New Year, New Festival

A new year is really just a term of art. And every year, it’s the same pattern at the library: all the books that come in on hold for folks are the books on how to quit smoking and drinking, how to lose weight, how to save money, how to organize your closet. Not to mention, we’re headed into another year of whatever the world’s been going through, which is wearing everybody down. But I think everyone still likes the idea of a fresh start, even if it’s an imagined one. I think we all need one. 

It’s good to think of self-improvement, but I think there will still be days for most people, not just those with mental illness, where you just need to muddle through, and days where we slip back to our vices or are tempted to do so. That’s why I’m not a huge believer in New Year’s resolutions. I feel like sometimes the pressure makes me feel more self-critical and makes my self-esteem even lower. I don’t know, this may seem similar in a way, but I like to have some goals and visions for the year ahead, especially now, to look forward to. 

And one of those goals is for Mental Filmness, which I’d like to grow more every year. I think there is an audience for it, and I’d like to see it get even bigger. I have a few ideas in mind for this, so I’ll see if we can make it happen. I hope we can have a modest in-person evening event in Chicago, but I’ve been saying that for the last couple of years at this point and I’m not banking on it. But working within the framework of possibilities, I’d really like to get more eyes on the films and more people talking about mental health. 

As I’ve said before, I feel like Mental Filmness helps me with my own mental health in the way that I would hope it helps others. It helps me to hear other stories and realize I am not alone, that many people have shared my struggles and overcome even more adversity than me. Other people have told me it is cathartic to tell their story. They feel as if it transforms what could be viewed as a shameful secret or stigmatized condition into a way to connect with others and help them realize mental illness is an obstacle that they have the strength to overcome. 

On this #MentalHealthMonday I am incredibly grateful to all the people who helped make Mental Filmness happen from the start. These include volunteers from the Chicago venue Comfort Station, volunteer screeners, partnering committees, and encouraging friends who spread the word; of course, all the filmmakers who submitted and the ones who paid their own way to travel to Chicago that first special in-person year; all those who agreed to do interviews to share their insights, and more. I cannot even believe as I put the call for entries together that this is “Year Four” of this event that means so much to me and hopefully others. I would like to keep it going as long as possible in some form because I think that mental health struggles, while they may take a different shape, are not going anywhere and there will always be novel stories and treatments and recoveries. Sadly, I think there will always be some people who are lost to mental illness as well but I also think that is why it’s all the more important to emphasize hope and empathy.

The call for entries is open for Mental Filmness 2022–I’m just operating on the presumption now that Earth will still be around in something resembling its current format in 2022. You can find it here on Filmfreeway: Please submit a film you have about mental health, or encourage others you know to submit. There is a small submission fee of $10, which really just offsets any incidental costs we happen to have, (generally streaming and Zoom fees lately, things of that nature), and which also acts as a bit of a filter to narrow down the films to a mental health topic. By all means if the fee is a hardship for you, feel free to e-mail and we should be able to grant a waiver—either way, someone’s thinking about the topic and still wants to enter!

That moment when the films start rolling in has actually become one of my personal favorite parts of the New Year. It’s really exciting to read the synopsis, to see where they’re from, to see what they’re about, and to view them. There are so many gems and such a variety, and I start to get excited envisioning how the festival will take shape for the next year. It has definitely become such a big part of my mental health, feeling like I receive little gifts all year from people who have a similar passion for this topic and their own story to share. Thank you to all those reading this for your interest in Mental Filmness and keeping the spark alive and going!

