Nov 29

“Hi, Anxiety”: Kat Kinsman’s “Nerves”

The author comes to the realization that there is no one method that works for everyone, and many can’t manage the fear well, but that these emotions come from an illness and shouldn’t be a source of shame. Kinsman encourages those suffering from the malady to acknowledge what is happening so that they can get the support they deserve. Terry Lamperski, Carnegie Library, Pittsburgh, PA, regarding Kat Kinsman’s Hi, Anxiety

Writer and commentator Kat Kinsman has a new book called Hi, Anxiety: Life With a Bad Case of Nerves. From her publisher:

Taking us back to her adolescence, when she was diagnosed with depression at fourteen, Kat speaks eloquently with pathos and humor about her skin picking, hand flapping, ‘nervousness’ that made her the recipient of many a harsh taunt. With her mother also gripped by depression and health issues throughout her life, Kat came to live in a constant state of unease—that she would fail, that she would never find love . . . that she would end up just like her mother.

Kinsman’s public admission started in January of 2014 via a blog post (CNN.com) that’s full of compelling quotes. A sampling:

Anxiety and panic have been my constant companions for as far back as my memory reaches.

Anxiety hurts. It’s the precise inverse of joy and blots out pleasure at its whim, leaving a dull, faded outline of the happiness that was supposed to happen. It’s also as sneaky as hell.

If depression is, as Winston Churchill famously described, a “black dog” that follows the sufferer around, anxiety is a feral cat that springs from nowhere, sinks its claws into skin and hisses invective until nothing else exists.

Anxiety is not easily explicable or rational — at least not to those who don’t suffer from it — and that only compounds the problem. If it were something concrete — a fear of clowns, birds, cheese or the music of Michael Bublé — there would no doubt be a definitive course of attack involving immersion therapy and a really weird party.

For me, it’s physically painful, from stomach, head and muscle aches to exhaustion from chronic insomnia to raw thumb skin that I’ve picked at until it bled — and kept picking some more.

It’s senseless and hurtful to people I love, and that more than anything is why I’ve been trying to get better.

Behavioral therapy has perhaps been my most effective weapon, but when panic bolts down and pins me, shivering to my bed in the wee, small hours, it’s hard to summon semi-steady breath, let alone any mantras or creative visualizations.

Unfortunately, certain common remedies haven’t been particularly helpful for Kinsman.

Anti-anxiety medications work beautifully for millions of people. The withdrawal from a particularly wicked one nearly ended me, and the brain zaps (those are sharp, horrifying electrical currents you can physically feel inside your head) and metabolic sluggishness increasingly outweighed any benefits while I was on it. Perhaps I will change my mind someday, but for now that’s not an option.
The gym can be useful, but it’s on the other side of that damned door. So are the much-vaunted yoga and meditation classes that inevitably make me feel as if I’ve failed for being insufficiently zen and relaxed.

While therapy has been good for her overall, she’s also had the misfortune of having to deal with the unexpected loss of her long-term therapist (due to the latter’s health crisis). As reported in the blog piece, however, Kinsman eventually did find someone else to see.

May 18

“Imagine Me Gone”: Mental Illness In the Family

Adam Haslett‘s new novel Imagine Me Gone echoes a main theme from his highly acclaimed 2002 debut, You Are Not a Stranger Here: mental illness and its effects on loved ones.

As Haslett tells Scott Simon, NPR, there’s personal background to go with this: “…I’m no stranger to mental illness. You know, my father committed suicide when I was 14. My brother indeed suffered from anxiety. And I’ve been no stranger to those states myself, luckily, for some unknown reason, not in the same severity of my father or brother.”

Kirkus Reviews introduces Imagine Me Gone: “This touching chronicle of love and pain traces half a century in a family of five, from the parents’ engagement in 1963 through a father’s and son’s psychological torments and a final crisis…Each chapter is told by one of the family’s five voices, shifting the point of view on shared troubles, showing how they grow away from one another without losing touch.”

More info from Heller McAlpin, NPR, about the five family members:

…a British-American couple, John and Margaret, and their three grown children. We learn early that Margaret chose to proceed with her marriage to John even after unexpectedly learning about his history of severe depression during their engagement. We also learn that their eldest son, Michael, manifested a ‘ceaseless brain’ and obsession with the plight of slaves even as a child, while their daughter Celia began showing mature coping skills at an early age. Celia recalls the time her father cut the engine and played dead on a small boat in Maine, testing her and her younger brother Alec with the challenge, ‘Imagine me gone, imagine it’s just the two of you. What do you do?’ Celia kept her cool and reassured her panicked brother to regard it ‘like a safety drill at school.’

