On Christology, Part I: Eyerollers Welcome

downey

I love Jesus.

I also understand that the statement makes a good number of people cringe. This makes sense, given that it so often is followed by judgmental statements meant to describe the flaws of those on the receiving end of the invective. I don’t love that Jesus. I don’t even want to know him.

But if you want to understand me you’ll come to understand that I love Jesus. My well-known conversion story–schizophrenic brother committed suicide and I began my fifteen-year path to the pastorate–is part of it. I wrestled intellectually with the Jesus I believed in for years; my doctrine was sound, but my life was not. The process of submitting to God unfolded over the course of years and would be as tedious to read as it would be to write; suffice it to say, after I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder I was able to take the necessary steps to create a life that allows me to live with health issues: Therapy with an amazing doctor; a medication protocol that strikes a good balance between managing the most troublesome aspects of bipolar and not so heavily altering my mental state that I lose a sense of self; recognizing and actualizing the need to work exclusively in the village; communicating clearly (and apologizing when I don’t) my needs when bipolar is winning; and myriad other issues.

But the biggest change has been quitting drinking. I tried for years to quit. I would make promises to myself and others that I would break. I let my alcoholism impact all areas of life, dragging others into it as well. My first marriage ended for many reasons, but the biggest was I chose alcohol over everything else, even when I acted like that was not the case. I didn’t do it maliciously–few drunks do–but as soon as I was able to regulate the need to drink because of mental health issues, the final piece necessary to quit was in place.

I attribute all of that to Jesus.

Christology literally means “words about Christ.” In seminary, all students are required to take at least one course in systematic theology, which involves writing a synthesized explanation for the major questions that arise when talking about belief in the Christian God. It is impossible to write a cohesive systematic theology by compartmentalizing each aspect. What one believes about Jesus informs what one believes about the sacraments, the means of grace and salvation, theological anthropology, and the ends of existence. I had this sorted out intellectually, but four years ago I began to feel the need to no longer just preach and teach, but rather to live the principles embodied in and through Jesus Christ.

Regular readers of the blog or those who know me irl will know about the Beloved Community Project. I have thrown myself into the life of the village because I believe that God has provided me the milieu in which I can preach the gospel through the work I do, most often without even saying the name of Jesus. As we’ll talk about in this series, I believe the statement, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” But I do not believe that it indicates the exclusive passage a spiritual life. In following Jesus, I have discovered that the truth is almost always found by following love. I have discovered that a rich, meaningful life is, as Jesus says, understanding that “the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.” I am a Son of Man, the male offspring of a male father–there are multiple ways in which the term is used in biblical documents; in the book of Ezekiel, we see the example I employ above–and by trying to serve various communities, I feel more alive than ever.

But I don’t think everyone will necessarily experience this, nor do I think that my approach is superior to others simply because I believe in Jee-suhs.

I have been a biblical scholar for most of my career; I wrestle with the Bible each and every week I am in the pulpit, which is most Sundays. I take the Bible seriously, but not so I can condemn others to hell while ignoring my own legion of sin. I read the Bible because it helps me in this deconstruction of a false self and the taking on of Christ, like a warm cloak over my cold flesh. I preach to share history, theory, words of comfort, and to issue loving commandments to take Christ into the community with us, ears opened and mouths shut. St. Francis is ever my pastor: Preach the gospel at all times, Aaron, and for God’s sake shut up unless words are absolutely necessary. 

This project will reflect the tangy mix that is Pastor Aaron (PA). I love theology and sharing ideas with people; I’m a pastoral theologian. I have little use for theology that does not help us live the gospel in our lives, as we are able and as we discern; the Jesus I know helps me to view situations with a long view toward love, he gives me a nudge when I’m acting selfishly or Iif  am benefitting from myriad privileges because it is just easier to remain quiet; and he, in ways I will explain, brings me the greatest and most overwhelming joy in life.

I know, I used to roll my eyes, too. And I totally understand if you just did. Christians and Christianity deserve the disdain and skepticisms many hold. I never run away from that here, which is easy because I do not have the “goal” of converting anyone. I plan to explicate my working Christology here, so when I go out into the world I can focus on being a servant in the ways that people need. I hope that you’ll come on the journey, and please feel free to share with anyone you think might be interested.