Creativity & The Bipolar Brain

Years ago now (which I can’t believe) I was honored to be asked to do an exhibit on behalf of the Diversability Committee at the Chicago Public Library (where I work) celebrating awareness of bipolar disorder. One of my colleagues publicized it by making a blog post and a very well-intentioned admin called me before it was published on the site and asked me, “Are you okay with them saying you have bipolar disorder?” I realize it came from a place of concern about privacy and perhaps liability as well. But I told her yes, I had written that, and the point of the art exhibition was to highlight disabilities, including mental disabilities. Again, while I believe it was well-intentioned, it demonstrated to me that there’s still a stigma in society when it comes to revealing invisible disabilities and mental health disorders.…/mythical-creatures-art…/

Flash forward to today. Today I am in a whole exhibit where not only do all the artists have bipolar disorder, but the whole darn thing is a celebration of creativity and the bipolar brain! How far we’ve come. There is still stigma but I believe that we are truly breaking ground if something like this can exist, which would not have been possible years ago.


Mania: The Cause of, and Solution to, All of Life’s Problems

Earlier this year, I made an appearance on the Director’s Club podcast to discuss the work of Todd Haynes, and to chat a bit about Mental Filmness and mental health movies. 

Most people would agree Haynes’s 1998 film Safe is his masterpiece. It tells the story of upper-middle-class housewife Carol White, who begins to suffer from a mysterious, severe environmental illness that causes her headaches, breathing problems, and even nosebleeds when she is exposed to everyday chemicals. 

One interesting thing I learned from podcast creator and host Jim Laczkowski is that Todd Haynes stated he believed the illness was the best thing that ever happened to Carol. It disrupted her mundane, ordinary existence and prompted her to question her life and her surroundings.

It’s occurred to me recently that I share some similarities with Carol’s awakening. Don’t get me wrong: I hate, hate, hate cliche sayings about how adversity defines us, or how what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. I subscribe more to what famous zinester Aaron Cometbus once said: “Death is painless, but everything else hurts like hell.” And I would never in a million years describe my bipolar disorder as the best thing that ever happened to me. In fact, I still generally consider it the worst thing that ever happened to me. But did it change my life? There’s no denying it did.

I think Haynes’s main point is that Carol’s disorder opened her eyes to the world around her and gave her a search for meaning. Bipolar disorder opened my eyes to the world around me. When I was manic, I walked all over my neighborhood saying odd things and behaving strangely in public. When I see people with mental illness wandering the street behaving that way now, I identify with them. They’re just like me, I think, and they could have been me if they had the privileges I have, or I could have been them if I didn’t. I have, among other privileges, a good job with health benefits that affords me coverage for medication and therapy, as well as a good social support system to hold me up if and when I fall.

I don’t know if I would have gone back to school to earn a JD if I didn’t feel the way I do about mental health. My experiences have enlightened me regarding a broken mental health system and the need for advocacy and justice in that field.

I don’t think Mental Filmness would exist, but for my bipolar disorder. Though I’d experienced depression and anxiety before, it took a very extreme, life-altering mental health episode to convince me I wanted to advocate for others and promote films that would provide a mirror to what others were feeling, to help them feel less alone.

I’m faced with a contradiction: the terrifying period of my life that resulted in my diagnosis of bipolar disorder was the worst thing that ever happened to me, but it also shattered a bubble of privilege in which I’d been living for years. It gave me something to fight for—my life, and the lives of others who have to fight to be alive. Most people will tell you having a severe mental illness is hard work. You have to work every day to stay on top of it with all the tools in your toolbox–-diet, exercise, medication, therapy, social support, fulfilling work and hobbies, self-care—and sometimes it still isn’t enough. When you’re doing the work, you become hyper-aware of the world around you, and how everything connects to everything else, in a way you weren’t before, when you were just living your life.

I’m sure most people who have experienced mania felt they had unique insights or revelations they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Even if a lot of them end up being nonsensical, those revelations open a door in your brain that wasn’t there before. They give you, at least momentarily, the feeling of being a special and super-intuitive being. It’s a terrible price to pay for feeling special or unique, and I’d wager most people would tell you the trade-off isn’t worth it when it comes to the depressive crash and a lifetime of maintenance and management. Still, it was a crucial defining experience that became part of my identity. Sometimes I can still feel remnants of that hyper-intuition and what it’s like to play inside the interiors of my mind. The possibilities are endless.

