May 27

“Douglas” by Hannah Gadsby: Funny Trauma?

Douglas, a new Netflix special, actually exceeds the expectations Hannah Gadsby immediately introduces to her live audience.

Recently I’ve second-viewed Gadsby’s previous Nanette, a different breed from Douglas in that it’s funny for sure, but it’s also downright serious. (See my previous post.) In Douglas Gadsby notes right off the bat that she now realizes she foolishly used up all her real-life trauma in that one show: Had I known just how wildly popular trauma was going to be in the context of comedy, I might have budgeted my shit a bit better.

So, what happens in Douglas? Kathryn VanArendonk, Vulture: “It’s crafted from recognizable building blocks and a list of topics that coalesce into something like a Gadsby signature: art history, misogyny, the patriarchy, self-knowledge and self-blindness, wordplay, her childhood, and an effective dot-dot-dash rhythm of long, winding anecdotes punctuated by short sequences of clean, tight punch lines.”

What’s a population that doesn’t fare so well? Anti-vaxxers, be warned.

One, on the other hand, likely to be delighted? Those who identify on the autism spectrum. Gadsby was diagnosed relatively recently, in 2016.

Although Douglas is the name of her dog, by the way, Gadsby points out (at length) that it’s also the name of an interesting anatomical part. Ali Goldstein, Indiewire: “The special takes its title from a hilarious story about Gadsby unloading a host of information about the female reproductive anatomy on an unsuspecting — but not undeserving — overly friendly man at the dog park. She pivots from gently ribbing herself for failing to properly read this social interaction to proudly claiming her way of seeing the world as the beautiful and unique gift that it is.”

As Hannah Gadsby tells Terry Gross, NPR, she’s always known she doesn’t “process [things] in the same way as a neurotypical person”: “My entire life I’ve made people laugh, and I’ve not always meant to. Often I don’t. Yesterday, I was walking my dogs and a couple stopped me from a safe distance and asked me, ‘Oh! What kind of dogs are they?’ And I said, ‘They’re Lagottos.’ And they said, ‘Oh, I’ve never heard of that.’ And I said, ‘Neither have they.’ And it was the truth, and I wasn’t trying to be funny.”

Writing in Psychology Today Erin Bulluss, PhD, and Abby Sesterka express their high regard for Gadsby’s openness in relating “both the challenges and strengths that come with being autistic”:

She describes the difficulties of her pre-diagnosis experience of cognitive dissonance and lacking an understanding of herself. In the way that women across the world found validation in Nanette, we embraced Douglas because it offered an authentic narrative about the autistic experience like nothing we had seen before. It was empowering, validating, affirming. Finally, there was someone in the global spotlight talking from lived experience about being an autistic woman…

To see an autistic woman on the world stage, speaking honestly and openly about the autistic experience, is unprecedented. Gadsby is the authentic, articulate autistic voice that we have yearned for, and that the world needs to hear. We hope that autistic women can draw strength from Gadsby’s courage; to raise our collective voice from a whisper to a roar.

Nov 20

“That’s Mental”: Bipolar II in Humorous Essays

That’s Mental: Painfully Funny Things That Drive Me Crazy About Being Mentally Ill  by Amanda Rosenberg, is a series of brief essays divided into BC (Before Crazy) and AD (After Diagnosis). It’s been called “candidly mental but with jokes” (The Nerd Daily).

A less concise intro to the book (PureWow):

After a mental breakdown, suicide attempt, stay in a psych ward and misdiagnosis of borderline personality disorder, Rosenberg received a later-in-life (but correct) diagnosis of bipolar II, which the National Institute of Mental Health broadly defines as ‘a pattern of depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes, but not the full-blown manic episodes.’ Rosenberg describes her depressive episodes as feeling like her head is ‘clogged up with a toxic sludge,’ while manic episodes mean she’s ‘impulsive and obsessive,’ and finds it difficult to articulate how she’s feeling. ‘Everything [is] CAPS LOCK.’
How was she not diagnosed earlier? Largely because, as a part British, part Chinese woman, she didn’t fit the archetypal ‘mentally ill’ person (either a brooding, misunderstood straight white man or an off-the-handle straight white woman). The thing is, she reminds the reader, mental illness doesn’t discriminate. ‘It’s not just straight, white, ethereal-looking people who get depression. Asian people are depressed. Black people are depressed. Queer people are depressed. Trans people are depressed. People with disabilities are depressed.’

