Recently Rethinking Psychiatry showed Bipolarized, an award-winning film that questions the dominant paradigm around the treatment of Bipolar Disorder, and the diagnosis itself.
The movie’s protagonist, Ross McKenzie, Jr., appears at first to live a truly charmed life. He is a handsome white man from a wealthy family, and he states that he was a class valedictorian and star athlete. However, at some point in his late teens and early 20’s, his life started to fall apart. He began to exhibit textbook signs of mania – for example, his sister recounts the time that he called her from New York City to tell her that he was giving away all his money and possessions to homeless people on the street and that he could fly off the Empire State Building. At other points, he suffered from bouts of severe, debilitating depression, as well as overwhelming anxiety.
McKenzie was subsequently diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and prescribed Lithium. After ten years on the medication, McKenzie felt that it was turning him into a “zombie” and preventing him from dealing with the real root cause of his symptoms. For this reason, he chose to gradually wean himself off the medications with the help of naturopathic healers and seek other forms of natural treatments.
Many people would assume that since McKenzie came from such a privileged background and a seemingly perfect family, that he must have had a “chemical imbalance” that was causing his symptoms. However, we learn later in the film that the truth is far more complicated.
Some people criticized the film for failing to acknowledge McKenzie’s privilege. This is a valid criticism – very few people could afford to travel all over the Western Hemisphere seeking expensive natural treatments, the way McKenzie did. The film would have been improved if McKenzie had acknowledged that many people would not have had these opportunities. Yet, even with all his privilege, McKenzie’s experience with the mainstream mental health system was still incredibly traumatic and dehumanizing.
And it turns out that McKenzie’s life wasn’t as perfect as it appeared. As the film unfolds, McKenzie and his older sisters reveal that their father (now deceased) was at times verbally and physically abusive and that he placed tremendous pressure on his son to be successful at everything – particularly sports – and to repress his emotions. In other words, McKenzie was under constant pressure to be society’s ideal of a “real man” – and eventually, this pressure became unbearable.
This made me think of a one-man show called “Crimes Against Nature,” by Dr. Christopher Kilmartin – a professor of psychology at my alma mater, the University of Mary Washington.
Dr. Kilmartin criticizes society’s mainstream notions of masculinity as “crimes against nature.” Boys and men are taught from an early age to deny their thoughts and feelings, and to act a certain way whether it feels natural or not. They are taught to pretend to like or dislike certain things based on what a “real man” likes or dislikes.
Dr. Kilmartin explains that these unnatural, unrealistic views of masculinity are unhealthy for everyone. These standards are a significant factor in our society’s epidemic of violence, especially domestic and sexual violence. Also, these standards are detrimental to boys’ and men’s mental health. McKenzie talks extensively of how the pressure to be a “real man” – to always be strong, to excel at sports, and to repress his emotions – played a major part in his mental health struggles. These standards are especially damaging for men who cannot live up to society’s standards, such as men who are gay, bisexual, or transgender and men who are not good at sports and other “masculine” activities. Even for men who are cisgender, heterosexual and athletic – like McKenzie – these standards are still often unrealistic and emotionally damaging.
McKenzie comes to the conclusion that his struggles are not simply due to Bipolar Disorder or a “chemical imbalance.” He comes to the conclusion that his symptoms were due to a combination of complex factors, including environmental toxins, past trauma, and societal pressure to fit a narrow definition of success and masculinity.
Both McKenzie and Kilmartin talk extensively about their complicated, troubled relationships with their fathers. Both of them view their fathers as tragic figures who were trapped in their society’s narrow, unnatural standards of what makes a “real man.” In both cases, their fathers were miserable, unable to be their true selves, and unable to be emotionally available to them. Both McKenzie and Kilmartin had to do a lot of soul-searching and questioning of society’s dominant paradigm to heal.
Society’s narrow, simplistic standards of masculinity and society’s narrow, simplistic views of mental illness go hand in hand. In both cases, these standards are truly “crimes against nature.”
In McKenzie’s case, these standards caused him to feel like he was losing his mind. Questioning both the dominant mental health paradigm and society’s views of masculinity was part of his healing.
Few people have the means to pursue the alternative forms of treatment that McKenzie sought. Even if they did, what worked for McKenzie might not work for everyone. Be that as it may, this was an intriguing and thought-provoking film about questioning the dominant paradigms of both mental health and masculinity.
This blog is a contribution to the Rethinking Psychiatry initiative. To see all of the Mad in America blogs for this campaign click here.