Follow Up: One Show (Homeland), A Few Awards (Golden Globes): Helpful in Fighting Bipolar Stigma?

A few days ago, the New York Times ran an Op-Ed piece by Jamie Stiehm, whose sister just happens to be a writer/contributing producer of Homeland.  And, no surprise here, its Jamie’s manic episode that was drawn upon to make the main character, Carrie Mathison’s, experience with bipolar so real. Right down to Carrie’s obsession with green pens and different colored highlighters (which are all at my elbow as I type).

Homeland had a great night at the Globes last Sunday.  “…Claire Danes, the show’s incandescent star, was nominated for, and then won, the Golden Globe for best actress in a TV drama series; the show also won for best TV drama.”  This has the bipolar community (and my husband) abuzz with kudos and hope that this series will help fight the stigma bipolar disorder carries.

But, will it?

Conflict is what makes stories interesting. Ask any novelist, screenplay writer, basically anyone who tells stories for a living and they will tell you that without some good conflict, you ain’t got nuttin’. What made Carrie such an interesting character in Season 1 is not that she is bipolar, but that she was very good at setting up her own conflicts. She set up illegal surveillance to watch a suspected terrorist, stalked the man, had sex with hm, fell in love with him, compromised her job as a CIA agent at every turn and, let’s face it, sometimes acted pretty loony in the process. Although the above made for great plot points and conflict, there’s not much I can do with that to fight stigma. Because Homeland is all about characters, not bipolar. And Carrie has some serious character flaws. When we are trying to fight the stigma of an illness, an individual’s character really has nothing to do with any of it.

Fighting stigma is about educating people about the illness at hand and dispelling any misconceptions. People need to be educated about bipolar disorder without muddying the waters with flawed character traits. Only when people understand the illness can they begin to see that just because someone is bipolar, it does not mean our national security will be threatened. If anything, Homeland is bad for fighting stigma. What makes Carrie Matheson a great character is exactly what makes her bad for fighting stigma.

Jamie Stiehm concluded her NYT Op-Ed article, “So let a thousand conversations bloom. Secrets held up to light and air lose their power in the public square. Spies know it as keepers, and writers know it as tellers.” True.  But, it’s still up to us Bipolars to set the agenda for the conversations about fighting stigma. We need to lead participants down a path not about a fictitious character on a TV show, but down a path of education.

I must begin by making it clear that I have never seen the show in question. The first I learned about it was by reading your previous post. Also, I agree that education and awareness are absolutely key in helping individuals to understand, and consequently help reduce the stigma surrounding manic-depression.

But there is something else that could be a key piece as well, something I think those of us with the illness often fail to think about.

You are absolutely right that conflict makes stories interesting. People relate to it, because pretty much every person in this world faces conflict in their own life, in their own mind, even. I think that showing that conflict – particularly showing the conflict of someone who is bipolar, but is conflicted about things unrelated to her illness – is a wonderful way to help those who have never dealt with the illness relate and accept.

I have written often, and in numerous venues, about how I don’t often encounter prejudice, or discrimination, or even negativity from people when they learn that I am manic-depressive. I think some of this has to do with the fact that I present it in a very matter-of-fact way, without any kind of fear or hesitancy, some of it definitely has to do with the fact that I know some extraordinary people, but the main reason is that people know me. They look at me, they seem me as a human being whom they can relate to, who just happens to have psychological challenges that they have never experienced.

My long and rambling point is this: Yes, we need to educate. Absolutely. But I don’t think that any true and lasting change can be accomplished until we step out of the shadows and say, “I am bipolar. You know me as a writer, or a nurse, or a teacher, or a garbage collector. By I am an individual, not a diagnosis or a label.”

So perhaps the fact that the show seems (and again, I am going strictly by what I know secondhand) to focus on all aspects of Carrie’s life – the good choices, the bad, her illness, everything – perhaps that is a positive in the fight to end stigma. People see an interesting television character who is dealing with a diagnosis in addition to the rest of her life. Just as you and I are interesting people who deal with our diagnos(es) in addition to all of the other things that make us, us.

I agree… and disagree.
I, too have felt very little stigma about being bipolar. I, too, talk about my illness openly. But, I also consider myself highly functional. Only a few people know about my Carrie-like loony experiences, even though I talk about them. It’s very different to experience me in my “stable” state.

I have seen the first few episodes of “Homeland” and didn’t know Carrie’s problem was bipolar disorder (though I suspected). I loved the show and found her fascinating (but I love all things insane–serial killers, Criminal Minds, etc.) As a poster child for Bipolar Disorder, though, she sucks. How is she managing her illness? I saw her popping pills inconsistently, no therapist, no shrink, no self-awareness. This is bipolar disorder unchecked and on a rampage. A danger to self and others. She reaffirms the stereotype of the scary nut-case. Great TV drama, but I don’t want people equating her with me.

Hi, Sandy – welcome home! Glad you had a nice trip. I really liked your post about your realizations – it’s very insightful.

