Special for Great Potential Press by: Denise Elsner Ford, LCSW
Mental Health Colleagues, please refrain from diagnoses like Bipolar.
Robin Williams, who died August 11, 2014, was diagnosed as Bipolar only by those armchair therapists speculating. Yes, he suffered from Major Depression. He has publicly admitted to that but to my knowledge he never claimed that he was Bipolar I or II. Others apply the label Bipolar to it. They saw his manic comedy on stage and said ” oh, mania!!”
I cannot confirm this but I may be the only therapist who was a comedy improviser who actually knew and sometimes worked onstage with Robin and as his opening act when he appeared with the Comedy Store Players but more frequently worked with him backstage and informally. My opinions are in reviewing my experiences and knowledge of him from first person experience. I was not in his inner circle but spent a significant amount of time in deep conversations with him. I was on staff at The Comedy Store and was an ear for many of the comedians. It eventually became my professional career.
True hypomania or mania do not turn off when one steps off the stage. His was a brilliant mind and talent but the “mania” distant diagnosticians point to as a signature defining symptom is what improvisers are trained to do. High volume energy and rapidly making connections to bring together unexpected elements, the cognitive dissonance, and/ or unexpected co- occurrence creating cognitive tension that we expel as laughter to great relief is the essence of improv comedy. Improvisers are trained to be ”sponges” who soak in the culture, the news, human nature– all of it– and reassemble it in novel ways on command.
Robin was the King of Sponge! Robin was very, very good and fast but this does not make him bipolar. I have never seen a soul with hypomania who could turn it off. Robin became quiet and sweet and very focused, logical, reality oriented, calm, with appropriate affect , no flights of ideas, no hyperactivity or agitation, little to no pressure to his thoughts or speech when not on stage or highly anxious. I treat Bipolar and have never seen someone turn off hypomania at will. I did not even see the mildly elevated mood symptom of Bipolar II persist once he came down from the CNS arousal of performance.
He did suffer from what he described as that little voice that said ” you know you are a piece of crap.” Certainly no grandiosity. Hardly. Please do not confuse the man and his ” act.” He would launch into the act when anxious which he frequently was when not onstage and in a socially challenging situation like a press interview. But he was anything but manic in private and in my experience with him over a five year period. Calm, thoughtful, compassionate as much as a soul can be, but often insecure and anxious and sad at times.
I know everyone is trying to make sense of his suicide by applying the medical model to what the press reports. Just remember that you are speculating with very limited data.
Robin was a very lonely child with no siblings , and parents who were always gone on business trips. He spent vast amounts of time alone in his room during critical developmental periods . Those early messages from the world as seen from a child’s perception formed the core of his being and understanding of the world and his place in it. The ever nagging question is: where were those people to take care of me and what is wrong with me that they leave me here all alone? Once that is formed, it leaves a big black hole in the center of being that cannot be easily or effectively filled. Robin had a number of people who cared deeply for him and tried to fill that hole, the hole that cannot be filled because the distorted thinking always discounts the evidence against the painful belief and is ever in search of the evidence FOR worthlessness. This question of worthlessness and the intolerable fear of it fueled his depression and also his art.
A member of the press recently asked me if I thought Robin, Richard Pryor, Freddie Prinze and others “died from their art.” NO! It is their art that let them live! It gave them some distance from their painful thoughts , and gave them some comfort by the transitory love and affection they received in applause and attention. But then they were left with the fading applause and the emergence of the fear, “Did I just really suck? Was that any good?” and the evidence for sucking floods in again.
The confusion and anger by some who cannot understand how Robin could “seemingly” have the world at his command and yet feel despair reminds me of what happens to people when dealing with someone in terminal or serious illness. Everyone becomes a cheerleader saying ” you are gonna be FINE, fight this thing, you will survive” and then they cheer cheer. And it only makes the ill person feel more alone and imperiled because they see the Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, their painful reality of mortality and no one else does.
No one says, ” I am here with you, Brother.” Those the only words that help. I know that in Robin’s inner circle, he did have those who walked by his side in his pain and it comforts me. We look for a reason that makes this make sense and we seek to blame someone or something. We don’t have to look far. Add Parkinson’s cruel subtraction of functioning of mental agility and physical ability and filter that through the heart of one whose very existence was held together by functioning faster, quicker, funnier than the rest. The Intolerables may have become impossible to escape and the well of sorrow became too deep and muddy.
We meet many souls in all walks of life who suffer just as Robin did. I believe we all suffer from these intolerable fears in some form– not good enough, broken, unworthy, shamed, stupid, unlovable, a loser. The Intolerables.
