Silver Linings Playbook–Almost a Film Review

So, I’m watching, “Silver Linings Playbook” (as in, right now–I paused it to come write this) and I wanted to mention the scene that resonated with me while it was still fresh in my mind. Bradley Cooper’s character is (finally) seen taking his meds (Seroquel and Gabapentin, I think, but don’t quote me on it) and in the very next moment, we see him (finally) replacing a window that he smashed days earlier. I’ll return to that scene in a moment, but first, let me digress into the parts of the film that resonate less:

The character in the movie is bipolar, and like most depictions thereof, it’s a little off when compared to my personal experiences… which are not mine, per se; as far as I know, I’m just a garden-variety, chronically depressed person; but I have bipolar family members, and the protagonists of most movies exploring the condition seem slightly… ah, what’s the word… not exaggerated–that’s the very key to sometimes realizing when a person is bipolar, or noticing that a person you know to be bipolar has come off their meds–I mean, it *is* pretty common for unmedicated bipolar disorder to manifest as exaggerated mannerisms and speech patterns… so it’s not fair for me to say the depictions seem over-exaggerated (they really don’t–I’ve seen my dad lose his shit over something as stupid as whether or not the mayonnaise jar was closed properly, and by “lose his shit” I mean become physically violent and exceptionally, loudly enraged) and I really can’t put my finger on what it is that seems off about Mr Cooper’s portrayal, except to say, it just doesn’t hit me right.

Maybe it’s the lack of actual joy when he’s meant to be manic; I’ve seen folks (most often, my dad, again) go from the happiest person you ever saw, to a screaming pillar of rage, in about 3 seconds flat (which I’ve been led to believe is pretty standard/one of the standard ways a manic episode can play out) but that’s the difference–even when my dad gets happy-that-becomes-angry, or happy-with-an-undertone-of-anger, his delight seems genuine. Everyone watching him may realize he’s about to flip like a Olympic gymnast, and start screaming obscenities and slamming doors in the place of playful banter and enthusiastic endorsement (of whatever he’s endorsing), but *he* doesn’t realize it. Is that the key? Getting the actor to somehow forget that, 3 sentences into his ecstatic speech about whatever’s on his mind, he’s going to about-face and start ranting about what’s wrong with society? I don’t know how you would even do that… but I do know that self-awareness of the way the monologue is about to shift, does not look anything like manic episodes *I* have personally witnessed.

And can I just say, I feel like a dick for using all this clinical speech. I have exactly 2 semesters of psych classes under my belt, some years spent in therapy, knowledge of a few folks who are confirmed bipolar (mostly relatives) and I sometimes watch movies and read books. That’s it. Those are my credentials. I haven’t actually earned the right to talk about an entire group of people, like, with any kind of authority. This is just me, sharing my (subjective, no doubt very biased) observations… but for the pittance that it’s worth, I’m not all that keen on “manic” rants that seem purely angry, or constructed to become angry, because in my very limited experience, manic folks usually *do* start out happy. I mean, it’s a crazy, OTT, “calm yourself down and take a chill pill quite literally” style of happiness, but it still seems happy. And as a huge fan of movies, I’m always watching for, and always love it, when writers/actors/directors get the hard stuff right…

…which is the scene where newly-medicated fella finally fixes that window. There was nothing in the world (not his parents’ embarrassment, not his own repressed shame, not a basic sense of appropriate behaviour) that could make him fix the window that he smashed in a fit of rage. The window was unimportant. The book he had just read DESERVED to be thrown out of the window, and the window was just collateral damage, and he was not apologizing for it. (All done very well, by the way. I bought it, completely.) And then, he takes his meds, and like a switch being thrown, there he is, fixing the window, as meek and mild as the Baby Jesus (I know, I know, Mary’s meant to be the meek-and-mild one, but just let me have it, it sounds cute). And this is what resonated with me–both the fact that he changed so rapidly and so thoroughly, with the medication, and also the fact that, as bummed out as he was to be taking it, objectively, he was being more useful on the meds than he had been off.