So if people wonder why I’m so hung up identifying as bipolar and this mental health advocacy thing now–it’s kind of the “Safe” effect. Bipolar disorder was the terrible disease that uprooted my life and left me in shambles to recover and reinvent myself. It was also the catalyst that would make me forever curious about my strange brain and the brains of others. Part of that curiosity, and healing process, comes in sharing stories about mental health. That is really what Mental Filmness is, to me.

Julianne Moore as Carol White re-examines her life in “Safe.”

Off The Grid

I love this opening shot of the short Glimmers Of Light of a character who hasn’t left his home in six months after a panic attack. It screened during our first virtual festival in 2020, and I thought it would resonate strongly with viewers during the pandemic, though I think it was a little sadly overlooked. It’s a low-key but effective film—Chicago had a stay-at-home order at one point and I even remember being comforted by having the same meal every day, eggs and bacon and sometimes pancakes, which I often ordered online. I’m not sure it’s fair to say I’ve developed full-blown agoraphobia since that time. However, I definitely have developed much more anxiety about leaving my home, and not even due to fear of illness. I just know the world out there is unpredictable and sometimes painful, and I can’t control it and program it according to routine. I’ve grown so much more comfortable with solitude, some might say too comfortable. 

I decided to take some vacation around my birthday this year, and as usual on my “vacations” now, made a huge to-do list and only chipped away at it. I kind of went off the grid for the most part to try to get things done and work on myself. This wasn’t too much different than my norm recently as I’ve mostly been “off the grid” anyway due to busy-ness and my overprogrammed life and some of that lingering social anxiety. I worked a little more on the festival, but I would have preferred to do more. I kept up with my summer school homework and cleaned and organized a bit, but not as much as I wanted to. I taught myself how to sew – badly. I need to perfect it, but I think I have the basics down. I worked a bit on art and especially learning how to print on products with a new color printer I bought, but realized I needed some more supplies to do it right. 

I think the best parts of my little staycation were when I was actually pulled a bit out of my comfort zone. My 40th birthday was in 2020, so that landmark was spent at home, alone, with cats. However, my best friend Jim sent me a pizza that day, and this year he took me out in person. It was pretty low-key; he asked what I wanted to do, and I decided on something I hadn’t done in a long time that I’d dearly missed, going to an estate sale. We found one in Logan Square that was pretty modest and tame, but that’s where I picked up the color printer, plus a few other little treasures, because I always manage to find some. While we were there we had brunch at Bang Bang! Biscuits & Pie which I had also dearly missed because the location near me closed, and their made-from-scratch biscuits and pie were just as tasty as I remembered, and it was gorgeous weather to eat on their patio. Finally, we walked down the beach to view the “World of Tomorrow” community murals in Rogers Park, which were really colorful and fun. It was a lovely day.

Put a bird on it – estate sale treasures

Then over the weekend I got an unexpected call from a friend, and I could tell she really needed my help. I’ve gotten enough support from people over the years that I feel it’s truly my time to give back whenever I can when someone is feeling down. We ended up going to an art gallery and though I was definitely anxious and hesitant, the people at the gallery were so friendly and fun, the art was so interesting, and there was overall such a positive vibe that I let down my guard, laughed, and even danced a bit. The next day I even responded to a brunch invite from some dear friends I hadn’t seen in too long. It was hard to say no since it was another beautiful day weather-wise, it was right down the street, and I missed them. Nothing bad happened that time either – they treated me just as if no time had passed at all, and it kind of felt like it hadn’t.

In the world of tomorrow, cats will inherit the earth.

Of course, bad things do sometimes happen—that’s the inevitable risk we take for interacting with the world and not living in a cabin in Norway. People are fallible, they all have their idiosyncrasies, and as hard as we try, we’re sometimes going to make mistakes and get hurt. As I said recently on a podcast, “Life is hard and often painful. But what else is there?”

