#MentalHealthMonday – A Sense of Vocation

I have been lapsing here but at least wanted to keep up my tradition of #MentalHealthMonday. I would like to point out these are just meant to be notes on what helps me with my own mental health, and not necessarily suggestions for everyone, as this subject is actually a bit sensitive even to myself. I am gainfully employed, full-time, as a librarian at the Chicago Public Library. And although I have conflicting feelings about how my job affects my mental health at times, I am overall grateful for it, especially since I feared for a time it would be taken away from me.

You see, I was asked to take a leave of absence during my manic episode, but my supervisors were very understanding. I had a good track record and they could see it was my mental illness and not myself that was acting up. I was a children’s librarian for about ten years, and I loved my job. I literally spent every day singing and dancing with kids, making arts and crafts with them, and helping them find books. Okay, I admit there were some really annoying parts too, like homework and science fair and tantrums and overbearing parents. Let’s not romanticize it *too* much. But for awhile there, I truly felt like what Kathleen Hanna would call “the queen of the neighborhood.” I lived in the neighborhood where I worked and often saw the kids and families there, who would warmly acknowledge me or even run up and hug me at times. Everyone knew the story time lady! I remember one mom even passing me in the street once and saying “Girl, you’re a superstar!” I adored the kids and, apparently, they adored me.

Most people who are familiar with bipolar disorder could probably guess what happened after I took that leave for mania, though. That’s right, what comes up, must go down. And when I was “well” and rational enough to return to work again, it was very difficult to concentrate and fight through the fog of my depression. And in fact, the next couple of years sort of passed in a blur of trying different medications, hospitalization stints, and even electroconvulsive therapy. I was dealing with the worst depression of my life, and it was also compounded with the post-traumatic stress disorder of what I had done while manic, which I still had nightmares about, and the constant, often irrational panic that I was going to lose everything, including all my relationships, my home, and my job. Thanks to the grace of disability laws and the Family and Medical Leave Act, my supervisors continuing to believe in my recovery, some rock-solid relationships in my life, the care of a higher quality facility, and honestly some painful lessons, I held onto the job, sometimes white-knuckling it, or zombie-lurching through it, but now it’s coming up on fifteen years. And I still have it. Sort of.

Another facet of my depression is the realization started to dawn on me that I couldn’t be a children’s librarian anymore. I just didn’t have the physical, creative, or emotional energy in me anymore after my several attempts at recovery and my continued effort to maintain it. So I transferred downtown. I now work in the newspapers and periodicals department. I actually work with a large population of people experiencing homelessness and mental illness, which I of course have empathy for, and I sometimes get to help them in some small way by giving them a newspaper to read or looking up a shelter or meal program. I also help researchers find articles and photographs, which is fun. I even got my first book credit! And I get to work in this big, beautiful building. I also work in the same building as a few of my best friends. So really, though it’s not the same, it’s probably just the fresh start that was needed.

To touch on the sensitive issue, though I’m proud I was able to hold down a job, I really felt for awhile like I wouldn’t be able to do so and even considered going on long-term disability. One of my doctors actually suggested it. I know that is the right solution for some, and that depression is a leading cause of disability, and there’s no shame in it. But not only would it have been half of my paycheck, which would have drastically altered my quality of life, I generally like working. Feeling like I have a sense of purpose, and that I’m helping people, really helps my own mental health and adds to my quality of life. It’s good to exercise my body and my brain–librarians always like to learn new things. And often I feel like I’m helping people like me–good people whose lives were interrupted by circumstances beyond their control.

Again, it’s through good stories like the ones that appear in Mental Filmness that I learn stories like mine are actually more common than they are uncommon. I felt embarrassed then, and sometimes still do, about how much time I spent rotating through hospitals and meds and doctors and struggling. Through hearing other stories, I learned that many people do similar things while coping with serious depressive episodes of serious mental illnesses. I learned that going in and out of the hospital is not abnormal for someone who has my condition, and is even expected in a way, so I feel grateful that all along I got to take the breaks to get the help I needed, and to keep the job.

