On Growing Up with Bipolar Disorder: a Retrospect in Film

Episode by Brandon

So, I’ve shared my story on here before about having bipolar disorder and learning to cope with that. The person I am now is someone who’s pretty put together and knowledgeable on that. That’s actually why I’m able to talk about it so openly. But that hasn’t always been the case. I was diagnosed at age 21, in my senior year of college, when the three words that best described me were “total fucking disaster.” I was on the verge of failing out of college and running my life into the ground, and I had really hurt some of the people close to me. My life had turned into a mess, and that’s pretty common for people growing up with undiagnosed mental illness.

Most mental illnesses are lifelong disorders, but the symptoms tend to get much worse in the teen years and early 20s, mostly for biological reasons, but also because young people are picking up more responsibility at these ages, so the impact of nonconformance is greater. Growing up is already hard, but growing up and realizing you have a mental illness is even harder, and that’s usually when it happens.

So today, since this is a podcast about movies and mental health, I’m going to look at a few films that cover growing up with mental illness and see what they have to say about it, and how it lines up with my own experience doing the same. If you’ve had the same experience, or you just want to learn more about it, hopefully you’ll find something relatable here.

And also, if you’re concerned about spoilers, the films I’ll be covering are The Breakfast Club, Donnie Darko, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I don’t think any of these have Sixth Sense-level spoilers, but I will talk about them assuming you’ve seen them—or, at least, assuming that you don’t mind me talking about them.

The Breakfast Club

So the first film I’m going to cover is the 1985 John Hughes film The Breakfast Club. This was a huge film for Gen X, it was kind of like an anthem, where Gen X finally got a chance to say, yeah, this is who we are, this is what we’re about. It wasn’t explicitly about mental illness, but there is one character I wanted to talk about, and that is Allison Reynolds, the so-called basket case.

But first, a quick aside. I wasn’t super-familiar with the term “basket case,” so I looked it up. It was originally a slang term used in World War I for soldiers that had lost all of their limbs and had to be carried around in a “basket.” So the term means someone who can’t move independently, or basically just can’t take care of themselves. Somehow, this term got attached to mental illness, which is something I find pretty offensive, as I and most people I know with mental illness manage just fine taking care of ourselves. But that is what the movie calls Allison. Can she really not take care of herself? My guess is she’s much more independent than a veteran with no arms or legs, but I’ll let you decide for yourselves.

So, anyway, Allison, the so-called basket case, is the weird one. She wears black makeup, she lies about her sexual escapades and drinking habits, she steals things for fun. Now, does this mean she has a mental illness? The film’s not 100% clear on this. She does say that her parents ignore her, so it’s possible that she’s just acting out to get attention, but as someone who got through high school with an undiagnosed but very active mental illness, I saw several things I related to.

The first is that she makes excuses for what’s wrong with her. She claims she drinks a lot. She claims she’s sleeping with her psychiatrist. She claims that her parents ignore her. Are any of these true? Well, she admitted was lying about her sexual adventures, and admitted she lies about a lot of things. But notice that everything she lies about is something that others would expect to affect her behavior.

When you have mental illness, especially if it’s untreated, something is wrong with you. I’m not saying it’s your fault or that your irreparably broken, I’m just saying there are issues that you have to deal with. But when you don’t have a diagnosis, you don’t have an explanation. It feels like you were dealt the same hand of cards as everyone else, and you just suck at the game. So, growing up with mental illness, you know something’s wrong, but you have no explanation, and you really want an explanation, so you start looking for the things that could be wrong with you. And, much like Allison, you worry that other people notice what’s wrong with you. I don’t think she was lying about these things for fun; I think she was testing the waters, seeing what their reactions would be. It can be easier to make excuses for your behavior like she does rather than try to explain that you just suck at life.

When I was a teenager, I would sometimes act weird, not because I actually was that weird, but simply because I knew I wasn’t normal and just decided to run with it. Being a teenager involves a lot of boundary testing, finding the bounds and limits, and finding out what works inside them what doesn’t. This is really similar to the behavior we see in Allison in this film. I don’t think she’s that weird, I think she’s just trying to figure it out in the absence of a better explanation.

