Have You Seen Short Term 12?

One of my favorite movies of last year was Short Term 12. I saw it on recommendation from a friend’s mother, of all people, and dragged A to see it in theatres (we both love movies, but his penchant is generally not quiet indie fare).

It was incredible.

It’s on Netflix instant, which meant I just rewatched it tonight (I had a good day, but I was in the mood for a cry. Know how that is?). It is just stunningly powerful.

Short Term 12 is about a group of kids in a group home (Short Term 12) and the twenty-somethings who are basically their caretakers. Everyone in this movie is delicate and damaged, but clearly also intelligent and complex and fierce.

I had a really nice childhood, except for that whole mental illness thing. I never lived in a group home. But I do remember distinctly what it’s like to fly into banshee-like rages, to utter vile things to people who are trying to help, to simply become too overwhelmed to manage human interaction. I also know that when Nate and Mason hold Jayden down, sitting with her on the floor as she screams, and Grace says, “You don’t have to like me right now. Just let it pass,” that is exactly what ten-year-old me would have needed to hear.

Mental illness is devastating, and I feel so lucky to have come out the other side relatively unscathed. I am grateful to my parents even though they didn’t do everything right. I don’t know what I would have done. I forgive them.

No one wants to rage. No one wants to scream. No child who actually loves their parents wants to hurt them, really. I remember talking about those feelings, that violence, like a mutant bacteria, or even another person inside me. If I focus in, I can still find her. I will never forget how visceral those experiences were. I can never quite explain to anyone on the outside how little blonde me, little perfect home me, little meticulous focused me, flew into rages that involved knives and fists and and and and and, which I couldn’t control. I don’t think anyone who hasn’t experienced could really understand what that is.

Short Term 12 does a great job of humanizing these characters– their anger, their affection, their inability to let themselves be revealed, even when they are able to help others do so– and in doing so, it’s kind of unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

Five stars, highly recommended, two thumbs up, and spread the word.

P.S. I can also vouch personally that John Gallagher Jr. (who plays Mason) is a cool dude.

Weeding through…

Weeding through the medical records they sent me.

As expected, it’s nothing I haven’t seen before. The most interesting document is the initial assessment from my psychiatrist when I was about 9 years old. The words seem to echo hollowly, almost appear meaningless: “very perfectionistic, overly sensitive, shy, withdrawn little girl,” “extremely irritable, quick to flare, overly sensitive, etc,” “devaluing of herself, may make threats about wishing she was dead, talks about herself being a ‘bad person,'” “overachiever… wants to be the best and do the best.”

It sounds simplistic too me, almost offensively so. Words about “no signs of depression,” “happy and content most of the time,” “no unusual fears or phobic reactions.” I know, I know, that this was an initial assessment and things changed. I have my mom’s “book,” in which she basically wrote diary entries about my emotional health.

Even going through those entries, which I’ve read before too, are tiring to me. They seem one-sided, clinical. I know, I know, they can’t be any other way, but I wish there was something more here.

In these piles of papers, these yellowing sheets of lined notebook paper, I want to find an explanation. I want to understand what happened, who I was, where I was and how I survived. I want an explanation.

In a letter to my therapist and psychiatrist from my father, he writes:
“we’re both concerned that B’s egotism is so extreme that it impairs moral judgment. She seems utterly unable to summon empathy, and when she does her purpose seems more manipulative than empathetic.”

“B reports that she feels depressed. We know that she feels like a ‘bad’ person when her behavior is inappropriate, but we can’t help but feel sometimes that her apologies are manipulative.”

“To be frank, lately we can barely stand to be around her.”

I know, I know, that my parents love me more than most anything else on the planet. But flipping through these papers, notes, letters, diagnoses, clinical terms and records of meds increased and decreased, up on the Klonopin, down on the Risperdal,

Silver Linings

First of all, my heart goes out to all the victims, the families, and others affected by the tragic shooting in CT yesterday. My heart is broken. It’s unthinkable violence.

And now, onto me (ugh, terrible transition, forgive me).

It’s been a crazy week, and not really a good one. I’m moody and overwhelmed and anxious about going home on Monday with A. I had two auditions (got one callback), but nothing I’m over-the-moon excited about. You know? I think I’m just ready for home. It has been since April.

So A and I saw Silver Linings Playbook, the new David O. Russell movie, this afternoon. Those of you that have been following my blog for a while know that I LOVE movies and I devoutly follow the awards season. It’s just one of those fun things that you can do if you don’t like sports but like the strategy game. So.