Harold Washington Library Center, Chicago, IL

Mental Health Monday: The Power Of Stories

I’ve always been a reader. Ever since I was a little girl, I loved to have stories read to me, and once I became an older child, it was always such a treat to visit the local library and load my arms with books I would take home to read, where I would lose myself in adventures. 

I guess it’s not surprising that I became a librarian when I grew up—in fact, my 15-year anniversary with the Chicago Public Library is approaching in February. Needless to say, it is the longest I’ve ever held a job, and the one that’s reflected my passions the most. 

Libraries, and especially free access to books, tie into #MentalHealthMonday in a few ways. Losing yourself in a story can be one of the healthier methods of escaping the stress and anxieties of real life. Studies have also proven that fiction readers often have a greater sense of empathy because through fiction they have developed the ability to walk in the shoes of other characters—sometimes a character who is completely different from them and who they would have known nothing about–and share their experience and learn about it. That includes, of course, stories about mental health.

When I first received my diagnosis of bipolar disorder, I couldn’t get enough of reading people’s memoirs about it. You would think this would have caused me trauma, and at times I did flinch at experiences that mirrored mine a little too closely. It also, however, gave me a sense of comfort. It demonstrated to me that I was not alone—other people had shared my experience and my symptoms, and recovered. 

One of the most famous of such books and also one of the ones I related to the most was Kay Redfield Jamison’s memoir An Unquiet Mind. Dr. Jamison was training in the field of psychiatry when she began to experience symptoms much like some of her bipolar patients. I related in particular to Dr. Jamison’s post-manic crash and struggle through the resultant depression. She attempted to take her life by overdosing on lithium but her brother found her and she lived. She described experiencing a sudden horrific clarity about a lot of things she had done during her manic episode, and how her brother helped her go through a stack of receipts from her manic purchases and return what they could. 

She also described seeing nothing but death for a long time, visualizing tombstones everywhere. This was so close to my experience, and she described it so well, that it was uncanny. But I knew how the story ended, and what eventually would happen to Dr. Jamison. She would become a successful psychiatrist and an author who helped many, many people by being open and honest about her experience, even when it could have jeopardized her career. She not only made it through the depressive side of manic depression; she thrived. During what was absolutely the darkest and worst period of my life, this book gave me a little sliver of hope and light.

That is the power of books and stories and of course, what I also hope to affect through films in Mental Filmness. The power to learn about and experience empathy with someone else, especially when that person may be stigmatized or misunderstood in some way. So I would like to celebrate the power of books on this #MentalHealthMonday.

Happy Holidays?

The holidays, while a bright spot for many during the shorter and darker days of winter, can also be hard for a lot of people. I definitely experience the dual impact. For people who have seasonal and other depression, it sometimes feels like there’s pressure to be happy and celebratory. It sometimes feels like there’s pressure to shop. Some people have strained or nonexistent relationships with family and/or friends, and some have no close family or friends to speak of. For all these reasons and more, the holidays can be as isolating as they are merry for some.

And for people having a rough time, who have lost jobs or family or partners or money or other things, it can be hard to feel thankful.

I know that I am lucky in many, many ways—to be blessed with amazing family and friends, the most ridiculously affectionate and funny cats, to have a solid career I enjoy and to be financially sound for the most part. I still struggle with my mental health and I think that will always be a journey for me, but I have a good psychiatrist and medical cocktail, creative outlets, and again the support of some wonderful people.

I know there are many much less fortunate than me, and I would never tell anyone they had to be thankful or merry. I’m sure that’s about as helpful as “thoughts or prayers” or motivational/gratitude sayings or posters for people bedridden with depression. I guess it’s good to remember at this time there’s probably someone struggling like you, and to acknowledge that this holiday season is hard for some people, and they don’t really need to “cheer up.” I feel like it’s okay to feel grief, or a mixture of emotions like most people probably do. Of course, it’s always valid to feel what you do.

That being said, I’m trying hard to be thankful even though I’ve had some setbacks this year. I was depressed today, so I put up my tiny fake tree. Connecting with others who share my mental health issues has made me feel less alone, and to realize others share the same or even more painful struggles. This makes me feel humbled, and it gives me strength and makes me want to be strong in the face of depression. And I am certainly thankful for that.