I think that says everything about why those of us who are on anti-depressants or anti-psychotics (or any kind of mental health drug for the long haul) actually *stay* on the meds. We may hate the way they make us feel without even being able to articulate how that is; we may hate the lack of enthusiasm (for anything) that comes with certain medications; we may resent the sexual side effects, the fuzzy-around-the-edges feeling of trying to think through a chemical haze, the increased appetite plus decreased concern about weight gain, and a hundred other things; but in the end, we can’t argue with a substance that, like magic, like a modern-day miracle, transforms us into people who can suddenly remember why you don’t get to smash a window to smithereens and just leave it there. Yes, we may be more prone to repeating our observations; yes, we may be a little less sharp generally; yes, our colours may seem a little faded, especially to ourselves; but all the creativity and originality, all the quick-thinking and clarity, all the shiny you-ness of your best self, doesn’t seem to matter when you’re weighing your idealized notions of that self against the prospect of being able to even entertain concepts like “morality” and “personal space” and “property law”.

And watching this movie, I see all of that realization happening, right there on Bradley Cooper’s face, as he eyes up a nice new window and (wearily, resignedly, with a resentment whose claws have been clipped) slides it into place and hopes it fits; just like the imperfect fragments of his life. We see it, film-makers. We get the metaphor. Using a window to make your point is an especially nice (if obvious) touch.

And even if, by the end of the film, he’s come off the meds and made his (thus far, failed and ridiculous) attempts at positive thinking and healing-through-exercise work, well, I will still have the scene that makes the movie worth watching. For me, this film isn’t going to get any better (or worse) than the sight of his face in that moment when he realizes that, yes, he can fix the “window”… but only if he uses the tools provided.


On Anti-Depressants–Part 2

Anyways, so, me and quite a few of my folks. Our brains don’t deal with Serotonin properly, and so, we use a class of drugs known as SSRIs. Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors… just what it sounds like, in other words. It inhibits our dodgy neurons from reuptaking all the Serotonin they make, so some can actually get to the next neuron, and we can actually *use* Serotonin inside our brains.

Serotonin’s an important one; it’s involved in mood, appetite, gauging social situations, sleep, and loads of other things that matter less, to me. For me, it’s good to finally understand why, even as a child, I often got 5 hours of sleep per night, or less. It’s nice to understand why, when everything is right in my world, I sometimes feel no pleasure or joy at all; just emptiness. It’s nice to know that my obsessive thoughts and depressing, terrifying fixations were the product of a chemical imbalance, and not just me, not trying hard enough to think positive thoughts.

It’s even nicer to take the damn pills, and get some sleep once in a while (at night, and everything!) and to not have dozens of full-blown panic attacks in the same day. (I counted once–30 is more than 2 dozen, ergo, “dozens”, although I grant you that’s getting by on a technicality… I was sleeping 3 hours a night, then, and having terrible nightmares, and waking up every hour within those hours… where were you then, Serotonin???)

Anything’s better than that. Death would have been better than that. I was planning death, actually; but since I was half out of my mind, convinced I would go to a fiery Hell and burn for eternity, AND my kids, growing up without me (their dad doesn’t believe in anything) well they’d be doomed to the same fate… in the end, my boyfriend took me to the doctor, and they put me on meds, and within 2 weeks, I was happy again. I thought maybe I was a little TOO happy, after a lifetime of watching my dad (he’s bipolar)… but the headshrinker said not. So, here I am. On my meds, and grateful every day of my life that I didn’t do something unforgivable, when I was going batshit crazy.

But taking the meds has its challenges, too. I take something other than what they started me on, because on the first SSRI, I got to the point of sleeping 14 hours a day, and still being too tired to do anything. My sex drive (a rapacious, excitable, excessive drive, or so I’ve been told) utterly disappeared–it’s hard to have a sex drive, when you can barely feel your genitals, and having an orgasm has become an impossible goal. I was also getting fat (fatter, really); too much Serotonin makes you hungry, and I was eating for England and America combined. So I swapped my meds, and the one I’m on now gives me less of the same type of trouble; reduced sexual pleasure, as opposed to non-existant; sleeping patterns that are erratic, but I can live with them; days where I’m starving and days where I hardly eat at all, but it sort of balances out.

My current medication also occasionally puts me in a scarily high mood–if I were bipolar, for example, being on anti-depressants and regularly going 36 hours without sleep, and wanting to have sex a dozen times a day and switching between deliriously happy and angry enough to punch someone in the face might be considered signs of mania–but hey, they told me I’m just depressed, not bipolar, and who am I too argue?

And really, who AM I too argue? Just a whackado who almost killed herself–and was wondering whether or not she should take her kids with her, because why should they have to stay in a world that’s so horrible I can’t bear it?–and who, no matter what, is going to be on some kind of medication for the rest of her life. I’m a firm believer in modern medicine, and better living through pharmaceuticals, and I can live with the fact that the drugs probably do a surprisingly high amount of damage to my internal organs.

