort in routine.
Slow thinking, no appetite, need to be alone, sleep excessive or difficult, everything a struggle.
Feelings of hopelessness and guilt, thoughts of suicide, little movement, impossible to do anything.
Endless suicidal thoughts, no way out, no movement, everything is bleak and it will always be like this.
0-10 Scale of mood from depression to mania
Living with Bipolar
Being or having bipolar – people’s attitudes to which verb to use vary, should not be romanticised. It is both a blessing and a curse, and for some is very hard to live with. I’ve made friends with mine, though it is still unpredictable. I’ve come to appreciate the moment, mindful that it can change, but I take the rough with the smooth now. Hopefully, I can look back on past suicide attempts as distant memories, and seize the creative periods to be productive and expressive, whilst trying to rein it in when it tips into hypomania.
World Bipolar Day 2018 Update
The last 6 months have included the worst 3 months in 5-6 years (when I last seriously attempted suicide), and the best 2 months in a year or so. That’s Bipolar for you. The bad period leading into last winter included 4 suicidal days, the worst of which, thankfully, fell on the same day as therapy as I survived another near miss. That has kept me real and respectful of the risk of suicide. Paradoxically, I don’t treat suicide lightly I have a healthy recognition of its power, yet I do make light of it as I find humour lessens its hold and the fear of talking about it among others. Any jest at my multiple suicide ‘failures’ (a word not recommended to be used) is made at my expense and my expense alone.
I’ve also had 2 months of whirlwind energy starting not long after the days started getting longer and post-equinox light improved. These have included lengthy travels, sometimes speaking at two events in one day or half-a-dozen in a week, of copious writing and presentation preps on everything from art to human rights, mental health to LGBTIQ history and awareness, culminating in a TEDx talk that was “naked, raw, and vulnerable” on my mental health and genderqueer journey.
I have made peace with my Bipolar, in fact, I wouldn’t give it up. I recognise the trade-offs, very serious ones at that, with regard to risk to life, health, bank balance, and relationships. I also enjoy the highs, the manic productivity and energy, the blue sky thinking as far outside of the box as one can imagine. I’ve never been on a fairground or amusement park rollercoaster, my life is one…
…but just because it’s a rollercoaster doesn’t mean it’s fun though. I hate amusement park rides! I experience the tops & bottoms, highs & lows, with little respite or moderation in between.
I guess I seek out calm attractions rather than wild rides to offset the bipolar which delivers enough of the latter itself. I’m also an ENFP ambivert, flitting between extrovert and introvert depending upon my mood.
Mostly, I survive, sometimes I thrive, often I hide. Thankfully, I have a support network of family, friends, super partner, cats, books, Netflix, and community mental health wellbeing service and great therapist = my safety net.
Today is the International Day of Happiness and the last day of Winter. As far as I am concerned Spring has been under way for some time with the delightful daffodils and rays of Spring sunshine daily illuminating the view from my window into the woodland beyond.
Solar Eclipse and Spring Equinox
It’s been a rare day that has seen a solar eclipse coincide with the evening of the March equinox. An equi-nox, from the Latin, marks the moments in the year when the length of night is equal to that of daylight. It has long been considered a time of rebirth, fertility, and association with nature’s natural cycles.
Moods like the weather!
I’m not sure if feeling happy today is compulsory or not for the pessimistic glumguts out there. That said, when I was in my darkest depression and suicidal, I, also, ceased being an optimist. Indeed, as someone who suffers from a bipolar disorder – cyclothymia, it is all I can do to stay on top of my mood swings, and near impossible to influence them, just manage them. If anything, my moods are like the weather, sometimes clouding over, or then all of a sudden the sun breaks out, and then it pisses it down! Rapid cycling change.
Think Yourself Happy?
I do believe that, at times, one can think oneself happy – or content, at least, despite the surrounding circumstances. For, whatever may be done to the body, the mind is our last refuge and sometimes the greatest place of anxiety and attack. Yet, if we can calm that, then we may find peace amidst the storm, and internal sunshine in the darkest winter.
