Levels of Stigma

I wasn’t going to write about Robin Williams. My mind dances away when I even think about him too much right now. I open my Facebook feed, see post afterRobin Williams post about Robin Williams, and close Facebook again. It’s too much to think about.

You see, not so long ago, a dear friend of mine hanged himself. I had known Tom for decades. He saved my life once. Well, more than once in many different ways, but one time specifically and obviously. He saw me through so many hard times and so much homelessness. He was hysterically funny, when he wasn’t deeply depressed. He was kind and generous and always ready to make me laugh when I was down. He was a solid constant in my life . . . until he wasn’t. And he was bipolar.

So when another funny, brilliant, generous-hearted, larger-than-life bipolar man hanged himself so soon after, when I still haven’t recovered from losing Tom. Well, my mind dances away when I think about it too much.

But this morning, my friend posted, “If anyone blogs about Robin Williams and the posthumous erasure of his Bipolar dx something he openly shared, and the harm done in having the wrong conversation by doing so, please tag me so I can post and signal boost.” And I realized I have to write about Robin Williams.

Because my friend is right — Robin Williams had bipolar and had been honest about it for years and I have not seen a single blog post or Facebook status, and only very few news reports that mention that fact. It has been effectively erased. And so, as the world mourns the loss of one of the most loved celebrities, dazed that someone who made others so happy could be so depressed, everyone is talking about depression, the devastation it brings, the statistics (1 in 5 people will experience severe depression at some point in their life), and what to do to help a depressed or suicidal friend.

This talk is important and these things are true. But as my friend put it, it is the wrong conversation. And it is time for people to step forward and start having the right conversation. Robin Williams spoke openly about his depression and suicidal thoughts as far back as 2010, but now so many people are saying they didn’t even realize he was depressed. The media is teaching us about depression but almost no one has been speaking of his actual diagnosis of bipolar. I said something about bipolar less than an hour after the first announcement of his death and got bitched at for saying it. Why is it so wrong to talk about Robin Williams and bipolar? Why is his bipolar being called depression by almost everyone?

It is due to levels of stigma. It is similar to something we have seen in the autistic community. I’ve been told (by well-meaning people) that I shouldn’t call myself Autistic; I should call myself Asperger’s (even though I’m not) because there’s less stigma attached to it (although since Adam Lanza, that’s not so true anymore.) I think that’s like what’s happening here, with Robin Williams. Depression is hard for people to understand. The suicide of a man who made the world laugh is even harder — because we still live in a world where people mistakenly believe a depressed person could just pull himself up by his own bootstraps. And who had longer, stouter bootstraps than Robin Williams?

But bipolar is still subject to so much stigma that people can’t bear to associate it with Robin Williams. Depression is slowly coming to be understood, gradually becoming more accepted, bit by bit getting to be something that people feel safe talking about openly. But bipolar is still mysterious, frightening, mythologized. If you don’t believe me, just watch a few episodes of the ABC series Black Box.

It is not my place to speak about the lived experience of bipolar. But I lived with and loved Tom and his roommate, Carl, both bipolar, and I learned that with the pain come incredible gifts — brilliance, passion, fire, creativity. All things Robin Williams had in abundance. I am not able to write the last word about bipolar, but I felt compelled to write these first words, in the hope that I encourage others to talk about the brilliance and beauty of bipolar and the fire that burns so brightly it can singe or kill.

It is so important that so many people are talking about suicide and depression right now, in the wake of Robin Williams’ suicide. But now it’s time to slice through the layers of stigma and talk about bipolar, too.


Other posts about Robin Williams and bipolar (feel free to add more in the comments and I’ll include them in this list):




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