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.”

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.

Dec 18

Hating Christmas? A Variety of Coping Tips for Your Holiday Pleasure

The following video makes it seem as though hating Christmas is at least as common as those pine needles now collecting on your (or someone else’s) floor:

Is the suicide rate actually higher at the holidays? In a word, no. It’s a total myth. Suicide actually peaks in the spring. Thanks, TV and movies, for yet another instance of perpetrating ill-founded lore.

States psychiatrist Neel BurtonPsychology Today, “…(A)round Christmas time most people with suicidal thoughts are offered some degree of protection by the proximity of their relatives and, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, the prospect of ‘things getting better from here’.”

That being said, Christmas may be associated with some distinctive factors contributing to suicide. Have you seen this recent news item, for instance? Per New York Daily News:

An aggravated man leapt from an upper-level mall balcony to his death because his girlfriend refused to stop shopping, witnesses said. Tao Hsiao, 38, was at the Golden Eagle International Shopping Center in Xuzhou, China, for five hours on Dec. 7 when his lady insisted that they check out another shoe store, reported Chinese news site Hexun.com.

This seems extreme, of course—and likely there was more to the story.

With or without suicidal thoughts or actions, though, some people may indeed be more prone to depressive episodes around the holidays. Therapist Darlene Lancer, Psych Central, notes some of the possible reasons:

  • Financial insecurity.
  • Stress related to shopping and other holiday preparation.
  • Loneliness.
  • Grief.
  • Estrangement from loved ones.
  • Divorce.
  • Feeling pressure to please everyone.
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

For those who want to participate in Christmas activities but may not be feeling up to it, Lancer offers the following tips, listed here verbatim.

  • Make plans in advance, so you know how and with whom your holidays will be spent. Uncertainty and putting off decision-making add enormous stress.
  • Shop early and allow time to wrap and mail packages to avoid the shopping crunch.
  • Ask for help from your family and children. Women tend to think they have to do everything, when a team effort can be more fun.
  • Shame prevents people from being open about gift-giving when they can’t afford it. Instead of struggling to buy a gift, let your loved ones know how much you care and would like to, but can’t afford it. That intimate moment will relieve your stress and nourish you both.
  • Don’t allow perfectionism to wear you down. Remember it’s being together and goodwill that matters.
  • Make time to rest and rejuvenate even amidst the pressure of getting things done. This will give you more energy.
  • Research has shown that warmth improves mood. If you’re sad or lonely, treat yourself to a warm bath or cup of hot tea.
  • Spend time alone to reflect and grieve, if necessary. Pushing down feelings leads to depression. Let yourself feel. Then do something nice for yourself and socialize.
  • Don’t isolate. Reach out to others who also may be lonely. If you don’t have someone to be with, volunteer to help those in need. It can be very uplifting and gratifying.

For those of you hating Christmas for other reasons, knowing you have the right not to participate, or to at least lessen your participation, is the first step. Acting on this is another matter. If you have participated in the past, there will be those around you who don’t understand, who resist and coax. But it’s your life, so your call. If you really do want out, perhaps it’s finally time to un-celebrate in the true Christmas-therapeutic spirit of good will and kindness—toward yourself.

Nov 27

“Running from Crazy”: Documentary About the Hemingway Family

I wanted to share my story as a way for others to realize no matter what and where you come from everyone has a story and some relationship to mental instability. I am a Hemingway and have struggled with depression and craziness in my family but I believe that we all share similar stories. I want others to feel supported and the stigma of mental illness to be obliterated. Mariel Hemingway, about Running From Crazy

Actress/model Mariel Hemingway addresses the Hemingway legacy in the Barbara Kopple-directed film Running from Crazy. This is a legacy that includes depression and other mental problems, substance abuse, and at least seven suicides in her immediate family, including that of famous grandfather Ernest as well as sister Margaux, the model and actress.

Mariel, the youngest sibling in her family, is now 51. Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle: “The title, ‘Running From Crazy,’ refers to what she feels she has been doing all her life – running from the family weaknesses, trying to be healthy and trying to help people suffering from suicidal depression.”

Margaux, who killed herself at age 41, was the next oldest sibling; Mariel shared the same career interests as her. Joan, or “Muffet,” the eldest, rounds out the trio of sisters. She’s a painter who suffers from mental illness.

