Apologies, but since it has been on my mind, and since I think dealing with mental illness is one of the things Christians should think about, I am devoting yet another post to it. Please bear with me and use me gently – it is a matter close to my heart, and head.
I was provoked to thought by Silver Linings Playbook, a film that is currently up for some Academy Awards, and that features characters, some diagnosed and some not, suffering from a variety of mental illnesses. I was impressed, which is saying something, because it takes something special for a romantic comedy to impress me; usually my preferred literary topics – suffering, death, theology and wisdom – are not prominently featured in this genre, at least in its modern incarnation.
In any case, following the film, I was curious regarding public response. The debate I discovered can generally be broken down into two positions. Richard Brody of the New Yorker, for instance, criticizes the film on the grounds that the film depicts a bipolar person going off his meds, willing himself to get better, and working his way up to a happy ending – all of which, by the way, are not very realistic ways of dealing with mental illness. Others note that the OCD character goes untreated, and the full effects of his illness as well as those of others are gilded over for the feel-good purposes of romantic comedy. In a quote particularly apt for the broader subject of this blog, Brody charges that “without a word about religion in the script, “Silver Linings Playbook” advocates a faith-based view of mental illness and, overall, of emotional redemption.” Presumably by this faith-based view (a description he intends as critique and not praise), Brody means the very superficial way of dealing with mental illness (just get over it) that one is bound to encounter when one (like me) suffers from mental illness in and around Christian communities.
The film, of course, has its defenders. One of the more balanced reviews is Gwynne Watkins’s interview of Dr. Steven Schlozman, who is a better reader of the complexity of the film than, say, the tersely expressed concerns of Dr. Michael Blumenfield. Interestingly enough, one of the recurring themes in both the attacks and defences is the question of whether in fact Pat is taking his meds, and what message the film is conveying concerning mental illness.
Before going into my own analysis, though, I would like to clarify the dual battle that I fight. Many Christians I know, whether deliberately or subconsciously, approach medication and medical treatment with excessive suspicion, and to these people I find myself being an adamant defender of these things. Even those who hypothetically allow medication for hypothetical people who are hypothetically too ill to do otherwise need to realize that it may not just be hypothetical people who need medication – it may indeed be someone very close to them or in fact themselves.
But then there are the people who want medication to fix everything. Some Christians, pushing back against the suspicion of medication, go too far the other way and act as if depressed people can simply go to the doctor, get medication that fixes them, and then go back to normal. Unfortunately, in fact, a lot of the rhetoric that encourages mental health awareness comes across in a similar way – as soon as you start “officially dealing with it” things will become so much better. The reality is far more complex. I have seen medication work near miracles in people. I have also seen people migrate from medication to medication, partially helped but never wholly. And, yes, I have seen cases where medication has negatively affected people instead of helping them, and cases where those who represent the “official” public line on mental health have failed and done damage.
My policy, then, has come to be that “just” is a four letter word. If someone tells you that you “just’ need to pray more, or “just” need to talk to a doctor, or “just” need to go on medication, or “just” need to be a better Christian, or “just” need to open up and talk to someone, run in the other direction.
And it seems to me that this is the problem critics are having with Silver Linings Playbook. Some think it says, “Just will yourself to be well.” Others think it says, “Just fall in love and you will get better.” Still others defend it on the grounds that it is not saying these things, but is in fact appropriately saying “Just take your meds.” And this annoys me. Normal people get complicated movies with complicated characters and complicated plots. But mentally ill people aren’t allowed this. No, the films we get concerning our people must be critically reduced to their message and approved by the board of censors before they can be praised.
Let me put it this way. The assumption is that this film should be perfectly mimetic of real people with real mental illness. But not all regular movies profess to be perfectly mimetic. I have not encountered a hobbit recently. And, in fact, most romantic comedies end with the “happily ever after theme,” which taken properly is not mimetic, but is a gesture or allusion to something we wish for, but only ever catch glimpses of this side of heaven – only moderns could be so crass as to take this fairy tale ending literally and then critique it for not fitting the genre of realism, which it was never intended to do. All this to say that what critics are really critiquing is the genre (it has an unrealistic happy ending), but somehow it is considered more of a problem if the film is about mental illness. One of the concerns, of course, is that allowing people with mental illness to indulge in fantastic or imaginative stories might be harmful because they sometimes can’t tell the difference between reality and fantasy – it is the same impulse that tries to save the poor innocent minds of children by not reading them fairy tales. To be sure, I do think we should be sensitive to what might or might not be helpful for or trigger those we know with mental illness, or ourselves. But I sometimes worry that people stop treating us as human altogether; it is easier to treat the person as the illness, infantilize him or her, and then place him or her in a sanitized environment where people do not get real stories but rather appropriate and pre-approved messages.
To come if circuitously to my point, I would suggest that the reason I liked Silver Linings Playbook is that it was ambiguous and was not simply propaganda. Though I do not have bipolar (and I would want to talk to a few people who have it before trying to gauge how “accurate” the depiction is), I can certainly sympathize with Pat’s heroic but completely unrealistic attempt to “fix” himself so as to be acceptable to those he cares most about. One has visions and dreams of a self that is completely healthy, and vows to become that self, whereas the more realistic route recognizes that life may be more about management of illness and reinterpreting our relationships and meaning in terms of the selves that we cannot help being. I also liked that Pat’s episodes were not clearly marked, since figuring out what is oneself and what is one’s illness is part of the struggle. I liked the offhand reference to the difficulty of what it means to think of being a parent when one can barely take care of oneself. I liked the dinner table conversation when Pat and Tiffany, who have no interest in “ordinary” topics, suddenly light up when they exchange medication stories inappropriately at the dinner table. I like that the film recognizes, in the relationship with Pat and his friend, that suffering from a mental illness makes people much more willing to open up to you about their own problems, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can solve them. And I like the laughter and the happy ending that is not (as some accuse it of being) contrived by the sheer willpower of Pat, but rather happens counter to his initially doomed-from-the-start plans to re-enchant his wife, who has clearly left him.
That last statement about liking happy endings is not something you will hear me say often. But I do like this one because it is precisely what a lot of people do not want to hear about mental illness. They want it to be fixed, made better, off the screen. They don’t want to be told that, for some, the only meaning they can find might be moments of laughter and joy intermixed with their illness. They don’t want to imagine the life of a person who is mentally ill and simultaneously has meaning and hope in his/her life. For such people, a meaningful life and mental illness are mutually exclusive.
You see, I think at the end of the day what bothers people most about the film is that it is, like life and mental illness, too ambiguous. We can’t always tell when the crazy person is talking and when the “real” person is talking. And for some of us, laughter in the midst of situations that others might consider hell is the only laughter we will get. So no, the film does not convey a clear and properly sanitized message or image of mental illness – but then again, neither do we who actually suffer from it.