The Discomfort of the Mirror: Silver Linings Playbook, Bipolar, and Me

Silver Linings Playbook, Bradley Cooper, movie review, bipolar, bipolar disorder, mental health, men's health, bipolar men, violence

Ryan W. Bradley squirms through a film about a man like he was, not long ago: undiagnosed, violent, and about to hit bottom.

It’s disconcerting to watch a movie about yourself. Maybe even more so when that movie isn’t meant to be about you. And because of this Silver Linings Playbook made me more uncomfortable than any other film I’ve ever watched.

I knew going into it that the movie was about bipolar disorder, and I was prepared to be annoyed, dismayed, frustrated, and even angry over the representation I was about to watch, because how often has a movie accurately represented mental disabilities or other conditions people suffer with during their lives? How often is an over-dramatization used for effect, to make something more sensational? But I was not annoyed, frustrated, or angry. And if I was dismayed it was only by the mirror that was being held in front of me.

In a nutshell, Silver Linings Playbook is about a man with undiagnosed bipolar who snaps after seeing his wife in the shower with another man and beating the man to the brink of death. As a result he loses his job and is sent to a mental health facility. His bipolar is finally diagnosed, shedding a light on his past, and giving him a hurdle to overcome to return to society. To reduce the film to such a degree is definitely a disservice, but these are the essential points.

Pat, the film’s protagonist, must return home to live with his parents. His behavior, a single moment in a life of dealing with a mental disability he had no idea he was dealing with, has left him to pick up the pieces of his life while alternating between violent outbursts and denial about his broken marriage.

I was in college when I was diagnosed as bipolar. A relationship had gone sour, though in my case I was the other man. To compress events: I nearly threw the boyfriend off a balcony, drank a half-gallon of vodka, took every pill I could find (roughly 50-70), and barricaded myself in a men’s room stall in my dormitory, until I was escorted by police to an ambulance and taken to the hospital.

To give you an idea of my behavior outside this outburst, other highlights from my sophomore year included holding my roommate out our fourth story window, punching a wall and breaking a bone in my knuckle because the A’s lost to the Yankees in the first round of the playoffs, threatening to beat up a person dressed as George W. Bush on Halloween, and getting cited multiple times for carrying open bottles of liquor around the dorm.

As a result of my actions I was sent to the school’s counselor where I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Though I have always refused to use bipolar as a crutch it did make much of my life come into clearer focus. In some small way it even made me feel slightly less crazy.

After my sophomore year ended I was given a choice by the university: continue therapy and start taking bipolar meds or don’t come back to school. Like Pat in the movie, I was convinced I could handle my disorder on my own, so I stubbornly refused to do either and was “asked” not to return to school in the fall. Thus I found myself living on a futon couch in my parents’ house and working at a gas station.

In one swift action, an uncontrollable rage that had brewed in me as long as I can remember bubbled to the surface and changed the rest of my life. I did my best to pick up the pieces, I got myself back into school, where I learned to keep my disfunction hidden. At least as much as a severely alcoholic twentysomething can. I ended up with two degrees and am married with two children.

Of course the road back cannot be encapsulated in a two hour film, or a short essay. It takes a lifetime, because it is real life. Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition, one that lasts forever and cannot be cured. It can only be managed. In the last year I began therapy and bipolar medication for the first time, as I realized I could no longer bear the weight of my brain on my own. It was a decision that took years to come to because of my own stubbornness, ego, and machismo.

Watching Silver Linings Playbook made me anxious, it made me sweat with nervous adrenaline. It made me sad and ashamed and embarrassed. It made me feel bad for my family and everyone who has ever known me. But much like reading An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison’s memoir of bipolar, it also made me feel less alone in the struggle I face every day. As I watched Bradley Cooper fly into rages I had flashbacks, and I also felt acutely aware that my brain still feels that way, that the rages which were once directed outwardly persist inwardly for me.

My diagnosis and ousting from school made me overly-aware of the ramifications of my behavior and as a result I began to internalize. I still internalize my feelings, my brain races with an anger I can’t even pin down or begin to understand, which is one of the reasons therapy is probably healthy for me.

As Bradley Cooper was in the midst of a rage I turned to my wife and said, “Aren’t you glad I just keep my shit inside?” The straight-man to my ever-present class clown, she said “That’s not healthy either.” And of course, she’s right.

It’s nice to think love can cure us of any ailments, and while it certainly can be a balm, its ability to fix a broken heart does not exactly translate to a broken brain. Still, I believe if I hadn’t fallen in love with my wife I would likely be dead by now. I likely wouldn’t have made it another year. So, in that sense Hollywood is the perfect vehicle for depicting bipolar and the quest to be cured. But it is unfair to ourselves and our loved ones to put that kind of pressure on a relationship.

Silver Linings Playbook was a fantastic film, one I liked much better than I expected to. It is also a film I don’t think I will ever be able to sit through again. It’s enough for me to be so conscious of my brain chemistry and the results of being bipolar on a daily basis, it’s another to be faced with the experience from the outside looking in. It’s a feeling that makes me anxious, makes my heart race, even now as I write about it.

I don’t know if therapy or medication will help me manage my bipolar for the rest of my life, but I do know that doing nothing is basically writing myself off. And I’m certain a big part of what will help me manage on a daily basis, will, much like the disorder itself, be found somewhere inside myself. Everyone has different paths to take to get where they need to be. I’m still searching for the right one for me, and every day I wake up hoping I will make it long enough to find it.

 

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About Ryan W. Bradley

Ryan W. Bradley has fronted a punk band, done construction in the Arctic Circle, managed an independent children's bookstore, and now designs book covers. He is the author of several books of poetry and fiction, including the novel, CODE FOR FAILURE (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2013). He received his MFA from Pacific University and lives in Oregon with his wife and two sons.

Comments

  1. Good piece, honest and true.

  2. “An uncontrollable rage that had brewed in me as long as I could remember bubbled to the surface….”

    Thanks for your honest take on this….it can be bewildering to the partner of an undiagnosed bipolar person….sometimes the partner blames herself for triggering his behavior….and truly, she may be seeing only a snippet of the full spectrum of behaviors….

    • Leia, Thank you. It’s true, being in the wake of bipolar comes with immense challenges, just as dealing with it internally. I feel lucky that I was diagnosed before my wife and I got together, but the journey to understanding and managing it is truly a day to day, lifelong adventure. And knowing that those around us are profoundly effected in their own ways is something that for myself I struggle with a lot.

  3. Megan Sailsbury says:

    Amazing piece. I’m bipolar with PTSD. I hadn’t heard of this film, but you’ve got me thinking that I need to see it.

    • Hi Megan, thanks so much for reading. It is definitely a film worth seeing, difficult yes, but worth it. I think there’s a certain therapeutic value, even if it’s an uncomfortable sort of therapy at times.

  4. I have the paranoid/pschotic rather than the angery/irritable psychotic, that’s our difference, I guess. We’re snowflakes. Each intrinsically different and all from the water of the same cloud. I felt exactly the same seeing the movie and again reading this article.

    Thanks for making me not feel so alone for a few minutes.

    • Hi, CM, it’s true, the spectrum of our combinations of these things is so incredibly broad. The experience can’t be replicated for any of us, yet nothing can keep us from knowing each other’s experiences in a primal way. The paranoia part of bipolar isn’t something that’s foreign to me, but it’s still an aspect I find I have a harder time recognizing in the moment.

      Thanks for your comment, I’m glad you found your way to the article!

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