The show, based on Terri Cheney's column of the same title, provides a uniquely nuanced depiction of mental illness—and highlights the gaps that still exist in the ways we tell stories about it.
On the episode of Modern Love called "Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am," Anne Hathaway's character Lexi spends half her time in bed.
She spends the other half of her life gallivanting around New York City, wearing sparkles and styling herself after famous actresses, asking out men in grocery stores and making up for the time and the lovers she lost while she was catatonically depressed.
At best, the episode is a uniquely nuanced depiction of real mental illness, emphasizing the fact that Hathaway's illness may not be easily curable, refusing the temptation to glamorize her symptoms or suffocate her with pity and pessimism. At worst, it still falls into some old traps and perhaps could've done a better job of explaining the specifics of Lexi's diagnosis and the actuality of what bipolar is and is not.
Like all the episodes of Amazon Prime's new series Modern Love, it's based on a real-life story published in The New York Times' column of the same name. Hathaway's character is based on an essay by a woman named Terri Cheney, who specifies in the first paragraph that she suffers from what she refers to as "ultrararidian rapid cycling."
There are many different forms of bipolar disorder, far more than the typical binary of Bipolar I and II imply. Bipolar I, the best-known type, involves periods of severe mania and severe depression, whereas with Bipolar II, the manic episodes are usually slightly less severe, though periods of depression can be extremely intense. With both of these types, lengths and symptoms of manic and depressive episodes can vary, though most people experience one or two cycles per year, with episodes lasting around 13 weeks, according to a 2010 study. Episodes can be triggered by events such as seasonal changes, trauma, or grief, but they can also happen naturally due to to the vicissitudes of brain chemistry and daily life. Sometimes symptoms of mania and depression can co-occur, and this is referred to as a mixed episode.
There are many other variants of bipolar disorder, including cyclothymic disorder, which describes brief periods of mania and depression that are slightly less severe than full-on Bipolar I or II. Then there's the kind of extremely rapid switching that Hathaway's character experienced. Affecting 10-15% of people diagnosed with bipolar disorder, rapid cycling is officially diagnosed when someone experiences four or more cycles in one year. Ultra-rapid cycling is when a person cycles through episodes in one month or less, and the sort that Cheney and Lexi have is called ultra-ultra-rapid cycling or ultradian cycling, which means that cycles can occur within a 24-hour period.
As with most mental illnesses, every person's diagnosis is different. For Cheney, ultradian cycling means that she'd often spend days or weeks in bed, only to awaken suddenly to the sound of birdsong and a feeling of euphoria. Like her TV adaption, Cheney tells us that she tried dozens of treatments, including dangerous electroshock therapy, while keeping her illness secret from friends and family and making up for her down periods by exceeding expectations when she was up. She was able to pull together a life, but all this didn't make dating easy. "When dating me, you might go to bed with Madame Bovary and wake up with Hester Prynne," she wrote in her Times column.
Refreshingly, neither Cheney's essay nor the TV adaption equates the right treatment or the perfect person with a cure and a happy ending. Instead, after following their protagonist through a failed relationship that began during a manic episode and quickly tanked when her mood turned, the essay and show end with a bit of realistic hope. "I've finally accepted that there is no cure for the chemical imbalance in my brain, any more than there is a cure for love," Cheney writes, lines that Hathaway repeats in the episode's conclusion. "But there's a little yellow pill I'm very fond of, and a pale blue one, and some pretty pink capsules, and a handful of other colors that have turned my life around."
MODERN LOVE Extended Trailer (NEW 2019) Anne Hathaway, Love Comedy Series www.youtube.com
Battling the Stigma Onscreen: Violence, Love, and Bipolar Representation
While illnesses like depression and anxiety have become more socially acceptable and widely understood (although too often they're still not viewed as valid illnesses, instead treated like something that can be willfully overcome with a little yoga), bipolar and other personality disorders are still heavily stigmatized and misunderstood.
For example, people who suffer from personality disorders are far too frequently blamed for things like mass shootings, when actually only 3-5% of violent crimes are perpetrated by people with mental illnesses (and 97% of mass shooters are white males with histories of misogyny and domestic violence).
In reality, bipolar disorder has absolutely nothing to do with violence. It's also completely untrue that people with bipolar are unable to have relationships. Everyone is different, and people with bipolar disorder are just as capable (or incapable) of loving and being loved as anybody else.