Earlier this week, I gave a talk and presentation on torture – not the happiest of subjects, for Amnesty International at the University of East Anglia (UEA), and the words of Gandhi that I quoted are still both a challenge and an inspiration:
“You can chain me, you can torture me, you can even destroy this body, but you will never imprison my mind.” – Mahatma Gandhi
Things outside our control – Powerlessness
When we can’t control the weather – as with the disappointing solar eclipse today occluded by clouds, or our finances, someone else’s love, or our government ministers – when democracy seems to have failed us, what is left that we can control? Where can we find comfort or hope, when we feel powerless? Is depression, which can affect 1-in-4 of us, something we can in any way lift ourselves out of?
Depression is not a choice!
I remember, all to well, the well-meaning suggestions “to get out more”, “do some exercise”, “get out of bed”, “get some sunshine in your life” given to me when I was suffering excruciating depressive lows and suicide attempts. The advice was not well received, when one feels the weight of the black dog suffocating your very breath.
Shifting the circumstances and chemicals that affect depression is hard enough when well, nigh on impossible when ill. Yet, I do believe that, to some extent, we can think ourselves well, improve our state of mind and body. But I am not saying that it is easy or guaranteed.
For me, I had to come off anti-depressants to even try it, and that is not something I would medically advise, nor am I in a position to. My path is my path. It unleashed in me, instead, a bipolar rollercoaster, which has become more manageable through daily awareness and diarying, in which I feel both more alive and yet when I have lows, at least more conscious of the possibility and experience of change. Every day feels like a new day, at last, it could go up, it could go down, but at least it could go somewhere!
The Serenity Prayer
The Serenity Prayer, by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, has been used by many to help distinguish between things we can change and those outside of our control:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.”
I’m a bit stubborn at the accepting of that which I cannot change and like to think in mental messianic terms of being able to do anything. It doesn’t always work, but sometimes I can shift my thinking and mood, or at least my attitude to it.
Happiness as a National Growth Goal
United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, has stated that the world:
“needs a new economic paradigm that recognizes the parity between the three pillars of sustainable development. Social, economic and environmental well-being…Together they define gross global happiness.”
Since the early 1970s, one country – Bhutan, has recognised happiness as a goal over and above national income and actually adopted the goal of Gross National Happiness over Gross National Product.
Here in the UK, we have a an HPI (Happy Planet Index) score of 47.9 and rank #41 of all the countries surveyed. Our wellbeing score of 7 is actually ranked #19 of 151 countries but we are let down by our poor ecological footprint on the earth.
In a UN General Assembly resolution of 12 July 2012, the following 20 March 2013, and each year since, has been proclaimed The International Day of Happiness. This was in order to draw attention to the relevance of:
“happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world and the importance of their recognition in public policy objectives.”
“Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” are a well-known objective and unalienable right in the United States Declaration of Independence. Sadly, we are only guaranteed the freedom to pursue happiness, no one can give it to us, they can certainly reduce the factors that make us unhappy – health, wealth, peace, among others, but at the end of the day, happiness can at best come from ourselves.
A Spring boost to the system
As a boost to the chemical enjoyment of something akin to happiness, we can of course enjoy more hugs and the oxytocin they release, and draw some Vitamin D from the increasing daily sunlight. Certainly, I feel an enormous improvement to well-being after some light gardening and having the sun beat down upon my back.
I spent my day, in the end, weeding, cleaning up around the already fast growing rhubarb, discovering some small over-wintered potatoes in the ground, and taking great pride and pleasure in how the warmth has pushed the asparagus above the surface already.
It was also an opportunity to have some fun with a new lens adapter which enables my old 1978 50mm f/1.2 Minolta MD Rokkor-X lens to work on modern digital bodies (effectively a 75mm portrait lens on digital). The old lens is superb, and been described as producing a “complete bokeh creamy-mosh” i.e., a lovely aesthetic softness to the out of focus zone just beyond the shallow depth of field sharpness when the lens is wide open. Boke is a Japanese word meaning blur or haze.
The lens is still worth £300+ because of the aperture brightness, and it would have been a waste not to find a way to reuse it – I used to use it for low light rock photography in black and white 30 years ago. Aperture priority and manual only but hey it feels like old school photography again, just without the expense of film and with all the immediacy of digital results.
