Robin’s TV and concert appearances had him running all over the stage pulling ideas out of thin air -- a trademark of the comic genius. That was what people learned to expect from him.
When the show was over he sometimes descended into depression and tried to fend it off by self-medicating with alcohol or other drugs to dispel the fact that the spotlight was darkened and the manic heights flattened. This inevitably makes things worse as evidenced by multiple failed rehab experiences. It’s impossible to know exactly what Robin Williams was going through. His wife said he committed suicide because he was battling Parkinson’s disease.
What can we learn from Robin Williams taking his own life is a reminder that it can affect anyone. He appeared happy which made it hard to see that there was a problem beneath the surface. A smile can communicate more than just joy -- it can also be a cry for help.
Caring about the people you love means being in tune with them. Reading emotions, observing behavior and most importantly asking "How are you?" can make a world of difference.
Someone in a manic state may have racing thoughts, talk too fast, have little need for sleep, or believe they can do or accomplish anything.
But those are textbook cases of mania. The bipolar spectrum includes people who never experience full-blown mania. They may instead experience hypomania.
They are revved up, but not to the point of doing things that are abnormal. They may think faster, have more energy, require less sleep, and often do and accomplish more than other people.
They may be dazzlingly brilliant, especially in artistic and creative fields. It is as if their brains are turbocharged.
Robin's extreme energy and abundant creativity came with a terrible price. Sooner or later, hypomania gives way to depression (“bipolar II disorder,” according to the DSM V diagnostic manual).
A few sufferers seem to get mainly the benefits of the bipolar gene set: They get the turbocharged brain and boundless energy but seem to escape debilitating depression. But they are the exceptions.
During hypomanic and manic episodes, people behave recklessly and feel invincible. There is no internal brake to tell them to stay away from drugs or excessive drinking. It just happens.
He made us laugh, cry and think about our own lives in a way that made him a cultural icon – then one day he was gone. What happened to our lifeline to laughter? Gone was his infectious way of lifting us out of the mundane and infusing us with the healing power of laughter. He was always on and could improvise stories in the moment, which could help eager audiences escape their sometimes lonely, sad, painful lives.
He was rewarded for his efforts with money, fame and acclaim from fans the world over. He had it all, but it now appears he was just as mortal as everyone else. What we saw was his manic side, a need to be on 24/7. His energy level was off the scale, but opposing that was his depressed side. This side was hard to see and accept even for Robin Williams himself.
His manic side was the source of his genius and the source of his major depression, which if you could see beyond the laughter was on display all along. It’s hard if not impossible to be on 24/7 even for Robin Williams. He was like the Energizer Bunny on steroids. He kept going and going and going and going.
The radical mood swings represented symptoms of a bipolar disorder. Bipolar refers to opposite extremes, or poles. In its most severe form, a person cycles between the opposite poles of depression and mania (“bipolar I disorder,” according to the DSM V diagnostic manual).
Mania is a state of excessive energy and excitement, of being abnormally “revved up.”
We can judge him from the outside and think that he had it all. However, underlying all of those things appears to be a man going through things we all go through perhaps to a lesser degree. We may not all battle “severe” depression, but we’ve all experienced some level of being down.
We may not have battled a substance addiction, but we’ve all struggled to cope with difficult times and just wanted to numb the pain. Depression and substance use are two of the most co-occurring mental illnesses.
Psychology of Bipolar Disorder
Asking about how a friend or loved one is doing is not only a systematic way to gauge well-being. With all the distractions life hands us, looking into a persons eyes and surveying what you see engages your intuition -- that gut-level truth that tells you to be vigilant and keep your loved one closer than you might normally. Mood changes can lead to dark thoughts. If suicidal tendencies appear, report it. Intervene. Act before it's too late. Ask if there is a suicidal plan. Address the reality that something regretful may happen. Farewell to a comic genius.