Bipolar Depression & The Fabric of the Universe (Ideas of Reference)

Autumn 2015, around the time of my manic episode, life obviously began changing for me personally. The weird thing is, I felt like it also started changing in the world at large. America actually elected Trump as its president, which no matter where you stand politically was historically unprecedented. And then things got stranger and stranger, with almost daily scandals and the emergence of Q-Anon. And then things got stranger and scarier still with a global pandemic, self-isolation, and the fear of nuclear war.

Yes, the world definitely started to get noticeably worse in 2016, just a couple of months after I crashed into black bipolar depression. And it’s not just me. I remember people widely sharing that meme about David Bowie’s death on January 10th, 2016, something along the lines of “I’m not saying that David Bowie was holding the fabric of the universe together, but just look around you.” That meme was circulating right around the time I was experiencing my own, personal internal unraveling.

Was it possible that my sanity was actually, literally holding the universe together? I doubt that so much rides on the balance of my brain chemistry. To think so would be a delusion of grandeur—highly inflating my own importance or influence on the world.

I’ve been curious for awhile whether that whole “perceived exterior reflection of inner mental state” had a more specific term or title. I feel like other people must have felt that way, too. Like what if your parent or spouse died right before the stock market crash, and then you had to live through the Great Depression? That catastrophe would probably *seem* linked to you, even if you knew it rationally wasn’t. Back when your loved one died, not only were less sad every day, but the world was actually, literally a better place—for everyone, not just for you personally. I guess you could just call it bad timing, a personal tragedy becoming forever linked with a dark time in history in general.

Anyway, thanks to a psychiatrist friend of mine, I found that this is indeed a specific type of delusion, and it’s called an “idea of reference.” Ideas and delusions of reference are described in Wikipedia as the phenomenon of an individual experiencing innocuous events or mere coincidences and believing they have strong personal significance.” It is “the notion that everything one perceives in the world relates to one’s own destiny,” usually in a negative and hostile manner. The world does seem noticeably worse than it was in 2015, but it doesn’t bear any magical relationship to my mental health diagnosis—it just is what it is.

I should note that I experience more of an “idea of reference” rather than a delusion, because though I feel the reference strongly at times, I am able to challenge its reality. When I think of the “before times”–the times before bipolar disorder manifested itself in my life–I wonder whether I was naturally happier with less effort because I was more emotionally balanced generally, or because the world itself was actually better–happier, more carefree, not as scared or isolated. I think it’s a coincidental combination of both, and anything else is an idea of reference. 

Mental Health Treatment – Does It Belong In School?

There’s no question that teenagers, with their emotional and mental lives in flux; and especially teenagers in today’s world, complete with global pandemics, mass shootings, and social media; are particularly vulnerable to mental health issues. They also have more self-awareness of these issues and resources to help than in the past. So it’s no surprise that teenagers are becoming some of the strongest advocates for their own mental health. I LOVE the fact that these teens in rural Killingly, Connecticut, are drawing awareness to the crisis of mental health and fighting for a mental health clinic in their school, a resource that is becoming increasingly common.

The pushback from parents is that mental health treatment doesn’t belong in schools. Therapists, parents fear, may engage in dialogue with their kids about controversial topics like abortion or birth control, which they feel should lie strictly within the domain of the family. Parents also fear the influence of the therapist’s advice on their kids’ impressionistic minds, and the fact that their kids can see the therapist for up to six sessions without parental approval.

Like many arguments, I can actually see this one from both angles. It does seem a little invasive to have a stranger talk to your kids about emotions and sensitive topics. On the other hand, as some of the teen advocates point out, treating mental health like it’s a taboo topic that doesn’t belong in the school is reinforcing stigma and silence. Talking about mental health issues and diagnoses frankly with others helps normalize it and foster connection and healing.

Does mental health treatment belong in a school? The answer is tricky and elusive. One could make the argument that mental health is always present in school anyway. An in-school mental health clinic might work as early intervention to prevent students from suffering in silence and eventually ending up in a worse situation such as a lengthy hospital stay. But where do the boundaries of authority and privacy lie?

Mission Statement Changing – What Is A Mental Illness?