#MentalHealthMonday – Thankful For Snow

I really need to make a #MentalHealthMonday post because between the bitter cold wind, murky grey skies, and the 4:30 p.m. encroaching darkness this weekend, I was starting to feel pretty gloomy.

Chicago can be a bit nasty this time of year. For people who already face anxiety leaving the house it just creates another obstacle–and the idea of cranking up the heat, turning on some TV, and snuggling under a blanket becomes more appealing. Of course that is cozy to an extent, but sometimes winter can become isolating, at least in my experience.

Since all my loved ones are in Chicago, it would probably be a coin toss whether moving or staying would ultimately be better for my mental health or my isolating tendencies. But there is one thing, in my opinion, that makes winter tolerable: Snow.

I guess we got a little snow this weekend, but only a couple of short bursts. I also saw some little flurries on my way to work today. We’ve yet to get our first real big snow, but I know it’s coming.

I know all too well some of the downsides of snow: shoveling, scraping, driving through it, trudging through it, how it eventually (OK, in a big city usually quickly) turns into gross slush. However, there’s something magical about waking up and seeing that unique reflective light out the window, and then looking outside and seeing a fresh, pure, sparkling coating of snow all over everything.

And if you decide to spend a day indoors snuggling and reading when the prettiest kind of snow—the big, fresh flakes—are falling from the sky and accumulating–then it feels comforting and scenic somehow, instead of lonely.

This is a picture of my backyard after it snowed, as seen from over my deck. It seems so soft and peaceful. Snow is one magical thing I like about winter.

What Makes A Film “About” Mental Health?

So, I’d like to keep up more content here. The question is, what kind of content?

My friend Jim actually devoted part of his Voices & Visions site to writing about movies and mental health, and we’ve both written about movies there. Most relevant to this discussion is my review of Inside The Rain, which played the festival last year. Even though I made it a highlight, I don’t think enough people saw it, and I’d love to show it on the big screen at some point. https://www.voicesvisions.net/reviews/insidetherain

For some reason it’s been hard for me to think of a lot of films to write about there. Let’s face it, Hollywood isn’t usually all that kind to mental illness. It’s often portrayed broadly, or as too quirky, or as a magical savant thing, if not a dangerous thing. I should probably go looking for some more, though.

One interesting thing about Inside The Rain is I have bipolar disorder and as I note in my review, many aspects of the main character’s portrayal differ drastically from mine. I had to check myself while watching it and remind myself that everyone’s experience of mental illness is different—even with the same diagnosis. It would have been pretty brazen for me to tell the young filmmaker Aaron Fisher, who so bravely made and starred in the film to express his own struggles with bipolar disorder, that he somehow “got it wrong” (and there ended up being a few things that definitely rang true for me as well).

After I watched the incredible French Dispatch, I went on a kick re-watching all of Wes Anderson’s older films, and I could see subtle themes of mental illness in almost all of them. I thought maybe I was just coming off the festival and reading into them too much when I had the sudden realization that his very first film, Bottle Rocket, begins with a character “escaping the nuthouse” and ends with a reference to the nuthouse (the term they use in the film). That’s the kind of thing that barely made a blip on my radar when I saw it as a young film student so many years ago and of course seems so much more significant now with my own diagnosis and interest in mental illness.

I suppose there is an interesting piece that could be written about the main character Anthony Adams’s process of recovery from “exhaustion” in Bottle Rocket. But that may actually be reading too much into it—kind of what you’d call my own “interpretive reading.” Mental illness is latent in the film, but I don’t think that’s what Bottle Rocket is predominantly about—not in the same way this year’s Seeking Oblivion was about Jeremy’s recovery from “the nuthouse.”

That got me thinking, as well, about the whole mission of Mental Filmness. What constitutes an “authentic” or “empathetic” portrayal of mental illness? Is it something that you can’t define—you just know it when you see it? And when does the theme of mental health become dominant enough to make it a film about “mental health”? And isn’t a lot of this a little subjective, anyway?