Stop Killing Us: Privilege Don’t Cure Bipolar Disorder

Trigger warning: real, emotionally-charged talk about fears of violence; mention, but with graphic details embedded within a link, of persons with bipolar disorder being killed by the police; and discussion of fears in calling police for help as a person with bipolar disorder. Hopeful payoff: resources and encouragement to help bring about a change. Also, the International Bipolar Foundation passed on publishing this; I am not going to comment or speculate as to why, other than to say that I am deeply disappointed with this decision. But the organization does great work, so I post this in its original version while lamenting that it sat for a week only to be rejected. Alas, such is the nature of writing and activism I guess. 

DeadlyForceRotator4.jpg

 I can be annoying. I won’t shut up about things like race relations, GLBTQ+ issues, mental health awareness, Muslim-Christian relations, and a whole host of other issues that tend to be hot button. And also tend to be fraught with threats of violence. My hero is MLK, and my life is dedicated to Jesus. I just don’t shut up about things I believe God requires of me. Suffice it say, I am used to being threatened with violence.

Let me be absolutely clear, though. I am a “white,” Christian, American cisgender male married to a woman. My bisexuality can easily be hidden, although I do not hide it, so I do not face many of the same dangers that a vast majority of my community faces. I wear a Black Lives Matter shirt, but not Black skin. I have grown a beard and wear a head covering to act in solidarity with my Muslim and Sikh brothers, but can always shave both my beard and my locs. I have an incredible amount of privilege, including from my education and the cosmic lottery I won to get great parents and an amazing community of people focused on justice, love, equality, and truth. My brother in Christ Rev. Ramone Raschad Billingsley, writing from the margins, has helped me develop my own hermeneutical positioning: rooted in the center, I choose the margins. That is privilege, too. I can, at any point, retreat back to the center and reassume all of the privilege available to me.

My approach to life is pretty much about the opposite of that: I am going to use my privilege until I don’t have it any more.

When I write something like “Stop Killing Us” I am not in any way trying to supplant or deflect the very real conversations that need to happen in terms of addressing the terrifying plague of police violence on citizens of color, trans* persons, and other highly vulnerable populations that experience little to no privilege of any kind. And I most certainly am not attempting to thrust myself into a position in which I am claiming my fears are on par with those in said marginalized states.

What I am saying, though, is that violence against people with mental illness is at shocking levels. We are sixteen times more likely to be killed by police than are people without mental illness. I cannot lie and say that I don’t think about that every single time I leave my little village. To wit:

On September 30, 2016, Shainei Lindsay awoke with a fright in her Pasedena, California home because her husband, a man living with bipolar disorder, had called the police for help. You can read the heartbreaking details by clicking here. For those who want to continue this conversation but not be subjected to the terror of the situation, it will suffice to say that the man was killed. A father. A child of God. A man who had had interactions with the police before, but had never turned violent, at least according to initial reports. Brace yourself, but apologists and blind defenders of whatever police do will say that there weren’t other choices; that he should have been on his meds; that he should have complied; that he should have… Brace yourself, and then push back. Hard.

There is immediate, substantial, proven training for Mental Health First Aid. Where I live, police officers, bartenders, pastors, teachers, dispatchers, business owners, teachers, village employees, members of government, and nursing home professionals took a class together. Some people got scholarships provided by our local NAMI chapter. In fact, I lift up into the light our local NAMI chapter as an example of what can be done by a group of committed and educated citizens. Please, use these links. Familiarize yourself with the services already in your communities, or identify a need and discern if you are someone who can do something about it.