Spring Wealth and Happiness in a Daffodil
Daffodils of many varieties are out in my garden and surrounding woodland. They are said to symbolize rebirth, new beginnings, and are pretty much the first Spring flower. Whilst I’ve always seen the humble snowdrop as a winter plant, to me it marks the halfway point of winter and the daffodil (narcissus or jonquil) as denoting the end of winter. In Wales, China, and as gifts, daffodils – in a bunch, are said to be harbingers of wealth and happiness.
Happiness can be simple
Happiness can be found every day, in the simple things, the asparagus and photography, weeding and sunlit warmth, the cats playing in the garden. They may not cure a low mood, or persistent depression, or solve financial stress, or bring about world peace, but in the present moment, they are to be enjoyed for what they are, and may bring a temporary boost – and I’ll take as many successive boosts as I can get!
(An earlier version of this was first published on Bubblews)
Saddened, shocked, but not sure I was surprised. Such was the sudden news of Robin Williams‘ apparent suicide at 63 that the Internet was awash with rumours last night that it was a ruse, a fake story. Details emerged overnight (British time) that he had indeed been found dead at home in Marin County, California, apparently having taken his own life. The latest information is that “Marin county sheriff’s department lieutenant Keith Boyd confirmed that Williams was discovered hanged, and had apparently attempted to cut his wrists.”
Owing to considerable empathy with his bipolar depression, this is a tough article to write in memoriam to the wonderful Robin Williams, who I first watched aged 11 when he appeared as the alien Mork. Sadly he has returned to his home planet and left us the poorer, but we have over a 100 films and thousands of laughs to remember him by and the challenge to understand mental illness better over our lifetimes.
Update (11 August 2015): It is now a year to the day that Robin Williams passed on and he still makes me laugh and cry in equal measure and continues to inspire whether in life or role.
Films and Characters
Last night I was preparing to watch The Birdcage film with my partner and a friend. We never got round to it, though I’d loaded it into the DVD up to the opening scene. It’s now set for a memorial movie night with the memorable Armand. He was so versatile, able to play funny, straight, sad, young, old, real, fantasy, even a penguin or two in Happy Feet as the voices of Ramón and Lovelace.
Of his co-star in Happy Feet Two, ‘La Toti’ Sofía Vergara, Williams said“I’d walk 50 miles in the snow just to stand in her garbage … and I cleaned up that line!”
Williams appeared in over 100 films, as well as television and theatre, so versatile were the roles that he played. Whether as Mork or Peter Pan, he always looked like he would never grow up and would live forever – one reason we, as adoring fans, all feel the wrench of his going now.
Perhaps, most memorable for me, was Mrs Doubtfire, and the agony of a father doing anything to get close to his kids. Its long-posited sequel Mrs Doubtfire 2 will presumably now no longer be made.
He was scheduled to appear in several unfinished films, but one that just made it to completion and was screened this summer at the Los Angeles Outfest Film Festival is Boulevard (2014) in which he plays an older married man coming to terms with his secret homosexuality.
Another inspirational film for me was Dead Poets Society (1989), as I always wanted to be a maverick motivational teacher, much as my own inspired English teacher was when I was 13 – he’d sit on the desk and read to us Kafka, Tom Sharpe and Shakespeare rather than setting us essays. In the film Williams, plays Keating the English teacher, who challenges the pupils to see the world in different ways, standing on their desks, ripping pages from books that deadened poetry, encouraging them to carpe diem, “seize the day” and call him “O Captain! My Captain!” in reference to Walt Whitman’s 1865 poem about the death of Abraham Lincoln.
“It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer,
his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.”
Waiting for Godot
Williams appeared with his friend Steve Martin in a much acclaimed limited-run production in 1988 of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. A review said that “As the earthbound Estragon, Robin Williams is the same Robin Williams we have come to know and love for his manic intelligence, comic body language and perfect sense of timing. In this part, he is in bad need of a shave. Between convulsions, he gives unmistakable signs of a soul in puzzled torment.”
The play is about two down-in-the-dumps men waiting for someone, possibly God (though denied by Beckett), to show up. Being unable to think of a good reason to leave, it becomes an eternal and continually disappointed wait. Williams’ real life “puzzled torment” and wait is over and he has decided to leave us. A brave choice – a phrase that some people will not be comfortable with, but one that echoes my own experience, though I’m glad I survived now.
