Evil DeAddiction

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

I finally watched the ‘reboot’ or ‘re-imagining’ of The Evil Dead ‘. It’s only four years old at this point, proving that this blog is up-to-the-minute timely if nothing else.

I’m sure to some this will sound like an old-man horror-fan rant. And certainly I could probably create an entire blog called “Old Man Horror Fan Rant”, easily generating a post at least every other week based on how often I watch horror films, read horror novels (at least recently and in my teens), and my horror-centered habit, which stretches back to my childhood.

Speaking of habits, that is the big problem at the center of the Evil Dead remake.

I couldn’t care less whether film-makers change the gender or ethnicity of film characters…provided those alterations aren’t playing into stereotypes or other lazy writing/film-making practices, although I have no idea why the main character in the Evil Dead reboot didn’t retain the gender-neutral-tilting-toward-female name Ashley (opting for Mia instead).

That said, I do have issues with current ideas of how to remake horror movies to fit a more “modern” sensibility, with an appeal to audience “sophistication.” For instance, the bland Nightmare on Elm Street reboot, starring Jackie Earle Haley, tried to play up the whole child-molestation angle of Freddy Krueger—essentially draining the original film’s humor, and making it difficult to really get behind Freddy’s imaginative, dream-based murders. Yes, I said “get behind…murders.” Somehow, Freddy ended up being much less entertaining, and much less scary at the same time, by attempting to ground his evil in explicitly exposited child molestation—perhaps because, prior to Nightmare, Haley played a more disturbing and scary child molester in the more real-world movie, Little Children.

Now, as much as I appreciate the inclusion of the original version of The Evil Dead in the pantheon of horror movies, and enjoy the low-budget craftiness and concept of the film, I’ve only ever been a casual fan, largely due to the last third of the film devolving into non-stop witchy cackling, spewing blood, melting faces, and various other forms of jetting viscera and cracking, crumbling bones.

Old Evil Dead

Old-school, drug-free evil.

The simple premise of the original film could be characterized as, ‘whoops, our group of five friends tried to have a fun weekend getaway at a rustic rental cabin, but by messing with a book and tapes we found in the basement, accidentally awakened an ancient evil that has trapped us here and is now infesting/killing us all.’

The crafters of the remake decided to add layers of ‘sophistication’, to make the story much more drab and burdensome, so that the premise becomes, ‘our group of five friends, including a brother-sister pair and the brother’s nurse girlfriend have to go to the brother-sister pair’s family cabin where everyone can pitch in to help the sister kick her heroin habit (again), following the brother-sister pair’s mother’s death, and after discovering that somebody set fire to the basement and hung numerous dead cats there, and, whoops, the biggest nerd among us found a book wrapped in barbed wire, that he cut open and started messing with/reading/reciting from, accidentally awakening an ancient evil that trapped us here and is now infesting/killing us all.’

Like with the child-rape angle of the Nightmare on Elm Street remake, the family-cabin/addiction/nurse angle of The Evil Dead remake drains the fun out of the original movie, trying to make cackling, possessed, trap-door-pounding twenty-somethings serious, just-say-no business.

To get back to the habits I mentioned being at the center of the problems with the reboot of The Evil Dead

The reboot tries to make heroin addiction a central plot device. Of course, addiction of any sort can certainly be horrific. But the writers/filmmakers here don’t actually commit to the drug abuse as something that is frightening. Rather, they use addiction as part of a hokey empowerment narrative that can best be described as ‘an addict becomes infected with evil because of her idiotic nerd friend and finds the kind of inner strength none of her sober friends/family members have, not only to expel the evil from her own body, but to just plain kick its ass’.

New Evil Dead

New and improved evil!  Now with addiction!

Early on, I thought the addiction might become some kind of clever metaphor for making the kinds of errors in judgment that lead to evil infesting one’s body, that there might be some wild, conceptual departure from the original film. But that hope was quickly shattered. The addiction of one among them just becomes an excuse for everybody else in the party to dismiss whatever the addict says/feels, and to engage in all manner of their own irrational behavior and stupid decisions.

Beyond the already-mentioned foolishness of the nerd cutting barbed wire so he can peruse the contents of a book bound in flesh that he found in the basement of the addict’s family cabin, along with numerous hanging dead cats, and evidence of a deliberately set fire—things that everyone in the group, with essentially no discussion, decides are not as concerning as the heroin habit of one of their party—we also have a nurse among the group who apparently stole equipment and medications from her job in order to treat someone in withdrawal. Either that, or we are supposed to believe that the use of these tools/substances, ”the same treatment she would get in a hospital”, was approved by her bosses.

‘Sure, Olivia, we always encourage our staff to treat withdrawal in their off hours.  Take whatever you need. Just make sure to dispose of the hypodermic needles properly!’

And did I mention that this group of friends apparently isn’t all that alarmed at finding hanging dead cats in a basement where a fire was set? Is that the kind of thing anybody sees without being concerned about who may have been there, and who might come back anytime—especially given that they left a flesh-bound, barbed-wire-wrapped book full of disturbing illustrations and ancient incantations down there? And why on earth would those people have left the book there? At least in the original, we recognize that the people who left the book and the recordings were already taken by the evil.

