Everyone needs to read Jace Lacob’s amazing piece on Showtime’s stellar portrayal of bipolar disorder through two different lenses– self, and family. It’s bang-on, and has some really fascinating insights from the Homeland and Shameless writers.
I’ve yet to watch Shameless (it’s on my list), but there’s a reason everyone’s still raving about Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in Homeland, and it’s because the character is written and portrayed as brutally, guttingly real. Carrie is a tragic figure, but there’s more to her than tragedy. For people like me to finally see ourselves on a screen, not as a murderer or degenerate or a collection of symptoms, but as a person, is truly remarkable.
“People like me,” yes. I’ve alluded to it in the past, but there’s no real point in being coy anymore: I’ve suffered from bipolar disorder for almost as long as I can remember. The toll it’s taken on my life is real, and every day brings with it another battle, but much like those poor souls still stuck in the closet, I’ve been unable to express any of these feelings, not to the people who matter. There’s an intrinsic fear of mental illness (a term I despise) in our society, an ironic nameless something in the back of our mind that whispers to us, “There but for the grace of God….” And so I kept this secret mostly locked inside, not wanting to unduly burden my loved ones. But coming up with excuses or thinly veiled falsehoods for friends (“Oh, I’ve got a bit of a cold, you go on without me”), or having to find a way to put feelings like “I am burning, with a thousand thousand hummingbirds flooding my veins” into normal, non-alarming parlance (“jittery”) wears on you, after a while. You begin to feel alienated, or alienating, even less capable of normalcy than usual. It’s easy to end up in a self-destructive tailspin, where all you can think is, But they can’t know.
So I smiled in sad recognition upon seeing the lengths Carrie goes to to hide her condition. And I felt the familiar clutch of panic in my gut as she descended into a hell where suddenly everything made sense but no one else could see. The strange, frightening joy of utter loneliness, drunk on the power of insight, with one small dark thought gnawing at you: It won’t last. The sudden crack as your mind crashes into the bedrock of reality, and you must once again find a way to gather the pieces. The Homeland writers genuinely understand that there is a certain strength that can come from this condition, and that the accompanying weaknesses are not to be trivialized. Carrie’s coping mechanisms aren’t so different from mine, either: She buries herself in work; I cocoon myself in my writing. We have specific music that must be listened to at certain times (for her it’s jazz; for me, Wilco’s very good at righting a listing ship). Sometimes, we don’t cope at all.
Of course, I doubt I’ll ever be able to share everything that goes on in this strange mass of misfiring neurons. It’s dark stuff, and scary, and that fear of abandonment or being a burden isn’t something that can truly be erased. For now, it is simply enough to say that this is who I am; that, like Carrie, I have my moments of brilliance and darkness, though seldom in equal measure; and that, most importantly, I am more than just a tragedy.