Friday, November 30, 2012

Acting Crazy

This post contains spoilers for both Homeland and Six Feet Under. Also M*A*S*H, but given that M*A*S*H ended 29 years ago I think the ship has sailed for spoiler alerts on that particular show.

A few days ago the lovely Britt beat me to the punch and posted about Carrie from Homeland and what an important character she is, not simply as a complex, interesting woman on TV but also her status as a leading lady with a mental illness. If you have a few minutes it’s worth reading, as well as the piece Britt links to as inspiration for her post.

I have mixed feelings about Homeland. Mostly I think it’s over hyped and not nearly as good as some other shows still in production. I love some of the actors involved (it’s great to see Mandy Patinkin and Damien Lewis working regularly, Talia Balsam has a small recurring role, and I’m seeing a better side to Claire Danes than just about all the work she’s done before) but mostly I find a lot of it implausible and a little silly, and I feel like the creators have played all these moves previously on other shows.  However I keep watching, because I love seeing a character with a big, lifelong mental illness being portrayed on a major TV show.  Moreover it’s written sympathetically, in a way that hasn’t been done since Hawkeye Pierce ranted and raved his way through M*A*S*H. (‘Am I ranting? I hope so. My ranting gets raves.’)

I’ve noticed some commentary that complains that Carrie isn’t written sympathetically at all. But she is – if she wasn’t, we’d be watching a show where Carrie is completely wrong about everything all the time, or at least most of the time, and as we know, she has been proven right about quite a few things along the way in almost two seasons’ worth of a cable show. Yes, she cries a lot – anyone would who sees the things and does the things that she’s done. But mostly she’s written as a strong, decisive, clever and mostly compassionate woman. This is still not a common occurrence on TV, even though things are a hell of a lot better than they were prior to The West Wing and The Sopranos.

Now there are problems with this. I think Estes is right to have thrown Carrie out on her arse when he discovered her condition, although he didn’t need to be so horrible about it. But there are very serious and legitimate reasons why people with mental illness do not work in intelligence and in the army. It’s different if it happens after they join up, but truthfully it is a completely understandable policy. It is because those of us who suffer from mental illness do not respond well to stress on a reliable basis. A very popular and much visited wedding blog ran a piece about two years ago in which a woman revealed that both she and her husband, who was suffering from serious depression, hid his condition while he was on the front line in Iraq. This is just negligent. I consulted an American friend who used to be a lawyer for the army and the guy would not have been discharged dishonourably, as his condition developed after he joined up. I understand the impulse to hide it - God, I’m not in any hurry to admit my illness to people in the department at my uni - but the difference is that the job I have chosen to do does not mean that my depressive episodes might get other people killed. I’m lucky. But even if my dream was to work in intelligence, it’s a dream I couldn’t make come true, because people who have what I have shouldn’t be in situations where people live and die by my decisions. The reason I am so hard about this is because I know what it can do.

In the article Britt links to Leila mentions that Carrie teaches us to trust our instincts. Mostly I agree, and I certainly need to trust my instincts more and I’ve been trying to do so. But you see, those of us with Bipolar also have impulses that aren’t so great, and we see that with Carrie all the time. Sex in the car with Brody in the rain? Reckless. A reckless behaviour that is classic for someone with Bipolar I or II. We have paranoias that shouldn’t be indulged, we have addictive personalities. Sounding like Carrie? I’m not saying she’s wrong all the time, but clearly these flaws can cause a lot of problems, for her and for others, under the duress of active duty.

I’m going to switch gears here and talk about another show I love, Six Feet Under.  I really do love this show and mostly think it’s a hell of a lot better than Homeland. Well written, the most perfectly cast show I have ever watched and full of interesting storylines (albeit some very melodramatic ones, Lisa anyone?), it’s not a lot like Homeland. Still I hated the portrayal of people with mental illness in this show. Billy Chenowith and George Sibley are often complete bastards without suffering from their respective illnesses, but Billy especially is just awful.* This show goes to the extreme, where people with mental illness are dangerous and annoying, all the time (even when they take their medication), and just not to be touched. So we need people like Carrie who, with all her faults, is someone who can get stuff right and is a reasonably likeable character (although some people disagree on that). I just hate that she’s in intelligence, because I really don’t think she should be and I’m willing to bet most mental health specialists agree with me.  

There has to be a middle ground, ironically enough – it’s what those of us who have Bipolar are always trying to find. We have big problems, and there are certain jobs we just can’t work, but we’re also all not dangerous when we look after ourselves and do the right thing. And yes, I can have it both ways.  We have stuff that is very serious, but it doesn’t make us all dangerous arseholes.