Celia becomes a social worker, Alec “a bossily opinionated gay man” (WSJ), but in the center of family turmoil is Michael. The following is an oft-cited quote from the book about Michael’s high anxiety, for which many different medications are tried:

What do you fear when you fear everything? Time passing and not passing. Death and life. I could say my lungs never filled with enough air no matter how many puffs of my inhaler I took or that my thoughts moved too quickly to complete, severed by perpetual vigilance. But even to say this would abet the lie that terror can be described when anyone who’s ever known it knows that it has no components but is instead everywhere inside you all the time until you can recognize yourself only by the tensions that string one minute to the next. And yet I keep lying by describing because how else can I avoid this second and the one after it? This being in the condition itself, the relentless need to escape a moment that never ends.

Jessica Winter, BookForum: “…Michael is…a figure at once half-deranged and brilliant, stymied and restless, utterly self-absorbed and yet pseudo-empathetic to the point of pathology…Imagine Me Gone confronts the moment when the motion finally stops, when the mind’s wheels spin and squeal against the skull until a person breaks apart, his family looking on helplessly, haunting him and haunted by him.”

Despite the seriousness of Haslett’s material, apparently there’s also no shortage of humor.

Select Reviews

Alexis Burling, San Francisco Chronicle: “Haslett hits the nail on the head when it comes to describing just how anguishing and time-consuming psychiatric disorders can be, not only for the afflicted but also for the flailing loved ones trying their damnedest-and failing-to find a suitable fix…”

Michael Upchurch, Boston Globe: “…Imagine Me Gone respects the mystery of how things happen the way they happen, while brilliantly conjuring the tide-like pull with which dreaded possibilities become harsh inevitability.”

Paul Harding, author: “The eldest son, Michael, is simply one of the finest characters I’ve ever come across in fiction. This beautiful, tragic novel will haunt you for the rest of your life and you will be all the more human for it.”

Sep 23

“Furiously Happy” By Jenny Lawson: Seriocomically “Crazy”

I came up with the concept of being “furiously happy” years ago after the death of a friend came on the heels of a depression. I was so tired of being sad and feeling hopeless that I went to my next emotion and that was anger. I was mad that life had thrown so much crap at me all at once, so I decided to be furiously happy. Vehemently joyous. To do everything I could when I was out of a depression to enjoy life, even if it was just out of pure spite at the universe. Jenny Lawson, interviewed by Nora Krug, Washington Post

Jenny Lawson, otherwise known as “The Bloggess,” has made a name for herself via her candid and humorous and “crazy” writing. In addition to her social media presence, there’s been her bestselling Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir (2012). Her readings for it were “standing room only, with fans lining up to have Jenny sign their bottles of Xanax or Prozac as often as they were to have her sign their books” (website For the Love of Words).

Because, you see, she makes no bones about having a myriad of mental health issues.

And now there’s her follow-up memoir, Furiously Happy. More on that in a bit.

Some quotes from her Let’s Pretend This Never Happened will give you a sense of her perspective:

I can finally see that all the terrible parts of my life, the embarrassing parts, the incidents I wanted to pretend never happened, and the things that make me “weird” and “different,” were actually the most important parts of my life. They were the parts that made me ME.

I’m lucky that although [my spouse] Victor doesn’t understand it, he tries to understand, telling me, “Relax. There’s absolutely nothing to panic about.” I smile gratefully at him and pretend that’s all I needed to hear and that this is just a silly phase that will pass one day. I know there’s nothing to panic about. And that’s exactly what makes it so much worse.

It’s been my experience that people always assume that generalized anxiety disorder is preferable to social anxiety disorder, because it sounds more vague and unthreatening, but those people are totally wrong. For me, having generalized anxiety disorder is basically like having all of the other anxiety disorders smooshed into one. Even the ones that aren’t recognized by modern science. Things like birds-will-probably-smother-me-in-my-sleep anxiety disorder and I-keep-crackers-in-my-pocket-in-case-I-get-trapped-in-an-elevator anxiety disorder. Basically I’m just generally anxious about f***ing everything. In fact, I suspect that’s how they came up with the name.

What the author now says in Furiously Happy about her multiple diagnoses:

According to the many shrinks I’ve seen in the last two decades I am a high-functioning depressive with severe anxiety disorder, mild bipolar tendencies, moderate clinical depression, mild self-harm issues, impulse control disorder, and occasional depersonalization disorder. Also, sprinkled in like paprika over a mentally unbalanced devil egg, are mild OCD and trichotillomania, which is always nice to end on, because whenever people hear the word ‘mania’ they automatically back off and give you space on crowded airplanes. Probably because you’re not supposed to talk about having manias when you’re on a crowded airplane. This is one of the reasons why my husband hates to fly with me. The other reason is I often fly with taxidermied creatures and anxiety service animals. We don’t travel a lot together because he doesn’t understand awesomeness.

