Silver Linings: In Life and On Screen

Mental illness is a subject that people generally like to avoid. Depending on the type of mental  illness that someone has, it is easy to hide it from others (just not the people you live with). I’ve heard people make fun of those who take meds for mental illnesses, like it’s made up, not a real disease. However, if you stood in a mall and threw a rock (don’t really do that, that’s mean) you’d have a very good chance of hitting someone who is on some type of psychotropic drug. Certainly one could make the argument that we are overmedicated, but these medicines save lives and help people (and those they love) live happier, healthy lives.

I grew up in a house with a mother who was undiagnosed with bipolar disorder. A person with bipolar disorder swings from mania to depression and back. Depression takes your life-force away, makes you feel melancholy, not want to face the world, have feelings of guilt and worthlessness and fatigue. In the manic stage, you can have racing thoughts, extreme irritability, act impulsively, be aggressive and be in denial that anything is wrong. In her manic stages, my mother cleaned the house from top to bottom in record time. Then she went to bed. Most memories of my mother are of her lying in bed. We didn’t talk about it. At the time, I had no idea what was wrong. I always thought she was mad at me. She was irritable and like a bomb ready to explode, so she was best to be avoided. My sisters and I didn’t invite friends over to our house. Our mother didn’t work, so where were we supposed to say she was at? Besides, if a mess was made there was hell to pay. So, I took refuge at friends’ houses, those being the days when you left in the morning and didn’t return until dinnertime during the summer.

Because my mother was miserable, she made sure everyone else was miserable, too. She especially like to ruin holidays. Several Christmases were “cancelled” by my mother, as she refused to make any food and retreated to her bedroom until December 26th. My sister H (the middle child) and my dad would scramble to put together lasagna and salad and Christmas cookies, while I spread Italian bread with garlic butter and diligently watched it bake in the oven to a golden brown. My oldest sister had wisely moved out upon graduating high school at 17. We carried on, did the best we could, tried to be “normal.”

As I grew older, things got weirder. I can honestly say that I never felt that I really had a mother. There were moments of normalcy, but those were fleeting and one never wanted to rock the boat. At some point while I was in junior high my mother stopped cooking all together. Since my mother never took the time to teach me to cook, I would slap together a bologna sandwich, whip up instant mashed potatoes or heat up a can of ravioli. I am the youngest child, my father traveled a lot for work, H was with her boyfriend and my mom was gone. I really don’t know where she went at night. I was a lonely kid at nighttime. Going over to a friend’s house would mean admitting something was wrong. It seemed every other house had a family sitting around a table enjoying a home-cooked meal. This alone time helped me develop my imagination. Many times I imagined myself running away, floating on raft (a la Huck Finn) and being taken in by a kind, loving family when I washed ashore. I think I wrote that story in my head a thousand times.

In high school during a fit of rage, my mother confessed to me that having children was her “biggest mistake.” We all stole the dreams she once had. We never should have been born and she regretted us every day of her life. She always criticized my hair, my clothes, my face, comparing me to my beautiful sisters. That no boy would ever love me was a mantra she liked to repeat.

Other than a girl’s wedding day, prom is a rite of passage where she wears the perfect dress and fusses over her hair and make-up to look beautiful for her date. I had a wonderful prom, but I was addled with worry beforehand, as my mother refused to take me dress shopping. Yet another power play to take away my joy. Luckily, my sister, always the hero, took me shopping and helped me pick out the perfect dress.

My mother’s mental illness was the worst kept secret ever. I was taught to lie; the lie that we were a normal, healthy family. Perhaps I could have avoided a lot of insecurities, disappointments and the feeling of being lost without having a mother to talk to if she had gotten treatment. I could have saved thousands of dollars in therapy bills and not fucked-up healthy relationships (or entered into unhealthy ones). But, it was swept under the rug, and those that were closest to her had to burden her wrath. Mental illness and abuse cannot be ignored. It’s no way to live and the only way for the person to change is to see a therapist and/or take medication.

