Robin Williams and the Dangers of Depression

Robin Williams

Robin Williams

As one of the millions of people who have suffered from severe clinical depression, I can readily imagine why Robin Williams committed suicide. When you’re in the depths of depression, it sometimes seems as though the darkness will never end, and suicide is the only way out. And when life pelts you with lemons, you can’t muster the strength to turn them into lemonade.

His widow has disclosed that Williams was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, although he had not yet gone public with the fact. The diagnosis must have been devastating to a man who built his public persona upon his genius for rapid-fire, manic improvisation. Sooner or later, Parkinson’s would inevitably have eroded those gifts and slowed him down, and perhaps that prospect was more than he could stand.

Michael J. Fox has taken a courageous stand in going public about this devastating illness and appearing on camera with his tics and

Michael J. Fox

Michael J. Fox

tremors on display. But he’s always been a star with a certain sweetness and vulnerability, so his role as a crusader against Parkinson’s is a perfect fit for his personality. Perhaps in time, Robin Williams could have faced the diagnosis with similar grace, but alas, we’ll never know.

His career may have peaked. His CBS sitcom The Crazy Ones was cancelled this year after one season, and he worried about his finances, especially the alimony to two former wives. His California ranch was on the market, and he felt pressured to take roles he wasn’t enthusiastic about purely for the money. In his final days he spent most of his time lying in a room with blackout curtains, too exhausted to get out of bed.

I know that feeling well. I’m diagnosed bipolar, and within the past decade, I suffered two debilitating depressions, both of them after I had completed and published novels that failed to set the world on fire. Both times I was convinced life was no longer worth living, and I contemplated suicide, but like Dorothy Parker in her famous poem, I found something objectionable about all the possible methods and decided I might as well live.

With help from a psychiatrist, a psychologist, and above all my husband, I eventually climbed back out of depression, although I live with the fear that it may recur. For now, medications keep me on an even keel – Zoloft and Seroquel, to be specific, and Lunesta as needed for sleep. All three are now available in generic versions, so I spend under $20.00 a month for meds – a small price to pay for happiness.

But I may be paying a much higher price. I was diagnosed as bipolar twenty years ago, and I’ve been on psychotropic medications ever since. I’ve accomplished a lot in the past couple of decades, including publishing two novels, but I no longer have the overriding drive and energy that powered me through my earlier years as an artist. Laziness and complacency are ever-present dangers. I’m content just being in the present moment – gardening, walking my dog, reading – though I suffer pangs of guilt over my lessened productivity. Is this a normal product of aging, or a side effect of my medications? Maybe it’s both, but I’ll never know for sure.

When I learned of Robin Williams’s suicide, my first thought, after the shock and grief, was that he too was bipolar. If so, he had never publically disclosed it, but certainly his public persona was over-the-top manic. But as I read more about him and listened to old interviews, it became apparent that his personality when out of the camera’s eye was calmer and more reflective. He readily admitted to substance abuse and periods of deep depression and discussed them candidly, so if he’d been diagnosed as bipolar, he probably would have disclosed that too.

Still, I can’t help thinking he may have been in denial about the nature of his illness. The rapid-fire imagination and creativity so striking to those who knew him well may not have been full-blown mania, but it teetered close to the edge. Perhaps he was afraid that the powerful mood stabilizers and antidepressants of modern medicine would dumb him down intolerably, and perhaps he would have been right.

I don’t know what meds Robin was on or what therapy he was receiving. But it’s extremely common for people diagnosed with a mental illness to refuse or discontinue medication because they don’t want to become comfortably numb. And the inexorable progress of Parkinson’s disease, with its many physical and mental symptoms, including depression, would have taken a terrible toll over time.

Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam

Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam

Doubtless more details will emerge and more people will conduct psychological post-mortems. But in the meantime, although Robin Williams’s death is a tragic loss, I believe I understand at least part of the rationale for his decision.

