“Every man I knew went to bed with Gilda . . . and woke up with me.”-Rita Hayworth
The following personal essay was posted in November 2019. We’re bringing it back for Mental Health Awareness Month.
It’s powerful when you see yourself represented in a real way onscreen for the very first time. I’m still waiting for this sort of portrayal to materialize on a film screen, but on television this year, I have seen something very true about myself depicted through two female characters. What I share with these two characters is being bipolar, which is also known as manic depression. I have dealt with manic depression ever since I was 16, and was diagnosed when I was 21. It wasn’t until this year that I had the courage to be open about this part of myself because of the character Rue (played by Zendaya) in Euphoria. She reminded me of myself at that age, specifically in episode 7, “The Trials and Tribulations of Trying to Pee While Depressed”.
And it wasn’t until I recently watched the character Lexi (played by Anne Hathaway) in the series Modern Love that I was moved to write this piece. The episode is called “Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am”, directed by John Carney, based on the essay articulating the real life experiences of its author, Terri Cheney. My intention with this piece is to elevate these two characters, and write about what’s still lacking on the movie screen. It’s important that I elevate these characters to bring awareness to what bipolar really is, in order to break stereotypes and misconceptions. It’s important for women like myself who deal with manic depression to see themselves onscreen, because it is a lonely illness, and when you see yourself onscreen, you feel less alone.
I had read the New York Times piece and listened to the Modern Love podcast episode of Terri Cheney’s story about love and relationships as a bipolar woman. The podcast piece really touched me, but it wasn’t until I saw Anne Hathaway play Terri’s adapted character “Lexi” on screen that it really came to life for me. The reason why is because I’ve never seen an accurate portrayal of a female character who has bipolar onscreen. When I say “real”, I’m referring to a character that is the complete picture of what it’s like to be bipolar. Some days you are on top of the world, and you are showing what you feel is your best self. Then it hits you, the debilitating depression, that turns you into the opposite of the “fun” you, or the “impressive” you. It’s not the side you want people to see. Why? Because you’ve been diagnosed, there is a word for what you are that is associated with “crazy.” The whole picture is that there are the highs and the lows, but in today’s age, there are ways to manage bipolar with medication and therapy so you don’t fly super high or super low. In this episode, “Lexi” paints the whole picture.
I have been fortunate to not have had a super manic episode in a while. I can tell when I’m getting manic, but before I looked at it like a super power. You feel like you can do or be anything, as Lexi illustrates in her manic state at the grocery store. The colors are vibrant, the peaches are so luscious, and the people are so invigorating. During these states, you are able to achieve things that most people cannot, meaning your energy and drive makes you quite effective, yet it’s also a little difficult for you to connect with the people who are back on the ground. Exuberance is more of a balanced form of “mania”. Kay Redfield Jamison, psychologist at John Hopkins, who also is bipolar, has written several books about the topic of mania, and one book is dedicated to the word “exuberance”. See this quote below, which I feel encapsulates the grocery store scene between Lexi and Jeff (Gary Carr), and accurately portrays what it’s like to feel this oneness and an exuberant connection with all that’s around you.
“Exuberance draws people together and primes them to act boldly; it warrants that the immediate world is safe for exploration and enjoyment and creates a vivifying climate in which a group can rekindle its collective mental and physical energies if depleted by setback, stress, or aggression. It answers despair with hope: “How I long for a little ordinary human enthusiasm,” wrote John Osborne in Look Back in Anger. “Just enthusiasm-that’s all. I want to hear a warm, thrilling voice cry out Hallelujah! Hallelujah! I’m alive.” By capturing many in its far-flung web, exuberance overrides the inhibition that blocks action or innovation; like other positive emotions, it also enhances learning and fosters communal generosity. Infectious joy pumps life into social bonds and creates new ones through collective celebration and lively exchange. Shared joys rather than shared sufferings make a friend, Nietzsche believed, and there is much truth in this. High spirits beget high spirits; the memory of delight is laid down, the expectation of joy seeded.”― Kay Redfield Jamison, Exuberance: The Passion for Life
One of the most heartbreaking scenes for me is when Lexi is having coffee with her friend Sylvia (Quincy Tyler Bernstein), and she tells her the reason why she misses so much work is because she’s bipolar. And surprisingly, as I’ve found in most cases when I tell someone about my mental illness, they don’t run for the hills. But I’m not saying everyone has stuck around either. It is those who’ve stuck around that have become my people. Sylvia is grateful that Lexi has told her, because she can understand her more as a person, and be able to truly connect with her person to person. Sylvia asks Lexi how that made her feel, telling her that she was bipolar. Lexi tells Sylvia that it is comparable to having an elephant step off her chest. And I can tell you that I feel the same way when I open up about my mental illness. You’re not a shade of yourself, and Lexi is no longer a shade of a character, she’s the real deal.