In a pertinent excerpt about mentally ill characters on TV (Salon) Rosenberg further notes: “I have nothing against white people playing characters struggling with their mental health. But when you’re a non-white kid and the only people you see on-screen are white, it seems like they’re the only ones who experience mental illness. Not just that—they’re the only ones allowed to have a mental disorder.”

Mental health stigma, grief and loss, trauma, unhelpful advice offered by others, and the difficulty of taking mental health days are just some of the topics covered in Rosenberg’s book. Also, of course: medication and therapy.

Among the favorable reviewers is comedian Sara Benincasa, author of Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom (see my previous post): “Amanda Rosenberg writes in a very funny, wonderfully accessible way about her experience with bipolar II. She uses her experience as a jumping off point for advice that feels like it comes from a candid friend. Then, just when she’s got you comfortable, she punches you in the gut with a small snapshot of agonizing grief or a particularly evocative, elegant turn of phrase. Truly, this is my absolute favorite way for a writer to approach a tough subject, and she does it gloriously. May this book serve to make you laugh and to increase your compassion for all who live with mental illness. Perhaps you’ll even be kinder to yourself.”

Oct 30

“Joker”: Views of Several Forensic Psychiatrists

Joaquin Phoenix‘s Joker, or Arthur Fleck, is depicted as a man mentally ill, though not specifically diagnosed, who becomes quite violent. Moreover, according to Callie Ahlgrim, Insider, “he names his mental illness as a specific motivation for violence at the end of his climactic monologue, which sounds like the movie’s thesis statement.”

However, as presented in a previous post, “Gun Violence and Mental Illness: The True Relationship,” psychiatrist Gordon Livingston concluded that “(t)he only real predictor of future violence in anyone turns out to be a past history of violent behavior.” Most people with mental illness are not violent.

Similarly, Gabrielle Bruney, Esquire, states, “There are two characters in the film [Joker] who undergo treatment for mental illness, and each inflicts serious harm to others. Meanwhile, in real life, the mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it.”

In lieu of having to watch the violence of Joker myself, below are excerpted quotes from several psychiatric professionals who’ve weighed in with explanations about Arthur as well as some of the film’s misleading messages:

I. Forensic psychiatrist Ziv Ezra Cohen, New York Daily News:

Research shows that people who commit mass shootings in the vast majority of cases do not have a clear mental illness that would explain their behavior. In addition, just 1% of gun violence is attributable to mental illness.

He does not show symptoms of delusions or a thought disorder that one would see in an illness like schizophrenia. He does not show the impulsiveness that one sees in many personality disorders and in bipolar disorder. He is cold, calculating, ruthless. A term we use in psychiatry to describe such people is psychopath.

However, even if we label him a psychopath, we still are not explaining why this particular psychopath behaves in this particular way, as opposed to, say, becoming a white-collar criminal. In addition, many persons who do much good for society have “psychopathic traits,” such as some surgeons, bomb sappers and intelligence officers. Why do they become “good psychopaths” as opposed to “evil ones”?

II. Forensic psychiatrists Vasilis K. Pozios. Philip Saragoza, and Praveen Kambam, in Hollywood Reporter:

...(T)he sympathy engendered through Arthur’s struggles with mental illness becomes conflated with a more problematic understanding of the violence he exacts against those who have wronged him. Fleck’s turn to violence is meant to elicit disdain for the character as his underlying psychopathic traits become more prominent; however, Joker achieves rock-star status because of his violence…Paradoxically, Phoenix’s Joker seems more organized in thought and appearance the more distant from treatment and the more violent he becomes.

Arthur Fleck’s character arc echoes an unfortunately familiar scenario: a lonely, traumatized individual with emotional problems (insecurity, anger, shame, hopelessness) and limited intrinsic or external resources experiences a series of losses, disappointments and insults. All of this leads to his cultivation of a grievance culminating in exacting retribution towards those he holds responsible for his plight — a process known in the practice and science of targeted violence prevention as the “pathway to violence.”

Although people with untreated mental illness have some increased risk of violence against others relative to the general population, this typically occurs in very specific situations such as when an individual experiences persecutory delusions and acts in perceived self-defense. This risk is still low compared to that attributable to other more common violence risk factors like substance use and being a member of the male sex.

Oct 17

Sexual Assault Disclosures: Belief and Disbelief

The Trump campaign is in full denial mode about sexual assault disclosures and continues to slam these brave women repeatedly. Why now? Trump supporters ask. Unsubstantiated claims, they say. “Look at her, I don’t think so,” says Trump, referring to one of his multiple accusers, seemingly implying the possibility he would abuse a woman he does find attractive?