I had an interesting discussion I put out on social media to see if the collective brain had any insight. I’ve now had a couple of directors ask me if we consider autism a mental illness. The answer our original jury came back with is that while it may not be classified as a mental illness per se, it is so entwined with mental health that we would consider the films. However, it’s a really tricky question to answer whether autism is a mental illness, and seems to spark some intense debate in either direction.

A lot of folks point out that autism is generally classified as a neurodevelopmental disorder. That was my initial feeling as well, I guess the idea being that it was something hard-wired and always expressing itself, whereas a mental illness was comprised of symptoms that could be triggered by genetics or brain chemistry or environment or all of the above. But you know what, despite a passion for mental health advocacy, I don’t have formal training in either psychiatry or psychology, so I feel completely unqualified to make a judgment call either way. I am simultaneously terrified of stepping on anyone’s toes regarding a sensitive issue. 

The one constant that everyone could seem to agree with is that autism is a mental *disorder* and can certainly be, and usually is, about mental health. Our original mission statement had “disorder of the mind” as part of it. It seems to me that autism certainly falls under the larger umbrella of “a film festival about mental health.” I don’t like the idea of slapping labels and categories on things, and I honestly don’t know that I would have considered it unless someone had asked me point-blank if we consider autism a mental illness. We have screened films about ADHD, which is also classified as a neurodevelopmental disorder, as well as films where a diagnosis is vague or undefined. We’ve shown films about a specific moment in time where someone is paralyzed with anxiety or depression without even necessarily having a clear diagnosis or any at all. What all of the films had in common is that they were about mental health in some way or another–mental health being broadly defined by the CDC as our “emotional, psychological, and social well-being.”

The mission statement we first came up with was this: 

“Mental Filmness is a Chicago-based film festival highlighting works that portray a realistic depiction of mental illness. The festival is dedicated to breaking the stigma surrounding mental illness by sharing stories and promoting empathy for those who live with these chronic psychiatric conditions. We are especially interested in challenging stereotypes, showing different perspectives on mental illness, and informing and enlightening the general public about mental health.

We define “mental illness” as a broad umbrella that encompasses any psychiatric diagnosis, emotional disorder, addiction, or other disorder of the mind.”

I can see now how this is limiting and exclusive in some ways. Also, I know that there are some people who dislike the label “mental illness.” So I decided to make the title of the festival (which I still like) more of a play on “mental fitness”–some people have already interpreted it that way, and I honestly like that interpretation much better.

I pieced together a new mission statement I hope is a little more open and inclusive:

“Mental Filmness is a Chicago-based film festival showcasing films about mental health. The festival is dedicated to breaking the stigma surrounding mental health by sharing stories and promoting empathy for those who live with a chronic mental health disorder or those who have experienced a mental health issue. 

We are especially interested in challenging stereotypes, showing different perspectives, and informing and enlightening the general public about mental health.

We define “mental health” as a broad umbrella that encompasses any issue related to our emotional, psychological, and social well-being, or our overall mental fitness.”

I think at first I was also a little attached to the idea of showing that people who live with conditions like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, or who have experienced suicidal ideation or attempts, are people you encounter in everyday life. I wanted to eliminate stereotypes about who was “crazy” or dangerous or lazy or scary. However, the second statement is actually more reflective of our catalog. I like the idea of people who *don’t* live with a chronic mental health condition seeing themselves reflected back to them as well. I like the idea of the audience seeing that mental health could be anything from being hospitalized for depression or a suicide attempt to being so anxious before a date or job interview you become paralyzed and unable to leave your apartment to being too depressed to buy wrapping paper for a friend’s birthday gift. I think these everyday moments are also important for helping people realize that mental health is not necessarily about being crazy or unstable–it’s simply about our mental fitness, or our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It would be judgmental and arbitrary to draw a line based on the  nature, degree, or diagnosis of mental health—and hopefully this statement is more reflective of that.

