Jan 09

Public Faces of Bipolar Disorder Reduce Stigma

Among the notables who died this past year are two talented women, Carrie Fisher and Patty Duke, who’d made public their experiences of bipolar disorder, thus serving to decrease mental health stigma.

CARRIE FISHER (1956-2016)

One of my own best memories of Carrie Fisher involves having seen her live one-person show called “Wishful Drinking,” which also was filmed for HBO (2010) and which earlier had been published as a book as well. Fisher, who’d struggled with alcohol and drug addiction in the past—common for those with as-yet-unidentified bipolar disorder—was open about both this and her mental health in Wishful Drinking.

Below, a few of the best quotes from the book version:

If my life wasn’t funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.

One of the things that baffles me (and there are quite a few) is how there can be so much lingering stigma with regards to mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder. In my opinion, living with manic depression takes a tremendous amount of balls. Not unlike a tour of Afghanistan (though the bombs and bullets, in this case, come from the inside). At times, being bipolar can be an all-consuming challenge, requiring a lot of stamina and even more courage, so if you’re living with this illness and functioning at all, it’s something to be proud of, not ashamed of.

Oh! This’ll impress you – I’m actually in the Abnormal Psychology textbook. Obviously my family is so proud. Keep in mind though, I’m a PEZ dispenser and I’m in the abnormal Psychology textbook. Who says you can’t have it all?

Having waited my entire life to get an award for something, anything…I now get awards all the time for being mentally ill. It’s better than being bad at being insane, right? How tragic would it be to be runner-up for Bipolar Woman of the Year?

Happy is one of the many things I’m likely to be over the course of a day and certainly over the course of a lifetime. But I think if you have the expectation that you’re going to be happy throughout your life–more to the point, if you have a need to be comfortable all the time–well, among other things, you have the makings of a classic drug addict or alcoholic.

In 2011 Fisher published Shockaholic, which is partly about her love of electro-convulsive shock treatment. Washington Post: “…[This] follow-up to her successful autobiography and one-woman show, Wishful Drinking, is similarly witty, ramshackle, and outrageous.”

PATTY DUKE (1946-2016)

Rex Reed’s (New York Observer) recent description of Patty Duke: “an abused child star with a sunny all-American image who enchanted critics and audiences while masking manic depression…[that] she kept private for years until, as an adult, she became an outspoken advocate for mental health issues.”

Following her death, son Sean Astin started a Crowdrise fundraiser for the Patty Duke Mental Health Initiative. “She became a voice for the voiceless,” said Astin, “a reassuring presence for the scared, the intimidated and the lost. She was a healer of many souls and a champion for so many in need…Her greatest achievement was confronting her mental illness and making her story public…My mom took her place as a mental health advocate in the greatest tradition of noble leadership.”

Her books were Call Me Anna, a 1987 autobiography, and Brilliant Madness: Living with Manic Depressive Illness (1992).

Oct 07

Patrick Kennedy Portrays “A Common Struggle” In His New Book

Former U.S. Congressman Patrick Kennedy (RI-DEM) is probably best known and appreciated professionally for what he’s done for mental health parity—as he says, making “the scope of mental health coverage the same as all the rest of physical health care coverage.”

And he hasn’t stopped there. Since leaving the House of Representatives in 2011, he founded the Kennedy Forum, an organization that supports various mental health initiatives, and co-founded One Mind for Research, which studies brain disorders. One common thread among his different pursuits is his desire to eliminate mental health stigma.

Patrick Kennedy is probably at least as well known both for being the son of Joan and Ted Kennedy and for having well-publicized though not necessarily publicly understood personal problems.

Believing in the 12-step program maxim “You’re only as sick as your secrets,” Kennedy has come out in recent years about the specific nature of his long-term battles with substance abuse and mental health issues. He has also finally, after repeated efforts throughout his lifetime, made his sobriety stick—four-plus years worth, he says.

In his new book A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addictionco-authored with journalist Stephen Fried, Patrick Kennedy expands not only on his own story but also on that of his famous family—thereby breaking what he calls “the Kennedy code of silence.”