 

April is Camp NaNoWriMo Month

On April Fool’s Day, a year ago today, I embarked on the Script Frenzy challenge, an offshoot of National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo. I succeeded in turning out the requisite 100 pages during the month of April, then began turning the story into a novel I hoped would be finished and on the market by now.

Picasso 1934

Picasso 1934

No such luck, although strictly speaking, I’ve got to ‘fess up: luck has nothing to do with it. The past year has been wonderful in many respects. I crawled back up out of the black hole of depression I’d been trapped in for far too long, savored time with my husband and family, rediscovered the joys of gardening and downhill skiing, even adopted a dog. I’ve got an enormous amount to be grateful for, and maybe that should be enough. But I’m beating myself up over indulging in present-time pleasures instead of slaving away at my novel.

I’m hereby making a solemn vow: I will finish my novel this month! I’ve got some excellent incentives. In late May, I’ll be attending the fiftieth reunion of my Harvard-Radcliffe class, a golden networking opportunity I plan to take full advantage of. Then in September, Bouchercon, the world’s biggest and best mystery writers’ conference, will take place in Albany, just 20 minutes from my house. Talk about networking! I want to have all my books up on Kindle as well as in print in plenty of time to concentrate on schmoozing.*

I registered for Bouchercon this morning, and the online form included a section where I could express my interest in presenting. The form is simple, with three sections where I could describe my qualifications in 50 words or less. Lots of my favorite authors are already listed as attendees, with links to their websites, and I’m looking forward to seeing my own link up there one of these days. I’ve already connected with some members of the mystery site Dorothy L, who are planning a Friday night dinner, and they’ll probably take me up on my recommendation of the Pump Station.

A couple of New Jersey conferences are on my list of possibilities as well: Deadly Ink and the International Women Writers Guild. Both sound promising, but they may be beyond my budget, especially since I need to save up for a few concerts. I promised to take my granddaughter to Les Miserables when the road show hits Schenectady, and I’ve already got my ticket for Country Fest on July 13 – Darius Rucker and Sheryl Crow are headlining.

Right after I paid my $175 Bouchercon registration online, I wandered over to the Live Nation web site and scored a lawn ticket for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. I was actually looking for Rascal Flatts tickets, but they don’t go on sale till Friday. It’s a good thing I’m not in full manic mode – maybe a bit hypomanic, but I’ve still got a modicum of control over my online shopping.

Eduard Manet

Eduard Manet

Anyway, back to NaNoWriMo and Script Frenzy: they’re not doing Script Frenzy this month, but they’ve launched a new venture called Camp NaNoWriMo. Unlike the original November NaNo, where you have to churn out 50,000 words, they let you set your own word count goal. I picked 30,000 – a thousand words a day should be doable, and if I keep up the pace, I may actually finish the vampire soap opera novel I’ve been blogging about so much. My user name for Camp is soapvamp.In this new challenge, you can sign up to be in virtual cabins with writers of your choice, organized by genre or other factors, and if you want to be cliquish, you can even sign up with your friends.

Writing should be easier this month because Michael Easton is away from General Hospital for the time being, while they indulge in their 50th Anniversary celebrations. But that’s a topic for another day. Meanwhile I’m going public with this goal in hopes my readers will encourage me to keep on track, so please leave comments, and subscribe if you haven’t yet done so.

Happy April Fool’s Day, and here’s hoping April isn’t the cruelest month for any of you. Talk to you soon!

*The weird formatting above, with some sections in a larger font, is something WordPress is doing that I can’t get rid of. I may tinker with it later. I used to love WordPress, but every time I try posting something new, it gets worse in many respects. Is it just that they want me to pay for an upgraded version? Anyone else having problems?  I’ll add some links later, but I can’t cope with the program another second without freaking out!

Aside

Help! I’m on Katie Couric’s show next week and I don’t have a thing to wear!

 

Katie in a dress that would never pass her show's dress code!

Katie in a dress that would never pass her show’s dress code!

