I enjoyed the movie Silver Lining Playbook. It humanized mental illness in a way that Hollywood often doesn’t do. Hollywood loves mental illness but many movies don’t bother to capture the nuances. Most moviemakers cherry-pick dramatic, provocative manifestations of mental turmoil, all of which help fuel the stigma that “mentally-ill” individuals are dangerous, scary, weird and incapable of functioning in society. Girl Interrupted, Psycho, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Shutter Island, Silence of the Lambs and American Psycho come to mind. Of course, things like insanity, asylums, mania, hallucinations and psychopaths provide for colorful entertainment. When’s the last time you saw a Halloween display featuring diabetics or heart patients, and when’s the last time you saw one featuring psychiatric patients and asylums? The prior, never, the later, last Halloween. We are conditioned to fear those with mental illness, yet it’s a fear rooted in warped, albeit popular, misconceptions. Statistically, most individuals with mental issues are benign and, like all of us, just trying to get through the day. I’m reminded of a story my friend told me about an empathic psychiatrist who was dying. A student asked him what the difference was between those with mental illness and those without. He responded, “They are more gentle.”
Silver Lining Playbook captured the gentleness of mental illness. However, its ending really bothered me. The two main characters, each battling their own mental demons, fall in love despite their resistance and then face a conflict that makes the hopeful audience question whether love will triumph. At the end of the movie, the couple is together; they look and talk completely sane; they are in each other’s arms and kissing under the stars. When the credits start rolling, the audience feels like the couple has successfully conquered their mental demons and you leave the film with a warm, optimistic feeling that, indeed, all you need is love. I had a very different reaction. I left disappointed. Just like I think many movies simplify the nature of mental illness and underplay its normalcy, I felt Silver Lining Playbook simplified the cure. You need a lot more than love to overcome a mental illness.
When I was hit with “depression” in my early twenties, I avoided falling in love. Instead I looked for and chose the easy, fleeting, breakable bonds: The type of bond that when broken might make you shrug, but nothing more. I wasn’t running away from love, I was running away from the inevitable heartbreak, because like many depressives, I was a fatalist. My brain automatically added a morbid disclaimer to every potential chance of falling in love. “Don’t do it. You won’t be able to move when it’s over.” Like many depressives, I was also highly sensitive. A heartbreak to me was like a nuclear bomb exploding in my soul and the only way to avoid that was to never give anyone else access to my heart. If hearing his name made my blood dance, I wouldn’t date him. If seeing him triggered a spasm through my nerves, I wouldn’t date him. I couldn’t even get a dog or a cat. To love and let yourself be loved, you have to be capable of handling loss, and in my depressed state, I wasn’t. Love could never be my cure until I learned how to accept and deal with heartbreak, and to do that, I had to first learn how to accept and deal with my highly sensitive nature, my natural tendency to be fatalistic and, most importantly, to discover my true self and love her unconditionally. Many great people loved me when I was depressed, but they couldn’t fix me. I had to fix myself.
Perhaps that is why I found the characters in Silver Lining Playbook so frustrating at the end. They were able to skip all the hard steps: all the grit; all the tantrums of tears that turned into full-blown asthma attacks; all the chiseling away of destructive thoughts and the slow, tedious construction of helpful ones; the nearly impossible task of summoning will, effort and humility at your darkest, heaviest hours to start to forgive, accept and love yourself without judgement; and the painful rebirth of an individual who has his/her wounds but emerges fierce and strong despite them. All they needed was love, but that was never all I needed.