Anyway, I like Russel’s work in general– Three Kings, parts of I Heart Huckabees, and The Fighter, but this… I struggled. The ads looked stupid– like rom-com bullshit stupid– but after I got drinks with R, she convinced me that it’s actually a wonderful movie “about mental illness and family, and the genetic ties of mental illness…” so I figured maybe I was wrong. Russell is a great director, and it sounded like something I’d like. Plus, all the reviews were raves.

Well. Unfortunately. I was right on first instinct. There were moments that rang true, and there were moments I laughed, but I feel like Russell didn’t succeed in treating mental illness with weight and understanding AND making a very traditional rom-com (two crazy people find each other, make each other mad, fall in love with each other, and are perfectly crazy together). It felt scattered, and so neither side felt true.

This goes against what most of the press is saying, so I’m going to draw upon a Salon article that I think deals with this point in a clearer way than I have.

After talking about various critics’ praise/judgement of the film, L.V. Anderson wonders why they seem to be missing what, to his mind, is the major crux of the film.

“Mostly because Silver Linings Playbook is a mess. That messiness is at least partly by design. .. But in addition to that choppy style there is a choppiness in the storytelling when it comes to depicting, and defining the contours of, mental illness.”

“Russell doesn’t seem particularly interested in the question of what distinguishes a person’s mental illness from his or her personality, or the question of whether medication is as effective a treatment for bipolar disorder as a pretty girl and a dance competition. Russell doesn’t highlight whether or not Pat is medicated at any given time in the film’s narrative. Though we hear Pat complain of lithium’s side effects—sluggishness, weight gain—early in the film, we don’t see him actually experience any of these side effects once he starts taking his meds. As David Denby writes in his critical New Yorker review of Silver Linings Playbook, “What’s supposed to be clinically wrong with [Pat] is inseparable from what is merely infantile in him as a character.”

“And Pat’s storyline isn’t the only one that makes Russell’s handling of mental illness baffling. Pat’s father, played by Robert DeNiro, seems to have a pretty serious undiagnosed disorder—manifesting itself in sports superstitions and a gambling addiction—but it’s his gambling that gets the plot rolling in the direction of Pat and Tiffany’s happy ending. One of Pat’s friends, played by John Ortiz, has a frightening latent violent streak that echoes Cooper’s own episodes. And Tiffany can only win Pat by lying to him repeatedly about the goal of their dance sessions—but is nonetheless presented as a perfect romantic partner for him at the end of the film, implicitly because of her own, unnamed illness.

“(Silver Linings Playbook falls into the annoying trope of implying that mentally ill people can only truly be understood by other mentally ill people, the details of their respective illnesses be damned.)”

Okay. So back to my words.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a kid. I’d say that I could no longer be classified as bipolar, and childhood bipolar is different from that in adults. There WERE moments of the film that rang true in terms of mental illness (Pat’s in a good mood, but his parents are concerned that his happiness is “too happy, too up”– manic– something I’ve experienced with my own parents), but for a movie that is supposed to be catalyzed by mental illness, making the mentally ill compassionate protagonists in the story, in some way normalizing the experience of mental illness in the framework of a rom-com, Russell leaves problematic holes.

As someone who has (and will forever) suffer from mental illness, I couldn’t just let go the fact that Pat’s mood was unchanged by taking or not taking meds (nor did he have side effects, which he even referenced). I didn’t believe that Tiffany was actually struggling, and couldn’t understand why, if she indeed was, no one helped her get help. AND WHY OH WHY would anyone let the incredibly triggering situation in the final scenes of the movie possibly take place?! Pat’s therapist was in the room when the parlay was planned– and it is clearly the worst idea EVER THOUGHT UP for at least three diagnosable mentally ill characters.

Bradley Cooper does a good job. There’s some sweetness, there are some laughs. Robert DeNiro and Chris Tucker are great (I can’t talk about Jennifer Lawrence because she just takes all the parts for young women with depth).

But there’s just this part of me that felt talked down to, and felt uncomfortable with the way mental illness was ultimately handled. Are we cured by love? Does exercise provide relief from lifelong bipolar disorder? Are meds not even WORTH trying? Does mentally ill just mean “adorable mess” when it comes to women?

Things to think about. Any of you see this movie?

(Also, P.S., my favorite films of the year: Lincoln, The Master, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Argo. Yet to see are Zero Dark Thirty and Life of Pi. I’ve seen a ton more, but these are my picks for faves of the year.)