It’s also confounding that in the midst of all this modernizing and sophisticating, the film-makers didn’t think to remove or alter the tree-rape scene to where it was, maybe, not a rape scene. Certainly, childish fan-boys would have been upset at such an omission, but they were probably already upset at having a female protagonist anyway–a protagonist who is both an addict, and the victim of rape by tree roots.

In the end, the remake is most disappointing not just because it doesn’t improve on the original in any identifiable way, aside from maybe its special effects, and, well, better acting. It is most disappointing because it treats addiction as a pointless plot device. As much as addiction is treated as a central element of the movie’s set-up, the writers have nothing original to say about addiction, or even anything unoriginal that might lend some weight or authenticity to the story, except maybe that the family members and friends of addicts get completely stupid when trying to get the addicts to ‘kick’. But I’m guessing that’s not the intended message.

The central character could have just as easily come down with a vicious case of the flu, or been dealing with a bad breakup, or, really, since it is already there, been having a particularly hard time dealing with the loss of her mother; or, since it is already there, been dealing with the trauma of a sexual assault by a tree (not that I would recommend that as a similarly pointless plot device).

Horror movies tend to be most effective when they are simplest (dead return to life and begin eating the living, giant shark terrorizes coastal town, teens stumble upon the isolated home of a murderous family, young people visit a cabin where they accidentally awaken an ancient evil); or when there are clever concepts or twists on expectations (a puzzle box releases evil beings from hell, murdered child murderer invades the dreams of his killer’s children, the therapist is really dead, time-travelling jet engine fails to kill teen who kills teen in a rabbit costume…ok, maybe I shouldn’t try to explain that one here).

But when horror movies (or any movies) try to introduce “real world” problems as nothing more than a plot device, they risk ruining fantastical or otherwise functional concepts with movie-of-the-week blandness and clichés, which is exactly what the reboot of The Evil Dead does—shoves weak “recovery” and “intervention” ideas in the middle of an otherwise simple, effective, and scary idea, making addiction just some dumb excuse for other dumb things that happen, and happen more pointlessly than they would have if the addiction angle had been left out.

And, if you want to get right down to it, the movie blames the addiction problem of one character for killing all of her friends by making them commit to staying in a cabin infused with evil…even though it’s really the nerd toying with a book that kills everybody. And that’s a burden the nerd should bear…but he’s dead, and the addict is alive. How do you think that’s gonna work out?

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Slow with Liquor

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

Nelsan Ellis, known to most as the character Lafayette Reynolds, a gay, V-dealing short-order cook, medium, cousin to Tara Thornton, and friend to Sookie Stackhouse on the series True Blood, died July 8th, 2017 of a heart attack. More specifically, Ellis died of complications following heart failure due to alcohol withdrawal syndrome.

Ellis, who, in real life, had a wife and two young children, was only 39 years old when his attempt to put down the bottle killed him.

I can’t claim to know the full extent of Ellis’ alcohol abuse, or whatever other factors might have contributed to his untimely death. But the thought that his efforts to end an addiction to alcohol was what ultimately killed him should give us all pause.

Lafayette with a drink

Ciao, bitches!  Ellis has left the building.

The good ol’ U.S. of A. still has a massive alcohol problem, in terms of use, perception of use, and understanding of impacts. Sure, we’ve gotten all M.A.D.D. and managed to sharply decrease drunk driving—or, rather, to at least make drunk driving illegal and unacceptable—for the most part. Still, almost a third of all deaths in automobile accidents involve alcohol.

President Trump’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis raised a big stink about declaring opioid addiction a national public health emergency, citing a 142-deaths-per-day figure for deaths by drug overdose (which includes all unintentional drug overdoses, not just OD by opioids, which sits at 91 per day for 2015).

And while opioid abuse has been climbing towards alarming, our nonchalance about alcohol abuse is still confounding.

If you look at deaths in the United States directly attributed to alcohol, they are at about the same level annually as deaths by gun (including both homicides and suicides), or annual deaths in automobile accidents–or right around 80 deaths per day.

But when you factor in all the deaths involving alcohol…those primarily attributed to alcohol (diseases, alcohol poisoning, and such), and those deaths where alcohol was a significant factor (car crashes, suicides, homicides, all other forms of accidents involving alcohol) then the total number of alcohol-related deaths rises to over 230 per day (albeit, intruding on other categories of death).

But how many of us, in our puritanical, cold-turkey, I-can-quit-anytime-I-want culture of addiction-denial and personal responsibility even realize that heart failure from alcohol withdrawal is a thing?

Sure, we’ve seen movies, TV shows, and even documentaries depicting the horrific sickness and potential death that comes from withdrawing from opiates–“kicking” heroin being a dramatic staple of drug addiction stories. But how often do we see any depictions of the danger of alcohol withdrawal, or any kind of realistic portrayal of the dangers of alcohol use and abuse?

As a culture we celebrate drunkenness and binge-drinking…until we don’t.