By the way, among the various things she writes about in Furiously Happy, according to her website, are “completely inappropriate things I’ve blurted out to fill awkward silences at my psychiatrist’s office.”

Selected Reviews

Augusten Burroughs, author: “Even when I was funny, I wasn’t this funny.”

Parade: “Take one part David Sedaris and two parts Chelsea Handler and you’ll have some inkling of the cockeyed humor of Jenny Lawson…[She] flaunts the sort of fearless comedic chops that will make you spurt Diet Coke through your nose.”

Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW: “You’ll laugh, wince, writhe in discomfort, cry, then laugh again. You might even feel the need to buy a raccoon. But the two things you’ll never do is doubt Jenny’s brilliance or her fearlessness when it comes to having honest discussions about mental illness, shame, and the power of human resilience. She’s changing the conversation one rented sloth at a time.”

Aug 26

“Two Days, One Night”: Film Depicts Depression, Quietly

Critical favorite Two Days, One Nightjust released on DVD, is of specific interest to this blog.

Depression may feel endless, but it’s never constant. It comes and goes in torturous peaks and valleys, often triggered by external influences beyond anyone’s control. We laugh, we cry; we scream, we whisper — it’s a process. On a long enough timeline, the illness may become a safety net — or a form of seclusion — offering sanctity and solitude because, after all, that’s what has become the norm. If anything of this rings a bell, it should; everyone battles with depression at one point or another. Whether it’s conquered or contained, however, is how the lines are typically drawn.

With Two Days, One Night, two-time Palme d’Or winners Luc Dardenne and Jean-Pierre Dardenne turn their camera on Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard for a swift 95-minute portrait of the pitfalls and struggles of depression. Michael Roffman, Consequence of Sound

The Plot

A young Belgian worker, Sandra (Marion Cotillard), finds out she’s at risk of being fired. David Sims, The Atlantic, further explains:

Sandra, we gradually learn, is resurfacing from a bout of depression that saw her miss time at work, and in her absence her bosses realized they could live without her by spreading her workload out among the other employees. They thus face a cruel choice, proposed by their bosses: They can either vote to receive a 1,000 Euro bonus, or save Sandra’s job and let her come back to work. After losing one vote, Sandra is permitted to make her case amid talk of management interference. Two Days, One Night follows Sandra’s sometimes excruciating, sometimes heartwarming journey through town trying to convince the co-workers she barely knows to reject the money and give her another chance.

Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times: “A dilemma so simple and so timely, it barely feels like fiction.”

More details from A.O. Scott, New York Times:

Sandra and her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), live with their two young children in a clean, well-appointed townhouse, a big, hard-won step up from the ‘social housing’ where they used to live. The thought of going back is especially galling to Manu, who works in the kitchen of a chain restaurant and who pushes his wife to make her case. Anxious, frequently tearful and quick to reach for a Xanax, Sandra would rather curl up in bed than endure the humiliation of begging for the pity of her peers.

Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald:

The stress begins to take a toll on Sandra, leading her to question everything, including her marriage. ‘I can tell we’re going to split up,’ she tells her husband. ‘You pity me but you don’t love me.’ Cotillard, who earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her performance, plays the character as a woman hanging on by the barest of threads, her anxiety growing as the deadline approaches and a new vote will be taken. You worry what she’s capable of doing if things don’t go her way — this is a strong but damaged woman who hasn’t fully recuperated yet…

The Portrayal of Depression

Michael Roffman, Consequence of Sound: “To date, depression has never felt so delicate and hypnotic on film.”

Kristy Puchko, Cinema Blend: “This is not the kind of depression that Hollywood likes to sell complete with gnashing of teeth and pained wails. It’s quieter, more about a lack of verve and oppressive melancholy. It’s true to life, and at times hard to watch. But every step of the way, Cotillard nails this tricky performance.”

The Trailer

Selected Reviews

Lisa Kennedy, Denver Post: “Consider Marion Cotillard’s Oscar-nominated performance…a tour de nuance.”

Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald: “Two Days, One Night is the story of a woman in dire straits of a specific nature. But her situation, and the reactions of those whose help she seeks, is universal. Sooner or later, we all need a helping hand in our lives. But what happens when you need to convince people to extend one?”

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: “As a parable on karma, capitalism and Darwinian corporate politics, ‘Two Days, One Night’ can often feel brutal. As a testament to connection, service, sacrifice and self-worth, it’s a soaring, heart-rending hymn.”

Oct 06

“Rocks in My Pockets”: Mental Illness in One Family

I made the film not for my own therapy, but to entertain an audience, to make them think and engage them in a conversation. For me a film is a form of communication; yes, part of it is a self-expression, but it is also an exchange of ideas, a dialogue. Signe Baumane, MovieHole, about Rocks in My Pockets

Rocks in My Pockets, according to the final words of its trailer, is “a funny film about depression.” It’s also, per the tagline, A crazy quest for sanity.