*In Brenda’s words: ‘They should call it Bipolar asshole disorder’. 
Sunday, November 25, 2012

Just A Memory

I briefly refer to a key event in the Homeland season 1 finale. If this is a show you haven't seen and want to get into you might want to skip this one. 

Over the years I’ve become familiar with what I call the ‘eye pop’. It’s an expression that will pass my companion’s face at some point in a conversation after I have surprised them by remembering something, anything. It’s a mixture of incredulity, shock, embarrassment and fear. It’s the look that says ‘How can you possibly remember that?/What else do you remember?/I need to stop telling this crazy girl stuff’. It’s the look that reminds me that I need to practice what Emma calls ‘faux- forgetfulness’*.

I’ve often wondered why people are so shocked and unnerved that I remember stuff about them, sometimes the important chronological details, sometimes the usual trivia shared in long term friendships, sometimes even the details shared in a chance meeting or at a work function. I find it sad that people are so surprised by what I remember about them and others. I don’t know whether it’s because it’s so uncommon for people to remember things, or whether because they think they are not worth remembering. Either is quite depressing and I just want to hug everyone in turn and say ‘Yes! You are worth taking up space in my overcrowded database of a mind!’ Mind you, I tend to hug people I care about anyway (if they let me). And this action usually solicits more ‘eye popping’ and more wondering as to who the hell let this crazy woman loose on the streets.

As a way of explaining the sort of details I mean I include a list (from memory) of random examples of this that have taken place in the last six weeks:

*Lyn was talking about food on twitter and I remembered that her favourite sandwich used to be prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, and basil with honey mustard and possibly other things I don’t know about. I know this because she ate it the day of her wedding and tried not to get the mustard on her dress.

*My old choir conductor from school had tea with me and I remembered that she takes it with 2 sugars and more milk than the usual person. I have not seen this woman in 11 years and I made her tea once.

*I had a meeting with the head of department and we talked about his old place of work when he was a student, his wife’s preference for a certain type of coffee and how his mentor taught him the perfect way to cook broad beans.  I can count the conversations we've had on one hand.

*Any number of instances involving my supervisor. At some point the poor guy really will stop telling me stuff and so I’m hoping I do this to someone else in front of him to show it’s not just specific to him. He gives great ‘eye pop’, though, it’s kind of funny.

You’d think that with a memory like this I could remember routes and directions but no way in hell! Getting around and having a sense of direction just isn’t in my skill set, it’s like there’s a big hole in my brain where that should be. You can also tell from the above list that it’s the personal details I tend to hang onto. I do not tell these to show off but rather to illustrate how useless a lot of this information is. Mostly my memory pisses me off, it’s just a box full of unrelated pictures and songs and stories, mine and others’, with a rotting animal underneath. The trauma of my past has finally seeped through everything else and tortures me at random and inconvenient moments. Some of those moments I can anticipate, but mostly they catch me unawares and every time, every damn time, the memories and flashbacks take my breath away. When you’ve had some seriously bad shit happen to you, a good memory for detail can be torture.

This post is turning dark, but bear with me. The reason I raise this subject is because I was watching Homeland and, as those of you who have seen it know, the main character has Bipolar and subjects herself to Electro Convulsive Therapy at the end of the first season after her life comes apart at the seams. For a long time this is something I have thought about, I have entertained the possibility. I don’t know how common this practice is in the States, but I do know that here it is not an option floated very often. I met one guy in hospital some years ago who had the treatment regularly, but to the best of my knowledge it is not something the average patient is offered, let alone chooses. But part of me wondered about it, whether it was something I might have done. One of the big casualties of this treatment is the patient’s memory, at least in the short term, and there are usually long term effects too. Although it looks much more humane than it was 50 years ago, this is still a very serious thing to do.

I have a love/hate relationship with my memory. In many ways it simplifies my life, as I can marshall details to my front of my mind quite easily. It often allows me to be a better student, a better employee and, despite the instances of freaking people out, a better friend. I can almost always remember a dozen things I need at the shops without a list. I can memorise facts and figures and equations with comparative ease. However it also complicates my life enormously, especially when I am suffering from manic or depressive episodes (which is, you know, most of the time). To try and illustrate, a more innocuous example is when a quote from a film or movie or poem or song jumps to the front of my mind and I can’t remember exactly where it comes from and it bothers me quietly and slowly, like when you have something stuck between your teeth that the floss can’t get rid of.** Thanks to the internet I can usually track it down, not just the origin but also the context. But there are times when this fails and I spend hours of sleeping time trying to track down where the damn thing comes from. Last week I spent a sleepless night trying to track down a John Berryman line. This is one of the silly examples, but there are other more serious things that can be dangerous. Practices as a pedestrian or commuter, for instance. And as I explained before, my memory likes to torture me with the really bad shit too, and often at the worst possible times.