Think of a recent comedy you’ve seen, or at least a recent R-rated comedy. If it had scenes involving alcohol, what happened in those scenes, and what messages were conveyed? I’d venture a guess that the messages included the idea that binge drinking is, at its least problematic, an awesome escape from life stressors, just a way to cut loose and have fun; and that at increased levels, binge drinking is still pretty hilarious—leading to some wildly comedic pratfalls and other scenarios involving what would probably be fatal, or at least permanently-disabling, head injuries—all played for laughs.

Moving beyond such comedic depictions, chronic, excessive drinking might become marginally less comical over the course of a film. But, ultimately, movies tend to show us that people who chronically drink are able to get it together and turn their lives around in the space of a montage, or perhaps following a heart-felt speech from a loved one. Think Trainwreck, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, How to be Single, or maybe as far back as Knocked Up—I could go on and on, and back through decades of movies. But at least I now realize that I spend a ridiculous amount of time watching comedies on DirecTV.

Such messages of hilarity are typically upended in more ‘serious’ fare, like Flight, starring Denzel Washington, or Crazy Heart, starring Jeff Bridges. Or, at least they’re sort of upended.

In Flight, Denzel’s character, Whip Whitaker, saves (most of) an airplane full of people by flying while wasted, then tries to quit, but relapses, then corrects the alcohol relapse with cocaine, in order to become jury-pleasing honest and speak beautiful truths.

In Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges’ character, Bad Blake, realizes what a disappointment he’s become, and we flash forward from Blake staggering off stage to throw up massive quantities of Jack Daniels between alleyway dumpsters and nearly losing a friend’s child in a mall, to several months later when he is clean and sober, and everything is hunky dory—except that he doesn’t get the ‘girl’ who is about half his age.

Beyond just Hollywood portrayals, think of how you, and other people you know–friends, family, co-workers, online acquaintances–talk about alcohol. A stray comment about the urgency of a drink to take the edge off some negative experience. Expressing a desire to wash away the workday with a bottle. An impending vacation where one intends to aggressively day-drink, evening drink, and late-night drink.  Drinking memes suggesting alcohol is just a comically enjoyable part of life.

I don’t mean to get all holier-than-thou. I’m more-than-guilty myself…of the drinking, of the denial, of the comments and laughter about, at, and around drunkenness. I’ve got no end of irresponsible drinking stories to spin—going back decades. As a matter of fact, I’m currently nursing a vicious bacon-grease burn that was birthed into this world by the midwifery of a bottle of Kirkland brand vodka.

And I don’t want to suggest we all drop our sense of humor.  Just maybe stop and think about it awhile.  When drinking is played for laughs, or treated as just something we all do, how much longer does it take anybody to get serious about problem drinking? How much easier is it to stave off the idea that maybe we should tone down the booze intake?

I also don’t want to imply that Hollywood is responsible for anybody’s personal decisions and habits. However, we as a culture endorse a lot of pro-booze, and pro-binge-drinking messages, while slapping a little “drink responsibly” disclaimer in tiny letters and hushed tones, after our big, bold cries of, “Hold my drink! Woooooooo!”

On the other hand, we portray opioid abuse as a disturbing descent into hell, and a national emergency.

Perhaps that’s because, except when alcohol abuse results in a sudden, accidental death, or the relatively rare withdrawal-based-heart attack like that suffered by Ellis, death by alcohol is often a long, slow process, while opioid OD seems much more shocking, short-term, and immediate. We’re allowed to see alcohol abuse as amusing…something people might grow out of after a few (or a few years of) wild exploits, whereas opioid abuse seems like a wholly disturbing, sudden collapse into hopelessness.

But we need to look at whether those perceived differences are real, or just a matter of cultural acceptance versus cultural rejection, normalization versus novelty, and indifference versus shock. We, as good ol’ Americans, enjoy our drugs, and, like all things American, X-treme is where it’s at!  Be that a quick-and-painless death by extreme, or a decades-to-death extreme.

So, I’ll just bring this all to a close with a quote from Ellis’ character, Lafeyette…

“All the shit I done in my life – the drugs… the sex… the web site. I did it so my life wouldn’t be a dead-end, and this is where I end up. Now what kind of punchline is that?”

Or perhaps just…

“Ciao, bitches.”

(Drink responsibly, and all that…there are plenty of ways to find help, like via your insurance company, or https://www.aa.org , where you can find local meetings…not that I’m endorsing any particular source of help or another…call 211 or a local crisis line if you want to look for some other options…crisis line locator at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/our-network/ or perhaps https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help –the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, where “find help” is even in the name of the link).

 

Escaping the Groundhog Trap

by

J.C. Schildbach, LMHC

I’m not a big fan of Groundhog Day—the holiday or the movie.

As a kid, the holiday just confused me. Why a groundhog? Can’t you just see if you cast a shadow yourself? Or if a bush, a stone, a dog…anything casts a shadow? I wondered at the particular properties of groundhogs, and why their shadows might be somehow different than those of any other thing on the planet. I suppose I never quite felt like anybody adequately explained the magical properties of particular varieties of burrowing rodents for me to really get behind the holiday or its alleged meaning.

The lack of a real explanation is one of the things that keeps me from enjoying the movie, Groundhog Day as well. What caused this to happen? And why is the resolution what it is? What would make any magical powers of time control so interested in getting Bill Murray’s character, Phil, together with Andie MacDowell’s character, Rita? Perhaps a resident of Punxsutawney is one of the aliens from Edge of Tomorrow who accidentally infected Phil with the time control powers. But that can’t be it, because then Phil would’ve had to die every day, and he only died on some of those days.

