Paige Gerson of Leawood runs a nonprofit group called Depression Bipolar Support Alliance of Overland Park, Facebook.com/DBSAKC. Gerson attended Tulane University in New Orleans before receiving a bachelor’s degree in dietetics at Kansas State University. She is also diagnosed with bipolar disorder. For more information, call 913-730-0042 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. This conversation took place at her home.
What did you think when you heard the news about Robin Williams’ suicide?
I wasn’t at all surprised. When you have bipolar, you know who else has it, and we all knew Robin Williams had bipolar. And everybody who has bipolar has suicidal thoughts or suicide attempts, 100 percent. I’m guessing finding out he had Parkinson’s was the thing that pushed him over the edge.
What can we learn from his suicide?
That this disease isn’t fixable. Robin Williams probably had all the resources in the world. Medication helps, but it doesn’t cure it. It’s like taking a huge roller coaster and trying to make it a mini-coaster.
There is a perception that if people would only take their medication all the time, they would be OK. That is completely untrue. It is a deadly illness. It is like a cancer that may go into remission but will never go away.
Was there anything you didn’t like about how his death was portrayed or how people reacted to it?
When you hear people say, “He took the easy way out,” that is not correct. His disease killed him. The pain was so great his brain was telling him that was the only way he could find relief.
When did you first realize you had bipolar?
I was diagnosed 10 years ago with bipolar, and I’ve been taking medication for it since then.
Did you really not know when you were younger that you suffered from bipolar disorder, or manic depression as it used to be called?
I hate the word “suffer.” I live with bipolar disorder, I don’t suffer from it. And many people aren’t diagnosed until they are in their 30s or their 40s. It is something you are born with, but it’s almost like a cancer gene that sits there a long time before it becomes active.
So you didn’t have symptoms when you were younger?
I went through a monthlong depressive episode at the age of 20 and a two-week depression when I was 30. Beyond that, I was pretty much fine.
And you didn’t notice any manic episodes?
I don’t think I had the hypomanic stages.
What is hypomania?
It is less than full-blown mania, and it is common in people with bipolar. I didn’t spend thousands of dollars when I can’t afford it, or fly to Hawaii without telling anyone. Mine was like, I decide I’m going to go to medical school, and I figure it all out in a day. Or, I’m going to go backpacking through Europe by myself. Or, I’m going to run a marathon in a month and not train.
What are your depressed periods like?
Years ago, before I was treated, it could be for days, not being able to get out of bed, not being able to get in the shower, not wanting to eat, not talking to friends, wanting to hide. Feeling like the pain will never end. Feeling suicidal.
What are the depressed episodes like now that you take medication?
Not wanting to get out of bed. Not wanting to exercise. Canceling things. Doing the bare minimum for my nonprofit.
Are you ever tempted to stop taking the medication? You hear of people who don’t like taking it because they miss the highs, or they says it dulls everything.
I think the notion of dulling is unfounded. More often people start feeling better and think they don’t need to take the medication anymore. That is very common.
Another problem is, a lot of people can’t afford the medication. I personally have not been tempted to go off meds, because I have observed what happens when you go off medications. Yes, some medications have awful side effects: Some make people gain a lot of weight, some cause diabetes or sexual dysfunction. It is extremely rare for someone with bipolar to stay on one or two medications for any length of time. Doctors are constantly trying new medication or combination of medications to see what works.
What is the main thing people who don’t have bipolar can do to help friends or family who have it?
Get rid of the stigma. When I was feeling severely depressed, I couldn’t call the teacher or the room mom and say, “I’m really sick,” and have everyone prepare meals and bring them over, like I could have if I’d been diagnosed with breast cancer. But it is just as debilitating.
If someone tells you they are experiencing depression, offer to drive their kids, pick up groceries or prepare a meal, like you would if they were very sick, because they are.