This coming Monday I’ll be in the audience at the Katie Couric show, soaking up the atmosphere for my novel-in-progress, which is set in the land of daytime television. But I don’t have a thing to wear! After the phone call inviting me to attend, they sent me a lengthy e-mail explaining what I should expect and what they’ll expect from me. “Katie loves bright colors!” they said. I should “dress to impress,” with absolutely no black, brown, beige or gray, nothing dark or muted, and no prints.

Though I love Duke Ellington’s classic “Black, Brown and Beige,” I don’t cotton to those colors when it comes to my wardrobe unless they’re combined with something brighter. Nor do I usually wear straightforward primary and secondary colors. As an artist, I prefer subtler shades – and lots and lots of prints. But it’s Katie’s show, and she has the right to determine her own esthetic, so I’ll be hitting the January sales this week.

I thought I was well past the age of slavishly following someone else’s dress code, so why am I caving for Katie? Because except for a visit to the Conan O’Brien show many years ago, I’ve never set foot in the TV studio of a major network. Even though my novel is pure fantasy, I’m a stickler for accuracy, so I need to do some heavy-duty research. That’s more or less what I wrote in the online application in the section asking why I wanted to attend the show, and maybe it piqued the interest of some lowly intern processing the applications. I didn’t elaborate further, nor will I do so here.

I’m so excited about this story, so convinced it’s a high-concept project, as they say in Hollywood, that I’m not about to give away any specifics until it’s up on Kindle. Suffice it to say that it’s my first excursion into the paranormal, and it’s a lot more light-hearted and humorous than Eldercide or Mood Swing: The Bipolar Murders.

When inspiration struck last spring, I was slogging away at the sequel to Eldercide, but I was bogged down and blocked. My husband was planning to enter Script Frenzy, an offshoot of National Novel Writing Month, and he suggested I join him. The challenge: to write a 100-page film or TV script during the month of April.

JULIE

(Frowns as she sips coffee)

            But I’ve got no desire whatsoever to write a script. 

SPOUSE

            Why not give it a try? What have you got to lose? 

JULIE

            That whole show-business world is so competitive, I’d never have a chance. 

SPOUSE

            Just do it for fun, as a creative exercise (pause as he gazes skyward) I know. What if you write about that show you always watch, and that actor you’re so crazy about? 

JULIE

(brightens and grins)

            Hmm . . . Maybe that could work.

FADE OUT

sf_winner_180x180And so I took a flying leap into the unknown – a totally new format, a new genre – and before long I was having a ball. I made my quota of 100 pages in the 30 days of April, submitted my script for verification and printed out my winner’s certificate, but that only took me a third of the way into the story. Then began the challenge of turning it into a novel.

I’d hoped my new opus would be finished already, but now I’m aiming for the spring equinox on March 20th. I’m asking you, my readers, to help hold me to that deadline. I’ll post progress reports every week or two, and I hope you’ll leave comments to cheer me on. If I really buckle down, maybe I’ll be free to write another script in April. Well before then, I’ll blog about Script Frenzy in hopes of enticing you to join. In the meantime I plan to reconnect with the wonderful online community of writers, and beginning this Valentine’s Day, I’ll be hosting guest bloggers once again.

As I wrap up this post, I’m watching the Katie show. Though she doesn’t look it, she’s celebrating her 56th birthday today. And those women in the audience are all decked out in cheerfully brilliant colors. Time to head for the mall – since orange is my favorite color, I’m envisioning something in orange sherbet or tangerine.

What colors do you favor for your wardrobe?  And how much are you willing to tweak your image for special occasions?

The Slippery Slope to Senior Sloth

Henri Matisse

Watching six straight hours of Project Runway reruns? Lounging in bed reading a mystery until two in the afternoon? Why the hell not? Now, in the dawn of my eighth decade of life, haven’t I earned the right to kick back and be as lazy as I like? Maybe, but if so, why do I feel so guilty about it?