Being a permanent outsider like that has another interesting effect: it gives you a lot of sympathy for others who are being excluded. Allison tries to present herself as someone who doesn’t really care about anything, and she calls out others—especially Claire—for being fake. But she shows her sympathy pretty clearly in one scene. When they’re all sitting in a circle and Claire does her lipstick trick, and then John treats her condescendingly, Allison is the first one who leaps to her defense. When Claire is made to feel like an outsider, Allison knows what that feels like and jumps in to save her. 

That’s something I really related to. In high school, I worked really hard to project this persona of nonchalance, but I felt very deeply for the people pushed to the outside—even people I didn’t like. Now, I’m a fairly emotional person, so some of that is just my natural empathy, but I’m also drawn to the people on the fringes. I’ve always been like that. And I probably always will be.

Donnie Darko

Alright, next on the list, we have the 2001 cult classic, Donnie Darko. We’ve had a full episode on this one before, so I’m not going to go too in-depth with the analysis, but I’ll sum it up by saying that I believe this is a film about schizophrenia, not time travel. If you’re curious as to why, go listen to our previous episode on this famously confusing film. So, now that we’ve glanced over the complex question of what this film is about, let’s talk about what that means.

Donnie is a teenager struggling with unmedicated schizophrenia, and that manifests itself in a number of ways. Once I realized what the film was about, it became much more relatable to me, and I actually started seeing bits of myself in this character that was previously completely foreign to me.

First off, no matter how irrational his thoughts may be, Donnie perceives them as true. In fact, we, the viewers, see things through his eyes, so we also see all of these things as true. Donnie reacts to his delusions the same way a neurotypical person would react to a car heading directly their way: Donnie’s brain is telling him these things are real and require action, and he reacts accordingly. Now, Donnie’s delusions are a bit more grandiose than most people with mental illness struggle with, but the concept of what he’s doing is something I could totally relate to.

When you have mental illness, your depressed thoughts seem real. You tend to assume that you’re really not enough and everyone who tells you otherwise is lying to make you feel better. Your anxious thoughts seem real. It doesn’t matter how many times you checked the stove, you still worry about the house burning down and have to check it again. If you have bipolar disorder, your manic thoughts seem real. You might really believe the crazy idea you have can change the world, and you’re ready to fight with anyone who tries to hold you down.

That’s what Donnie’s going through, and if you don’t know you have a mental illness, that’s what you might be going through as well. Notice how Donnie perceives this giant conspiracy to keep his discoveries a secret. His science teacher won’t discuss it because he says he’ll get fired. Authority figures tend to side with the people Donnie is outing as bad guys, including a pedophile. Donnie really believes that what he’s seeing is the truth, and he’s very concerned when others don’t see the same things that he does, or don’t respond with the urgency he thinks it requires.

And that’s a big reason why Donnie is reluctant to accept that he has a mental illness: he’s worried that he’ll start seeing the false things he thinks everyone else is seeing. Donnie perceives a system actively working against what he perceives as the truth, and he’s very worried he’ll become a part of that system in the process of fixing his mental illness. Again, this is much more extreme than what I went through, but I remember those thoughts. What if I really am not enough? What if I really do have an amazing idea to save the world? And what if medication blinds me to the truth? That’s a real concern of a lot of young people going on medication for the first time, and it’s captured so well in this film.

Another thing this film got right was a realization that all teenagers, with or without mental illness, have to have: adults don’t have everything figured out and many times don’t have the answers we need.

One of the most striking scenes of this film for me was when Donnie is sitting with his mom and he breaks down and asks her, “How does it feel to have a fuck-up as a son?” His mom embraces him and says, “It feels wonderful.” That’s actually a happy outcome for this, because she’s very accepting of not only her son but also his condition, but it hints at the larger problem: she doesn’t know what’s wrong with Donnie either, and this person that’s taken care of Donnie his whole life suddenly can’t take care of this very upsetting problem for him.

And we see this play out throughout the film, the authority figures in Donnie’s life consistently fail him. They provide no answers for what’s going on in his head. Mostly, they just add to the confusion. The therapist gets close, but she’s still so distant that she’s unable to connect with Donnie personally. But his teachers come down hard on him for telling the truth, the motivational speaker tells him he’s a loser for having these thoughts, and there’s this weird subplot of government agents spying on his family. Just about every adult in this film fails Donnie, and that was startlingly realistic.