But here’s the surprising thing: since we instituted a submission fee, about 90 percent of the time filmmakers give us exactly what we’re looking for. That actually makes the selection process much more difficult, but diversity definitely plays a big role. Diversity of culture, diversity of the mental illnesses portrayed, and diversity of tone and genre are just come of the many considerations. Film is an art and there’s no avoiding being subjective in some ways, which is why having a jury and screening process is very helpful. And still, the audience always surprises me in some way with their votes.

As my experience with Inside The Rain re-affirmed, everyone’s experience with mental illness is different. I operate from the presumption that a film is “authentic” or “realistic” unless it blatantly crosses a line into being exploitative or condescending or something, which rarely happens. The Mental Filmness films really do feel much more genuine than Hollywood movies and paint with much more subtle and interesting strokes. That’s part of what makes them special.

Aaron Fisher and Ellen Toland star in Inside The Rain, a unique film about living with bipolar disorder.

#MentalHealthMonday – Our Furry Friends

As I said before, I’m really going to try to do a better job of keeping social media and the website updated at least periodically so I can maintain visibility and awareness and not just have a little blip of activity and then go dark until festival season is starting again next year.

I’ve been pondering ways to do this without getting too heavy. While I’ve been playing around with Twitter for the first time ever, I noticed there was a #MentalHealthMonday hashtag that seems popular. I thought it might be a fun idea to start posting something every Monday that helps me with my mental health. Then I researched its origin just to make sure I wasn’t being disrespectful, and it turns out that’s pretty much exactly what it’s for. (Forgive me if this is painfully obvious to a lot of you, again, I’m a newbie with a lot of this stuff).

So this week, I’m going to mention what is one of my very most important: My cats. I’ll admit as a lonely librarian spinster I may dote on my cats more than a lot of people do. But they are the first thing I see when I wake up in the morning (sometimes getting my hand bitten for food), and the last thing when I go to bed at night—often purring and curling up right next to me.

Pets have been proven to be very helpful for mental health in at least a few ways. Pets can provide unconditional love and companionship, as well as physical affection through cuddling that automatically releases feel-good pheromones. On the flip side, having something to take care of and take responsibility for is often an instant catalyst for a positive mood.

Pictured are my tabby cats Hank and Bandit Jr. As you can see, they are unusual cats in that they seem to really like each other. They are almost aggressively affectionate and even like most strangers, running up to them, rubbing against them, and rolling around to impress someone new and get more pets. They’re adorable little goofballs who will do almost anything to get attention sometimes (What’s that they say, pets take after their owners)?

I can’t even begin to enumerate the ways in which my furbabies help my mental health. Their cute antics bring me out of my head and make me laugh. Mornings during the shelter-in-place order of the pandemic I’d wake up scared and lonely and I’d see them in the living room, flopped over and sunning their bellies, and it was impossible not to feel a little lift in mood. And then, people often say animals have a sixth sense when it comes to *your* moods. Whenever I’m sick or depressed, even if I’m not showing obvious outward symptoms, they somehow seem to know I need extra cuddles and kneading.

Here’s to our furry friends on #MentalHealthMonday.

Mental Filmness 2021 Wrap-Up & Awards

Hello hello!

Sadly, the festival for this year has *ended* ended. The good news is, this was by far our biggest year yet and hopefully it will continue to grow. Some analytics:

Mental Filmness 2020 Virtual Festival

61 total passes issued

78 tickets ordered

313 total streams

Mental Filmness 2021 Virtual Festival

150 total passes issued

200 tickets ordered

795 total streams

2021 Mental Filmness Awards:

Orchestrating Change, a runaway leader in audience votes, is a perfect fit for the Stigma Breaker Award given that the very mission statement of the Me/2 Orchestra is to break the stigma surrounding mental illness. This powerful documentary paints an intimate portrait of Ronald Braunstein, a world-renowned conductor who lost his career due to a bipolar manic episode, his wife Caroline Whiddon, a musician struggling with anxiety, and their plan. Their plan is to create an orchestra where they can celebrate their love of music in a stigma-free zone. Thus was born Me/2, the first orchestra for people living with mental illness.

