Archive | August 2014

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.

 

Russian Ballet and the Mysteries of the Dance Belt

Bolshoi Ballet's Don Quixote

Bolshoi Ballet’s Don Quixote

On my birthday last Thursday, I treated myself to a matinee performance of Don Quixote by the Bolshoi Ballet at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. I’m not a huge fan of classical ballet, but I figured this might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Besides, I viewed it as an homage to my mother, who enrolled me in ballet classes and took me to performances at the Pabst Theater whenever a major touring company made a stop in Milwaukee.

Most often, that company was the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, featuring the great principal dancers Frederick Franklin and Alexandra Danilova. To refresh my memory, I Googled them and discovered a fascinating tale my mother never told me. They were founded in 1938 when their founders Leonide Massine and René Blum split off from the original Ballet Russes. Blum was arrested by the Nazis and died at Auschwitz. During and after World War II, they toured the United States extensively, bringing classical Russian ballet to many cities where it had never been seen before. As its dancers – including George Balanchine – spun off and founded their own troupes, they taught Russian ballet to generations of Americans.

I recall seeing many of the classics, like Swan Lake and Les Sylphides, and I enjoyed them, but as a naïve preteen girl growing up in the postwar Midwest, I was most fascinated by the mysterious bulges under the men’s tights. The principle male dancers of the Bolshoi sported similar bulges, and I decided to Google those as well.

WARNING: The following paragraph contains sexually explicit descriptions of the male anatomy, and prudish readers may wish to skip over it.

Baryshnikov

Baryshnikov

Male dancers, especially when in tights, wear a garment called a dance belt, a specialized athletic supporter that supports and protects the genitals. It most resembles a thong, and is designed so that no telltale seams appear under those form-fitting tights. It’s made in varied flesh colors, nowadays with Spandex, and the front panel is reinforced so as not to provide too much information to fellow dancers and the audience. Unlike other athletic supporters, it is designed to hold the dancer’s package upwards, so that dangling genitalia don’t get squeezed or injured during vigorous dance moves.

That’s probably more than you needed to know, right? But if this whets your appetite for more information, just Google “dance tights,” and I guarantee you’ll find more graphic details than you could ever imagine. Anyway, it explains the rationale behind those bulging crotches that so fascinated me as a child and filled in the gaps in my sexual education. It was well over a decade before I gained a more accurate knowledge of the male anatomy.

I got off on a bit of a tangent here, didn’t I? I’d planned to write about more elevated topics like the

Nureyev

Nureyev

contrasts between classic and modern dance, the questionable value of making klutzy young girls study ballet, and how dance can actually be fun, for example in my Nia class. But I’ll save all that for another post. For now, I’ll search out some delectable images of male dancers to share with you. Enjoy!

Nijinsky in Afternoon of a Faun. Costumes weren't quite so revealing back then, before they invented Spandex.

Nijinsky in Afternoon of a Faun. Costumes weren’t quite so revealing back then, before they invented Spandex.