I’d rather die of liver failure when I’m 60, than of tying a rope around my neck when I’m 30.

So I take the meds (plural, because as well as my daily dose of happy pill, I have a tranquilizer for short-term use, if and when my anxiety gets out of control) and I deal with the side-effects. I took my pill before I started writing this, actually, and I can feel a hint of fuzziness around the edges of my mind–what WAS that final point, I wanted to make?–but it’s of no consequence.

The final point is that I’m on anti-depressants, and I always will be; and although it was the thing I feared most, when I was a teenager (after my dad got his diagnosis of bipolar) I have lived through something that was worse. To ensure that, if I ever have a repeat of that experience, I live through it again, I will stay on the meds… even at their sometimes astronomical cost.


On Anti-Depressants–Part 1

I thought about calling this post “On Depression”; but then, how would I have the cute pun in the title?

I’ve been taking pills to even out my moods for about 3 years now. On my other blog, I tell a little tale of how that came to be–www.superdepressed.com–but the how doesn’t matter. The why, does.

It involves the brain, mostly, and the neurons within; and SO luckily for you, I’m doing a degree in psychology right now, so you get to read about what neurons actually are. In essence, they’re the cells that transmit information around your body. They work by, essentially, spraying chemicals across your synapses (the space between 2 neurons).

So the first neuron says to the second neuron, “Hey, how about some chemical goodness?” And if the second neuron responds, then it’s probably a non-damaged, functional neuron, of the same type as the previous neuron. Neurons work in a way that’s a bit like language; they only respond to certain chemicals, and if you spray them with a different one, they don’t respond at all, a bit like a Japanese tourist asking an English… no, scratch that, every Japanese tourist I ever met spoke at least 3 different languages. I’ll try again.

So, if the first neuron sprays the second neuron with a chemical it can’t accept, it’s like you walking up to Helen Keller and verbally asking her a question. It’s not that she’s ignoring you; she just can’t hear/see you, so, you know. How can she respond? That’s what generally happens, when a neuron gets hit by the wrong chemical–nothing.

If it’s the right chemical, though, it gets grabbed by the second neuron, which causes the neuron to get all excited (it’s called excitation, seriously, it is) and generate an electrical impulse. That electrical impulse moves down the neuron, all the way to the end, where it fires off a spray of, well, whatever chemical got it excited in the first place. This happens about eleventy-billion times a day, inside your body, and it’s how chemicals called neurotransmitters do a lot of things, a lot of which are related to mood. Dopamine, for example, is involved with pleasure; and if you snort cocaine, you’ll flood your synapses with dopamine, and for a while, they won’t reuptake the dopamine (remember that word, reuptake) and so the dopamine will just sit there, hanging around your synapses, exciting your pleasure neurons, and thereby exciting you.

It sounds like good fun, actually. The problem being, your neurons can’t *make* dopamine, etc, unless some of the chemical gets reuptaken (there’s that word again) so they can synthesize more. So eventually, you run out of ALL the dopamine, even the normal amounts, and then, instead of being high, you crash.

Ideally, keeping yourself on an even keel works best. No crazy highs, no bottomless lows, just normal variations within normal parameters.

But for some of us (me, my dad, one of my uncles, one of my cousins, one of my grandmothers, one of my brothers, etc) our brains don’t really work as they should. In our brains, when we make the chemical Serotonin, too much of it gets reuptaken (again, that word).

And the thing is, if a chemical gets reuptaken by the neuron that made it, nothing happens then, either. It’s like writing a letter and remembering you didn’t put a stamp on it, so you snatch it away from your neighbour who was gonna post it for you, you take it back home, and then leave it in a desk drawer (and then your best friend’s pissed off because you never sent her a birthday card, but that’s a story for another day).

The reuptake of chemicals is important; your neurons need to reuptake some of what they make, so they can make more; but if they reuptake too much… if you keep the cheque itself, as well as the stub, ain’t nobody’s water bill getting paid.

I think that’s enough analogies for today, and enough words in general. I’ll add more, hopefully tomorrow; but for now, I leave you with one of my favourite commercials ever. Behold: the Zoloft Egg. (Before things got so bad that I needed medication, I used to think of this little dude, and hope that, if worse came to worst, thoughts of him would make me feel better.)