Before I say this next part, let me give a quick disclaimer: right now, both of my parents are some of my biggest supporters. They’re very sympathetic to my mental health issues and have done research to educate themselves on the matter. But that wasn’t the case when I first got diagnosed. My mom was well-meaning, but had no idea how to help. My dad was skeptical of the whole mental health industry due to what he’d heard about it. Neither of them were really able to help me through that difficult time in my life. I don’t think it’s their fault—they had no idea that was coming—but it doesn’t change the fact that I was basically on my own when that realization hit.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The last film I’m going to talk about today is The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the 2012 indie film that’s probably the best portrayal of adolescent depression in film. This isn’t about discovering mental illness, as the protagonist Charlie already has a diagnosis and a support system in place. This is about another common problem that comes with mental illness and young adult life, and that is worsening symptoms.

A bit of back-story on me. I said earlier that I didn’t get diagnosed until I was 21. Throughout my life, I knew I was different than the other kids, but I wasn’t drastically different until about halfway through high school, about age 15, and I wasn’t dangerously different until about age 19, my sophomore year of college. And that’s pretty common. A lot of times, the childhood symptoms aren’t bad enough to get a diagnosis, but those symptoms can get dramatically worse in the teenage years, and then continue to get worse into the mid-20s. That’s what happened to me, and it’s a pretty common story with mental illness.

When we meet Charlie, he’s entering his freshman year of high school, but he was held back a year for mental health reasons, so he’s 15—right when things start getting bad. And a big part of this film is Charlie realizing the full extent of what’s wrong with him. In fact, that’s the climax of the film.

Now, Charlie is a bit different than me because he’s dealing with childhood trauma in addition to depression. So, is the depression because of the trauma? How much of the depression is because of the trauma? We don’t really know. But even though Charlie is presumably treated for his depression, no one’s aware of the trauma, and that becomes a ticking time bomb that explodes toward the end of the film as Charlie’s trying to live his teenage life. That part wasn’t relatable to me. There was something else that was, though.

What was relatable to me in The Perks of Being a Wallflower was the startling realization that, when you have mental illness, one of the most dangerous things in the world is yourself. In this film, Charlie had great support. He had understanding and supportive parents, and his sister was pretty great too. He did end up screwing things up with his friends, but they were there for him for most of the movie. When things did eventually head south, Charlie’s sister knew exactly what to do. His family had a safety plan, and that’s what saved Charlie’s life. The scariest thing is that, even with the amazing understanding and support he had, he still almost died. He was almost a casualty of his mental illness, and with the way things were, it would have been very hard for anyone to prevent that.

Now, when Charlie and his family discovered everything that was wrong, they changed their plan, and I have every hope that Charlie will be OK now. But when you’re young and going through mental illness, you’re very much still figuring things out, and things are changing as you’re trying to figure them out. It’s like trying to measure the distance between you and a moving target. And, just like Charlie, sometimes even the best laid plans can’t account for the changes that are thrown at you along the way.

When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, it was a huge relief, but it was also tremendously scary. Hilary Smith, the author of Welcome to the Jungle, had a fantastic description of what it’s like to be diagnosed. She said, “Being diagnosed with bipolar is like being hit by a truck, and then being told at the scene of the accident that you will continue to be hit by more trucks of increasing size.”

Let’s take a look at some stats really quick. The overall suicide rate for Americans is .013%. That’s it. The suicide rate for depressed people is nearly 20%. The suicide rate for people with bipolar disorder is nearly 30%. For reference, the mortality rate of breast cancer is around 17%. That means that bipolar disorder is almost twice as deadly as breast cancer. And if someone is an alcoholic or abuses other substances, those numbers actually go way up, by the way. So, think about what people say when someone has breast cancer. “Oh, Amy is a fighter! She’s going to fight this cancer! She’s going to beat it!” But nobody says that about bipolar disorder, which is considerably more deadly, and can hurt you in a number of other ways. We have this tendency to look at mental illness as sadness, or say it’s all in your head, but there are very real dangers that come along with these conditions, as well as mortality rates.

So, all that to say, it’s a huge relief to finally have a diagnosis and an explanation, but you also have to face the very real possibility that no one will be able to save you from yourself. No matter how well-established your support system, no matter how meticulous your treatment plan, there’s a good chance you’re always going to be a danger to yourself. And that is one of the scariest feelings in the world.

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