Yes, ashamed as I am to admit it, I’ve indulged in these wretched excesses in the past few days. Even worse, I still haven’t kicked my Spider solitaire addiction. And today I managed to get to my Nia class at the YMCA, but I copped out of doing the weight machines. After Nia, I generally take a snack break in the Y’s lobby perusing magazines others have donated that I normally wouldn’t buy, like Vogue and Entertainment Weekly, before heading for the weight circuit, but today I simply stashed the magazines back in their rack and split for home.

The Y used to have a  computerized Fit Linx system that tracked exactly how much weight I lifted during each session as well as my cumulative total, which added up to several million pounds over the past few years. But they took away the Fit Linx. Now it’s as if Big Brother has abandoned me, and there’s nothing and no one to track whether I do the machines or not. So why bother?

In part, I’d persisted with the weight machines to condition my body for skiing, but I’ve become a slacker in that department too. Back in December, when cold winds began sweeping down from the north, I thought how much more frozen I’d feel skidding down a windswept mountain and decided that maybe it was time to give up skiing, at least the downhill variety. For now, this weirdly warm and snowless winter has made that a moot point, but even if Lady Gaia favors us with tons of white powder, I suspect I’ll stay cozily hunkered down in my recliner rather than hitting the slopes.

I could regale you with other fascinating details of my descent into senior sloth – the crossword puzzles and movie matinees, for example, not to mention my favorite soap opera. Since One Life to Live was cancelled last month, I’ve gone cold turkey on that one, but Michael Easton, my favorite soap star, will be bringing his Detective John McBain character to General Hospital next month, so alas, I’ll probably relapse.

One problem with writing about all these mundane details of daily life is that they’re boring. But even worse, they’re sins of omission rather than commission, of passivity rather than active engagement in life. According to the experts, staying mentally and physically active while aging probably lengthens longevity, but by how much? And in the long run, does it really matter?

Henri Matisse 1923

When I engage in these “What’s it all about?” ruminations, my husband frequently reminds me that the universe doesn’t give one whit what we do with our lives. So should we follow Joseph Campbell’s advice and just follow our bliss? And can bliss lie lurking within such ordinary slothful pleasures? For me, probably not in the long run. My most blissful moments come from creativity.

But for others, who’s to say? And who am I to pass judgment?

Should I be ashamed of my tendencies toward senior sloth, or is it OK to silence my inner critic and indulge in periods of vegging out? Any thoughts on the subject? I’d love to hear from you.

Mad dash to the finish for NaNoWriMo

Van Gogh's Night Cafe

National Novel Writing Month will be over in exactly 24 hours, and I’ve only got 48,000 words. The finish line is in sight, and by midnight tomorrow I’ll have to crank out at least 2000 more. I’m determined to do it, even if I have to pull an all-nighter the way I did for college term papers.

I hope the NaNoWriMo  administrators never read this blog post, because I’ve got a confession to make – I cheated a little. At about 35,000 words, like a marathoner, I hit a wall, and I knew I’d never make it at the rate I was going, so I copied a few online articles relevant to my research and pasted them into my document. Methods of suicide, assisted dying and state laws about same – fun stuff like that. Only a few thousand words, but enough to help me over what would otherwise have been a hopeless hurdle.

Even so, I’m proud to say that about ninety percent of the words are mine, all mine. Of those, I hope more than half are the actual first draft of my new novel. Those I’ve been formatting in traditional black type, double spaced. But they’re interspersed with miscellaneous meanderings. Many are about the developing plot and the evolving characters. I type those in single-spaced red. Green is for personal ramblings that have little to do with the novel – except that often they lead to new ideas for my fictional tale. And purple is for blog posts like this one, which I’m also copying and pasting into one enormous, unwieldy document.

I’m writing scenes about whatever captures my fancy at any given time, without worrying about where they may eventually end up in the book. Which point of view I pick depends on my mood – sometimes it’s Paula Rhodes, the temperamental CEO of Compassionate Care, the home care agency inspired by ElderSource, Inc., which I ran in the 1990’s. Sometimes I’m drawn more to Claire Lindstrom, the idealistic nurse who was my main protagonist in Eldercide. And then there’s the evolving character of Carolyn, who assisted at the death of her husband, who was suffering from the end stages of pancreatic cancer.