This is one of those times when I know I sound like an over privileged white girl, and I apologise for that. I don’t think for a second that I have it worse than everyone else, I really don’t. The reason I’m talking about this is that I wanted to talk about how the thing that allows you to thrive is also sometimes one of the biggest impediments to your health and happiness.

Do I hate my memory? Yes indeed. Would I ever have ECT and potentially jeopardise its power? Not in a million years. Because it makes me who I am and how I relate to people. I usually hate who I am and how I relate to people, but I guess I’m more afraid of how I could function without it. It’s not that I take pleasure in freaking people out, it’s that my memory guides how I treat people, it allows me to know them and read their behaviour better, to give them what they need. I hope that it makes me a better person.

Still - fucking memory. 

*Emma knows this because she too has an excellent memory.
** I always think of this line from The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay:  ‘He searched his name for “Siegfried Saks”, shuffling through the cards, trying to pop the ace that he knew was in there somewhere.’ Perfect, right?
Thursday, November 8, 2012


I apologise in advance for this post, which takes the form of a letter to someone who will never get to read it. I feel the need to post it, to say it to *someone*, because he will never get to read it. Feel free to pass on today's post, it is narcissistic blogging and I apologise. 

Dear C.,

This is a letter I have been carrying around inside of me for years now. We haven’t spoken in more than eight years and we haven’t really been friends for closer to nine, but I still miss you dreadfully. Not every day, but several times a week at least. Most of the missing is because it’s you, but it’s also because ours is the only friendship I have ever lost through my fault. It was all my fault, I have no trouble admitting that, and ours wasn’t a friendship that probably would have drifted with age. It was real and I fucked it up.

It’s weird to use that sort of language given that we only met and became friends because you and G. went to school together and neither of you had anyone else, not really. Of course I didn’t meet you until three months after G. and I started dating because you were having some really stupid fight that even then I knew wasn’t your fault, and I could never understand why someone as wonderful as you was so terribly lonely. With G. I always felt like he revelled a bit in being ‘alone’, even as he protested he wanted to build a community around him. I think he wanted both, but you and I, we wanted love. And we were both OK calling it that baldly, without specifying what sort, it was about love. And we were lonely down to our bones, you and I. We wanted better and we deserved better. I knew that as much as I loved G. (and how I did!) he really wasn’t all that great a person and I knew that you were, I knew that. I knew that unfortunately I was in love with the lesser guy and that you and I were a cross between siblings and best friends. While G. and I fought our way through months of being together while not being together, you were always there to talk with and share with. And when you smiled at me it was always genuine and I never had to doubt how it was between us. It was safe, and safe was not something I understood or experienced much up until that point in my life. We loved each other, for real.

I fucked it up. I told the dumbest lie ever told to G. and it ended up fucking things up with you. It was a lie I told before you even came into my life! You initially told me it was OK and you still loved me, but then Kat died and our worlds shifted. Then G. and I broke up again for the final, spectacular time and it was too much and you went with him. We still talked a bit, especially after he spent the night with the girl on whom you had a long established crush, and I came to your concert the following August. I think you only thought I came to piss off G. who ended up bailing that night anyway, but I didn’t, I came for you. OK, I dressed up for him, I bought an outfit and had my hair done for him, but I came for you, because you are an amazing musician and I loved you so much. I told a lie that became other lies to cover it up and that ended up breaking the trust I so valued. Our friendship was the biggest casualty of the most stupid lie ever told.

I can’t remember the last time we spoke. I can’t remember exactly when it was. Which means it must have happened after I started to get sick, so certainly after December 2004. I can’t remember the last time we spoke, when it was real and we were friends.

I should be over this by now. Ultimately if I’ve only lost one friend through my own fault that’s not a bad scorecard. But you and I were never happy with anything less than perfection, not really. OK, OK, I was sometimes. But you weren’t, not really, not deep down. You might have written a first year music essay in three hours while pissed and with your parents yelling at you but you weren't really OK with it, you expected better of yourself and, ultimately, of the people you loved. I failed you, I failed us. 