I think it’s important to always be questioning yourself and trying to grow, especially when it comes to such a sensitive and important topic. It’s also important to take in feedback and be open to dialogue. Diagnoses and medication and therapy techniques are always evolving, but the one constant regarding brain health is it will always be about our mental “fitness” or wellness and finding that balance. It can be stigmatized in any form and if people became aware of and open about their own anxiety and depression early intervention may be possible before it spirals into a more serious problem, and they may realize talking about our mental health is just as important as talking about our physical health and should be just as commonly accepted. 

It Gets Better: Recovering Social Ties After Mania

If I had to write an “It Gets Better” manual for recovering from bipolar mania, and maybe someday I should, I would write a chapter called “You Can Rebuild Your Relationships.” Sometimes coming down from a months-long manic episode is just like coming down from a months-long drunk (and sometimes you were drunk most of the time, too). Have you ever had one of those nights where you got blackout drunk at an office party and woke up the next day thinking, My God, what did I say or do? Coming down from mania is like that, but kind of like with everything in your life. Yeah, it’s intense.

I was convinced that I had lost everyone and everything forever. I wish someone had told me that wasn’t the case. I won’t recite the platitude that everyone who matters in your life will come back to you, because that’s just not true. Most of the people who understand, will. That was what my bipolar co-worker who came out to me after I returned to work actually said to me: “Do they understand bipolar disorder?” The understanding doesn’t give you a get out of jail free card for having been an asshole. If someone either has personal experience with or an understanding of bipolar disorder, however, what it does is give you a statistically greater likelihood that they can separate your actions from you. They’ll have a better understanding that you were hijacked by your brain chemistry and not really in the driver’s seat most of the time, and that understanding will go a long way toward empathy and forgiveness.

As for all the people who matter, people have a right to be traumatized by, well, trauma. Good people and close friends may still be hurt and hesitant to be a part of your social sphere again. You may have to earn trust over time, or it may never come back. That’s just the sad and messy nature of life and mental illness. It can be hard to accept that we’re accountable for our actions, even if we didn’t intend or even were barely aware of them at the time. However, if you had told me when I was at my lowest that at least 50 percent of my loved ones would end up coming around (and it ended up being much more than that eventually) I would have been heartened. I don’t know that people’s memories are short, but they’re malleable. For some people, I think just being around me as me again was enough to remind them of the things they liked about me, and the shitty things I had done in the past began to fade as we made new memories together. Over time people were better able to separate me from actions that sprang from my symptoms. I once had a friend tell me, true love and affection may fade but it rarely dies completely. There was still a spark there I was able to rekindle. 

I would hazard to give you the hope many, if not most, of those relationships can be rebuilt. I won’t lie, some I was never quite able to, or some I did for a time and then they died out again, mainly due to my own guilt and trauma. I would even hazard to guess most people WANT to rebuild those relationships with you. They missed you. I had a few friends tell me they mostly were so worried about me because I wasn’t myself, and it was a relief to see me as myself again. They like YOU, and when you show them you’re YOU again, there’s a good chance they’ll respond with that love and affection they have for you. 

The Pysch Ward–When To Go?

I had mentioned I was hospitalized for mental illness in May 2018. I feel odd saying that I’m proud that was my last hospitalization, and that I hope it’s my last. I’ve heard people say things along those lines and while I feel that way to a certain extent, I don’t want to take the hospital off the table as an option. I don’t know what my future holds, and I may need it again. I also don’t want to denigrate it for anyone who needs it.

My first trip to a psych ward was in 2012, during a rough divorce that I never thought would happen. Stressors built up and finally became too much for me to handle when I moved into my own apartment, and I took to alcohol and pills, finally blacking out. I was surprised to come to in a psych ward, and I am very ashamed that I relapsed shortly thereafter (though I later learned that’s common) and ended up there again. After I got out that time, though, I was determined that I had put that shameful history behind me. I hit the road back to work, moved again to a much better apartment with a roommate that was much more affordable for me, and even unexpectedly started dating again. I made some new friends and things seemed to be on such an upward swing. I surely felt my psych ward visits were a thing of the past, and though I even mentioned them as a disclaimer while dating, it was as more of a relic, something I’d had the strength to bounce back from.

