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Mork and Me

Can you ever get better when your career is based on being ill? Fix columnist Amy Dresner on being bipolar, an addict and a comedian.

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By Amy Dresner

08/14/14

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I’ve always loved Robin Williams. Mork and Mindy was a mainstay of my childhood TV watching and when I saw him doing his manic wild sweaty stand up of the 80’s, I was absolutely entranced. Little did I know then that I would also be, like Williams, a bipolar cocaine addict and God forbid, a comic.

A friend close to him told me that Williams never really did “the program." He never admitted his true powerlessness. As a millionaire uber-famous comedic superstar surrounded by yes-men, how could he? It’s hard enough for those of us who are poor and unknown.

For both mental illness and addiction, there is no cure. There is only management. 

My source also told me that Williams once said, “What people love about me is my deflection. It’s not me.” And yet he was addicted to that deflection as are most comics and performers. He admitted that the only time he felt okay was when he was on stage. Once off, he’d stare at the wall or crawl into the fetal position on the floor. The false and fleeting high of making people laugh, the admiration, the validation is so heady, so narcotic but also so very short-lived. It’s impossible to maintain but as a bipolar addict, I understand all too well why he wanted to live there. It is only there that the soul crushing depression is far far away.

Most comedians by their very nature are sad and depressive. The art of stand up is “taking your pain and making it funny,” said Barry Katz, mega comedy manager of stars like Dane Cook, Whitney Cummings, Jay Mohr, Louis CK, Dave Chapelle, etc. So comedy is really the transformation of pain. It’s not just jokes, funny asides or silly insights. And digging around in that all darkness takes its toll.

We want to fuck presidents and shoot speedballs and have five groupies blow us because we’re a guitar legend.

When you are bipolar, as both Williams and I are, you have magnified emotions and distorted thinking. Mania is like the best high you’ve ever felt and unlike drugs, it’s free. But the price you pay is heavy. After the up comes the down and it can be a depression so deep, so all-encompassing that the only escape possible seems to be death. I’ve been there. Several times. I have three pretty decent suicide attempts under my belt. I just didn’t use the right knife or take enough pills. But I get it and I have immense compassion for the pain he must have been in to do what he did.

Add to this combination addiction and its own brand of distorted thinking which we’ve come to call “alcoholism.” As a bipolar addict it is doubly hard not to take either of your own possible warped brands of thinking seriously. It all feels so real and so true. And let’s be honest, Williams was making a fortune off his “distortion” so he had to take it seriously and indulge to some extent.

Williams’ “crazy” was his brand. Even his short lived series The Crazy Ones on CBS was based on his life, incorporating aspects of his divorce and stints in rehab as well as his off-the-cuff bigger than life persona.

Can you really get better when your whole career is based on you being ill? Would you want to? Most writers/comics don’t want to go into therapy because they are scared that getting better will make them lose their funny, lose their edge. It is no mystery that creativity is closely tied to addiction and mental illness. This connection was widely publicized by the Kay Redfield Jamison book, Touched with Fire. So your “gift” is also your Achilles heel and that is a slippery narrow plank to walk. Most of the super talented creative individuals were tortured and/or “crazy”: Van Gogh, Kurt Cobain, Stephen Fry, Ernest Hemingway, Spike Milligan, Edvard Munch, Frederick Nietzsche, Edgar Allan Poe, Nina Simone, Amy Winehouse. The list goes on and on.

I also think there’s a part of the public that doesn’t want our rock stars or our comics or our movie stars sane and sober. They are bigger than life. The rules don’t apply to them. We want to live vicariously through their exploits and turmoil: Hendrix, Belushi, Marilyn Monroe. We want to fuck presidents and shoot speedballs and have five groupies blow us because we’re a guitar legend. And we’d much prefer our idols to go out in a blaze of glory than age and fade slowly away. Because then they’d just be “human." And celebrity is about being a demi-god.

Writing is no different. There’s a saying in journalism “if it bleeds, it leads." I’m aware that my pieces about shooting up in my neck or my stay in the psych ward or my voracious sex addiction get more attention than my pieces about meditation or the importance of sponsorship or step work. Everybody loves a good car wreck. You get the experience and excitement without the pain or risk. And you get to feel better about yourself. Any envy about the author’s adventures is tempered with a gratitude that you are not them.

As I said in a recent interview, both creativity and addiction are about transcendence. When I’m high, when I’m manic, when I’m in the creative “zone," I feel amazing: powerful, free, whole, connected and most importantly out of the small dark cramped prison that is me.

Art, any art, is in my opinion about exploration, being out of control, the dark side, revealing the ugly truth…..and this is especially true of stand up. When I was doing stand up, I was most funny when I was really upset, really angry. It was then that I didn’t give a shit and my outpouring was pure and feral and unadulterated. I only started stand up once I was already sober so I have no idea if I would have been funnier when I was high or drunk.

My experience with bipolar medication is that it puts a big cap on the highs and sometimes a small net under the lows. It certainly doesn’t make you like a normal person. Unfortunately, it’s really only the highs that make the lows even worthwhile. And then of course any antidepressant that might help your paralytic depression could send you into an agitated mania where you karate chop realtors (yes I’m talking from personal experience here). So it’s all a very complicated balancing act.

When I am my most down, I can still maintain the hope, the illusion that if I had my perfect mate, lots of money, a fulfilling career….that maybe, just maybe, I would still want to live, that those things might “fix” it. But what if you had all those things and you still felt desperate and trapped and hopeless? It would be so much easier to believe that nothing, nothing on the planet, would be enough to assuage this existential despair. So I am never surprised when somebody like Cobain or Williams checks out. When your fame and your millions and all the things those can access still aren’t enough to tame your addiction or depression. What the fuck is left?

A couple of the reasons I stopped doing stand-up were a) I didn’t feel like I wanted or needed the validation anymore and b) I didn’t want to make fun of myself on stage. My particular stand-up was very self-effacing and as I went through my divorce and entered a new stage in my life, a new sobriety, I didn’t want to attach myself to those labels anymore….. of “crazy” or “felon” or “junkie." I decided I was bigger than that. Those, of course, were things I might have done, but they didn’t have to DEFINE me. I could change. I could recreate myself. That’s what recovery is all about. But of course, I’m aware that my arrest and my community service and my nervous breakdown would make for brilliant material. I hear it all the time from comics and managers. I still help run comedy shows and being there and not wanting to get on stage feels like being in a crackhouse and not wanting to get high. And maybe I’ll relapse on comedy. They say you never retire but only take breaks.

For both mental illness and addiction, there are no cures. There is only management. I’ve been on the ride too long to know that any stability, any recovery I might feel I have from either is temporary. It could change tomorrow. Hell it could change later today. Relapse into active addiction or a horrible depression is omnipresent and more than likely. It never ends. You’re never safe. It’s just a daily, hourly reprieve.

Rest in Peace, Robin Williams.

Amy Dresner has been a columnist for The Fix since 2012. She's recently written about MediCal, Gay Pride, and the safety of women in AA.  

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