Remember the Trump pre-debate stunt that involved the premise that sexual assault victims should be believed? Well, now we see post-debate accused Trump: Voters, do not believe these false claims of sexual assault.

“The act of being touched did not traumatize me, unpleasant as it was,” recently wrote Meredith Melnick, Executive Health and Science Editor of The Huffington Post, about a long-ago incident that went unbelieved. “But the way our shared community organized around the guy who did it is a legacy I live with. And it took me 20 years ― until this election cycle, reading through thousands of women recounting their sexual assaults on Twitter ― to realize it.”

Indeed, not being believed regarding sexual assault disclosures leads to one of the longest lasting scars of all who are victimized. Because of the nature of trauma itself as well as the frequent lack of support, it often takes many years to catch up to what happened, to figure out what it’s done to one’s life, and to realize how it affects one’s self-esteem. Individuals often bear their pain in silence or near silence, and often south of fully conscious awareness, precisely because doing so without acknowledgment and validation from others has been too hard.

Yet, as Melnick boldly asserts regarding the general life experience of women, “We’ve all been groped or worse. Yes, all.”

So much is going on in the ongoing public debate that it’s more important than ever to know there is help out there. Ana Marie Cox, a TV journalist who in the midst of live Trump-related reportage last week (MSNBC) was triggered regarding her own past victimization, has tweeted out resources, including the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800-656-HOPE); she also just started #myselfcare to provide an outlet for individuals seeking relief from the onslaught of disturbing news.

Cox wisely added, “Self-care looks different for everyone but IMHO, self-care for survivors today should probably include VOTING.”

Oct 12

“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”: Plus, “Someday This Pain…”

Two new movies, The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, have both been adapted from novels about adolescent males whose life experiences lead them to therapy.

I. The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the only one of the two that I’ve seen, is adapted from the 1999 novel by Stephen Chbosky, who also wrote the screenplay.

It’s the early 1990’s in Pittsburgh. Logan Lerman plays “wallflower” and high-school freshman Charlie, who’s just been in “the hospital.” As described by Richard Corliss in Time, Charlie is “a tender soul scraped raw by the sudden deaths of his best friend Michael — ‘Oh, he shot himself last May; kind of wish he’d left a note’ — and, in a car crash, his beloved Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey, seen in flashbacks).”

The first to finally welcome Charlie into a clique, a group of seniors one of them calls “the Island of Misfit Toys,” is Patrick (Ezra Miller), a gay youth who, as Corliss states, “is also deep in trauma time” related to his secret relationship with a football player.

A couple girls in the group provide love-trianglish dynamics. Patrick’s half-sister Sam (Emma Watson) catches Charlie’s fancy; she, however, is drawn romantically to someone else. Meanwhile, Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman) manages to pull Charlie into his first dating relationship—one that’s not really right for him. And he’s poorly equipped to handle that.

About the overall mood of the film, David Edelstein, New York Magazine, asks: “Has there ever been a time when you were among friends and felt as if you truly belonged, yet were aware at the same instant that the joy was fleeting and you’d soon be alone—and that the pain of loss would be almost as intense as the bliss?” Similarly, about Charlie finding his social group: “It’s magic—but every emotion, happy and sad, is so heavy.”

The trailer for The Perks of Being a Wallflower:

A highly significant turning point occurs when Charlie gets ostracized for kissing Sam and breaking up with Mary Elizabeth.

No spoilers here—there’s a worthy and realistic twist.

Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times: “The movie confirms one of my convictions: If you are too popular in high school, you may become so fond of the feeling that you never find out who you really are.”

Being not so popular, in other words, is more likely to lead you to an examined life.

II. Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You

Unlike WallflowerSomeday This Pain Will Be Useful To You, another film adapted from a celebrated novel (by Peter Cameron), has been widely panned.

In this film the young male protagonist is gay. According to IMDB, viewers see “…an intimate inside view of James as he works through his life at the therapy sessions which his parents insist he goes to. We learn about James’s past and present through the stories he tells and his recounting of previous therapy sessions.”

In the following trailer, you’ll see James (Toby Regbo) with the “life coach” (who’s actually a shrink) played by Lucy Liu.

Joe Neumaier, New York Daily News: “His pain may be useful to James someday, but to viewers, it’s annoying right here and now.”