Warning: this contains spoilers for season five of OITNB
This is not the first time I have written about the Orange is the New Black character Suzanne Warren, nor the first time I have opined about mental illness in media. In the main, I am not a fan of how mental illness is portrayed in films. I really did not like Silver Linings Playbook. I despised The Virgin Suicides, including the novel, and as Black Cindy says about Girl, Interrupted, “just think of the whitest movie ever made.”
In fairness, most of the objections I have to the way mental illness is portrayed on television and film are borne of industry and production restrictions. A psychotic killer on Law and Order may get three or four episodes of character arc, but they are almost always criminally insane. Most of the time they have gone off their meds, and some doctor who has only read their file makes definitive statements about how the person can be apprehended. These are police dramas, procedural shows that are not looking to explore the nuances of mental illness. In films, most often the constraints are owed to screen time for characters and the need to show extremes of behavior in successive scenes. More and more, I simply do not watch shows or films in which mental illness plays a major role, frankly because I am tired of seeing my community portrayed as criminals when we stand a much higher chance of being victims of crimes rather than the perpetrators.
But Uzo Aduba has changed that for me. Season one of OITNB seems almost like a distant memory now; a highly sexualized “Crazy Eyes” who pees on the floor as a warning is replaced in season two by a complicated Suzanne Warren, an African-American who was adopted by white parents and at 10 years old was the emotional equivalent of her 6-year-old sister. Suzanne, who is at Litchfield Correctional because she innocently detained a young boy who tragically died when he fell out a window, is sexually inexperienced but deep-feeling; she is highly intelligent, both in terms of cognition and emotions. She free-associates with her words and actions and tries to explain to others things they can’t understand, but I do. As a person with mental illness, I see not Uzo Aduba trying to affect mental illness, I see Suzanne Warren, a character who is channeled by the actress, exhibiting behaviors I know very well.
One of the issues explored in the current season is medication. “Loony” Lorna Morello has taken over the pharmaceutical bay during the riot, which stretches through the entire season. When inmates come seeking their meds, Lorna tells them that they don’t need them, that pills are used to control them, or as she says, “sand down your edges.” Suzanne says several times that she does need her meds, but finally agrees that she’ll go off of them. As the hours pass, Suzanne becomes increasingly agitated by the extreme circumstances around her and the loss of routine. Again and again, Suzanne tries to communicate with others until she enters crisis. Black Cindy secures medications, but they are the wrong ones. As it just so happens, she grabs lithium, which is a medication I take. On first viewing I did not think the writers handled the introduction of medication carefully enough; Suzanne goes nearly comatose after the drug is administered, which is not what would happen if someone who wasn’t on lithium took a single dose. However, on a second viewing, I see that Suzane simply crashes when she is made to feel safe. I have gone catatonic for hours at a time, unable to respond to even my wife’s voice, after a mania or mixed episode.
Chances are you have seen this meme or some form of it. It is utter bullshit, hopefully for obvious reasons. If not, ask yourself: would you say that to a diabetic requiring insulin or a cancer patient taking chemotherapy? Of course not.
OITNB presents this meme for a sustained critique, in many ways, by playing the storyline out for several episodes. Suzanne, like many of us, requires medication. To be sure, medications, especially in prisons or mental hospitals, can be over-prescribed or administered at artificially high dosages. But Suzanne is only able to begin the process of regaining herself when she has both medication and a safe environment. I know from experience that being surrounded by loving, supportive, informed, and compassionate people helps me to dedicate my energy to being well. When either is taken away, I self-destruct.
I doubt I’ll ever be able to tell Uzo Aduba how much I appreciate her, how much I relate to and love Suzanne Warren. I am aware of how lucky I am, much of it through nothing other than a genetic lottery, to be where I am. I write about my mental illness because I want, in some small way, to make a difference for the community I am in through no choice of my own. But Ms. Aduba is doing more through her art than perhaps anyone else in the world because the show reaches such a diverse audience. I don’t know of a single person who watches OITNB who doesn’t love Suzanne Warren, and for many people, it is the first time they have ever seen the humanity of someone called crazy.