Enter 2015, mania, and the introduction into my life of my bipolar disorder diagnosis, something completely unknown to me or diagnosed even during my first visit to a psych ward. I was 35 when I first experienced mania, which is somewhat older to be diagnosed, and looking back I wonder if some of my earlier mood swings and depressive episodes were undetected indicators. I always felt like I felt my emotions more strongly and irrationally than a lot of people did, which is perhaps why I initially ended up in a psych ward for a life experience more stable people could handle. Let’s just say the psych ward became my familiar friend again around the time of my bipolar diagnosis. I actually don’t recall how many times I was hospitalized because it kind of became a blur. Again, I learned that this is not uncommon with this condition. Thank the Lord I had good health insurance and FMLA. 

I’ve read and heard about people wondering if and when they should check themselves into a psych ward. I even found myself Googling it a couple of times. I once read somewhere that you’d better be pretty sure if you’re going to a psych ward you’re not taking away a bed away from someone who needs it. And yes, the psych ward can be very expensive, even with insurance. But I’d say? Err on the side of caution. If you are feeling actively suicidal, you should go to the psych ward. They’ll keep you safe. If your case isn’t too extreme, they’ll be the judge of that, and probably let you go in a day or two. But I once had a wise psychiatrist who said you can’t put a price tag on your life.

I think most people would agree, going to a psych ward sucks. You have to wear those awful hospital gowns and have routine blood draws and routine, often bad meals and there’s not much to do (I think Maria Bamford made a joke about all the puzzles that are infuriatingly missing a piece or two). You have to take your medicine with a Dixie cup like a baby while a nurse watches. Probably most irritating to me, a night owl, is that it’s lights out and quiet time around 10 p.m. and they try to shuffle you awake (often with blood draws) around 7 a.m. They take away almost anything you would want as a safety hazard except for paper books and journals. But you know what? Maybe you need it.

I heard another friend say that as much as it sucks, she always looked forward to going to the psych ward, because she knew she was going to get better. I came to feel the same way during that terrible time. Granted, a lot of times it was due to the simple reason that I wasn’t caring for myself very well, and the hospital makes sure you eat, take your medicine, and get some sleep. Sometimes that can be just enough to set you on the right track again, and maybe a re-adjustment in your meds helps do it, too. Maybe I went to the psych ward a couple times more than I needed to. Why make such an unpleasant decision? Because you know you’ll be safe. There are people watching and caring for you. If you are in a position where you worry you may not be safe, then honestly, I think you should err on the side of being in a psych ward if you can.

To address a sticky issue, I do realize checking yourself into a psych ward is a privilege not everyone has. But some people end up there anyway. Sadly, some people end up in jail when they should be in a psych ward instead. If there is any way feasible, the psych ward is the better option. Sometimes when your body gets very sick and it’s an emergency, you need to go to the hospital. When it’s the same situation with your brain, sometimes you need the mental hospital.

Once again, now that I’ve been stabilized and out of hospitals since May 2018 when my bipolar depression came to a head, I’d like to say all those things I originally said in 2012. Oh yeah, there was that time I stayed in a psych ward, but I overcame it. Those days are over. But again, I’d like to leave the psych ward on the table as an option. Granted, it’s one I hope I don’t end up needing again, but if I do, I’ll sure be grateful it’s there, and I won’t see it as a sign of weakness to check in. 

Do You Believe In Body Memory?

Do you believe in body memory—the idea that our bodies can subconsciously remember and recall a traumatic event, even if we don’t? Many people think there is no strong evidence to support the theory that our memories are stored on a cellular level. However, believers in the phenomenon often point to the fact that our body is deeply connected to our brain in mysterious ways not entirely understood. Everyone probably has had an experience where they pick up something they haven’t done for years, one of the prime examples being riding a bicycle or playing an instrument, and some kind of muscle memory kicks in so it comes back to you even though you couldn’t sit there and think about how to do it. Muscle memory is a different concept, but still demonstrative of the way your body can remember what your brain forgets.