Edvard Munch - The Scream

My printer may have died, but I don’t have time to diagnose what the problem is and whether it’s fixable or I need to buy a new one. So I don’t yet have a hard copy to work with, nor have I reread most of what I’ve written. Sometimes I scroll back to read the last scene in order to hazard a guess as to what comes next, but by and large I’ve managed to banish my inner critic.

When December arrives, I’ll do a “save as” and begin dividing this humungous document into manageable sections. Then I’ll see what I’ve come up with and where I go from here. At that point I’ll have the luxury of slowing down and maybe letting that inner critic to have her say.

Though I’ve written four novels and published two of them, I’ve never worked this way before, but I’m enjoying it. Most importantly, the NaNoWriMo challenge has inspired me to barrel through the creative block that plagued me for so long, to get back to my writing, and to discover that my muse hasn’t deserted me after all.

 

NaNoWriMo Progress Report

Today’s my sixth day of National Novel Writing Month. I started out with a bang and churned out a lot of words on the first three days, then goofed off and fell behind. NaNo has a nifty bar graph that charts my progress, telling me exactly how many words I need to turn out per day to finish in time and how long it’ll take me at my present rate.

Today NaNo says I’ll finish on December 8th, so I’ve got to pick up the pace. This is about the point I copped out the last time I tried several years ago, but I’m determined to stay the course. Fortunately my husband is understanding and supportive – he’s entered NaNo too. Right now I’ve got about twice as many words as he does, but he started late, and I expect he’ll pass me before too long.

I’m all too easily distracted. It’s a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon, perfect for leaf raking and putting the garden to bed, but I don’t dare go outside until I’ve written at least a thousand words. From my office window I have a bird’s eye view of my next-door neighbor’s roof. Two men are laying down new roofing, and it’s a pleasure to watch them, especially the younger one who’s wearing a black tee shirt and jeans as he crawls around with amazing agility. I’m admiring his musculature while I study their technique.

He’s working incredibly fast, while the older guy mostly stands and watches, hitching up his pants every once in awhile. This side show would be all well and good except for the fact that he’s using an electric hammer which emits a steady rhythm of “ribbet, ribbet,” conjuring up images of frogs. I’m tempted to give the men a neighborly shout-out of encouragement, but that would destroy my voyeur status.

Everything’s grist for the mill. I won’t be able to use this scene just yet, because my novel takes place in January, but maybe my observations will come in handy for a future book, so it’s good to take notes. They’ll end up in my 50,000 word count, and so will my thoughts as I worked in the garden yesterday.

Picasso's Woman in Mirror

But there are some observations I can use immediately. Yesterday I went to a vegan restaurant in Troy in hopes of meeting some other NaNo writers who’d said they’d probably be there. I met only one, but I ended up in a long conversation with a non-Nano woman who was unusually talkative and forthcoming with personal information, like the details of her incontinence problems. Only after I showed her a copy of my book MOOD SWING: THE BIPOLAR MURDERS did she reveal that she was diagnosed bipolar. She said she’s doing fine without medication and by adhering to a strictly vegan diet. 

After I extricated myself from the conversation and left the restaurant, a light bulb flashed and I realized she’d make a perfect character for my book – maybe a ditzy secretary who drives the other staff crazy with her never ending self-referential chatter. I’ll transform her in most respects, of course – I don’t even how what she looks like yet – but I can envision her as a recurring character who adds some levity, like the grandmother in Janet Evanovich’s books.

Although I vowed not to get hung up on editing for this first draft, I find I can’t resist the urge to tinker with my words, at least a little. Yes, it slows me down, but I need to feel good about what I write. If I fall further behind, I’ll just have to put in more hours. And when I’m really feeling panicked, I can always paste in a short story I never published, but which I was planning to incorporate in this novel anyway.