Because of my familiarity with mental illness and bipolar disorder, I loved Silver Linings Playbook. I could relate to the subtext of truth vs. lies. Pat (Bradley Cooper) sincerely believes he can win his wife Nikki back after beating the shit out of her lover, being sentenced to time in a mental ward,  and dealing with the restraining order his wife has placed on him. Upon his release (being picked up by his enabling mother) Pat is fired up to read all the books from Nikki’s syllabus and reunite with her, thinking she’ll love his new lean frame. He doesn’t believe his father when he says she might still be dating the man who was her lover. Pat believes there is a silver lining, essentially lying to himself.

When Pat first returns home from the mental institution, the camera pans to the wall where his picture is missing. It has now been relegated to the table, as if his family is saying that they won’t claim a crazy son. They are also in denial about issues in the family. Pat’s father (played brilliantly by Robert De Niro, who in recent films has played a caricature of himself) is superstitious and has OCD. He is a bookie and carelessly places bets on Eagles’ games, seemingly unconcerned that he could lose all of the family’s money. But his parents love their son and want to help him get better; I don’t think they know how.

Pat appears to have rapid-cycling Bipolar Disorder, where his moods swing quickly. In a manic episode he reads A Farewell to Arms. He wakes his parents up in the middle of the night, raging against Hemingway. In the novel, Catherine and Frederic danced (which Pat called boring but liked it because they were happy) and lived a quiet life, but Hemingway had to go ahead and kill off Catherine. Pat was incensed that Hemingway would ruin a perfectly happy ending. He chucks the book out a closed window, shattering the glass.

While having dinner over at his friend Ronnie’s and his wife Veronica’s house, Ronnie admits to feeling suffocated by his marriage, their newborn and his job (all whispered while Veronica is in the next room). Soon, widowed and damaged Tiffany (played by Jennifer Lawrence), Veronica’s sister, shows up, a force of nature dressed in all black, down to her fingernails. There is instant chemistry between the two, although Pat says he isn’t flirting (after saying she looks nice) and is married. After a few bites of salad, Tiffany stands up, says she’s tired and asks Pat if he’s walking her home. At this point, Tiffany seems to be the most honest of the bunch.

I thought the performances by Cooper and Lawrence were brave, at times nuanced and other times feral and heartbreaking. These are flawed people (as we all are) who are looking for their silver lining (as we all are).

Tiffany and Pat find something to help them cope with life, and it deepens their bond. It’s not a simple rom-com or a male-bonding film about football or entirely about mental illness, but you will experience a roller-coaster ride of emotions, as you see the characters trying to get by, relying on their family, healing and finding their silver linings.

What are my silver linings? I believe that what I endured has made me an empathetic and kind person. I would never hurt someone intentionally. I am proud to see that my son has the same characteristics, and he didn’t have to learn them the hard way. I refuse to live in denial about anything and strive to make myself a better person every day. I was living a lie of a marriage, but woke up and realized I would not live that way ever again.

We all have our scars, but what we each decide to do with them makes all the difference. I have bad days, but I’ve learned healthy ways to cope. Writing, for example, is very cathartic. Reading, music, friends and love are also essential in my life. What do you do to cope and find you silver lining?


Blood Can Be Pretty

I ran from my childhood
Right into your arms
The All-American boy
With sandy blond hair,
A chalk white smile –
Grinning from ear to ear
While behind your back, fingers crossed
You are make-believe, my feet not grounded

In the land of corn and silos
You were Saint Isidore
And by your illusions I did conceive –
Inside me grew a baby of familiarity;
I had broken free from the devil I knew,
Only to be captured by a slippery serpent
Your heart is black, my heart was dust

But blood can be pretty, crimson and viscous
As your school-boy grin spewed vomit and piss
Claiming your dominion you made me feel less –
Not quite a woman, but an unintelligible bitch
But a girl like me knows how to sow a seed
I used your Iowa embryo to grow a stalk for me
You are long gone, I am untethered