Beyond that, the movie just follows the theme of so many movies from the 1980s about how great small-town America is, and how some cynical guy from the big city needs to learn to appreciate that. As for Murray’s arc in the movie, it’s rather similar to Scrooged.

The audience is also expected to root for Phil to ‘get the girl,’ even after he uses his powers of time repetition to manipulate one of the local women into sleeping with him, and then trying to manipulate Rita into falling for him by pretending to like everything she likes—information he gathers from her in conversations she will never remember.

Ultimately, Phil has to get through one day being kind and helpful, rather than acting like his usual, egocentric self (but, again, why is this the resolution—and would it really matter whether Rita decided she liked him or not?). But that last, single day of generous Phil doesn’t feel much different from the videogame-style resets that go on through the rest of the movie, or in Edge of Tomorrow, and hardly seems like a long-term change to his character as much as it feels like him resigning himself to being a decent human being for one day if he ever wants to get out of Punxsutawney. How is his decency not just more manipulation—another possible route out of the repetition he is trapped in?

Many people have labeled Phil’s situation in Groundhog Day an “existential dilemma” or otherwise termed the movie as existentialist. Properly speaking, though, if Phil’s was an existential problem, he wouldn’t have a long period of being able to make whatever decisions he wanted with no thought, responsibility, or consequences at all, only to be pushed into making the “right” decisions–as judged by whatever power kept him perpetually trapped in Punxsutawney on a particular day–until he did what was deemed correct by that power and the “spell” was broken. He would be responsible for whatever he did, and nothing would compel him to do anything.

groundhog drive

The most important lesson of all–Don’t drive angry.

Still, it’s something of a tribute to Groundhog Day, the movie, that it has become synonymous in our culture with repetitive behavior or situations. And it is perhaps the fantasy that we could relive a particular day until we did it right, managing to impress everyone around us, and connect with our one true love in the process (as well as the opportunity to indulge in a great deal of irresponsible behavior along the way), that has led it to this level of popular recognition. Or perhaps it’s the underlying idea that we are trapped by our own behaviors in repetitive cycles, and that we can change ourselves in order to achieve a better life—along with the wishful notion that we need to be good people if we really want to get what we want.

After all, the idea of breaking out of repetitive cycles and habits, or perhaps of creating better habits and repetitive cycles, along with being better people…good people…our best selves, is what underlies much religion, philosophy, and, yes, therapy.

We all struggle through our own behavioral patterns, habits, and the potential sameness of our days, the rut of weeks, months, seasons, and years. But no bizarre fluke of time is going to trap us in a loop and push us to do things differently and become better people, or pursue what we want. That’s on us.

Whatever I might think of him, Phil found out that it wasn’t a groundhog, or the celebration that surrounded a groundhog’s shadow, that was at the core of his problem. Rather it was his own shadows, the darkness he threw out into the world.

So maybe Groundhog Day is the perfect time to look around at our own shadows and what they say about our forecasts—how much more winter we may have in store—and then think about what, if anything, we want to do to change that.

Happy Groundhog Day.

 

Welcome to Me (and My BPD?)

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

How important is it that movies and television shows get “academic” concepts right?

Sure, superhero movies, action flicks, and even horror movies routinely violate the laws of physics to create interesting visual sequences, and frequently make up pretend science-y explanations for strange phenomena.

But what about when the academic concept is a mental health diagnosis that is supposed to be central to a character’s actions?

Okay, there are numerous representations of people with mental illness in television and film that are just as ludicrous as, say, toxic chemicals causing superpowers, a plague of giant ants, or an out-of-shape ex-cop (or really anybody) outrunning an explosion.

So what about when the academic concept is a mental health diagnosis that is supposed to be a driving force behind all of the main character’s actions in a film that is comedic, but with serious intent? It would probably behoove the movie-makers to get that right? Right?

In Welcome to Me, written by Eliot Laurence, and directed by Shira Piven, Kristen Wiig stars as Alice Klieg, a lottery-winner who decides to channel her newly-won millions into a sort of variety show all about herself, ostensibly due to the effects of her Borderline Personality Disorder.

Wiig, to her credit, plays a fairly credible person with traits of Borderline Personality Disorder. And the film does not shoot for a lot of cheap laughs or cheap thrills at the expense of those with mental health issues (of course, feel free to disagree with me on those points all you want).

Unfortunately, the film botches some really big clinical points in a really big way.

Spoiler alert!  Spoiler alert!

The first truly jarring error is when Klieg describes her history of mental illness (to a TV audience assembled for an infomercial on nutritional supplements). She says, “When I was 16, I was diagnosed with Manic Depression. In my 20s it was called Rapid Cycling Bipolar Disorder. Now it’s just called Borderline Personality Disorder.”

Excuse me?

Now, it’s true that “Manic Depression” was once the common term for Bipolar Disorder. But “rapid cycling” is a modifier or course specifier for Bipolar Disorder that generally means a person is having abbreviated episodes of depressive and manic states that are running fairly close together. And by “fairly close together” I mean four or more episodes of mania, hypomania, or depression in one year—not “mood swings” multiple times a day.

