How Carrie Mathison Changed my Life 

Author: Stacey Isaacson

It’s a recurrent theme in my life that I come late to popular tv shows. I had no idea why we were talking about couture choices in the town of Schitt’s Creek, how Don Draper smoked too much or what’s up with the girls in “Girls.” And I still haven’t seen “Lost,” so no spoilers.

Thus, it might not surprise you that I first discovered “Homeland” a full 10 years after its 2011 premiere. For the uninitiated, the plot summary on the Internet Movie Database is, “A bipolar CIA operative becomes convinced a prisoner of war has been turned by al-Qaeda and is planning to carry out a terrorist attack on American soil.” I didn’t know any of this when my husband and I decided to give it a try on a nightly tv couch date. I was merely intrigued by a series featuring two faves of my adolescence: Claire Danes, my spirit animal in “My So-Called Life,” and Mandy Patinkin, known to me for “Evita” and “The Princess Bride.” (I can’t even tell you how often I quote Inigo Montoya in daily life. “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” That one comes in very handy with the children.)

And so, “Homeland.” Episode by episode, I watched Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) confront the realities of her bipolar disorder in navigating work, family, and romance. I thought about the depiction of bipolar in popular culture and wondered how the general public saw this character. And, as humans do, I thought about myself. When I first started seeing a psychiatrist in 2015, I was knee deep in anxiety and depression. I had started a small business the year before and spent 18 months working in a public-facing role 7 days a week. By the end of each day, my husband would ask what we should do for dinner, and I’d burst into tears. There were nights when I’d come home and proceed straight to our bedroom, not to sleep but to lie in the dark. There were days I stopped speaking outside of work. I’d somehow force an energy I didn’t feel as I greeted staff and customers, and I’d collapse from the strain and stress the minute I left. With the unwavering support of my husband, I sought help (seriously, I’m going to need to live a long life to repay him for all he’s seen me through over the years). Under the expert and compassionate care of my psychiatrist, I began treatment for depression and anxiety, and my world changed. Therapy and medication smoothed the rough edges of daily life, and things started to feel manageable. I hadn’t known this was possible; when all you know is your own “normal,” you don’t realize that there could be an alternative to the struggle.

A few years later, I was in a session with my doctor describing a moment from a recent family vacation. On the trip, plans for the day had gone awry and I froze up, sitting on a wall in the middle of Washington DC and unable to process what had gone wrong. Why hadn’t anyone asked for a snack earlier? Everyone wanted ice cream now, but that would complicate the timing of dinner. And how could I allow that? I was stuck. I sat on the stone wall, locked in my head, unable to move forward. Listening to the anecdote carefully, my psychiatrist ever so gently noted that there may be some bipolar cycling at work. That’s exactly what he said: “there may be some bipolar cycling.” We adjusted my medications, adding in lamotrigine to my regular depression medication, and life went on. But as in 2015, things smoothed out. Life still had difficult moments, of course, but I didn’t feel regularly locked-in, a prisoner of my own mind.

And yet, I identified only as someone who lived with depression and anxiety. The gentle words, “there may be some bipolar cycling” existed internally as a mere hypothesis, a possibility only and one I never allowed to fully sink in. That is, until I encountered Carrie Mathison. As I continued to watch this beautifully written character, I recalled those words. I watched Carrie and saw not a boilerplate or idealized depiction of bipolar disorder but a sensitive human who lived life with clarity and purpose while also experiencing moments of impossible impulses and debilitating depressions. In short, I saw a version of myself. I started researching bipolar disorder for the first time. I talked to my psychiatrist about “Homeland,” and I dug into his suggestions of Kay Redfield Jamison’s memoir “An Unquiet Mind” and TED talks like Laura Bain’s. It all started to fall into place: the frozen moments I had, the small spurts of intoxicating creativity, the deep holes of depression. I sought it all out, I soaked it all up, and I started to claim that bipolar II diagnosis rather than letting it quietly slip by.

Thank you, Carrie Mathison. But I’m only up to season 4, so no spoilers.

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