And the most painful story we tell ourselves is that most others have their act together and I am alone in my lonely fear. But then again, most people go to great lengths to convince the world that they are immune to the Intolerables. They flee them by grabbing alcohol , drugs, porn , sex , staying really busy, piling up a bigger pile of stuff and money than the next guy, using anger as a shield, or sanctimoniousness as inoculation , submerging oneself into another’s life etc., etc. That Robin also used some of these distractions from the Intolerables is well documented, yet that Robin could touch these painful places in us and bring us comfort was his greatest gift to the world. He was a lonely boy who grew into a lonely man who crawled into our hearts with his stardust.
But he was not alone.
Contact Denise Ford firstname.lastname@example.org or 704-525-5850.
The conversation about giftedness, creativity, existential depression, mental illness, etc. began immediately when the August 11, 2014 news broke about the suicide of comedian and actor Robin Williams.
Great Potential Press and its founder Dr. James T. Webb have a calling to recognize, develop, and help the gifted children and adults who so often are told “you’ll be fine” because the assumption is that their gifts will provide a super-human resiliency that propels them from depression or any other disintegration.
The brightest, most creative individuals often suffer from depression, as did Robin Williams who died of an apparent suicide.
His intensity, sensitivity, and search for life meaning, characteristic of so many gifted people, permeated his life. This was evident in his movies and other productions, like Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting, that portrayed the social and emotional needs and conflicts of gifted and talented people who struggle in a search for idealism and excellence in a world of mediocrity that so often seems uncaring and that fails to understand zany creativity that helps us laugh at tragedy.
In his idealism, he was disillusioned many times, and he wrote about it candidly, including how he tried to use alcohol to numb himself from his pain.
There are many other bright and creative minds like Robin Williams who are facing similar struggles.
Can we help them find a better solution?
There is no reason any of us ever have to feel as if we are doing anything alone.
For more information, support, or books about the emotional and mental ups-and-downs of gifted children and adults:
Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted is a non-profit whose programs and resources include a list of mental health providers with gifted specialties, webinars, and an annual conference.
Gifted Children and Adults: Finding a Community is a Goodreads group open to parents, educators, counseling professionals, and anyone who’s seeking information. Discuss and share books and resources about gifted and giftedness.
Gifted Kids Aren’t Going to “Be Fine” is an article written about the topic of not recognizing the special needs of the gifted.
In honor of National Parenting Gifted Children Week from July 20-26, 2014, Dr. James T. Webb joins the dialogue about the challenges of parenting and the need to nurture, support, and guide gifted children and adults.
“Parenting a gifted child is like living in a theme park full of thrill rides. Sometimes you smile. Sometimes you gasp. Sometimes you scream. Sometimes you laugh. Sometimes you gaze in wonder and astonishment. Sometimes you’re frozen in your seat. Sometimes you’re proud. And sometimes the ride is so nerve-racking you can’t do anything but cry.”
Parents have described to me over the years how puzzled, lonely, and exasperated they are with their child’s intensity, sensitivity, quirkiness, and asynchronous development. However when they share their experiences with other parents, or even relatives, the reaction so often is, “Well, I wish I had your problems! Your child has everything going for him, and you have it easy!”
Our society operates on the basis of several myths:
- gifted children are just like other children, only just a bit brighter;
- gifted children don’t have any special needs;
- they will make it on their own;
- gifted children are easy to parent because they learn so quickly.
Truth is, the very things that make gifted children what they are also produce the behaviors that make them so challenging. Parents and teachers often find themselves criticizing gifted children with statements like:
“For someone so smart, you have no common sense at all!”
“Do you have to be so sensitive and intense about everything?”
“Why do you always have to question everything? Can’t you just do things because I say so?”
“Why do I have to cut the tags out of all of your shirts?”
In Guiding the Gifted Child, we call these “Killer Statements” because they kill communication, chip away at a child’s sense of self, and convey to the child that they would be better liked if they were just like other children.
Statements such as these, not surprisingly, lead to family issues such as power struggles, sibling rivalry, underachievement, perfectionism, and even depression.
Gifted children, though a very diverse group, show commonalities:
(1) They see things differently.
(2) They do things differently.
(3) They act, think, and feel with intensity.
(4) Their judgment lags behind their intellect.
These are some “Ups and Downs of Giftedness.”
For every characteristic that’s a strength for a gifted child, there’s a downside of potential problems associated with that strength.
The brighter the child, the more likely the child is to be asynchronous—not only in the lag of judgment behind intellect, but also that the span of abilities within the child is likely to be greater, so much so that it is not uncommon to find very bright children who also are learning disabled or twice-exceptional in some other way.
Parenting a gifted child is often is a very lonely experience. In fact, being a gifted adult is often a lonely experience. This is why finding others who can relate and empathize is so important.
Fortunately, there are many resources to find help, guidance, and support.
Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted is a non-profit whose programs and resources include the popular parent support groups and an annual conference.
National Association for Gifted Children advocates on behalf of the gifted to ensure quality education and keeps on top of the most current research and needs.