Because here is the truth. We can take our meds; we can be responsible with our mental health; but we cannot always predict what is going to happen to us. Sometimes a med stops working like it once did. Sometimes we can forget a dose, or our manias or depressions are stronger than they have been before. And sometimes we’re just terrified because, let’s be honest, living with bipolar disorder sometimes is terrifying. When we call for help, when we reach out, when we are being honest about the fact that we are not in our right minds, you have a fundamental responsibility to not kill us. There are so, so many more options before a gun needs to be drawn. And don’t be so quick to suggest the taser. I can almost guarantee that if I were tased in a mania, I would likely have a heart attack and die. But it doesn’t have to come to that; there are effective, proved methods of helping a person through a crisis. There are ways to create conditions that are safe for the afflicted, the officers attempting to provide help, others who might be in the area or involved in some way. We are not dealing with a great mystery. I personally know three dozen people I am very confident would have been able to resolve the situation with little to no violence. Why? Because they have the training. They have the relationships. They have the understanding that a person in crisis asking for help is holding a fire extinguisher because his mind is a landscape of terror I would not wish anyone to see. But I have seen it. And I will see it again.

Sadly, a friend and longtime resident of our village was killed in a police standoff.  We called him PaulE, and he had several diagnoses. Anyone who had lived here for more than fifteen years likely would have known that, and a whole bunch of people who have lived here for less time knew it. Didn’t stop his death. I have held the hand of PaulE’s mother as we both cry, and I have spoken with many of the officers who were there when the tragedy ended. They are haunted. They felt beholden to a process rather than attending to a person. When the tanks came and the helicopters flew overhead, and yet Paul’s mother was not allowed to speak to him and friends of his who are professional counselors were kept away, I wrote on a message board, “PaulE is never going to be taken alive. They have just given flesh to his deepest fear.”

No good police officer wants to kill a mentally ill person in crisis. We owe it to them to do everything we can to make sure these decisions only used as a last resort. Don’t accept the argument that a mentally ill person’s disconcerting, but not immediately lethal behavior is enough justification to shoot them. We cannot accept that low bar for a use of deadly force. It is time to demand, as Shaun King has eloquently set forth in his recent work, that police officers have four year degrees. That there be consistent and updated training in areas involving mental health assessments by officers. If the sight of a mentally ill person in distress is presented as sufficient cause for fear and bullets, we are going to see more and more tragedies. I have had enough of them for one lifetime, frankly.

I won’t shut up. And I know that we come to this place to feel better. I so appreciate the International Bipolar Foundation’s website, work, and witness. I’m honored to be a featured blogger. But I don’t shut up, friends. I’m annoying. I get it. But I also love deeply and passionately, and I care about the people in our community. Our lives matter. Our lives are not just to be lifted up as a reason for why we don’t need gun control. Right? How many times have we heard that? We need more money for mental health and more training. Great! It is available, but communities have to act. We have to push our legislators. We have to do what we can when we are healthy to make sure that when we’re not, we aren’t shot to death asking for help.

 

On Hinkley and Freddie

News outlet are reporting that John Hinkley, Jr., who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981, is set to be released from a mental hospital after nearly 35 years of commitment to the psychiatric facility. The doctors in charge of his care declare that he is no longer suffering from depression and psychological delusions. For the past year, he has been living 17 days a month with his mother in Virginia. The Reagan Foundation has issued a statement saying they disagree with the doctors and the judge and declare that he is still a threat. So does that pile of human garbage that is running for president on the GOP ticket.

I don’t know what it is like to be shot. I don’t know what it is like to lose a person I love to gun violence. I am not doubting that for a few persons, although not Ronald Reagan who forgave Hinkley years ago, connected with the shooting there may still be strong feelings. And that is understandable. But on a day in which it is announced that while Freddie Gray was the victim of a homicide, not one single person seems to be responsible for his death, I am thinking that a man who was found not guilty by reason of insanity and served almost the whole of my lifetime in a facility, has earned the right to go home if actual medical professionals clear him. Because, sorry, I trust them a lot more than I do the people at the Reagan Foundation and Herr Drumpf. President Reagan and the other three victims saw justice served in their case. The Gray family is still waiting.