As the good people at PsychEducation explain, once mood shifts get close enough together, they can become indistinguishable from relatively normal emotional states. Bipolar Disorder is not just some condition of simple emotional lability or emotional dysregulation, although plenty of people use the term “bipolar” incorrectly in this fashion (hopefully not anyone who is actually diagnosing and treating people, though).

Emotional dysregulation is, however, a common component of Borderline Personality Disorder. It is also relatively common for people who are ultimately diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder to have been incorrectly diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder prior to the Borderline Personality Disorder diagnosis.

So, if Klieg, had said “First I was diagnosed with Manic Depression, which is now called Bipolar Disorder. Then they diagnosed me with Rapid Cycling Bipolar Disorder. Then they determined the appropriate diagnosis for my condition is Borderline Personality Disorder,” then the explanation would have made a great deal more clinical sense.

As it is, Klieg’s dialog implies that Borderline Personality Disorder is just the new name for Bipolar Disorder. This is completely wrong.

Klieg (played by Kristen Wiig) intrudes on her own skit, startling the actors and the audience.

Klieg (played by Kristen Wiig) intrudes on her own skit, startling the actors and the audience.

Another major problem with the film is the portrayal of the treatment that Alice is receiving from Dr. Daryl Moffet (played by Tim Robbins). It’s troubling enough that Dr. Moffet repeatedly mentions the brand-name drug Abilify—in the sense that a movie about a person with a mental illness essentially uses dialog as a form of pharmaceutical product placement. But what’s even more disturbing is that Borderline Personality Disorder is not itself treated with medication.

Sure, plenty of people diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder are prescribed various medications to address other things they might be dealing with, like anxiety, depression, or poor impulse control. They may even be prescribed mood stabilizers depending on the severity of their emotional dysregulation, or anti-psychotic drugs, depending on the severity of their thought disturbances. But the personality disorder itself is not going to respond to a specific drug.

No doubt, plenty of people suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder would love it if there were a drug that would make all their symptoms go away.  Different forms of ‘talk therapy’–most notably Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan–can help people with the disorder develop coping skills to address the various fears, emotional disturbances, and behaviors that are common to the disorder, much better than any pill or cluster of pills is going to manage the range of symptoms.

Beyond the issues of medication, there is a scene where Dr. Moffet tells Klieg that he tried to have her put on a psychiatric hold because he thinks she is a danger to herself. Surprisingly, and probably just to get in a bit of expository dialog, Klieg has to ask him what a psychiatric hold is—despite the ongoing implication that Klieg’s decision to stop taking her medication will lead her to be forcibly hospitalized–an implication that wouldn’t generally exist if such a thing hadn’t happened previously.

Perhaps even more surprising is that Moffet thinks Klieg has done something to warrant psychiatric detention. I can’t imagine there are many places where wasting one’s lottery winnings on a self-indulgent TV talk show would be seen as evidence of being a danger to oneself, even if one is doing things like illegally broadcasting phone calls during that show, or otherwise slandering people. But, really, the people running the TV show should have been aware of the legal problems in all that, and should have put a stop to it.

Still, Klieg’s having gone off her medications is a theme throughout the movie, and one which causes great alarm each time someone hears her speak of it—as if the other characters really know what she is being medicated for, and with, and what the obvious, disastrous consequences will be. It is a theme that culminates in a scene, where Klieg dazedly takes a nude stroll through a casino, apparently in some psychotic, or perhaps dissociative, state. She has to be subdued by cops and hospitalized.

And while such a situation is arguably possible for a person with Borderline Personality Disorder, such occurrences are not generally core features of the disorder, and portrayals of such are certainly not going to contribute to greater understanding of the disorder, particularly when they are shown as a natural consequence of not taking one’s medications—I mean one’s Abilify.

Overall, Moffet’s connection to Klieg is largely unexplored. Mostly he just harps on her about how she should get back on her medication—I mean her Abilify. When he (rightly) gets irritated at her for including him in her TV show, Moffet terminates his services with Klieg, by simply handing her a list of other providers.

One would think Dr. Moffet would, at the very least, try to make sure Klieg was actually in contact with another provider, after trying to process with Klieg about how she violated what should have been some clear boundaries, and why he cannot continue to treat her. Given that a fear of abandonment is a core component of Borderline Personality Disorder, and that self harm, suicidal thoughts, and suicide attempts are common among people with Borderline Personality Disorder (in fact, it would have been much more clinically accurate for Klieg to end up in the hospital due to a suicide attempt or self-harm episode after feeling abandoned by her best friend, and her treatment provider, and possibly lashing out at them, than due to a psychotic episode—or whatever that was—from quitting her medications), Moffet’s ‘here’s-a-provider-list-and-a-few-snippy-comments’ therapy termination seems grossly incompetent.  Due dilligence anyone?