Soon the orchestra becomes a much larger force than the couple had envisioned, and they find themselves performing in venues from subways to concert halls. Ronald also finds himself playing the role of mentor to young musicians struggling with their mental health. Orchestra members heal and change their lives by bonding with others through both music and mental illness.

Co-directors Margie Friedman and Barbara Multer-Wellin trail some of the orchestra’s most well-known long-term members and collect personal stories of struggles from a colorful cast of characters that are all too relatable. The filmmakers strike a delicate balance, not shying away from some of the uglier episodes of mental illness but also portraying characters who have experienced troubling incidents as gentle, resilient, and talented individuals. Through its depiction of so many interesting and creative people living with mental illness, struggling at times but conquering setbacks and finding success, Orchestrating Change humanizes a misunderstood topic and breaks stigma beautifully.

And then we had a, um….five-way tie. Wow! So I’m going to try to sort them out into the categories where I think they best belong.

Why I Disappeared by Maya Sarfowah seems destined for the Realism Award. A product of the mind of a 23-year-old from Ghana, the film’s goal was to create a visual depiction of a poem capturing a severe depressive episode she experienced in 2018. Ranging in imagery from a menacing figure driving with Ms. Sarfowah in the passenger seat, or pulling her along on ropes, it sends a clear metaphor that when you’re coping with heavy depression, you’re not in control of your own life. The short film also focuses on more realistic and less poetic details like how it’s difficult to get out of bed, return phone calls, or even shower when depressed. Maya’s spoken word creates a sad and steady rhythm against a backdrop of melancholy music while the images flash by and ultimately end on a hopeful note. Using sound, writing, and visuals, Maya Sarfowah masterfully and realistically depicts a depressive episode in expressive terms that belie her young age.

Out of the five-way tie, Seeking Oblivion seems like the natural fit for the other Realism Award. It’s kind of refreshing to receive a straightforward, character-based feature-length drama that realistically and humanely portrays depression and suicidal ideation. That is just what Brent Baird has done here with his character Jeremy’s quest to re-integrate into society after his suicide attempt and hospital stay.

Brent Baird presents a triple threat in writing, directing, and taking the lead acting role in Seeking Oblivion, and he makes the most of a small budget to create a very sympathetic story that is easy to get absorbed into. Jeremy’s past is swimming around in the subconscious of his brain, but as Baird has stated, Jeremy is really just a “normal guy” who is recovering from a bad incident. In fact, another major theme of the film is Jeremy assisting everyone else around him struggling with their own mental health-related problems, like addiction or self-harm. By showing that people who think about or attempt suicide are just people and that most people have problems, Brent Baird creates a tight-knit character drama that is both realistic and relatable.

It’s difficult to shoehorn Giulio Fiore’s Liquid Human into a category, but out of the available options it seems like the best fit for an Empathy Award. I say this because it is loosely based on a memoir about schizophrenia, which is a widely misunderstood mental illness. Using first-person perspective and sound design to chilling effect, the film places the viewer squarely in the shoes of someone suffering from disorganized thoughts and voices. It also contains a mystical element that invites the audience to see the main character in a different light. Overall, the film creates empathy for someone who hears voices and even an awed respect for how they transcend them.

Lindsey Doolittle’s Goodnight Mr. Vincent Gogh receives an Empathy Award as well. We may have sent some traffic her way with a library program, but people obviously liked what they saw. Lindsey’s film has been written about extensively here already but I will say it is probably the most empathetic sentiment about a loss to suicide I have ever seen.

And that leaves…bum bum bum! The Audience Award!

The Audience Award is awarded to Mental As Everything, a film so unique it’s actually difficult to describe. It’s kind of a mash-up of a live cabaret stage show, storytelling, and comedy all about mental health and breaking down stigma. Damon Smith openly shares his struggles with his dual diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder and bipolar disorder. He joins his stage partner Adam Coad in this touring show in the hopes of entertaining an audience while also increasing understanding about mental illness and connecting with others experiencing it. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s vulnerable, and often it’s in song. It’s refreshing to see the friendship Damon and Adam have developed, both through their bonding over mental health and their musical creative partnership. It’s always nice to see something that’s a little on the lighter side without sacrificing any honesty about the reality of living with mental illness. I believe this film was a crowd-pleaser because it offers a lot of creativity and joy while at the same sharing some truth about what it’s like to live with various mental illnesses. That’s a tough balance to pull off, but Damon Smith and Adam Coad do it well.