I’ve just recovered from a bad physical illness, it’s finally sunny and gorgeous and sunny outside in Chicago, I am on school break and finally have a chance to tackle some projects and catch up with some people, I have been doing some painting, and I also just got a little unexpected cash infusion in the form of a school refund. In fact, there are multiple reasons for me to be happy. So why do I feel kind of….bad? Not intensely bad, just a little sadness in the back of my brain, like something’s wrong even though there’s nothing specific I can really point to.

Pondering over it some more, I remembered this is pretty much exactly the time, four years ago, that my bipolar depression finally spiraled out of my control after a couple of years of trying to treat and contain it. This led to a break in reality, suicidal impulses and ideation, and hospitalization. A believer in body memory might say that I was recalling this event on a subconscious level in the back of my mind even if it set me on the road to recovery and I’m maintaining a much more stable existence now. There may have, in fact, actually been triggers in the sudden and almost complete shift in the weather and the mood swing initiated by my illness, where I was also confined to bed most of the time. The illness caused me to miss a couple of social events, something I was routinely doing due to my overwhelming depression in May 2018. So there are even aggravating factors that could have potentially stirred up that latent body memory other than the mere fact of seasonal timing. 

I don’t want to give the wrong impression, I don’t feel especially bad right now, and especially nowhere near as bad as I felt then (which is good). I just feel like—there’s something there. Kind of a shadow looming in the back of my mind. If you do accept the science of body memory, it seems somewhat discouraging because it is deep and difficult to control. However, much like other conditions we have little to no control over, many people believe we can “talk back” to body memory. Once we become aware that it is the source of our stress or trauma, we can work to separate it from our current mood and what is happening now. Perhaps most importantly, we can remind our bodies that the traumatic event is over. It’s a memory of something in our past that we survived and are recovering from, and in that sense body memory can actually become a source of strength. 

The Benefits of Nature on Mental Health–For The Privileged

A friend of mine posted this article on Facebook, which is a great think piece.

A new environmental science field that has been exploring nature’s impact on psychology, and publishing highly influential studies whose findings have been gaining traction in popular literature, has been revealed to have a huge diversity problem. How big? Over 95 percent of the studies occurred in high-income Western nations, and the participants were overwhelmingly white. How can these findings then reasonably support universal scientific claims?

Of course, one of the interesting things about posting articles on social media these days is eliciting interaction, and several people chimed in. Is part of this a problem of access—the fact that more privileged can afford to “get away from it all”? Or a dearth or diversity in the field of research itself? One commenter related her experience working in a nature preserve that occasionally had kids from low-income inner-city neighborhoods bused. These kids, she said, would often be terrified they were going to encounter poisonous bugs and snakes or wild animals, having little experience of nature aside from seeing birds and animals on TV.

In this case, it seems the researchers just chose to be non-inclusive. This raises the question of how many studies, including those that may have a global impact on mental health, only apply to a select part of the population, and how we can change that. I’ve always appreciated the diversity of films in the festival, and how much they have to say about how mental health is perceived and stigmatized within different cultures. I often find the perspectives both specific and somehow also universal in a way.

The problem is these study results can’t really make any broad scientific claims if they only apply to a narrow subset of humanity. They would draw far more credibility if their reach was expanded, but more importantly, their implications would be more vast and meaningful in their scope and application. The quote that really struck me was this one from Carlos Andres Gallegos-Riofrio of the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Environment: “This field has great potential to address urgent issues—from the global mental health crisis to sustainability efforts worldwide—but to do so, we must better reflect the diversity of world’s populations, cultures and values.” 

I don’t always think of it that way, but there is a global mental health crisis. It’s one of the top killers every year and a great part of that has to do with cultural stigma and access. This field research provides one big example of why we need to be inclusive.