And while I’m not advocating for depicting people with a particular mental illness in some format that allows viewers to check the symptoms off a list—that’s ‘disorder of the week’ TV-movie territory—the portrayal of Klieg suffers from being too timid in presenting her struggles. While Klieg is fairly off-putting to many of the people in her life, the filmmakers seemed wary of making her too off-putting. For the most part, she really only lashes out at people from her past through skits on her television show, while recklessly upsetting those around her by being self indulgent or impulsive. The filmmakers tried to keep Klieg quirkily unpleasant, in the kind of realm where one might believe that the right medications can keep her likable enough.

It strikes me, though, that the particular diagnosis is largely unimportant to the story, particularly considering how botched the presentation of the diagnosis-specific information is, and how the “off her meds” theme plays out. The film would have worked just as well (or just as poorly, depending on one’s view) knowing that Klieg was in treatment, and on medications, without having to name a particular psychiatric problem. I don’t think the movie would have suffered if, rather than naming any specific disorder, the characters referred only to Klieg having been in therapy, or hospitalized, or on medications. Hell, without the specific diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, the repeated mentions of Abilify might have been at least slightly less problematic.

At the very least, avoiding the naming of a diagnosis could have provided grad students and armchair psychologists with an exercise in identifying possible diagnoses and rule-outs. As it is, I suppose the film could at least provide valuable material for discussion about whether the Borderline Personality Disorder diagnosis seems correct, the kinds of errors Dr. Moffet makes, and about the need to make sure that clients and the people comprising their support system understand their diagnoses and treatments—that whole ‘psychoeducation’ piece that therapists are supposed to do.

Of course, I suppose having a character with a non-specified mental illness would open up the filmmakers to other complaints—such as portraying people with any old form of “mental illness” as psychotic and needing to be on medications, lest they burn through millions of dollars producing a TV show and end up running around naked in public—rather than suggesting that such a problem is specific to lottery winners with Borderline Personality Disorder.

All that said, I didn’t hate the movie.  I adore Kristen Wiig.  And, like I said, she does a credible job with the material.  The movie also mostly avoids the more exploitative angles of both comedies and dramas involving people with mental illness.  It’s just that they could have had a much richer story if they hadn’t relied so heavily on the medication angle.  Coping adequately with Borderline Personality Disorder takes a great deal of personal work, not just popping a pill–I mean, an Abilify.

And one last thing. I noticed that there was no clear indication from the credits that anybody had been consulted about the accuracy of the Borderline Personality Disorder information. So, I just wanted to float it out there that I’m willing to accept some of that Hollywood money in order to go over scripts and make sure they don’t make a mess out of their clinical details.

*Welcome to Me is currently available streaming on Netflix and Amazon.com, as well as in a variety of other places.

Suicide at the Oscars, part two: ‘The Phone Call’

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

It was a great year for crisis lines at the Oscars—or, rather, for films involving crisis lines. Not only did the documentary, Crisis Line: Veterans Press 1 take home a statue, but so did the short, live-action film The Phone Call. And, while Crisis Line: Veterans Press 1 tried (perhaps a little too enthusiastically) to convey a sense of the actual drama that can occur at a crisis line, The Phone Call comes across as a disturbingly simplistic endorsement of suicide-on-demand and irresponsible behavior by crisis line workers, all while portraying a dangerously inaccurate view of the function of crisis lines.

I will begin with the same bit of disclosure I placed at the beginning of my piece on Crisis Line: Veterans Press 1: Having spent more than five years working full-time for a crisis line, and continuing to work in a position sideways from, and occasionally overlapping with, such work, I can’t help but come to these films with something of a bias. And I will also offer up a spoiler alert for The Phone Call: if you haven’t seen it, and you don’t want to know exactly what happens, stop reading now.

The Phone Call seems to have generated most of its praise based on the acting of Sally Hawkins (as Heather) and Jim Broadbent (as Stanley/John)—which is undoubtedly solid, even given the ludicrous material. But most reactions seem to ignore any other critical angle—like the crass manipulations taking place in order to make The Phone Call happen at all.

To begin with, the call center where the story takes place seems to be lost in time. Despite the opening shot of the movie panning by a sign that reads “City WiFi Zone,” the crisis center apparently has no computers and no Internet hookup.

Now, I don’t know the current state of crisis line call centers in the UK, or really the state of any such call centers aside from the ones I’ve worked in, visited, or seen in documentaries—all in the United States. But I will say that if a call center in this day and age equips workers only with a pad of paper, a pen, a phone, and a lamp—they are verging on worker abuse. Absent the most dire of funding situations, failing to provide crisis line workers with computers and Internet access is simply unacceptable, given the relatively low cost of such amenities—and the necessity of such items in making it possible for workers to track down lifesaving information—or even to assist callers who are simply trying to access other services.

At one point in the movie, we see Sally Hawkins’ character, Heather, get up from her desk—thankfully she sat at the front of the room near the bookshelves—to try and look up the “mystery caller” in the notebooks where past call records are kept—handwritten on paper.

Add to that the script manipulation of having absolutely minimal staffing. Despite there being numerous desks in the call center, when Heather arrives, there is only one other worker there–Daniel.  At the only time Heather even considers enlisting Daniel’s help with Stanley/John, Daniel is talking with another caller, back turned to Heather, and flipping through a phone book, or some other reference material. She immediately (and completely irresponsibly) determines she can’t get Daniel’s attention—as if muting her phone and calling across the room would have been too much trouble to stop somebody from dying.

