A dedication to Robin Williams

PBS NewsHour recently featured an interview on the topic of the creative mind and mental illness with Judy Woodruff and Dr. Nancy Andreasen.. Mentioned in that piece was the fact that many well-known writers, such as Kurt Vonnegut and John Cheever, to mention just a few , had suffered with mental anguish throughout their lives.

As with many actors, Robin Williams’ genius came at a high price. I learned this first-hand, based on a lifelong association with the work of my father, the late Dr. Leopold Bellak, a pioneer in what was first called Minimal Brain Dysfunction, then ADD, and now AD/HD. According to Harvard ADHD psychiatrist Dr. John Ratey, Dr. Bellak is noted for many contributions, but he was the first to realize that ADHD is a genetic disorder,  meaning that it is more complex an issue than previously thought.

Dr. Bellak, who was Harvard-educated, created the C.A.T. (Children’s Apperception Test), and authored 36 books. He once said, “When one has had a troubled childhood, it is more than likely that the person’s adult life will be troubled as well.”  From the 1950’s through the 1970’s, for the most part, successful men with ADHD and large egos who were concerned with their reputations, could not rely on their humility to get the help they so badly needed. It appears that Robin Williams was different. Here humility not only helped him have empathy towards others, but it also  gave him the ability to attempt to seek the help he so badly needed. Dr. Nancy Andreasen, chairperson of the Psychiatry department at the University of Iowa, has said thatas with so many of our creative geniuses , feelings of overwhelming loneliness, despair, inadequacy, and just not “fitting” cancome with the territory and be pervasive with this type of personality.

During the PBS interview, Dr. Andreasen noted that profiles of such hugely successful people   can be and often are remarkable. So often these people have crushing personal histories against the record of extraordinary achievement, and it’s inspiring.

Robin Williams’ childhood was difficult. As an only child, he was left to his own imagination to entertain himself, and he felt the need to entertain the staff that was hired to take care of him. His father was a successful business man, and his mother was an actress. With no siblings and no parental direction, where was he to acquire the ability to know how to be in a healthy relationship?  In an excerpt on CBS Sunday Morning on August 17th, Robin mentioned that as a child, he had his first nervous breakdown.  Back in the 1950’s, not much was known about mood disorders, unfortunately.

Many famous people lack humility and an understanding of their mood disorders. So consequently, they turn to drugs, sex, and alcohol  in an attempt to remedy their personal pain and anguish.  In my work as a consultant and coach with adults and children, I often see adults who have bipolar or ADHD in their families; i.e, their parents or sibling go untreated. The adults are often in denial.

Robin had a heart of gold. Just as his talents knew no bounds, neither did his generosity.  He shared his empathy and goodness, showering it on the most needy, whether it was hosting HBO’s Comic Relief, visiting shelters, serving on the board of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, supporting research for spinal-cord injuries  or performing tirelessly for the U.S. armed forces overseas.

The Jewish Week of August 15th 2014 reported that many people often thought of Robin  as a Jew. However, his father was an Episcopalian and his mother was a Christian Scientist. Despite this, Robin found meaning in the Jewish faith and befriended such Jewish greats as Billy Crystal and Steven Spielberg. During the making of the film Schindler’s List, Robin would call Spielberg every day to brighten the director’s mood.Robin embraced Jewish themes, and starred in “Jakob the Liar” in 1999. He was also the comic for the USC Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, where he managed to bring laughter despite it being  a Holocaust memorial event.

Unlike so many other greats, Robin felt guilty about the material things he had received both as a child and as an adult.. He knew he had emotional problems, and for many years of his life he took an active role in getting the right kind of help. Mood disorders, such as bipolar have been openly discussed, thank goodness, by such celebrities as Jim Carrey, (who also said he had a miserable childhood because his mother was mentally ill), Catherine Zeta-Jones, and even the news anchor Jane Pauley. Williams could be extremely hyperactive and then extremely depressed.  As in some of these instances, like for many others,  humor was a distraction from the inner pain felt during childhood.

What many outside of the psychiatric professional community do not know is that ADHD and bipolar often go hand in hand. Once Robin was asked why he didn’t write an autobiography; his answer was simply that he could not sit long enough to do that kind of thing.  Dr, Bellak used to say, “ADHD is the curtain; behind it, you will find many other challenges.” One day, when I was visited by a well-known pharmaceutical company, both the representative and I concluded that just as there is a specific protocol for various types of chemotherapy for cancer, one day there will be a protocol for treating mental illnesses. A pinprick of sorts will determine which medications one should take, and there will be no more guessing games as to what will work best. Let’s hope that this type of medical advancement in mental health treatment administered along with quality psychiatric care is not too far off in the future.

In essence, ADHD, bipolar, and/or borderline personality go hand in hand with creativity. Many comics suffer with ADHD, but they make the most of it. Comics may find their craft easy because they can shift quickly from one joke to another rather than stay on any one topic. They move around. They get instant responses from the audience. Their impulsiveness is hidden behind joke-telling. It has been said that those with brilliance such as Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci may also have suffered with ADHD. Being practical was not one of their strong points.  Da Vinci had a reputation for getting bored and restless easily  and often didn’t finish the  works that he had commissioned to complete.

However, ADHD can be be a gift in disguise, leading to becoming an amazing entrepreneur. David Neeleman, the former CEO of JET BLUE,has been very candid about his ADHD. On the other hand, ADHD is often accompanied by learning issues and/or various processing issues that can take a toll on relationships. No wonder the personal relationships suffer. This disorder lends itself to impulsivity, boredom, an endless sex drive, moodiness, and poor management of money, and more. Thankfully, today there are advancements in medications that can make a huge difference. However, because of the stigma of bipolar, or ADHD, many people go untreated. Changing jobs or partners or resorting to drugs or alcohol just seems to be an easier solution.Let Williams’ tragic end remind us to  take care of each other, especially with all this new awareness. Even when people  come out of rehabilitation, it is crucial that there be an intermediate facility available to them, before going back to their normal everyday lives. Are there any such facilities?  I don’t believe so. In my opinion,  all patients would benefit from having a coach specifically assigned to them, for significant length of time as, not just temporarily Let us all learn from the loss of the wonderful Robin Williams and try not to let any such individuals out of our grasp. People like Williams, as with all of us, need never feel there are no alternatives or options—and thus could avoid  downward spirals that lead them to take what they see as the only option and terminate their delicate and invaluable lives.

Kerin Bellak-Adams

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