The Lives Behind Bipolar
By Brendan McLean, NAMI Communications Coordinator
It’s been 18 years since her sister’s death; years that have left Lisa Klein wondering whether her sister Tina really wanted to end her life or was simply trying to escape the pain.
The diagnosis of bipolar disorder had provided some answers. It gave an explanation for the jubilant highs and feelings of limitless potential her sister felt as well as the devastating lows when she wouldn’t come out of her room for days. It helped explain why wacky, eccentric, outrageous and crazy were the words people often used to describe her. While Lisa may never know for certain why her big sister decided to take her own life, she does know that her feelings often made her feel isolated in the bustling, “normal” world around her, feelings that millions of other Americans who live with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses experience every day.
With her husband Doug Blush, Lisa Klein set out to make a documentary chronicling the lives of individuals impacted by bipolar disorder in memory of her older sister. Four years of work culminated in the finished product Of Two Minds, which has been playing around the country at film festivals this year. Exploring the turbulent journey that individuals living with bipolar disorder often face every day, the film captures the feelings, thoughts and fears surrounding mental illness. There are psychiatrists and psychologists helping to explain what bipolar disorder is along the way, but largely it is the voices of the individuals with bipolar, the family members and others who have been directly influenced by mental illness, that narrate the story.
As a result, the film mimics the emotional roller coaster of life—and bipolar disorder—by bringing you up on a humorous high, setting you down into another tear-inducing account, only to bring you back up again.
Primarily following the stories of four individuals—starting with three but picking up a fourth along the way—Of Two Minds weaves between the characters' lives, depicting some of the many difficulties that individuals with mental illness face: being turned down for healthcare (and continuing to be turned down because you were previously rejected), balancing relationships when one minute you are the most joyous person in the world and the next when life is hanging on the edge of a razor, losing a family member to suicide, the feeling of knowing medication keeps you stable but at the same time zaps your creativity and individuality, and others.
“We didn’t start with a preconceived notion of how this was going to go,” Blush asserts. “We knew that there were going to be major stories that we were going to follow but we didn’t know the form it would take, but it turned out that stories of the people were so compelling, just living life.”
And extremely captivating they are. While the four primary stories provide the core of the movie, the peripheral stories help reveal the variety of complex emotions and situations that often arise with mental illness. All of these personal accounts help depict the personal consequences of the illness to an almost unbearable reality.
“It’s like taking the best day you’ve ever had and multiplying it by a million,” says Cheri Keating in the film, one of its central figures, about what it feels like to be manic. Keating came to Los Angeles to make it as a makeup artist. Within two months, she was planning her suicide. Her first inclination of her illness was when she was only 8 years old and started having hallucinations. At 14, she attempted suicide for the first time.
Because the film was shot over an extended period of time, we see Keating, and the other subjects of the film grow. For Keating, we see her pack up and move (something she has done 37 times in 37 years), find a boyfriend, Michael “Petey” Peterson, break up with said boyfriend, get back together and break up again. We see her wean herself off psychiatric medication and by the end of the film look wonderfully content as she shops through a local market.
Arguably one of the most fascinating turns of the movie is when the aforementioned Peterson, is diagnosed with bipolar disorder himself. Watching the film, we learn firsthand the ramification of what it means to be diagnosed. Peterson was completely okay when being told about Keating’s bipolar disorder; it didn’t affect him, she was attractive and fun and he liked her—that was all that mattered. But when he received the diagnosis himself, his response was completely the opposite.
“He just never realized he had it himself,” says Klein when I asked her about being there for the experience. “For him I think it was like, ‘oh my God, now I’m a label.’” Watching the film one comes to understand that there is a distinct difference between the stigma of mental illness and the stigma of having a mental illness one’s self.
However, it is not simply being labeled bipolar that is a concern, it is also figuring out which terms to use to label and describe the illness. One of the other main subjects of the film Liz Spikol, a writer and editor in Philadelphia, is a staunch proponent of using correct terminology. “She’s a big advocate for how we phrase things and the importance of the language we use, from what's in the DSM to the casual use of phrases like, ‘that’s crazy,’” says Klein.
Spikol's symptoms of psychosis did not occur until experiencing a rape when she was 17 years old. Her doctors told her she had a predisposition to bipolar disorder and that the event triggered it. From writing articles and blogs to creating videos on YouTube, she recounts her daily experiences with bipolar disorder and lets the viewer catch a glimpse of what it means to live with bipolar disorder.
In April, at the Cleveland International Film Festival, many of the film’s stars came together, meeting for the first time, to give attendees a chance to ask questions about their experiences with mental illness and the film. Understandably, many of those in attendance also had some connection to the illness, whether it was a personal diagnosis or a family member or friend had been diagnosed with the illness.
“One man came up to me after the showing and he had never told anyone [about his diagnosis]. I don’t think he had even admitted it to his family and he was coming up to talk to us as the first person he was coming out to,” Blush states. “I think if a film can have that sort of effect across a group of people I think it kind of engenders the ability to say, ‘Ok, I’m here too. We’re together.’”
The wide range of characters, the fourth and final primary subject is Carlton Davis, a 65-year-old man who was not diagnosed with bipolar disorder until his 50s, provide viewers with a multitude of possible moments or characters to relate. People with some relation to mental illness will reasonably find a deeper connection with the film than those without, but the film has the ability to move anyone.
The portrayals of mental illness in the film create a credibility that is infrequently found in other independently produced documentaries about mental illness. To help share their film with individuals around the country, Lisa Klein and Doug Blush have begun to work with NAMI State Organizations and Affiliates to hold screenings in addition to those at film festivals.
With a growing interest in the film and continued exposure at film festivals (the film is showing at the 16th Annual DocuWeeks festival in Los Angeles and New York between Aug. 17-30) more people will will be able to see this glimpse into what it means to live with bipolar disorder.
“If there’s one thing we hope, it’s that we can break open closet doors,” Klein believes. “If it allows two people to openly talk about bipolar disorder, it can change the entire discussion; it can change everything.”