But this situation reveals some deep contradictions and hypocrisies in our country. First, a large number of citizens think that we are a Christian nation  but seem to forget that forgiveness it at the heart of the faith. Ronald Reagan knew it, and practiced it quickly. But 71% of Protestants and 68% of Catholics support the death penalty, which is indicative of a larger trend in this country: we like our justice retributive, not restorative. Second, Reagan’s own policies have caused the current crisis we face. Look at the rise in our private prisons, despite overwhelming evidence that they are rampant violators of human rights.  Look at the massive amounts of money taxpayers spend on incarceration, especially given that nearly 60% of those imprisoned are guilty of nonviolent offenses. In fact, Hinkley was lucky. An estimated 356,000 prisoners have serious mental illness but are not placed in institutions because of overcrowding and lack of facilities. Placing mentally ill persons in prison is a danger to themselves, other inmates, and institutional staff. And that rests squarely at the feet of the Reagan Administration and the GOP. Finally, we continue to perpetuate the notion that people cannot be rehabilitated. Returning citizens face legal, cultural, and societal stumbling blocks that make it difficult for them to reintegrate to life outside of prison. And despite the fact that Americans overwhelmingly believe that the government should be providing more treatment and support to mentally ill persons, we still see that mental illness is grossly misunderstood. If it weren’t, people would accept that doctors who have been working with Hinkley for decades are in a much better position to determine his threat level to self and others than are people with only a GED.

As a person who lives with mental illness, as someone who knows what it is like to be in distress and what it is like to be healthy, I am deeply concerned about how easily and blithely people say, “He should be locked up forever!” Really? He should? Why? Because he shot Reagan? Well, what about Freddie Gray? What about the massive number of murders that occur each year in which no one is charged or found guilty, yet we continue to fill up prisons with nonviolent offenders, essentially running graduate schools for criminality. And if that is conflating separate issues, fine. Let’s hit it head-on: consistent evidence shows that treatment works. And do we really think that doctors who have been tasked with caring for one of the most high profile patients in modern history would sign their names to recommendations for release if they were not overwhelming confident that Hinkley is not a danger to himself and others?

The dumbing down of this country and the notion that every opinion is equal is doing serious damage to lives and reasonable conversations. If we are serious about stopping the school to prison pipeline, we need to reexamine our mental health system, including building facilities for the criminally insane. Some, maybe most, should not get out. I can understand that; there are mental illnesses that are so mysterious and powerful, the only thing that can be done is to isolate a person as humanely and safely as possible, while still respecting basic rights. But others can be treated and brought back to a level of health that allows them, with proper restrictions and responsibilities, to return to society.

This is an important issue. It comes down to a basic philosophy. Are we a country that believes once a criminal always a criminal, or do we believe that rehabilitation and transformation are not only possible, but also a focus of our justice system? Because saying that people should stay locked up indefinitely or in inhumane surroundings because “JUSTICE!” just doesn’t work. It ruins lives. And it goes against the fundamental message of Jesus Christ.

On Turning Forty 


Chapter Two: Vague, but insistent eccentricities 

My parents both come from hardscrabble backgrounds. Dad in Detroit, Michigan; Mom in Urbana, Ohio. They had been born into a time that came to define “first one to go to college” for more people than ever in the course of American history. My Dad and Uncle Fred, who committed suicide when I was one year old, both earned PhDs. Mom, an MA and distinguished coursework in two doctorates; my maternal uncle, a JD. He is a well-respected lawyer in his hometown. I’ve known money problems, but never like my grandmothers and grandfathers; my parents made a life through the power of their minds. I am one generation removed from the farm. 

I have found that people who live a life of the mind tend to be eccentric. This is a gross generalization, of course, and I don’t want to draw too many distinctions and lines separating myself from others. But as fervently as some people work out their bodies, I work out my brain. I develop my mind. And a lot of people I know and spend time with regularly do so as well. In my experience we’re…a particular, quirky, somewhat esoteric people.

I learned all of this by watching my parents. 

I don’t know how the word “eccentric” first tripped across my transom, but it did. It is possible that it was one of the words that daily my father would require me to look up, write in a notebook, define, and craft a sentence for; he paid me $.25/word and put it into a college account. Years later, after saving my own money throughout high school from working at the Little Art, I bought my first computer: A PowerMac. It cost me $2000. That’s a lot of words. A lot of popcorn sold. A formidable vocabulary for a sassy little bi-boy coming out of the Springs, already well on his way to becoming eccentric. But I learned the word before I became it. It is also entirely possible that it was my brother who first said it, as we huddled together in his room listening to Fishbone and Big Audio Dynamite in-between U2 and AC/DC. Stephen had banished Zeppelin from the house after Melissa moved out and he took the big bedroom. Their stereo wars used to drive our parents crazy. I, sharing a room with Stephen, colluded until he hit me too hard. Then I would run down the hall safely into the confines of Sis’s room, asking to listen to Jethro Tull or Jesus Christ Superstar. 

But I think that “eccentric” becoming part of the vocabulary, a designate that we could brandish upon our parents like a  papal seal on an excommunication decree, most likely came later. After the move to Yellow Springs. In the last good period Stephen had before schizophrenia gripped him. The salad days. I have this vague, but insistent memory of gathering in the room we now call “Mimi’s room” and establishing, through dulcet tones, that Mom and Dad were just so eccentric. They read books all the time; they had “tea time” every Saturday. They liked to have long, boring conversations about things we didn’t care about and they made us stay at the table. Ugh. They were just so…weird, we thought, with family trips planned around museums, or  Bob Dylan concerts.We agreed that it was pretty cool to work in a movie theater the family owned, and getting to see films before they even came out was neat, but Mom and Dad were totally squaresville. 

I know, right?! I want to reach back in history and slap myself on the head and say, “Shut up you little shit and fucking appreciate the incredible exposure to art, literature, culture, and music your parents are giving you!!!”But at the time I remember why. I have often said that I would live through my brother’s suicide; the miscarriage and eventual divorce that occurred in the first marriage; and pretty much anything else on the long list of bad shit that has happened to and around me, before I would ever go back to middle school. It was, without question, fucking hell for me. I wanted a family like The Huxtables. I wanted to live in some idyllic world where my brother and sister did not have a different father; where I did not feel so horribly insecure about myself; where my emotions were not always so topsy-turvy, my heart so ever-on-my-sleeve. A world in which I did not feel like my body was the enemy.

Two years ago, I did not have any tattoos where people could see them unless I removed my shirt. I think I am slipping into the “heavily tattooed” category, at least for my profession. There are more of us, to be sure, than there were in the past, but we are still outside the norm. The locks are a rather new addition, too. While we are broke now, I once had expendable income that I spent on clothes that make me feel comfortable; I like suits. Waistcoats. Ties. Shoes. Hats. And I readily admit that it is born of insecurity. I have spent most of my life hating my body. Wanting out of my head. Wishing that I weren’t so…Yeah. You guessed it. Eccentric. 

It hit me last night when Miriam sent me a text asking how I was doing and I typed out: “Reading an article in The Atlantic Monthly about the necessity of humanities education in a digital world. And watching The Office. You?” I hit send and then thought, You’re an odd bird, Saari. An odd bird, indeed. Later, Mimi would say that she didn’t even bat an eye. “Of course you were,” she quipped this morning. “That’s the kinda stuff you do. I figured there was some documentary on and you were playing Scrabble.” I thought, Huh.  Just a few feet away is  the spot where Stephen and I collaborated, calling Mom and Dad eccentric. If I had only known. 

They heard us. Well, Mom did anyway. I know because it came up a couple weeks later–or a year; time is abtract–during an argument, when my mother hissed at me: “I know you and your brother think we’re eccentric! And that you’re embarrassed about us. Well you know what? I. Don’t Care.”  Which, of course, is the best answer that someone could possibly give, especially a strong, intelligent, loving mother to her sensitive, almost cowering son. I was on my way to letting fear of my peers and deep insecurities totally control my life. If mother isn’t afraid of them, I started to reason, maybe their opinions don’t matter so much. And it has taken me decades to get to a place where I feel like myself. Oh, it’s a shitstorm being me, sometimes. Bipolar is a wild ride, often exhilarating and sometimes exhaustingly terrifying. And I’d like to lose some weight. But in the main, I’m okay being eccentric if it allows me to be loving, compassionate, intentional, understanding, loyal, good, and true. 

So, that’s me.  At forty. A little quirky, a  little weathered. But standing. Surrounded by love and purpose. My life is totally different than how I pictured it when I was 18. And that’s okay.  Even though I scramble to find money, I don’t scramble to find meaning. Significance. Joy. The stuff of life that Jesus told us would lead to our true treasure. 

Or maybe I’m just being eccentric. 

   

Torpor and Acedia 


There’s a great story about Robert Pinosh, a man who left his copywriting job for Hollywood, and crafted one letter that changed the whole of his life. In it he wrote about his love of words, a must for a writer. Words are the only medium that matters to those who write; it is an exhausting, but never exhaustive pursuit to reveal something never before described, to help connect the concept with the reality, and to shape the attenuating emotions, largely because one’s own life seems to be nothing but chaos. Life is indifferent to words, but we writers refuse to be spurned in our advances. We are ever vigilant, ever optimistic, ever hopeful that one day we will be understood. 

Every person with bipolar disorder (BD) is different. I cycle rapidly, even while on meds. It is getting better–though that can be hard to believe sometimes, especially in the midst of a dramatic cycle–but dearly beloved BD is draining. There are times when my skin is on fire from itchiness, my head is filled with noise, and I feel so zapped of energy that making it from the bed to the bathroom takes several hours, a vast majority of that time being spent convincing myself that I can get up.

Torpor. 

That’s the word, bird. Because most often writers use the word torpor to creat a contrast. Torpor is a deep apathy, an overwhelming lethargy. Torpor describes a being who is bereft. Torpor makes the opposite highs–exuberance, perhaps?–that much more dizzying; torpor defines the reified air that accompanies the precipice. Torpor. While Pinosh does not use the word in his missive, I like to imagine that if he were alive and deigned to read my scribblings, he would smile at the mention of torpor. Words elicit reactions. That is their ontology. 

And I would smile because it is such a perfect word for where I am right now. For those who know me, it can sometimes be difficult to discern if I am manic or not because I am naturally a passionate and upbeat person. The price, though, are these periods of excruciating madness. Or feeling my body disconnected from my mind, which in turn is impacted by the capricious, arbitrary secretions of my brain. I feel myself a meat bag filled with chemicals brewed in God’s laboratory.   

I have lifted up the tent flap of the big top so that you may peek; the three rings of my mind circus each have a featured attraction. Torpor and acedia are center ring right now. Their’s is a long love affair, a fickle romance that is devoid of commitment to anything except the void. A sucking darkness, dementors of one’s own demented delusions, removes all the joy from the room when they are in center ring. They will show you the where and when of your most vulnerable underbelly, poking disinterestedly but insistently, wearing away any armor or defense until you have a choice: continue to blister, or build up a callous. 

Torpor and acedia: Fickle in their felicity.    

Aching Anakin

phantom

 

Star Wars The Phantom Menace star Jake Lloyd has been transferred from a jail facility to a psychiatric facility after a recent diagnosis of schizophrenia.His family members report that there is already an improvement to his condition.

As a Star Wars geek, suicide survivor, and a person who battles bipolar disorder, I am genuinely happy for Jake. I cannot imagine wrestling with mental illness while being an almost reviled figure  simply for (arguably) being miscast as the iconic Anakin Skywalker in Episode I of the saga; schizophrenia, which I know from my own brother’s experience and abundant reading, manifests itself in the mid- to late-twenties, so Jake’s major negative experiences with fans (let us remember that the word derives from fanatics) were before the full onset of his disorder. But I don’t doubt that there are triggers galore, like I wrote about yesterday, around the film(s) for him. Sadly, though, these barbs and jabs about a fictional character are nothing compared to the reality of mental illness.

Jake Lloyd has done some illegal things, that’s not under debate. But what should flat out piss us off is that he was in jail for ten months. I am fresh from a hell of bipolar’s making, and I cannot imagine having to try to deal with it while in prison. And while I don’t know the details, I do know that we who have mental illnesses give off plenty of signs that trained professionals can detect. Here’s the rub, though: those professionals have to be given access to us. Access and time. Access and time and resources, something that we as a society don’t place as a priority for public money any more. Thanks to President Ronald Reagan’s policies, mental health care (which has always been problematic) has declined precipitously in the last 30 years. More ill people and fewer psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists, and social workers has created backlog and an impossible caseload, or mentally ill persons need to have great financial resources to be able to to seek treatment and good places in which to estivate when things turn bad.

I could wax philosophical about how Jake’s public diagnosis can spark a more honest conversation about mental illness, but it won’t. I look on message boards now and already see the jokes; I don’t believe people mean any harm, but mental illness is so greatly understood (toughen up; do yoga; eat organics; take your meds and all will be fine) laughter at an individual who has it, or a connection between a lackluster acting effort and a mental disorder, just contribute to the dismissive attitude. Mental illness is an easy culprit, but a difficult subject.

After each mass shooting I hear people talk about the need for more mental health care. I always think, Is that what it takes? People dying? And are we in the mental illness community the bearers of that brunt? That our societal use of violence is the result of simply being “crazy”? Let’s talk about mental illness now. Jake was in jail for ten months. Ten. Months. Why did it take so long? And how was he treated when he was inside? How was he finally able to be diagnosed? How did his fame impact or not impact current final diagnosis? I don’t expect Jake to do a damn thing other than work on getting better, and I don’t want his privacy to be violated. But I do hope that we can lovingly look at his situation and ask ourselves how many other people with seriously undiagnosed conditions are toiling away in jails and prisons?

Jake, I know you won’t read this, but I mean it with every fiber of my being: May the Force be with you.

Pulling the Triggers: Bipolar Cinema

bipolar trigger

 

[Trigger warning: Discussion of triggers.]

“Have you seen Silver Linings Playbook?” people have asked since my diagnosis. I would always answer no. I hadn’t. And until last night, I thought I would never see it. The reasons are complex, but for really simple influences. First, I decide just about every year or so there is a film I simply will not watch. And I don’t. Ever. The Bodyguard?  Never seen it. Chicago?  Are you kidding me? Avatar. Nope. And there’s really no rationale behind the decision. It is one of the quirks of my bipolar; I dig my heels in and refuse to relent, regardless of others trying to persuade me. I think one of the reasons I chose films is that, ultimately, they don’t matter; digging in my heels on other issues–God, marriage, family, friends, work, school–causes great damage. Painful damage. So I choose films.

Second, I know some films are going to cause me a heavy emotional reaction. Sometimes this is good, like when I watch Rent. I can guarantee there are three scenes that will, without fail, cause me to weep. Not cry, full-on weep. And I have seen this film dozens and dozens of times. But others, like Kids, The Hours, and Punch Drunk Love, I have seen once and will never see again. Great films. Important films. But films that triggered me big, big, big time when I saw them, and all for seemingly different reasons, but each triggering event relating in some significant way to the life and suicide of my schizophrenic brother, Stephen (for whom Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love is a near dead-ringer).

This whole notion of triggering is complicated for me. My bipolar was diagnosed a year ago, and it has been a shitstorm. For faithful readers of the blog, you know the major movements. It has been a discovery for me that I have been triggered in the past, and that I need to be mindful of situations–particularly as they relate to film, television, music, and literature–that might set me off. As I present mainly as a depressive with manic tendencies (who cycles very rapidly, but remains depressed much longer than manic), it is very rare that I can point to a specific incident and say, “This, right here, is why I am losing it. This is why the demons are coming.” Generally, the tide turns slowly and culminates in a  wildly manic evening and then the precipitous drop. Before I started taking meds, I subconsciously would schedule around anticipated depressions.

But the single, triggering event? That is relatively new for me. And it has gotten me rethinking how I approach the use (overuse?) of “triggering” in our quotidian conversations. I am loathe to place myself in a situation where I somehow present myself as the arbiter of what is triggering and what is not. Sexual assault victims, PTSD sufferers, domestic violence victims, trans* persons, mentally ill; all of these “groups” might experience triggers differently, and then there is wide variance within corresponding subgroup. And of course my little list is not definitive. I bring this up just so that I am clear: triggering is very real, and we as a public should talk about it, and be mindful of the very real, very serious consequences for human lives that can occur when people intentionally place triggers in the paths of others. But what constitutes a trigger is not uniform.

I also think that there is sometimes a co-opting of “triggering” language used by people in the same way that they will misappropriate something like a Native spirit animal. They take something real and use it incorrectly; or they use it as a vehicle to raise a ruckus and don’t actually talk to people who might really be triggered. It is a hard call because, like I wrote above, I didn’t really know what things will necessarily  trigger me and I have never thought that someone else was responsible (except when I was asked to watch The Hours, in which the person knew very well that my brother had drowned himself and I had a total “WTF?!” reaction; in fairness, though, I should have known as it is based on a true story, and I hold an M.A. in English Literature). I just fear that “trigger warnings” could be co-opted by people for the wrong reasons and could result in the opposite of what is good about having the discussion: an honest exchange regarding how we set-up and regulate our public, shared, and private spaces. How can we be mindful without being fearful? And that requires those of us who can be triggered to speak up, but to also know that sometimes we might have to miss out on certain things and that is okay. But that it is not a reason to ask other people to not have a specific experience.

Let me be specific.

The single event that set me off on this last journey into the hellscape was watching Are You Here with Zach Galifianakis, whom I normally enjoy. I knew that the film featured a bipolar character, and I was intellectually curious about how the disorder would be handled. Here is where it gets weird. I don’t really remember much at all about the film because I got so upset; all I can say is that if felt wrong. Like, really wrong. Like somehow a part of me was being elevated and ridiculed and used as evidence that somehow I am less of a man and am an incomplete person. The issue of mental illness was introduced and then solved with Galifinakis’ character shaving his beard. Bye-bye, bipolar. Perhaps it is the fact that I am a chubby, affable, long-haired, big old beard guy that I felt like I was the butt of the joke, but I did. And I was not laughing.

Ridiculous? Without question. Asinine. But still very fucking real.

So I descended into the Pit. And when I started to come out, I made a bold decision. I decided to watch Silver Linings Playbook, by myself and without telling anyone. (See my post about pulling back from Facebook.) I generally like Bradley Cooper (American Sniper is a film I have arbitrarily decided not to see), and I adore Jennifer Lawrence. I’m imagining that you have seen the film–so, spoiler alert on a movie four years old–and remember the basic plot. Guy gets out of the institution and moves back in with his quirky family; guy is obsessed with getting his wife back, whom he has hurt in untold ways; he is set up by friends with mentally ill girl, who has hurt and been hurt in untold ways, and they fall in love. The silver lining is there even for people like us. We are deserving of love, too. Yay.

I don’t mean to indicate that I didn’t like the film, I did. Seriously, who wouldn’t want to look at Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence for two hours? That is almost as much beauty as Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof. Throw in Robert DeNiro as the gambling-addicted, OCD father and you’ve got Hollywood gold. But that was my problem with it, I guess. It was the tired old, “Hey, you have a mental illness?! I have a mental illness! We can be mentally ill together!” It was the last shot of Jennifer curling into Bradley’s lap and sucking his gorgeous face as the credits begin to roll. Yeah! mental illness can be cured by shaving a beard or getting two people with compatible crazy to make out!

I wish I had been there at the screening. Like, how do two people with serious issues make it work when one takes meds and the other does not? Why do both of them become violent (at least toward things, although also with people) when they are manic, when a vast majority of bipolars do not manifest this way? While it is great that they found one another, is the message that mentally ill people can only be with one another? The only other mentally ill character is portrayed by Chris Tucker, and he’s a clown; he is the comedic relief. We laugh at his shenanigans. So, is that it? Mental illness is either to be solved or to be laughed at?

Look, I get that it is a film based on a novel (and that the film made a lot of changes). And I agree that there is something really powerful about the idea that two people who have been damaging to others can be healed together. If I did not believe in healing and recovery, I would not be a pastor and I would not be so open about my own bipolar. I do believe in both. But the reality of mental illness is much messier, much more difficult, and much more nuanced than what we seem to get. With a haircut and a sexy hot crazy partner, you’ll be all better, too.

So, faithful readers (if you are there). Chime in. What should I see? What should I avoid? What movies do you appreciate that feature a person with mental illness, and which ones left you angry/raw/disappointed/triggered?