When I first saw a commercial advertising for ABC’s newest drama titled The Black Box my heart sank; I could tell even from those small clips that they were creating a series about a successful woman, a doctor no less, with bipolar disorder.
My hesitation of mental illness portrayed in television echoes a lot of things others have written about: falsifying, glorifying, creating mass assumptions, and increasing the stigma associated with mental illness. But this time it felt personal. This time it was personal to me.
I’m diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I also work tirelessly to reduce the stigma associated with the disease, and mental illness in general.
The show’s main character: Catherine Black, played by Kelly Reilly, is shown to be caught between two versions herself, and unable to control her disease, no matter what she does. While medication appears to be effective she doesn’t stay on the prescribed drugs. She soars into mania and then lunges into depression without any time passing. All this occurs while holding her job as a world famous neuroscientist, and the world is none-the-wiser. Her therapist appears distant and cold. And the way this student of the brain describes herself and her disease is disappointing and discouraging.
She separates it from the physical side of medicine, she states that it is part of her, inside of her – in her personality. To say she was embarrassed about her diagnosis would be an understatement.
Between the onset of my symptoms and when my array of doctors and therapists had figured out an effective treatment regime that was effective for me my ability to hold myself together to get through my undergraduate work was seemingly impossible. I was not dependable to any degree. I was unstable to the point where holding down a job at a local bookstore was a challenge; I don’t know how being a neuroscientist would have been possible by any stretch of the imagination while I was not properly treated.
Now, well since having discovered and rigorously implemented an effective treatment regime for my symptoms and maintaining proper support with mental health professionals my life is full in just about every way possible. I don’t “feel” bipolar and it does not hinder my day-to-day. It is a not part of me that I cannot control, because with proper treatment, I can.
Mental Illness is not a character flaw. It is not an absolute life ending disability. Mental illness is not shameful; it just is. It’s not fun, it’s not exciting, it’s not something you want – but neither is a broken arm, heart disease, auditory problems, or bad vision. You don’t see new hit TV shows about the doctor who went off his cholesterol medication.
It’s exhausting, educating person after person, who each think they know all they need to know about mental illness after watching the movie Sybil.
25% of all adults will experience symptoms of mental illness during their life time. Bipolar Disorder is not as uncommon as you might think. It’s also very treatable.
TV stations and producers are never going to stop dramatizing mental illness because, pain sells, emotion sells and most people in the world are looking desperately for something to connect to – even if it’s not real, but you have to question what at what cost are these messages being sent?
Maybe there isn’t one.
What do you think?
My name is Erin and This is Where I Stand