A code, by the way, that extends to psychotherapy, in case the “psychiatrist” breaks confidentiality.

This past Sunday, the evening before the book’s publication, Kennedy was interviewed by 60 Minutes anchor Lesley Stahl. He expressed his awareness that many of his family members will not be happy with his revelations and/or perspectives.

“It’s a conspiracy of silence,” he notes, “not only for the person who is suffering, but for everyone else who’s forced to interact with that person. That’s why they call this a family disease.”

Although he writes mainly about his own issues, Patrick Kennedy also addresses certain family secrets—examples include the extent of the alcohol problems of both parents, the probable PTSD of his father (related to the tragic assassinations of brothers JFK and RFK), and the effects of no one discussing or processing these incidents as well as others, e.g., Chappaquiddick.

Stahl: “You actually say that because nobody talked about these things in the family, you were all kind of like zombies…”

Kennedy: “Well, we were living in a limbo land where all of this chaos, this emotional turmoil, was happening. And we were expected just to live through it.”

Somehow he has lived through it, and now he’s also managed to turn himself around. Currently he does what he can to maintain his sobriety, which includes daily 12-step meetings, and to treat his bipolar disorder, which includes taking appropriate medication.

So far, notably, it seems that news about A Common Struggle has focused more on the family’s negative reactions to it and less on reporting or reviewing its actual contents. The Boston Globe, however, calls the book “strikingly raw and emotional,” while other readers have applauded this Kennedy’s courage and openness.

Jul 03

“Infinitely Polar Bear”: A Dad With Bipolar Disorder

The devastating effect of bipolar disorder on marriage and other personal relationships is not a new subject, but in most movies it is examined from a woman’s perspective. Infinitely Polar Bear, a terrible turn-off title for one of the best films of the year, views the affliction and its psychological repercussions through a different lens. Rex Reed, New York Observer

In the new 1970’s-set dramedy Infinitely Polar Bear, Mark Ruffalo‘s Cameron must leave his wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana) and daughters (Ashley Aufderheide and Imogene Wolodarsky) to live in a halfway house after suffering a mental breakdown.

Cam has known for a while that he has manic-depressive disorder (now called bipolar disorder). “His African-American girlfriend…married him regardless, partly because it was the ’60s and mental health was all relative anyway,” states Justin Chang, Variety.

The main event occurs when Maggie wants to leave the Boston area to attend business school in New York. Cam, working on his recovery, then becomes the primary live-in parent.

Why such a need for Maggie to leave town? Because she needs a better career, she reasons, in order to send her kids to private school. Some critics have wondered why Cam’s wealthy family doesn’t just help out. For that matter, can’t she attend school closer to home?

More understandable in terms of plot development, it turns out Cam neither likes being on his Lithium nor has a strong ability to be a single father. John DeFore, Hollywood Reporter:

Cam fails many tests in the early weeks of the arrangement: He leaves the house while the girls are asleep, going out for hours to get drunk; he abandons housekeeping; he’s so intent on trying to befriend neighbors in the family’s new apartment building that he alienates every resident. His love for the girls is never in doubt, but even after some seeming steps toward responsibility, he’s the kind of dad no child-welfare officer would tolerate.

Although fictional, the script is based on the childhood of writer/director Maya Forbes, whose father had once described his own illness as “infinitely polar bear.”

The trailer’s below:

Ruffalo’s Portrayal of Bipolar Disorder

Stephanie Zacharek, Village Voice: “…(H)e doesn’t reduce his character to a series of behavioral tics: He’s always a person first — with all the complexity and contradictions that implies — and not just a passive victim of his illness, a blank slate for it to scribble on. We ride his highs and lows with him just by looking into his eyes: We know where he’s at every minute by reading their glittering recklessness or their chamomile calm.”