It’s exhausting having to make up so many stories so people don’t see that side of you, the side that is so much different then your fun/manic self. I’ve used all the illnesses that are acceptable to admit as excuses, and all the family emergencies, because anything seems better then telling the truth. I’m still dealing with this in a way, but medication and therapy has really helped me balance out, and meeting a man who loves me, all of me, has helped me embrace all the sides of myself. Lexi compares her manic self to Rita Hayworth’s character, Gilda, where she quoted her, “Every man I knew went to bed with Gilda . . . and woke up with me.” Represented on the screen, you’ll see mostly this “Gilda” character, but not often the other side, because that’s the side that’s not as fun to watch. It’s not a spin out, it’s a shut down. Seeing Lexi onscreen is so important and powerful, because it will start to normalize this mental illness, and show that bipolar is not “crazy”, it’s a treatable illness, and women with bipolar are people. We exist.
Seeing Lexi on screen is so important and powerful, because it will start to normalize this mental illness, and show that bipolar is not “crazy”, it’s a treatable illness, and women with bipolar are people. We exist.
Oh Rue. I feel I can speak to her. She is me 20 years ago. The girl who stayed up all night, keeping my roommates awake at boarding school. My brother made a joke, when I was delirious from being up for two nights in a row, and I thought “god” was speaking to me, telling me I needed to go to sleep and finish my paper tomorrow. My brother joked that was probably one of my roommates, and he was probably right. But at that time, everything seemed to glow and have a spark. I was more manic than depressed in my teens, but it was when I went to college that I would hide under my covers for days.
Like Rue, in the episode appropriately named, “The Trials and Tribulations of Trying to Pee While Depressed,” I would forget about my body. All that mattered was numbing out the pain. My bodily functions could wait. Rue is different from me in the sense that she’s an addict, and drugs are her way of self-medicating. In college, alcohol was my go-to for subduing my pain, and until I got a cocktail of meds that balanced me out, that was my way to self-medicate. The psychiatrist I had at the time told me I was an alcoholic, but what she didn’t know was that she was prescribing me an amount of medication that was at a toxic level. It wasn’t until I checked myself into the hospital for a few days that I realized this, and then I started getting the proper treatment I needed. Rue has support from her mother and sister, but like my parents and brother, they had no clue what I was going through, so it took a matter of being more self-aware, in-tune with my body, and getting the proper care that I was able to balance out. I hope the same for Rue, and look forward to following her journey in season two.
Movie Screen – What’s missing.
As I noted in my introduction, the movie screen, in the theatres, are lacking when it comes to representing real women with bipolar, or real women with bipolar of today. Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Frances Farmer have all been represented onscreen, but they were of a different time, and their mental illness led to tragedy. Fortunately, today, we have the medication and the treatment that give us a chance of living healthy lives. But this is not shown on the movie screen.
Men today with bipolar have been represented on the movie screen, with Matt Damon playing Mark Whitaker in “The Informant” (2009), Bradley Cooper in “Silver Lining’s Playbook” (2012), and Tom Wilkinson’s character in “Michael Clayton” (2007). Looking at statistics, the fully dimensional characters onscreen are mostly represented by men. That’s why it’s so important to have fully dimensional female characters who have bipolar also represented onscreen. We want to see not just Gilda, but Rita too.