Trailing that were several other films neck-and-neck with high user ratings, but a line must be drawn somewhere. Really all these films were quite excellent already, selected for their merit from a big pool of interesting films. Everyone who submitted, everyone who was selected, and everyone who won audience awards should all be very proud. We need to keep talking about the stigma of mental health to help others and even save lives, so keep up the good work.

Creator interviews are still up at https://mentalfilmness2021.eventive.org/interviews2021 if you missed one for a film you enjoyed.

Coping Skills

Culpability is something I think about all the time. Despite the gentle message that your mental illness is not your fault, shouldn’t you actively do something about it? There’s got to be something that lies between the harsh drill sergeant “Snap out of it and cheer up,” and a too-lenient “there’s nothing I can do about it” approach.

But it gets so confusing. Sometimes maybe what you really need to do is order a pizza that you eat off a paper plate and lie in bed watching TV. Sometimes you can push yourself too hard and feel worse. I have been guilty of both approaches. Where is that line? Unfortunately, it’s not a bright line and it has no easy answers.

I think a lot of it boils down to what is commonly known in the law as a “balancing test.” The test would be based on too many factors to even name, but some examples might be: Am I learning from my mistakes? Am I actively indulging in and/or avoiding things I know have made me depressed in the past, like sleep, junk food, too much social media, and especially substance abuse? Am I self-aware? Making note of my thoughts and re-directing them, or at least trying to? Am I actively seeking help in friends, family, or therapy?

All of these things must weigh in. But I think number one for me might be: Am I meeting myself at the level I’m at? This involves a balance of not being too hard, or too easy, on yourself. If you know you don’t have the time or energy to cook, can you at least snack on some healthy food like fruit or nuts and keep them around? Can you hire help cleaning if you know you don’t have the time or energy? If it’s not realistic for you to see a counselor or therapist at the moment, can you at least write out your thoughts and challenge them? Can you do something you know would bring you joy for maybe 15-20 mins., like read one chapter of a book, or play with your cats? Sometimes just starting an activity and telling myself, “I’ll just do this for 20 minutes” will get me out of my rut and keep me absorbed.

One thing I do every day now is exercise. As Damon Smith observed in Mental As Everything, it makes no sense to say “I’m so OCD about it” because you’re basically saying “I’m so obsessive-compulsive disorder about it” (not to mention it’s probably trivializing for those who live with OCD). But I would say I’m a little obsessive about it. I use my mini-elliptical every day, and I always use it for the same time, around 40 minutes, even on the days I get home at 9 p.m. (I try to be quiet). That’s my “me” time. I usually play eighties synth pop and work up a sweat and let my mind process what happened to me during the day and, often, what has happened to me in the past. I guess it’s an important mindfulness practice for me. And I think maybe I am a *wee* bit obsessive about it. Sometimes I fear if I let it go for even one day I’ll start to slip (I’ve heard this is not an uncommon feeling among compulsive exercisers). It does feel really good though, and I know it’s good for my brain and my body, so I do it no matter what. It’s one thing I can do.

I try to pick out little things like that. I eat at least a few fresh fruits and vegetables every day. I always read a book for pleasure on the train that’s not a textbook. I’m busy, but I try to do what is realistic here and there to ward off depression.

The days I struggle the most are actually my days off where I have nothing planned. I still exercise and make breakfast, but sometimes I have a hard time giving myself routine and structure, and can fall into a bit of a rut. I live alone, so I try to be my own gentle voice of encouragement all the time. I tell myself study just for an hour, and then take a break. I break up blocks of time for myself like this throughout the day. These are just a few of my coping skills.

I love the gentle, non-judgmental statement that Lindsey Doolittle made about her husband’s suicide: “His life exceeded his coping skills.” Coping skills are so important, and having just small ones, in different areas, can really help. Realistic ones tailored to your level of functionality. At least, that is one thing that’s helped me.