Ella Taylor, NPR: “At its best, Infinitely Polar Bear is about a nice, unbalanced man trying and often failing to do right by his kids, and vice versa. And Ruffalo is the least histrionic of actors even when Cam is, as the social workers put it, ‘disinhibited,’ when he never shuts up and pulls stunts that bemuse or alienate every adult in his orbit. He’s a big kid himself — impulsive, charming, self-involved and mostly ill-attuned to the social signals of others.”

The Daughters

Justin Chang, Variety: “…[Their] natural smarts and strong, argumentative personalities suggest they’ve inherited their dad’s genes in more stable form…”

John DeFore, Hollywood Reporter: “…(T)he home Cam creates is, as his daughters angrily attest, a ‘shithole’ they are ashamed of. The girls see how his pushy gregariousness is making others avoid the family; they beg their mother to return.”

Selected Reviews

Ben Sachs, Chicago Reader: “…delivers an effectively heart-tugging family story without sentimentalizing mental illness.”

Manohla Dargis, New York Times: “…Forbes hasn’t made a movie about her father’s illness; she’s made one about her father, who, through hard and weird times, clearly helped give her what she needed so that one day she could tell this story.”

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: “The movie is a small miracle, lifted by Ruffalo and these two remarkable young actresses. Refusing to soften the edges when Cam is off his meds, Ruffalo is a powerhouse. He and Forbes craft an indelibly intimate portrait of what makes a family when the roles of parent and child are reversed.”

Apr 29

“Whatever…Love Is Love”: Maria Bello’s Label and New Book

One of the biggest questions she was asking herself at the time was how to tell her son, then 12 years old, that she had fallen in love with a woman. Jack’s response—simple and wise beyond his years—was “Whatever, Mom . . . love is love.” Realizing that Jack didn’t see traditional labels of partnership, Maria began to contemplate the labels she herself had worn during her life. Publisher, Whatever…Love Is Love by Maria Bello

Maybe you’ve already read actress and activist Maria Bello‘s 2013 highly popular essay in the New York Times called “Coming Out As a Modern Family,” in which the nature of her relationship as same-sex and the above response from her 12-year-old son was made public.

Below Bello, in a brief clip, talks about the acceptance of her son and other young folks today:

Maybe you also already know that Bello’s partner, Clare Munn, initiated a “Whatever Campaign” that, according to Annie L. Scholl, Huffington Post, “has been embraced by thousands who don’t fit so easily into labels like ‘gay,’ ‘lesbian,’ or ‘bisexual,’ and for those who exist outside the heterosexual, nuclear-family structure.”

Some of us are comfortable with labels that seem to define and validate us, others are not. If you’re one who chooses certain labels, Bello hopes they’re a help to you, not a hindrance. As for her sexual orientation, she’s definitely a “whatever”—it works for her.

It’s not that she’s afraid to claim a more specific identity, though. She tells R. Kurt OsenlundOut: “…I’m a whatever, but I’m proud to say that I’m gay, bi, lesbian, whatever you want. I’ll take it all.”

Bello’s new Whatever…Love Is Love: Questioning the Labels We Give Ourselves, out this week, recognizes the frequent struggle people have around self-labeling of all kinds. The essays within, reflecting the contents of a large collection of personal journals she’s kept for many years, ask different questions related to her own identity, including, for example, “Am I Resilient”?, “Am I a Good Mom”?, “Am I Enough”?

More from the publisher:

Written as a series of provocative questions and thoughtful answers, this book is filled with deeply personal, often funny, and even passionate stories, stories in which Maria bares her soul and shares what she’s learned—not only about romantic love, but also about her relationship with her parents, her feelings about spirituality, her sexual identity, the highs and lows of her career, her humanitarian work, and her worth as a mother. Using her experiences as a gateway to a larger conversation, Maria encourages you to think about the life you lead, who you love, what you do, what you believe in, and what you call yourself…and helps you to realize that the only labels that matter are the ones we place on and accept for ourselves, even if they don’t fit the mold of ‘typical.’

By the way, other topics covered by Bello, says Scholl, include having an alcoholic father, being diagnosed with bipolar disorder in her 20’s, and having a history of battling suicidal feelings.