Throughout the time I’ve been writing this post, those guys have been working nonstop on the roof. On this first day back on standard time, darkness will come all too quickly, but right now the sinking sun is throwing the young man’s face and arms into high relief. The pine trees framing the lake make a perfect backdrop, and on the opposite shore, there’s still lots of gold and red in the trees. All in all a beautiful sight.

So far, the biggest win for me in NaNoWriMo is the revelation that I can still write fiction, maybe at a higher level than I ever have before. In the year of depression from which I’m only now emerging, I’d seriously questioned whether I had another novel in me. Now I know I do.

*I found the cat photo above by Googling NaNoWriMo, and I don’t know what’s up with the spelling. But she does remind me somewhat of my tabby cat Lunesta, who is currently sitting atop the computer monitor batting intermittently at the screen. She’s still on daylight savings time, not having realized we’ve gone an hour backward, and thinks it’s time for her evening meal.

 

 

 

NaNoWriMo – can I write a novel during National Novel Writing Month?

This is the first sentence of my new 50,000 word novel. Yes, I’ve signed on for the exercise in masochism known as National Novel Writing Month. That big a word count averages out to 1,666 words a day, according to the site’s organizers, or about six and a half pages. That’s not an impossible goal on a good day, but I’ve never cranked out a novel that fast. Now that the race is on, my anxiety is already kicking in – I’m hyperventilating and my heart rate is rising.

NaNoWriMo (www.NaNo.WriMo.org) was launched in 1999, and it’s grown steadily since then. Last year 200,000 people participated, and of that number, 30,000 completed 50,000 words or more. Those who reach the finish line get some kind of sticker and certificate. There’s no fee to enter, and no one sees or reads the finished manuscript. When you reach 50,000 words, you upload your novel to their web site to verify the word count. If you’re paranoid, you can do a “save-as” and scramble the book a bit to insure that no one can steal your plot.

So why did I make the first line of this blog the novel’s first sentence? Because I plan to make my 50,000-word manuscript a form of performance art in order to beef up my word count and blend fact with fiction. I’ll alternate fictional scenes with stream-of-consciousness ramblings about my creative process, some of which will end up on this blog. Who knows, the process may open up new horizons for me as a writer.

I entered NaNoWriMo several years ago but dropped out after a week because the break-neck speed made me excruciatingly nervous. As a writer, I’m accustomed to taking my time, backtracking and editing as I go along. I agonize over the perfect words and phrases and make changes directly on the computer, so that before I print out the new pages, I’ve got a fairly coherent and engaging first draft, or so I hope.

With NaNoWriMo, there’s no time for that kind of lollygagging. As in a marathon, I need to sustain my pace. No time to fix typos or check for repetition, let alone worry about the finer points of spinning a compelling tale – there’s only time to spew, no time to analyze the vomitus.

Word’s spell-check just underlined vomitus with a red squiggle, telling me it’s not a legitimate word. Normally I’d take time to consult an online dictionary for fine-tuning, but not now – I have to meet my quota. But then what does this Microsoft program know? It doesn’t even recognize the word “blog.”  

No need to agonize in solitude – NaNo has lots of online forums where people can share the misery. You can find out who’s participating in your own geographical region and even meet them in person. In three hours I’ll be dining on free pizza, hobnobbing at East Line Books, an independent bookstore in Clifton Park, where the owner, Robyn Ringler, is throwing a NaNo kick-off party. Apparently some NaNo participants converge on local libraries and coffee shops to write together en masse, but I think I’ll pass on that – I’ve never done my best writing in a group setting.

You too can share in this November madness. There’s still time to sign up. I don’t see any entry deadline on the website, but of course every day you lose means more catching up in the remaining days. As the say on their home page, with a nod to Maurice Sendak, “let the wild rumpus begin!”

Anyone care to bet on whether and when I finish my 50,000 words? Give me your best guess, down to the date, hour and minute, and I’ll send the winner copies of my two mystery novels, MOOD SWING: THE BIPOLAR MURDERS and ELDERCIDE.

There, I’ve just written 647 words – over a third of today’s quota!

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