Musings on the Wild Waves of Feeling

I’m alive. I’m okay. In fact, I’m in love and I’m on a sort of half-baked vacation, so really I’m doing great.

Except for the moments when I’m not.

Isn’t it funny the way that they way we feel has such fluidity?
I can instantly retreat inwards, protectively, at the drop of a hat. He doesn’t immediately introduce me to someone. WHOOSH. He talks about the tour on which he met his ex. SWOOSH. He talks about himself in the past– a him I never knew. BAM. I close up tight.

But then, sometimes the little mushy parts are so easily exposed, and I can let myself NEED and FEEL and LOVE. Tucking my head under his arm and on his chest. PHEW. Feeling him reach for my knee under the dinner table. AAH. Having him ask about my family situation, and seem to really want to hear the answer. SWEEE.

There have been moments of this relationship that I’ve felt so in love, I’m afraid I’m manic. Because I was bipolar primarily as a young kid (I stabilized around 14 with the help of Zoloft), I have noticed the “manic” tendencies less apparently than the depressive ones. I doubt if I’d even still be diagnosed as bipolar at this point– but there’s no denying my moods are ever-shifting, and my ups and downs seem to move at a pace and an intensity that is, let’s say, more than most other people.

If I were to look at larger moments in my life as manic (after age 14), I could tag off my years at boarding school– I was an overachiever, always put together and organized, and eventually crashed into a horrific depression after I wasn’t accepted to Juilliard– my summer as an apprentice at a fancy-pants theatre festival– the beginning of the unconscious restrictive behavior, bouncing back from an illness by working EXTRA hard– and perhaps moments of this last summer– enormous joy quickly supplanted by depression upon returning weekly to NYC. I could pull out a number of times in my life that my bipolar moods (whether clinical or simply active) vacillated from mania to depression.

But maybe actually being in love isn’t clinical mania. I’m not restricting, I’m still messy and imperfect, I still get angry, I still tell him when I get angry. But is the excess of love an OVERexpression set in contrast to the amount of times I feel scared or upset or sensitive? Or is that what being comfortable with a person is like? I know that’s sort of what being with my family is like… And when I was a kid, oftentimes the mania was expressed by clinginess and an excessive need to express my love. Is THIS love THAT love?

I don’t think so. But again. I have to get used to feeling this way about someone. I’m so used to my own moods now, to allowing myself to regulate myself, to separate when I need it and feel when I need it and not have to do any of that in front of or around anyone else.

But with A, I have to negotiate my feelings with HIS feelings, my moods with HIS moods, my affection with HIS affection, my frustrations with HIS frustrations, etc etc and on and on. A lot of times this makes me anxious. I’m afraid that by feeling angry/frustrated/unloved/uncomfortable I’m pushing him away– I’m not doing what I’m “supposed” to be doing as a girlfriend/roommate/lover etc. But the fact that I am willing to go through that process with him, and I never want him to NOT be there, to NOT interact with me and my feelings, is a sign that there’s something right in all of this.

I tell him all the time that I’m still relearning how to BE with someone else. I’ve grown so used to only dealing with my own cyclical moods and my own mental hangups. I ask him to cut me a lot of slack… which I know is asking a lot. And THAT makes me anxious (of course). But I haven’t scared him off yet. I have been a bitch and a depressive and an angry, irritable crankster around him, and he’s still here. He still misses me when I’m not by his side.

And I feel the same way.

I’ve never really approached love in a way that tied into my mental issues. They have been the END of relationships, and I did have one relationship in which I said “yes, I want to” to someone who I eventually had to leave because it was a selfish kind of thing– I wanted his affection because it made me feel beautiful and special– but I’ve never been someone who had a lot of manic sex or lashed out at significant others or kept them out of my struggles (at least in a conscious way). And I’ve never felt more in love than I do right now.

Every day. Every fucking day. Isn’t THAT crazy, you guys? We muddle through every day with a portion of our brain always processing, always tuned in, because if we stop, we fall. If I don’t process what I’m feeling, it will take me over. That’s sort of how the ED stuff happened. But it can be an exhausting task. That’s one of the reason I like having A around. He helps me stay on the boat, even when the water is rocky.

    • “Listen to the people who love you. Believe that they are worth living for even when you don’t believe it. Seek out the memories depression takes away and project them into the future. Be brave; be strong; take your pills. Exercise because it’s good for you even if every step weighs a thousand pounds. Eat when food itself disgusts you. Reason with yourself when you have lost your reason.”
      Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression