Why Crazy Eyes is Here: Mental Illness and OITNB

Warning: Spoilers of Season 4, Orange is the New Black

If you’re reading then you know. You know that this season of OITNB has taken the world of Litchfield to another, sometimes deeply disturbing level. I am not going to weigh in on the discussions regarding the lack of POC in the writing room, nor am I going to opine about the possible appropriations of the BLM movement or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because it is not my place to do so. The links above are good starting points to enter into such discussions as led by POC, women, and others qualified to speak with more authority than could (or should) I. What I want to want to write about is the narrative arc of Suzanne, derisively called Crazy Eyes. Without question, she is and has always been my favorite character. 

I haven’t written about Suzanne in the past because it seemed that more separated us than united us, at least in terms of me appropriately writing about her without appropriating her experience. She is a woman of color who, as far as the writers have allowed us to see, is interested in women and not in men or gender fluid/ gender-queer persons. Again, that’s only what we’ve been shown. But with that much info, there would not seem to be any connection between such a character and someone like me. This season, though, we also have been shown more painful situations in which her mental illnesses cause her to suffer devastating consequences. We see that she is serving time for (we can surmise) kidnapping, imprisonment, and some form of homocide, perhaps manslaughter. We don’t see her trial, nor do we know her sentence. A logical question arises: Why isn’t she in a hospital or institution? She’s not in a psychiatric hospital because of the policies Ronald Reagan pushed into hyperdrive in the 1980s, resulting in a sharp increase in homelessness, and which directly contributed to the present reality: there are more mentally ill persons incarcerated than there are in proper care facilities. 

Of course, not all mental illnesses are the same, so we cannot expect a character to somehow represent an entire community. I am also sympathetic to the challenges of being a writer, and I know that someone is always going to complain. I have no interest in doing that; I don’t need to know if any of the writers have mental illnesses or have experience being in psychosis. I know that mental illness is messy and uncomfortable and scary and heartbreaking and violent, and that those are potent ingredients with which to work; without question, Uzo Abuda is a mistressful actor and delivers a powerful, nuanced, and gut-wrenching performance. Together, they produce a well-drawn character who embodies the contradictions of mental illness: we can be loving, gentle, considerate people, but we can also be raging, unpredictable, even violent.  

Where OITNB provides the most potent commentary, at least for me, is connecting the failures of our society to invest money, resources, and human capital into decreasing recidivism through rehabilitation; the ways in which retributive justice have now fed into a for profit prison model that prioritizes dollars over lives; and how the corporatization of prisons prevents well-meaning (if heavily flawed) people like Healy and Caputo from making changes that will actually improve the lives of inmates and enable them to turn their lives around. Story after story comes out each year about the dangers of private, for-profit prisons, there is consistent evidence about the bribing of judges to keep people incarcerated, and it is well-established that nearly 70% of for-profit prisons have “lockup quotas” that require prisons to be at full capacity. Prison is now about profit, so there is little to no motivation to promote rehabilitation programs, to deescalate (and stop) the asinine war on drugs, or to change the sentencing guidelines for nonviolent drug offenders because they are a cash cow. Addicted people do what they have to in order to get a fix; mentally ill, especially unmedicated, do what they have to do in order to feel safe, and I know from my own experiences that can feature unsettling behavior that seems threatening to those unfamiliar with the characteristics of mental illness. And, finally, prison guards in private prisons are more likely to engage in activities such as pitting two mentally ill inmates against each other for the purposes of betting

So in the wake of potent and necessary criticism of OITNB, I wanted to lift up into the light an aspect of the show that is well done, at least for this viewer, that hopefully galvanizes more people to pay attention to the ways in which mass incarceration, for profit prisons, sentencing guidelines, and the lack of proper resources being directed toward mental health care have systemic, detrimental impacts on individuals, families, communities, and our nation. 

It is not Suzanne who is crazy; it is the system that keeps her from being well that is sick.  


Aching Anakin



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?