Pulling the Triggers: Bipolar Cinema

bipolar trigger


[Trigger warning: Discussion of triggers.]

“Have you seen Silver Linings Playbook?” people have asked since my diagnosis. I would always answer no. I hadn’t. And until last night, I thought I would never see it. The reasons are complex, but for really simple influences. First, I decide just about every year or so there is a film I simply will not watch. And I don’t. Ever. The Bodyguard?  Never seen it. Chicago?  Are you kidding me? Avatar. Nope. And there’s really no rationale behind the decision. It is one of the quirks of my bipolar; I dig my heels in and refuse to relent, regardless of others trying to persuade me. I think one of the reasons I chose films is that, ultimately, they don’t matter; digging in my heels on other issues–God, marriage, family, friends, work, school–causes great damage. Painful damage. So I choose films.

Second, I know some films are going to cause me a heavy emotional reaction. Sometimes this is good, like when I watch Rent. I can guarantee there are three scenes that will, without fail, cause me to weep. Not cry, full-on weep. And I have seen this film dozens and dozens of times. But others, like Kids, The Hours, and Punch Drunk Love, I have seen once and will never see again. Great films. Important films. But films that triggered me big, big, big time when I saw them, and all for seemingly different reasons, but each triggering event relating in some significant way to the life and suicide of my schizophrenic brother, Stephen (for whom Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love is a near dead-ringer).

This whole notion of triggering is complicated for me. My bipolar was diagnosed a year ago, and it has been a shitstorm. For faithful readers of the blog, you know the major movements. It has been a discovery for me that I have been triggered in the past, and that I need to be mindful of situations–particularly as they relate to film, television, music, and literature–that might set me off. As I present mainly as a depressive with manic tendencies (who cycles very rapidly, but remains depressed much longer than manic), it is very rare that I can point to a specific incident and say, “This, right here, is why I am losing it. This is why the demons are coming.” Generally, the tide turns slowly and culminates in a  wildly manic evening and then the precipitous drop. Before I started taking meds, I subconsciously would schedule around anticipated depressions.

But the single, triggering event? That is relatively new for me. And it has gotten me rethinking how I approach the use (overuse?) of “triggering” in our quotidian conversations. I am loathe to place myself in a situation where I somehow present myself as the arbiter of what is triggering and what is not. Sexual assault victims, PTSD sufferers, domestic violence victims, trans* persons, mentally ill; all of these “groups” might experience triggers differently, and then there is wide variance within corresponding subgroup. And of course my little list is not definitive. I bring this up just so that I am clear: triggering is very real, and we as a public should talk about it, and be mindful of the very real, very serious consequences for human lives that can occur when people intentionally place triggers in the paths of others. But what constitutes a trigger is not uniform.

I also think that there is sometimes a co-opting of “triggering” language used by people in the same way that they will misappropriate something like a Native spirit animal. They take something real and use it incorrectly; or they use it as a vehicle to raise a ruckus and don’t actually talk to people who might really be triggered. It is a hard call because, like I wrote above, I didn’t really know what things will necessarily  trigger me and I have never thought that someone else was responsible (except when I was asked to watch The Hours, in which the person knew very well that my brother had drowned himself and I had a total “WTF?!” reaction; in fairness, though, I should have known as it is based on a true story, and I hold an M.A. in English Literature). I just fear that “trigger warnings” could be co-opted by people for the wrong reasons and could result in the opposite of what is good about having the discussion: an honest exchange regarding how we set-up and regulate our public, shared, and private spaces. How can we be mindful without being fearful? And that requires those of us who can be triggered to speak up, but to also know that sometimes we might have to miss out on certain things and that is okay. But that it is not a reason to ask other people to not have a specific experience.

Let me be specific.

The single event that set me off on this last journey into the hellscape was watching Are You Here with Zach Galifianakis, whom I normally enjoy. I knew that the film featured a bipolar character, and I was intellectually curious about how the disorder would be handled. Here is where it gets weird. I don’t really remember much at all about the film because I got so upset; all I can say is that if felt wrong. Like, really wrong. Like somehow a part of me was being elevated and ridiculed and used as evidence that somehow I am less of a man and am an incomplete person. The issue of mental illness was introduced and then solved with Galifinakis’ character shaving his beard. Bye-bye, bipolar. Perhaps it is the fact that I am a chubby, affable, long-haired, big old beard guy that I felt like I was the butt of the joke, but I did. And I was not laughing.

Ridiculous? Without question. Asinine. But still very fucking real.

So I descended into the Pit. And when I started to come out, I made a bold decision. I decided to watch Silver Linings Playbook, by myself and without telling anyone. (See my post about pulling back from Facebook.) I generally like Bradley Cooper (American Sniper is a film I have arbitrarily decided not to see), and I adore Jennifer Lawrence. I’m imagining that you have seen the film–so, spoiler alert on a movie four years old–and remember the basic plot. Guy gets out of the institution and moves back in with his quirky family; guy is obsessed with getting his wife back, whom he has hurt in untold ways; he is set up by friends with mentally ill girl, who has hurt and been hurt in untold ways, and they fall in love. The silver lining is there even for people like us. We are deserving of love, too. Yay.

I don’t mean to indicate that I didn’t like the film, I did. Seriously, who wouldn’t want to look at Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence for two hours? That is almost as much beauty as Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof. Throw in Robert DeNiro as the gambling-addicted, OCD father and you’ve got Hollywood gold. But that was my problem with it, I guess. It was the tired old, “Hey, you have a mental illness?! I have a mental illness! We can be mentally ill together!” It was the last shot of Jennifer curling into Bradley’s lap and sucking his gorgeous face as the credits begin to roll. Yeah! mental illness can be cured by shaving a beard or getting two people with compatible crazy to make out!

I wish I had been there at the screening. Like, how do two people with serious issues make it work when one takes meds and the other does not? Why do both of them become violent (at least toward things, although also with people) when they are manic, when a vast majority of bipolars do not manifest this way? While it is great that they found one another, is the message that mentally ill people can only be with one another? The only other mentally ill character is portrayed by Chris Tucker, and he’s a clown; he is the comedic relief. We laugh at his shenanigans. So, is that it? Mental illness is either to be solved or to be laughed at?

Look, I get that it is a film based on a novel (and that the film made a lot of changes). And I agree that there is something really powerful about the idea that two people who have been damaging to others can be healed together. If I did not believe in healing and recovery, I would not be a pastor and I would not be so open about my own bipolar. I do believe in both. But the reality of mental illness is much messier, much more difficult, and much more nuanced than what we seem to get. With a haircut and a sexy hot crazy partner, you’ll be all better, too.

So, faithful readers (if you are there). Chime in. What should I see? What should I avoid? What movies do you appreciate that feature a person with mental illness, and which ones left you angry/raw/disappointed/triggered?