You are the smartest person I have ever known. Love isn’t about just desserts but if it was you’d be right up there as someone who should be surrounded by good people who love you and will be there for you. I know nothing about your life now. I heard that you did some postgrad study at Oxford and I know you won the University Medal in _______ but apart from that I don’t know anything about your life right now and have no way of contacting you. I am pretty sure you wouldn’t want to hear from me anyway. Even in the tiny fishpond that is music in Sydney we still manage to miss each other and that’s OK because seeing you would just bring home to me how we’re not in each other’s lives anymore. But every now and then I fantasise about what it would be like to lie on the lawns and have a picnic that I packed just like we used to, and I could hear about all the things you’ve done and seen in the last quarter of your life that I have missed. I could tell you about getting sick, that probably wouldn’t surprise you, and then I could tell you about starting to get better. I could tell you about [the mentor] and everything he’s done for me and how I finally figured out what I want to do with my life. That I did manage to build something with my sister, the way I always wanted. That I am less lonely than I used to be, less alone, even though it doesn’t feel it sometimes. That I’m still singing. That I am trying to have hope.

Most mornings I pass right by your old home on the train, often very early, and I never fail to think of you. Most days someone will say something and you are one of the people I want most to tell. Whenever I drink too much and have the urge to sing, I think of you, because it was what you used to do too. I am writing this letter, finally, because I just haven’t been able to sleep the last few nights (what’s new? Insomnia was our shared curse….) and I had to get this out. Losing you was every bit as awful as losing G., except that I eventually got over G. Not you. You are haunting me.

My life is filled with regrets and I’m not good at moving on. This was something I knew about myself at 19 and something we talked about. It’s still true, actually even more so now. Losing our friendship is still one of the major regrets of my life and I have a feeling it always will be. I am more sorry than you will ever know.

I love you so much and I always will. You are part of my family, you are part of myself and I wish so much that we still had each other. I wish for you much happiness and for a better friend and sister than I was.


P. S.  - You are not a misanthrope. Stop saying that in your online profiles.  
Friday, November 2, 2012

Once In A Lifetime

I remember when I started reading the blogs that most of you wrote in preparation for your weddings that there was a lot of discussion about being present, about being in the moment and soaking the experience up for all that it was worth. Weddings seem to be one of those milestones where we feel like we need to enjoy every damn minute and not let a precious second pass us by.

I don’t know about you guys, but I regularly feel like I’m missing out. Part of this stems from the fact that I don’t like to go to every event, or every party, and most of my close friends don’t live nearby. I will always take a quiet couple of hours (lunch or drinks or coffee) over a raucous house party or group outing. I am at the point where I panic if I see more than three people together, and that’s if I know two of them! But it’s not just time with friends, it’s the big milestones and rites of passage that I feel like I missed. I never had close friends at school and although I attended the big functions my last few years it wasn’t wholeheartedly or as a member of true community, even though I am glad I went. I didn’t have a 21st and I don’t celebrate birthdays much, if at all (coming from a big family does that to you). I haven’t graduated yet. I have never been married. 99% of the time all this isn’t something I think about, but it’s been preying on my mind of late because I have a very big milestone coming up: the conference I told you all about. It was something I hadn’t even considered until my mentor mentioned it casually over coffee the morning after he’d read my seminar paper. ‘I think you should do this,’ he said quietly. And within ten minutes I realised I really wanted this, in a really big way.

You know how excited I was, but with the conference smack in the middle of February it is right in the middle of a prospective work contract I was almost certainly going to get (the same as I did last year), and it also rules me out of many other summer jobs I could take, so I decided to only go for what I had to go for. I was OK with this. I would go to Melbourne for maybe two days, if I was lucky. I’d miss out on a lot of the big talks, and quite possibly those of people I have been dying to meet for years, but oh well. And I wouldn’t get to see much of Melbourne, but oh well. It’s work and life and whatever. Oh well. There’s always next time.

Except there is no ‘next time’ when it’s your first time. I will never get another chance to do this over, my first conference. I didn’t make much of this when I told you all I’d been picked, but they convenors chose my work after the initial deadline had passed. I am still just an Honours student, which they knew. The fact I was chosen is a big, freaking deal. They must have really liked my work to pick me. Plus I am not used to being picked, it’s a good feeling!

I feel like I have missed a lot growing up, either because I was working or because I was sick. I am not going to let this happen this time around. There will be other contracts, other jobs. I will never get to do my first trip to Melbourne, or my first conference, over again. So this time, I am picking what I want to do over what I should do. This is too important to miss and I have waited a long time to travel, even if it’s for study purposes, and even if it’s just to the neighbouring state.

Last Tuesday I basically emptied my bank account to pay for the registration to the whole conference. In a few weeks I will do the same over again to pay for my accommodation for the six nights I am staying. I don’t think I am going to the dinner they’re holding, as I am not sure I could cope with all that small talk and being ‘on’ all the time and meeting and greeting and partying, but the rest of it I am doing, jumping in with both feet. I want the full experience and I am not going to short change myself.

No regrets.