Williams began his stand-up comedy career in the mid to late 1970s, around the same time as his first film role in 1977 and appearance as Mork in Happy Days (1978) which led to the spin-off series, Mork and Mindy, which was hugely ad-libbed.
In the Happy Days Season 5 episode, “My Favorite Orkan”, Williams, as Mork, tries to kidnap Richie and take him back to his planet but is foiled by the Fonz. Originally a dream sequence, it was so popular that it was edited so as to be real and allow for the character of Mork to have wiped their memories and reappear in Mork and Mindy as an exiled alien from the planet Ork where humour is banned. Oh Shazbot! Mork showed up again in a retrospective episode of Happy Days, “Mork Returns”.
In 2004, he was voted 13th on Comedy Central‘s list of the “100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time”. It was his improvisation that got him the role of Mork, standing on his head at the audition. Ad-libbing often led to film and television scripts adapting to him, rather than him sticking to the lines. Much of his role as the genie in the animated film Aladdin (1992) was improvised.
In 2009 Robin Williams conducted a delayed 26-city US comedy tour called “Weapons of Self-Destruction“, aimed at George Bush, rather than himself. He was hospitalised that year for heart surgery after announcing the tour in 2008. In 2010 he performed the show in Canterbury, New Zealand, and donated all the proceeds to the Red Cross and post-earthquake rebuilding projects.
I’ve often heard the phrase “the funny man of comedy” used of Williams, but aren’t all comedians meant to be funny? To me it means someone who can laugh at situations rather than make jokes by taking someone down. The irony is of course that the funny man who appeared in Happy Days was an unhappy man.
Just because someone can make us laugh, does not mean that they can make themselves happy. The daily battle with the black dog of depression and for Robin, at least, the associated ‘demons’ of drug and drink addiction, lifts momentarily in the manic moments of humour and comedy, but returns like a fog blanket blocking out the sun. Judgements of his addictions are insensitive, for those who’ve experienced depression, know full well that it can lead to other behaviours in order to survive or end the feelings of depression. Concert pianist James Rhodes called depression a “cloak of lead, a toxic second skin“:
“Depression is like being forced to wear a cloak made of lead. You don’t get to choose when to put it on and take it off. It is a second skin which gradually seeps into your own, real skin and poisons it until you are a walking, toxic, corrosive bundle of infectious awfulness. The thought of suicide is the only real respite and the only chink of light at the end of the tunnel.”
Robin Williams was funny, depression is not, though he laughed at his own “demons”, drink and drug addictions, which had returned to afflict him in the last few months. But that doesn’t give us the right to laugh at his life, troubles or choices.
I’ve done stand-up comedy and did a whole set on my own suicide attempt, it was dark and dead pan. Someone even thought I’d made it all up and commended my ‘acting’. In fact, it was the truth, often stranger than fiction, and my own surviving suicide and finally wanting to be alive again that enabled me to laugh at death and make fun of myself. That is not for others to do though. Doubly insensitive and offensive is the joke on Twitter I’ve seen about it now being an ideal time for Kellie Maloney (the transitioning Frank Maloney) to audition for Mrs Doubtfire 2, now that Robin is dead.
Others have taken to the web to say that they have no sympathy for those who take their own life, or suffer from alcohol and drugs addictions. The Guardian has had to moderate and delete about 10% of the comments on the report of his death. I’ve read of people on Facebook calling it “the pussy way out”. So wrong. Suicide is often a decision to end not only self-torment but to end being a burden to others. It can take courage and bravery to attempt it, it is not a coward’s way out as Fox News‘ breaking news editor and anchor Shepard Smith called it, it is the last straw for someone who is tired of fighting for survival every day. I’m not encouraging suicide, but I am saying stop judging it and view the person who has gone as now at peace.
“How can someone so well-off, well-known and successful have depression?”. This was said of Stephen Fry, but is doing the rounds about Robin too. Fry references an article by Alastair Campbell in which “he suggested changing the word ‘depression’ to ‘cancer’ or ‘diabetes’ in order to reveal how, in its own way, sick a question, it is. Ill-natured, ill-informed, ill-willed or just plain ill”. Fry writes about feeling sad, lonely, depressed, suicidal and the rights to seemingly illogically having those feelings.