In the writer/director/narrator Signe Baumane‘s own words:

‘Rocks In My Pockets’ is a story of mystery and redemption. The film is based on true events involving the women of my family, including myself, and our battles with madness. It raises questions of how much family genetics determine who we are and if it is possible to outsmart one’s own DNA. The film is packed with visual metaphors, surreal images and my twisted sense of humor. It is an animated tale full of art, women, strange daring stories, Latvian accents, history, nature, adventure and more.

More About the Women

Charles Solomon, Los Angeles Times: “…(T)hree generations of intelligent, educated women in her family struggled with depression, possible schizophrenia and suicide. Twice, neighbors found her paternal grandmother, Anna, floundering in the shallow river near her home in the Latvian forest. Despite her obvious vigor, Anna’s premature death at 50 was ascribed to a mysterious heart problem. Two of Baumane’s cousins were suicides, and Baumane herself was diagnosed as manic-depressive before she left Latvia for the United States.”

About the Title

Peter Keough, Boston Globe: “…(S)he tries to trace the depressive gene back through her family tree. She begins in Latvia in 1949, where a peasant is horrified to see her neighbor Anna, Baumane’s grandmother, standing fully clothed in a shallow river. It seems that, like Virginia Woolf, Anna was trying to drown herself. Unlike Woolf, she forgot to put rocks in her pockets to weigh herself down.”

The Trailer

The Animation and Style

Ben Sachs, Chicago Reader: “…(C)haracters morph into animals or objects, then back again, and metaphors are rendered literally. The latter device helps to convey the subjectiveness of mental illness—during one of the heroine’s depressive episodes, a balloon full of razorblades inflates inside her stomach.”

Nick Schager, Village Voice: …(T)he filmmaker creates a swirling, semi-hallucinatory panorama of emotional distress, where fantasies and realities blur, and in which familial and social expectations repeatedly drive women to forgo their own aspirations and assume traditional roles that, time and again, lead only to unhappiness and suicidal thoughts and actions.”

The Narration

Nicolas Rapold, New York Times: “It’s told with remorseless psychological intelligence, wicked irony and an acerbic sense of humor.”

Christy Lemire, rogerebert.com: “…Baumane tends to meander in her storytelling, bouncing around in time as she visits such disparate subjects as history, suicide, education and feminism. And she employs a sing-songy, heavily accented tone of voice, regardless of the subject matter. It’s immediately off-putting and it smothers every second of the film, but eventually you grow accustomed to the narration and it becomes merely grating.”

Charles Solomon, Los Angeles Times: “Unfortunately, Baumane’s narration greatly weakens ‘Rocks in My Pockets.’ The thick Latvian accent is less a problem than her stolid delivery.”

The Mental Illness

Nick Schager, Village Voice: “With an insightfulness born from firsthand experience, Rocks in My Pockets posits depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia as conditions that, though potentially lethal, remain manageable, if only through persistent battle.”

Charles Solomon, Los Angeles Times: “‘Rocks in My Pockets’ is not an easy film to watch: It rips the bandages — and scabs — off what are clearly festering wounds. But it serves as a striking reminder of the individuals who suffer similar pains in silence, and of the special power of animation to make the unseen visible.”

The Takeaway

Alissa Simon, Variety:

Like Baumane’s earlier shorts, the years-in-the-making ‘Rocks in My Pockets’ is fiercely feminist. It opposes opportunity and responsibility, and questions why women should have to please people at the expense of their dreams. Some of the images, such as that of a woman trapped under a bell jar while her husband watches from outside, perfectly epitomize marriage as experienced by Anna and her female descendants. Meanwhile, apt turns of phrase in the spoken narration (e.g., ‘My mind feels like a badly wired building’) make mental illness seem less alien.

Ella Taylor, NPR:

Baumane’s most poignant insight is that for potential suicides who really mean business, the pain grows so insufferable, or the voices in their heads so persuasive, that they see death as relief, even liberation from their suffering. One relative speaks of killing herself as an act of freedom. Baumane describes one meticulous plan to hang herself as her ‘way to success.’

That has the ring of truth — who among us has not wondered why so-and-so killed him or herself when they had so much to live for? But it’s a bitter pill to swallow for those left behind. So it comes as a huge relief to know that this endlessly imaginative artist found another way to save herself from the isolation that prompts so many suicides.

Nick Schager, Village Voice: “’Rocks in My Pockets’ offers a lot to process, both visually and emotionally. It’s an exhausting experience at just under 90 minutes, and it might have been more powerful in shorter form. The fact that it offers hope at the end—for Baumane herself and for anyone who has suffered similar torment—is an enormous relief.”

Find a Screening

Click here for that part of the movie’s website.