The Agony of Accuracy

My usual reaction when I hear that a film or a book has a bipolar character is to cringe. Bipolar is a condition that evokes interest, sometimes rather prurient interest, in others and I’m very much aware how much public attitudes towards bipolar are shaped by the media. By their very nature, bipolars are mercurial and can be unpredictable – and this makes them a very interesting proposition for writers. However, since it’s estimated that bipolar affects around 2.6% of adults, the odds are, therefore, that most depictions of bipolar in the arts are going to come from non-bipolars. And there’s plenty of scope for inaccuracy and misunderstanding. Where authors and screenwriters write a believable bipolar character, it’s usually because they’ve thought hard about it and have done plenty of homework. There moment when I really know that homework’s paid off is when I watch a scene or read a section of a novel and think, “Wow. That could be me, right there.”

The problem is that when that moment of recognition comes, it can be painful. The first time I felt it was when I read Patrick Gale’s novel Notes From an Exhibition, about an artist called Rachel. Rachel’s bipolar brings astonishing creativity, but makes her unable, at times, to meet her family’s needs. As a bipolar mum, I found myself wincing as I read sections written from the point of view of Rachel’s children. Gale has stated that he drew on the life of the poet Ann Sexton and read Kay Redfield Jamieson’s books before deciding that he wanted to explore the interplay between bipolarity and creativity. He has also had close friends with the disorder, as well as one previous boyfriend who went on to take his own life. Despite my discomfort in reading, Gale says he was “sharply aware that [he] probably ended up soft pedalling some of the nastier aspects of the disease’s effects so as not to lose the reader’s sympathy.” For me, things were already nasty enough.

This summer I read Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot. Initially, I had no idea that it would contain a bipolar character (although since the novel is set in the 1980s, the condition is always referred to as manic depression). All I knew in advance was that it was about a love triangle, and I was around 100 pages in when I realised that Madeleine’s boyfriend Leonard had manic depression. Unlike Gale, Eugenides had no direct experience of friends or family with bipolar, and so he researched the disorder and its treatments online and – crucially – tried to imagine what it might feel like to experience depression or mania, a strategy which has proved remarkable successful. For a while I didn’t feel much connection to Leonard’s experiences, but then came a section where he began to wonder whether his meds were making things better or worse. Psychiatrists, he muses, “counseled patience. They insisted that the body would adjust. And, to an extent, it did. After a while, you’d been on the drugs so long that you couldn’t remember what it felt like to be normal. That was how you adjusted. A better way to treat manic depression, it seemed to Leonard, was to find the sweet spot in the lower reaches of mania where the side effects were nil and energy went through the roof. You wanted to enjoy the fruits of mania without flipping out.” And I do, oh I do. I hanker for that sweet spot. But even before I’d read another page I knew, of course, the only possible outcome of Leonard’s secret reduction of his lithium dose.

When the first season of the drama Homeland was due to air, I was intrigued, but also anxious. I’d liked Claire Danes since the My So-Called Life days, and the premise was certainly interesting, but would bipolar be sensationalised? Meredith Stein, a writer and consulting editor on the show, has drawn on experiences of helping care for her bipolar sister. Danes presumably did not have a personal connection to bipolar, as she has said in interviews that she did a lot of research before playing Carrie, including watching YouTube videos people had recorded of themselves in manic states. 

My response to season one was mainly positive. Yes, there were niggling issues (how did Carrie manage to stay so well despite what appeared to be patchy treatment? Why did Carrie’s sister, a doctor, expect a new prescription for lithium to take effect within a few days, rather than weeks? Why show ECT as being administered without a general anaesthetic?). Overall, however, I felt the show did a more than adequate job. Danes’ portrayal of mania towards the end of the season was believable, and struck a real chord with me. Managing the boundary between the normal and the pathological can be difficult for people with bipolar. It can be hard to tell whether you really are just super productive, or spinning off into hypomania. And if you work in a job like Carrie’s, where it pays to be watchful and follow up hunches, where is the line between justified suspicion and clinical paranoia? 

But is there such a thing as a portrayal being too effective? Does there come a point where the sense of recognition is too great, when reading or watching becomes too triggering or painful? On Sunday night I watched the second episode of season two, and for the first time found myself struggling to watch. It was very hard for me to see Carrie’s agitation and distress as she waited in a Beirut safe house obsessing about the outcome of the CIA operation to kill Abu Nazir. It was so close to the dysphoric mania I experienced in August – that, too had been in a hot, foreign country and I had hidden myself away, just like Carrie. Watching the scene, I couldn’t help feel I was back in the holiday house, trying to cope alone in my room. Some of my friends have already seen episode 3, which has aired in the US but won’t be broadcast in the UK until the 21st October. At least one has already thought to warn me that I could be very triggered by the episode. I am grateful for the warning, and would definitely rather have a bit of a spoiler that view very triggering material unprepared.

Because there’s the paradox of bipolar in the arts – I want to watch, I must watch, because it’s good. It’s good because it feels real. And accurate is painful.

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