'Would you look at that?  Daniel's busy.  Guess you really are going to die today, Stanley.'

‘Would you look at that? Daniel’s busy. Guess you really are going to die today, Stanley.’

Stanley/John is also supposed to be a sympathetic character, the main reason being that his wife, Joan, died two years ago after a long struggle with cancer. As Heather questions Stanley/John about other family members he may have, we also find out that he and Joan tried to start a family, but had only one stillborn child, 25 years ago, and then were unable to have any children after that. Certainly, it’s a sad tale. Certainly, we can understand Stanley/John’s despair.

But just imagine being in the same situation as Heather—or really any crisis line worker—being treated the way Stanley/John is treating her. Stanley/John has decided he is going to die, and has decided that whatever random worker answers the phone is going to have to listen as it happens.

John/Stanley sobs, makes vague statements indicating he has taken actions to kill himself, and refuses to provide information under threat that he will hang up to prevent anyone from tracing the call and sending an ambulance. The audience has to accept that either the call center does not utilize caller id—further putting workers in a terrible situation—or that John/Stanley blocked his information, in order for the whole ‘hanging up’ thing to really work as a threat.

Stanley/John eventually reveals that he’s taken “Antidepressants” that he got “from the doctor.” But killing oneself with pills tends to be a lot trickier than most people realize—at least to do it in the calm, and apparently quick way that Stanley/John manages, all while allowing for a conversation and a quick death before the ambulance crew can arrive and try to revive him—and without his body doing its damnedest to try and expel the deadly pills he’s ingested. Then again, perhaps Heather waited a good long while before calling for the ambulance, as she was looking through notebook after notebook to find the right person named John who lived around the corner from the Boston.

The big moment of connection for Heather, where she (mostly) accepts Stanley/John’s decision to die, is when Stanley/John asks in a pressured tone, “Can you just stay there and talk to me? Are you allowed to do that? Can’t you just stay there and talk to me and hold my hand? Isn’t that alright?”

Heather’s answer: “Of course, I can. I’m not going anywhere.”

There are an infinite number of much better answers Heather could have given at that time. For instance: “No, that’s not allowed, Stanley/John. I’m not here to make you feel better about killing yourself. And, to be honest, if I was really doing my job, my co-worker, Daniel, here would know everything that was going on, and probably already have an ambulance heading your way.”

Instead, in the course of the short conversation, Heather passes up numerous chances to make more than just a conversational connection with Stanley/John. For instance, Heather and Stanley/John discuss jazz, including Stanley/John telling Heather he could teach her how to play tenor saxophone properly. Yet, rather than latch onto that, and suggest that Stanley/John maybe teach music, or otherwise get back into music, Heather doesn’t push on that point of Stanley/John’s ambivalence at all.

In fact, beyond asking about immediate family, Heather does nothing to find out if Stanley/John was involved in anything else in his entire life beyond his relationship with Joan. Work? Friends? Family? Hobbies? Pets?

Heather also does nothing to explore what Stanley/John has done to deal with his grief over the loss of his wife. All we know is that he got antidepressant pills from his doctor. Apparently, Heather takes this as evidence that Stanley/John really has made a valiant effort to deal with the kinds of normal struggles anybody feels at the loss of a long-time companion. ‘Oh? You got a prescription? Wow—that was very brave of you. I’m sorry you still ended up feeling something.’

And perhaps the most obvious thing Heather leaves out is asking how Stanley/John’s wife, Joan, might react to Stanley/John’s decision to kill himself. Or maybe we are meant to accept that Joan is the kind of person who would want her husband to die—that she’s something of a monster, and Stanley/John is really stressed out because he’s two years late on following through with their suicide pact.

Throughout the conversation, Heather lets Stanley/John bully her into not talking about the things she should be talking about, all with the threat that he’ll hang up, and the assertion of his ‘needs’—how he just can’t go on without Joan, but really needs someone to ‘hold his hand’ at the end.

We are supposed to find it comforting that once Stanley/John insists that it is, in fact, too late for a rescue, he compliments Heather, saying, “you’ve been wonderful. You’ve been a wonderful friend to me.”

But Heather is not Stanley/John’s friend, and isn’t supposed to be acting in that capacity. And really, if Heather was either doing her job right, or actually acting in a capacity as Stanley/John’s friend, she would have done more to try and help him.

And then we get the most maudlin endorsement of suicide ever committed to film—we see the ambulance arriving outside Stanley/John’s home. The camera switches to an interior shot of the home’s front door. We see someone arrive, and…it’s Joan! We never actually see Stanley/John, only hear him talking to Joan for a while.  She talks about how she’s “been looking for” him, and they both agree that they’ve missed each other. So, we get this reunited-in-death sap that makes this suicide seem cute, since it helped an old couple get back together.

'What, John?  You've gone and killed yourself?  You go to hell for that, don't you know?'

‘What, John? You’ve gone and killed yourself? You go to hell for that, don’t you know?’

It’s no surprise that director and co-writer Max Kirby comes out of the world of commercials and music videos. The Phone Call is practically a commercial for suicide, with all the depth of the average music video. It’s a concept piece that tries to press emotional buttons, while keeping the audience from engaging in too much thought.