While Hathaway/Cheney's illness appears to be unusually unpredictable, many people with mental illnesses can and do thrive in relationships. While unstable relationships can have particularly negative and triggering effects on people who suffer from mental illnesses, stable relationships of any kind can be incredibly beneficial. And while no one should use their mental illness as an excuse to use others as therapists or sole support systems, supportive friends, partners, and family members can be vital in terms of providing the kind of acceptance and structure that people with mental illness may have trouble giving themselves.
Still, it's a blessing that "Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am" doesn't over-glamorize the effects or importance of relationships. Anne Hathaway's Lexi finds relief in confessing to a coworker about her illness, but there is no implication that the coworker will be able to heal her or support her in any way. Confession and interpersonal love are perhaps over-emphasized in some forms of modern mental health discourse, but premature or forced confessions can have negative consequences, and confession by no means make up for actual treatment, large systemic changes, or genuine external and acceptance. Sometimes, acceptance means accepting the reality of illness and treatment in all their ugly and unpalatable forms, a reality that is too often forgotten in exchange for the more palatable narrative that tells us that love can heal all wounds.
The Future of Bipolar on TV: Hopefully More Diverse, and Created by People Who Really Suffer from Mental Illness
For her part, Terri Cheney, a prolific writer who has written several memoirs about her experience with mental illness, is apparently very satisfied with Hathaway's nuanced portrayal. "When you think of the illness in terms of a familiar face, it's less frightening and easier to understand," she told Glamour. "That's why having someone as famous as Anne portray a woman with bipolar disorder is so terrific: It's an antidote to shame."
As in her essay, Cheney is quick to emphasize the fact that sometimes there is no cure to mental illness; it's not like you can just confess that you have it and expunge it from your brain chemistry. "After a lifetime of living with a mental illness, I've discovered that the most helpful thing someone can say to me when I'm suffering is, 'Tell me where it hurts,'" she added. "I don't want advice. I don't want to be cheered up. I just want to be listened to and truly heard."
Hathaway also seems to understand the importance of her role. "I have people in my life who I love so deeply who have received various mental health diagnoses, and that's not the whole story of who they are," she said. "But in many cases, because of an intolerant society, that's the space of fear they're kept in."
As there's more mental illness representation on TV, hopefully we'll see more nuanced portrayals of people with mental illness. Many Hollywood shows and movies have heavily exaggerated the symptoms of bipolar disorder, giving characters who suffer from the disorder violent narratives or dramatic breakdowns (Empire, Silver Linings Playbook), painting them as anti-medication (Law and Order: SVU) and using episodes as plot devices (Homeland), despite gaining praise for featuring characters who suffer from it.
Perhaps in the future, shows will also begin discussing the disorder in more precise terms and becoming as open and explicit about treatments, medication, therapy, and the messy vicissitudes of daily life as they are with dramatizing mental breakdowns and choreographing manic episodes.
Maybe they could also try to focus on people of different race and class backgrounds, as mental illness is frequently whitewashed, though it cannot be separated from things like race and class, and certainly not everyone with bipolar has a swanky entertainment law job or lives in an apartment like Anne Hathaway's utterly absurd one. Perhaps Modern Love itself shouldn't be expected to get real about mental illness, for even this episode does feel lost in the show's saccharine, wealth-buoyed rom-com vibe, caught up in the "permanent delusion that New York makes people fall into a special kind of love, unattainable anyplace else (unless on a brief trip abroad)," as The Washington Post writes, a delusion that anyone who actually lives in New York knows is utterly untrue (but that always makes for a hit TV show).
Still, when all is said and done, there will never be a singular or perfect depiction of bipolar disorder, and a depiction of mental illness on a show like this one will certainly expose lots of people to a sympathetic narrative they otherwise might not have encountered.
Like all illnesses, bipolar disorder is an ongoing process that affects everyone in a completely unique way, and there is no quick fix for it. But with medication and support, it's something that's possible to live and thrive with—and yes, to love with.
Though Lexi never finds true love, she finds something else. She finds self-acceptance, openness, a growth mindset, and the belief that she isn't in need of fixing. And in this life, perhaps that's the best kind of fairy-tale ending we can ask for.
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