“If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather. Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.” – Stephen Fry
Even when surrounded by loved ones, depression is a lonely disease, but having a partner or friend around has saved me from acting on suicidal feelings more than once in the past. It was when all alone, in the darkest hours of the night that I attempted it more seriously.
“I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people that make you feel all alone” – Robin Williams
Very often there are no answers or solutions, and there should certainly be no judgements for what is in cause or effect a chemical imbalance in the brain. I’ve suffered from depression for over a decade and for the last 2 years been under investigation for a variant of bipolar or cyclothymia, Mood Affective Disorder. Fry has cyclothymia and whilst Williams never regarded himself as fully diagnosed, many clinicians think he had depression and Bipolar Affective Disorder.
Whilst the label may help with gaining the right support and treatment, it is irrelevant to how we treat people with the symptoms of the varieties of depression and addiction. We have not lived their life, seen inside their mind, and therefore do not know the balance of accountability for their own actions and suffering under the weight of seemingly intransigent conditions that afflict people indiscriminately and unfairly.
Depression disables, debilitates, and is often met with misunderstanding that you can do something about it by pulling yourself together, getting out more, getting up or some such chivvying coaching. Similarly, with suicide, the offers to “talk to me” before you try it next time, or of it being a “selfish way out” that hurts others, are ignorant, even if often well meant, thoughts. Suicides can be planned or spontaneous, cries for help or calls for the help and feeling a burden on others to end, persistent or momentary feelings of the need for it all to stop, the feeling of powerlessness or the only way to take control.
Dean Burnett in the Guardian called it a “staggering ignorance of mental health problems” to refer to suicide as a selfish act. Suicide and depression are not selfish. Williams had access to the best help around, but he was the “clown that could not be fixed“, as Simon Jenkins writes:
“There was no help that Williams and others like him could not and did not receive. It failed. All illness is a great leveller, but none levels like mental illness. It remains the poor relation of medicine. Research is paltry. Therapies are halfhearted. Drugs are primitive.”
One-in-four of us will get a depression related illness. Yet it receives a small percentage of even 1/40th of the medical research and treatment budget.
Devastating news about @robinwilliams — knew him a little and liked him a whole lot more. A brain wired like no other and so so kind.
Robin Williams’ favourite children’s book was CS Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe which he would read out loud to his kids. Famous for his funny voices, when reading it to his daughter, named after Princess Zelda from The Legend of Zelda computer game series, she said “Don’t do any voices. Just read it as yourself.” One of the hardest things in life is to be yourself.
His third wife and now widow, Susan Schneider, said:
“I lost my husband and my best friend, while the world lost one of its most beloved artists and beautiful human beings. I am utterly heartbroken.”
Fellow actor and comedian Steve Martin, tweeted that he “could not be more stunned by the loss of Robin Williams, mensch, great talent, acting partner, genuine soul.” ‘Mensch’, whilst simply meaning “human being” is a Yiddish idiom for a genuinely good person, a real “stand-up guy”.
Barack Obama, in offering condolences, referred to Williams as “one of a kind”:
“Robin Williams was an airman, a doctor, a genie, a nanny, a president, a professor, a bangarang Peter Pan, and everything in between. But he was one of a kind. He arrived in our lives as an alien – but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit. He made us laugh. He made us cry. He gave his immeasurable talent freely and generously to those who needed it most – from our troops stationed abroad to the marginalized on our own streets. The Obama family offers our condolences to Robin’s family, his friends, and everyone who found their voice and their verse thanks to Robin Williams.”
Tributes will continue to flood in from fans, friends and fellow entertainers, Sarah Silverman described him as “pure love” and Stephen Fry sad he was “so so kind”.
At one point over half the trending tags on Twitter were Robin Williams related including #RobinWilliamsWillLiveOnForever.
George Takei said “May the heavens be brightened with your singular glow” and several have commented on Twitter saying that now he can make God laugh. Friends have expressed sadness, referenced mental illness and one wrote “I can’t believe Mindy is Morkless”, an apt end for how it all began back in 1978.
Gifted, manic, funny, sad, tormented, lost to us, but now at peace. RIP
[This article is an expansion of one first published here]