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.”