You know, you bring up a very good point – don’t equate Carrie with me. Yup, exactly. I don’t know, maybe we’re just boring because we take our med, go to our Drs and like to write blogs instead of compromising our country. Even so, I think we are much better poster children than Carrie! I just sent a rambling reply to Ruby’s comment and talked about one of the things that irks me about BP in the media. When the character has some really bad flaws and happens to be bipolar, then the disease is guilty by association. Since you love crime dramas, I’d love to know what you think. Do you see it, too?

Hey, Ruby! I’m so happy to see you back/writing/commenting! We all missed you! [Tried to reply yesterday & WP trashed it. Let’s try this again.]

So…bipolar stigma and good examples in the media that help fight it. Sticky subject. You’re absolutely right and we are both on the same page. Education is really important. And stepping out of the shadows is one way to fight stigma. And, getting the subject before the population needs to be done. Before I ramble on, I should probably give the audience some back pages. I lived a scenario similar to Carrie’s for the last decade of my career. It was an absolute crap place to be. So, because I intentionally stifled my own voice, over the years I’ve become hyper-sensitive to how BP is portrayed in the media and thought of by the general public. And, I’ve never outed myself, even after leaving my career last year. (Dysfunctional? Probably.)

When I watched the last episode of the show and then wrote my first post on Homeland, more than one person (including The Husband) asked The Closet Bipolar (me) if I thought that Carrie was a fair representation of bipolar (yes, right down to the fascination with highlighters), was I happy that there’s a bipolar character in a mainstream show (not against it) and if I thought it was a good way to fight stigma. My answer to the last question is, “No,” because so little is known about bipolar by the general public, save for The Warlock’s antics, that whatever is put out there to a mass audience is likely to be thought of as fact. The show isn’t about bipolar, it’s about deeply flawed (I would strongly argue) agent with BP. It’s the flaws the audience sees first, and BP is then guilty by association. Whether Carrie had bipolar or not, she would have still broken the law to stalk someone and risk national security. But, the fact that a bipolar person is doing this – having studied media and audience perception – the majority of the audience will not take the time to separate the bad behavior from the disease. Because of the lack of info out there they will believe that it is part of the disease. You and I know that a person’s character and disease are separate, but the majority of the audience does not. So, yes – great show, fine with there BP character out there, really happy the show doesn’t bill itself about being bipolar, but not on board with Carrie helping fight stigma. She’s just not a good stigma-fighting poster-child.

Now that we’re on the topic, the only living people I can think of who might fit that category are Carrie Fisher and Dr. Kay Jamison. Any others?

Okay, you make a really good point. You and I and those who have lived with the illness first- (or even second-)hand can dissect a character and say, “This is bipolar, this is personality/choice independent of bipolar.” I am very fortunate to have a large number of wonderful, thoughtful, loving, and understanding people in my life. Sometimes I forget that when thinking about a “typical” individual’s reaction to or perception of something. So I (erroneously) assume that the average viewer can separate illness from character flaws and choices that are not at all a product of it. I put that badly, so I hope you understand what I mean!

Also, something else I want to be clear about: I can very easily go and say that we should all set a good example and be open about our disorder. Ideally, I believe this, but realistically, I have never been in a position where being honest about my manic-depression could do me any real and lasting harm. So I never want to come across as not understanding that everyone makes different choices in their lives.

As far as “a good stigma-fighting poster-child” who is still alive, hmm. . . The first one I think of is Robin Williams. I respect him so much, because his road has not been easy, but he has done great things. Also, I feel he has helped lead the way by ‘fessing up about his manic-depression back before it was socially acceptable. Maurice Benard, though much less well know, deserves a mention here as well. He plays the character Sonny on ABC’s General Hospital. He essentially brought the illness to daytime (to the best of my knowledge). I can’t say I’ve always been delighted with the way the writers have handled his malady (after a very powerful introduction, he was basically given lithium and some talk therapy and it was all “handled” for some years), but he really moved me, both with his portrayal and his courage in bringing it to an untested medium.

Wow! Sorry for the novel-length reply!

No problem!

Robin Williams is a great example. I remember when he started talking about his illness. Didn’t he do the talk show circuit when he started talking about it all? I’ve never heard of Maurice Bernard / Sonny. How long ago was the story line introduced? Now that you mention it, daytime is a great forum to address something like bipolar. If you have time, I’d love to hear more about the story line.

Ever since we started this thread I’ve been trying to think of other good BP Poster Kids. The only other one I can think of is Stephen Fry. He even did a documentary about BP (The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive) several years ago. The info is outdated by now, but I really enjoyed it: Let me know what you think if you watch it.

Wow. Our list is pretty short. Sad.

I thought of two more people, Patty Duke and Marya Hornbacher. I don’t know what Patty Duke has been up to lately, but I know my mom loved her autobiography, Call Me Anna. She read it many years ago, long before I was even symptomatic, let alone diagnosed, but I think it was a really enlightening book for so many people of her generation. Here was someone they had grown up watching on a goofy sitcom, who had been struggling behind-the-scenes for so much of her life. So I think Patty Duke did a wonderful thing by making many baby boomers aware of manic-depression, even if just peripherally. That is on my reading list.

