What "Modern Love" Got Right About Bipolar Disorder (And What It Got Wrong)
Updated: Jan 28, 2020
In the opening scene of Episode 2 of the new Amazon series, "Modern Love," Lexi (played by Anne Hathaway) dances through the supermarket dressed as if she were going to a New Year's Eve party - though we're told it's morning on a weekday - desperately searching for peaches. She has a craving, she says, flirtatiously. She looks straight out of a Broadway musical, brightly dyed hair shimmering, a bounce in her step. The other shoppers dance behind her in formation, suggesting that this is a musical and she's about to burst out into song at any moment. She's manic, I thought immediately. She meets a cute guy in the fruit section and they flirt and ultimately plan a date. She is apparently a successful lawyer, a whiz kid, making it in the big city. The cute guy likens her to Rita Hayworth, and she seems to exhibit that kind of classic showmanship and elegant flair. She's electric, beautiful, eye-catching. And then. Something comes over Lexi and she crawls into bed and stays there for days, barely moving, obviously deeply depressed. She manages to get herself out of bed long enough to go on her date, but she appears despondent, slovenly, disinterested. Eventually, she bounces back and is back at work, gets a second date, but the pattern repeats and, this time, she is unable to drag herself out of bed to go out. The cute guy gives up and who can blame him? She gets fired from her job, and it's no surprise. We understand that this has happened to Lexi before. Finally, over coffee with a former co-worker, she admits to being bipolar and begins a journey of grappling with her disease, getting help, calling old friends and boyfriends (for some reason) to tell them that she's bipolar, finally owning it and looking it in the face. Good for her! Go, Lexi!
I was diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder nearly two years ago after a series of manic episodes and panic attacks on top of the Major Depressive Disorder I've long been all-too-familiar with. It felt, perhaps ironically, freeing to have a diagnosis, words to name what felt broken in me, the parts that didn't quite fit right. Why is everything so hard for me? I'd wonder. Sometimes, just getting out of bed or making a phone call or seeing another human felt like an impossible task. My anxiety took over, made me paranoid and restless. And yet, I did it. And continue to do it. Every day. And that's the thing I worry "Modern Love" may have missed the mark on, just a little bit. Because of course Bipolar Disorder manifests itself in everyone differently. Of course it does. Like anything, no one experiences it exactly the same. I only know my own experience of Bipolar Disorder, which differs from Lexi's, completely valid (and maybe even more common than mine?) experience. There are similarities between Lexi (the surrogate for the writer Terry Cheney of the "Modern Love" New York Times column that inspired the episode, titled "Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am") and me. We both come alive when we're manic, feel on top of the world, vivid, bright, beautiful. Though, in my experience, it's not quite as shiny and perfect. For me, it involves long Facebook rants and mumbling tirades, lots of talking to myself, itching at my skin, acting erratic, maybe throwing things. But I know how to keep it together when I need to.
Long before my diagnosis, when I thought I was just crazy, a freak or weirdo, the lyrics from one of my favorite bands, Rilo Kiley, seemed to be about me: "When you're on, you're really fucking on, and your friends all sing along, and they love you. But your lows are so far between, that the good comes fucking cheap..." When I first heard those words in the song "Better Son or Daughter" I thought Yes. That's me. And nobody's ever going to get it.
I love that this column and this show is showing love can mean a lot of different things, and self-love is important, too. I love that Bipolar Disorder is portrayed in a popular TV series. I love that it's being talked about. I was Lexi for so long, pretending to be fine, not talking about it, even with the people I loved, not being honest and forgiving with myself.
When I say I'm worried that "Modern Love" got something a little wrong, I mean Lexi's lows. Yes, some days it's really fucking hard. And the writer, producer, and actor wanted to dramatically portray something that is, at times, dramatic, known for being black-and-white, manic-depressive (as people used to call it), extreme. And maybe that was writer Terry Cheney's exact experience, days or weeks completely removed from the world, unable to get up and shower or feed one's self or go outside. I've had days like that and I've even, a few times, given in to those feelings for a few hours or maybe even a day, if I could take a sick day or didn't have anything planned or was able to take a little break. Mostly, I phone it in on those days, show up but barely show up, do what I can. Maybe that's not necessarily better. But I try. Really fucking hard. Now, after more than two years of multiple-times-a-week psychoanalysis and lots of medications, I've learned to sometimes give in to my depression, just a little bit, maybe allow myself a nap when I can barely move, or leave work a little early if I can for some quiet alone time, work from home if I can and take breaks when I need to. And I'm lucky to have these options (occasionally). But then I get the fuck up and go to work, participate in the world, even when it's really fucking hard. And so do a lot, if not most, people who struggle with mental illnesses like Bipolar Disorder.
Again, there is no limit to the individual experiences of this condition, and Lexi's experience will surely mirror someone else's, as it does, in some ways, mine. But I fear that, by showing that bipolar people fail because of their disease, give up, get fired, get dumped, break down, that this show might make viewers think that this is what mental illness looks like, that bipolar people are simply incapable of engaging in society. And that's just not true. People in every field, at every level, deal with mental illness every day, and a whole lot of mentally ill people do just fine. It's hard, sure, but not every bipolar person crawls under the covers for a week, not answering calls or attending scheduled meetings or dates. It's kind of insulting, in fact, to imply that this is what mental illness is, and could even contribute to the patently false idea that mental illness is obvious, clear, and not all around us, everywhere. Lexi tries really really hard when she's OK, or even manic, but fails every time because of her illness. And this definitely does happen. It's hard or impossible for many mentally ill people to maintain a job or relationship, which is one reason so many mentally ill folks are poor, homeless or marginally housed. But again, I'd like some acknowledgement that mental illness doesn't always look like it does in pharmaceutical commercials or, evidently, on TV. I'd like someone to show me that mental illness can be a lot of things and so can mentally ill people. I'd like someone to show me that people at the top are struggling, too, that your mom cries in the bathroom before work but she makes it to every damn hockey game, that your husband finally recognized that he needs medication, that we can show up and do the work and we deserve some goddamn credit for it. Yes, it's hard, sometimes really really hard, but get the fuck up, Lexi, and go show them what bipolar women can really do.