Selected Book Reviews

Annie L. Scholl, Huffington Post: “Love is Love is not a memoir about an actress. It is a frank, raw, and honest book about the way every woman questions the roles she plays in love, work, and life, filled with wisdom, questions, and insights relevant to us all.”

Pat Mitchell, editorial director and host of TEDWomen, advisor to the Paley Center for Media, and chair of the Sundance Institute: ”With clarity and exquisite honesty Maria Bello manages to be both vulnerable and self-deprecating. Whatever…Love Is Love is a must-read for anyone tired of old habits and labels, and is looking to grow in a way that works for themselves and the people in their lives. I feel sure this conversation has only just begun.”

Yasmeen Hassan, global executive director of Equality Now: ”An important, timely, and brave exploration of self that questions the human tendency to label and stereotype, and shows how existing labels may fail to capture the current human experience.”

Apr 23

“Black Box”: A New TV Show Featuring Bipolar Disorder

If you watch anything at all on ABC (with commercials), you already know that coming this week—tomorrow, April 24th, at 10 P.M., to be exact—is a new series called Black Box. It stars Kelly Reilly as famous neuroscientist Catherine Black.

Just what is this “black box” of the title? According to ABC, it’s what doctors call the brain because of the “ultimate mystery” it presents. Moreover, Dr. Black is known as “the Marco Polo of the Brain.”

If nothing else catches your fancy about the series description, how about Vanessa Redgrave as Dr. Helen Hartramph? Sounds like one of Black’s esteemed colleagues at the New York City facility where she practices, “The Cube”?

No. Actually, Hartramph is her shrink. Dr. Catherine Black has bipolar disorder.

And, Dr. Hartramph is the only one who knows of Black’s condition.

If we buy ABC’s description, psychiatrist Hartramph is “intuitive, deeply insightful, and strong, an imposing mentor and mother figure. She’s a touchstone that Catherine returns to weekly for advice, medication and comfort.”

Because mania is a state Catherine’s not satisfied to obliterate indefinitely, she recurrently finds her way back to it—she’s addicted to the highs. Her periods of mania involve musical hallucinations as well as hypersexuality.

She juggles romance and/or sex with a couple different men (roles played by Ditch Davey and David Ajala). Regarding other kinds of relationships—ones more steady—there’s her boss Dr. Owen Morely (Terry Kinney) and her older brother Joshua (David Chisum).

Their mother, by the way, also had bipolar disorder—and committed suicide.

In addition to no one knowing about her mental condition, another secret of Catherine’s is that her adoring adult “niece” is actually her out of wedlock daughter who’s been raised by her brother and his wife.

Here’s the trailer:

Terri Schwartz, Zap2it, reports that the show’s creator, Amy Holden Jones, had a father with bipolar disorder and regularly witnessed him going off his Lithium. Another source of material was An Unquiet Mind, the memoir by psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, who also has lived with bipolar disorder.

Dorothy Rabinowitz, Wall Street Journal, gives Black Box enough of a nod. “It’s sturdy melodrama bolstered by plenty of hospital-series hysteria—impossible surgeries that succeed, unheard-of brain disorders diagnosed and resolved. Not to mention conditions like Lesbian Bed Death, the dramatic term that now refers to longtime lesbian partners who have lost all sexual interest in one another.”

An important element of the series is its message that medication for bipolar conditions is needed and helpful. Although Catherine goes off her meds in the first episode, her shrink is there to remind her that this isn’t the route to go.

Rabinowitz describes Dr. Hartramph as “a potent presence, a mix of warmth and steely authority reminiscent of old Hollywood’s idea of a psychiatrist.”

What about Catherine? Is she a realistic character? “Ms. Reilly, who is otherwise appealing, brings an all-too-steady intensity to the role of Catherine—a kind that makes it hard to tell, on occasion, whether the doctor is on her medication or off it. That aside, and despite some madly improbable adventures in the hospital’s brain-surgery unit, creator Amy Holden Jones and team have delivered a ‘Black Box’ whose content is both smart and seductive.”