Marya Hornbacher’s memoir is supposed to be amazing. I know somewhat less about her, but a good friend of mine who is also bipolar, and who knows that I don’t usually seek out the memoirs/autobiographies/tell-all books of others (in fact, with rare exceptions I prefer to avoid them) has told me time and again how amazing Hornbacher’s book, Madness, is. So another for my reading list.

As for Maurice Benard, I don’t know if I made it clear in my initial comment, but he actual has bipolar disorder in real life. I seem to recall reading that it was his wife’s idea that they should address it on the show. The story debuted about five or six years ago. His character, Sonny, is a mob boss (soap opera) and has always had a very volatile temper, contrasted by an overall calmness, love for his family, and irresistible charm. As I write this, I wonder that even before the official introduction of the topic, Benard probably brought a lot of himself and his life to the character (mob boss excluded).

So he was a natural fit to introduce bipolar. From what I remember, something, I can’t remember what, happened in Sonny’s life that was very traumatic and stressful. His moods became even more extreme and unpredictable. He experienced hallucinations. I can’t recall specifically how the topic of mental illness was first brought up, but of course he balked and denied and resisted accepting it and seeking help. I think his onscreen wife, who of course cared for him during this period, was finally able to coax him to treatment.

As I mentioned initially, the rest of the storyline consisted of him being prescribed lithium, drinking less (actually, not at all at first), and having some sessions with a therapist. After that, pretty much no mention was ever made again of his disorder, although I was watching an episode recently and he made a reference to something that had happened recently that made me think they had revived the story for a time.

It’s not exactly an accurate portrayal of living with bipolar disorder ongoing, but it is a soap opera. Benard was absolute riveting in his performance, though, and I think they treated the whole thing in a very de-stigmatizing manner. I think especially the fact that the story was introduced for his character in the first place – Sonny is pretty much the most focused-on, “main” male character on the show – and not an issue addressed with another, lesser role, was a hugely positive thing (of course, it probably got the okay in large part due to Benard’s clout, but the point was it did get it).

And thank you for providing that link for me. I will have to check it out.

Patty Duke! Great one!! I’d completely forgotten about her…and her book. Yeah, shameful, I’ve never read it. Just put it in my Kindle queue. What I did already have in there and completely forgot about is Hornbacher’s book. I’m so glad you brought her up – I’m moving that to the number 2 position (still winding my way through Amazon’s number 1 for 2011, The Art of Fielding. Excellent book, and I’m not a baseball fan at all.)

Wow – I had no idea about Sonny or Maurice Bernard. I’m going to do some research and see if I can find anything on YouTube or other websites. I wish I had known and was able to watch some of it when it first aired. Just because of the dramatic nature of soaps, I don’t doubt that Sonny’s situation is an accurate portrayal of living with bipolar disorder, as you said. It sounds as if the writers did their best within the limits of the genre to address at least some of what a BP goes through. You probably know what my next questions is going to be…do you think Sonny (and the fact that a real BP was playing the character) makes a good poster child for helping fight stigma? In my pea brain I can see where he would be a much better PC than Carrie.

I have been mulling this one over, and the fact is I cannot give you a complete answer. I used to be a GH addict, and I never missed a show. I stopped watching for a few years, then recently fell back into the habit. They keep making reference to Sonny having had a breakdown (or something), so I don’t know how that was treated. But I think during the period in question he tried to kill someone, and endangered a number of people.

That wouldn’t exactly make him a good poster child. However, Sonny is a mob boss. He tries to kill people independently of his mood episodes, and he tried to kill people before he was diagnosed on the show. I think, in an odd way, the way that soap operas compartmentalize things (this person can never have children, oh, a year later it’s a miracle and she’s pregnant with a healthy baby; this one stole a bunch of money and got away with it, wait, five years later he’s being blackmailed; this person died in a fiery plane crash, oh look, suddenly they’re alive again!) may make it easier for viewers to separate the illness from the action. Then again, it isn’t what I would deem an accurate portrayal, because Sonny’s bipolar is only even mentioned when it’s fundamental to the story of the moment.

However, I have to say that whoever had the ultimate decision-making power: the writers, the director, Maurice Benard himself, did an incredible job presenting the original story. It aired around the same time I was coming to terms with my own diagnosis, and I found so much of it very difficult to watch, because it rang so true, and resonated so deeply with what I was dealing with.

So, while on the one hand I can’t endorse the character (after all, he’s a mob boss!), on the other hand he does control and treat his illness, and continue to be a very highly-functioning person. And I don’t for a minute think they have ever blamed his career choice or his actions on his bipolar. When addressing the bipolar, they portray more specifically the disintegration of his mental state. Usually, when he orders hits on people and goes all wildly violent, he is depicted as very much in his “normal” state of mind.

So maybe he isn’t such a terrible stigma-fighter after all. Which, to me, is weirdly ironic, but also makes complete sense given the context of having someone who actually lives openly with manic-depression play the role.

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