The trailer sets it up:

Sebastian Doggart, The Guardian, says the moviereveals a string of tragic secrets, including a claim by Mariel that their father, Jack (Ernest’s son, who died after heart surgery in 2000), sexually abused her sisters. Their mother’s unhappiness with her marriage to Jack, heavy drinking at daily ‘wine time’ and long battle with cancer are also cited as reasons for the children’s problems. Margaux’s own alcohol and drug addiction, acquired during her time partying in Studio 54, contributed to her depression, while Muffet’s use of LSD is blamed for her psychoses.”

The sister whose story gets the most air time is Margaux, according to several reviewers. Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter: “…(S)he was a ‘really wild child’ who lived very high for a while without regard to the future and then tragically found she had none. Mariel, by contrast, is careful, thoughtful and vividly aware of her place in the world.”

Daphne HowlandVillage Voice, expresses disappointment, though, in the lack of depth portrayed given that Kopple had access to 54 hours of relevant footage that had been shot by Margaux.

On the outcome for Mariel related to the various family dynamics, Ian Thomson, The Telegraph, states: “A survivor, Mariel was determined to escape the ‘curse of the Hemingways’ by trying out every far-out health fad from parapsychology to integral massage to the yogas of increased awareness. These were far from exercises in pure and applied pointlessness.”

Indeed, Mariel tells Brendan McLean, NAMI, that she’s learned about “the delicate balance of body and brain function…how we eat, what we think, whether we take silence and drink pure clean water, how we exercise and focus our life has the power to transform it.” The WillingWay: Step Into the Life You Were Meant to Live is a recent book by Mariel and her partner Bobby Williams that prescribes this kind of life plan. She calls The WillingWay her “saving grace.”

More about how Mariel presents in the film per Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out: “…(S)he’s always open—crying, yoga-cizing, meditating. A certain Hollywood self-absorption is on display here, but the family’s depressing story merits Mariel’s vigilant defensiveness.”

Will you be able to find this film? Look for it at selected theaters and festivals.

MORE REVIEWS

Nicolas Rapold, New York Times: “…(T)his heart-wrenching and deceptively conventional documentary manages the tensions in its subject and in the vérité approach in a fruitful, illuminating and surprisingly moving way.”

Andrew Schenker, Slant: “…Running from Crazy offers little more than surface-level tear-wringing.”

Moira Macdonald, The Seattle Times: “You end up with nothing but admiration for Mariel, who speaks at a suicide-awareness walk and in support groups, sharing her pain in the hope of shining light. ‘People can heal themselves by feeling genuine love for each other,’ says Mariel’s daughter, arms around her mother. It may not be the entire answer, but it’s a start.”

Nov 15

Preventing College Suicides: Several Important Resources

The second leading cause of death among college students is suicide, say the reports. Clearly, then, preventing college suicides should be a huge priority.

Add to this alarming statistic the fact that many college students who consider suicide don’t ever tell anyone about it. These young folks, out in the real world trying to get an education, are in emotional pain and not necessarily showing it. Amid throngs of thriving student groups and activities, these kids feel all alone. They’re people in need of help, and they’re often not getting it.

Here are a few resources related to preventing college suicides:

I. The Truth About Suicide: Real Stories of Depression in College

Distributed by The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), this film addresses the effects of living with depression at college while also emphasizing that depression is a treatable illness.

The clip below features the responses of siblings, friends, and others:

Check out the AFSP website for further info on prevention and for answers to Frequently Asked Questions, such as how to be there for someone in need. In addition, consider raising awareness and funds by participating in a Campus Walk or Community Walk sponsored by AFSP.

II. Long Way Home: Real Stories of College Suicide and Those Left Behind

According to the YouTube info, this eight-minute video was “produced by Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas and shot and edited by Richard Wilson of Outreach Arts, Inc. Project supported by Garrett Lee Smith Campus Suicide Prevention Grant, Regis University, the Carson J. Spencer Foundation, The BACCHUS Network, and SAMHSA.”

More than once in this film we hear of certain troubled individuals who helped others but who couldn’t help themselves—a not uncommon phenomenon.

 III. The Trevor Project

As we know that the LGBTQ youth population is particularly vulnerable to suicidal ideation and attempts, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention The Trevor Project.

This year they launched a program called LGBTQ on Campus, which is aimed at creating a safer environment for LGBTQ college students by offering specifically targeted trainings.

Check out the Trevor Project’s brand new PSA, “Ask for Help,” applicable not just to college kids but to all LGBTQ youth:

IV. Are You a College Student In Need of Some Help Right Now?

1-800-273-TALK (8255) National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Trevor Lifeline (LGBTQ) – (866-488-7386)