As we watch The Phone Call, we are not meant to think about the value in going on with life, and finding meaning after loss. We don’t even get a serious look at suicide, depression, or mental illness, because we are given only the most surface reasons for Stanley/John to kill himself. We are supposed to take this all as somehow romantic—the sad, old man who just can’t go on without his wife. Isn’t it sweet that he’s killing himself?

And perhaps even more aggravating is the summation of the movie from its official website: “Heather works in a helpline call centre. When she receives a phone call from a mystery man, she has no idea that the encounter will change her life forever.”

I’m not sure exactly what we are supposed to take away from this tagline—that the big change in her life is that she is now carrying the burden of having sat through this man’s death, while being derelict about trying to help him? The big scene we are supposed to take as evidence of change is one in which we see Heather following through on part of the conversation she had with Stanley/John—to go back and visit a jazz club she used to frequent. We see her getting cozy with call center co-worker, Daniel, a potential relationship that was hinted at early in the movie. ‘Gee whiz, isn’t it nice that all it took was the suicide of an old man to make me get out and live a little? Isn’t this rosé delightful?’

To clarify, my reaction to the movie is not meant as some discussion about the right to die, but about the way crisis lines operate, and the absolutely awful way this is portrayed in the movie. It is simply not the job of crisis line workers—paid or volunteer—to just “hold a caller’s hand” while that caller dies by his/her own hand.

It is a hazard of working at a crisis line that one may end up on the phone with somebody as that person dies. But this is much different than such an occasion being the purpose of that work. A police officer has the potential hazard of being shot on the job—but it is not the police officer’s work to be shot on the job. A teacher may be subject to the hazard of being verbally abused or even hit by an angry child—but it is not the teacher’s job to be verbally abused or hit.

And what kind of horrible people would you be attracting to work at the crisis line if you told them that part of their job was just to listen as people die? What would be considered an appropriate level of intervention if just letting people die was considered an acceptable or even desired outcome?

Heather, like any crisis line worker, when confronted by questions of listening versus intervening, should make it clear that, as much as crisis line workers are there to offer support, they are required to intervene in order to prevent callers from completing suicide. And with experience and training, one will gain a better idea of just when that intervention needs to take place.

In the case of The Phone Call, there was an admission that a suicide attempt was already underway; and for all intents and purposes, Heather did nothing. We are supposed to see that as somehow touching, and even life-affirming.

Don’t just feel about that. Think about that.

 

And now for the obligatory ending: If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, call the national (U.S.) suicide prevention hotline 1-800-273-TALK.

 

Suicide at the Oscars, part one: ‘Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1’

by

J.C. Schildbach, LMHC

The topic of suicide came up in at least three acceptance speeches at the latest edition of the Academy Awards on February 22, 2015. (Okay, yeah, I’m late to the party again). And perhaps even more astonishingly, two of those acceptance speeches were actually related to films about suicide prevention hotlines. First up is the documentary, Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1. (A post about the short film, The Phone Call will follow soon).

Having spent more than five years working full time for a crisis line, and continuing to work in a position sideways from, and occasionally overlapping with, such work, I can’t help but come to these films with something of a bias.

As a matter of fact, I first saw a portion of Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 on a Sunday morning after coming home from an overnight shift at a call center where the crisis line calls represent only one of many mental health functions with which the staff is tasked. Having spent the bulk of my work week on understaffed shifts, I was perhaps a bit resentful at flipping on the TV to see a scene what Bob Hosk, one of the Veterans Crisis Line supervisors who features prominently in the documentary, described as “five hours here at the hotline” utilizing “about four personnel to help one guy.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think it’s great that the resources were available and the effort was made, with (spoiler alert) a positive outcome for an active duty service member in Hawaii.

In the time since I first saw that segment of the documentary, I’ve become more familiar with the workings of the military in addressing the epidemic of suicide among veterans and service members, and will say it is truly impressive to see the complete change that has taken place over roughly the last two decades—from an approach to suicide and mental health issues that could be described as ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ to one of increasing and highly-promoted access to counseling services, to working with suicide prevention specialists and investing in the crisis line depicted in the documentary, among many other avenues.

But, back on that summer morning, knowing that in similar situations (an unknown caller making a vaguely suicidal statement, then hanging up) rather than having a specific staff member on shift to call a special “law enforcement” phone number at cell phone company to get information on the caller’s location by pinging cell phone towers, and then being able to devote ‘five hours and four personnel’ to find the caller, whichever one of us took the call would typically end up trying to call back, and, failing any respone from that, doing a quick Internet search on the phone number (like they show in the documentary) and then making a call to 911 dispatch in whatever location the phone number (probably) originated, to report that somebody had called and threatened suicide—‘no, we don’t have a name; we don’t have an address; we don’t know how they might do it or if they tried anything yet; we don’t know if there are weapons involved; no, we don’t know much of anything about anything—we’re following our protocol, sorry to bother you.’ Then on to the next call—which could range from a hospital social worker inquiring about a client’s mental health history, to a client with chronic mental illness telling us about his dinner, to someone struggling to get help for a family member with a mental illness, to…

In the case of Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, my sense is that the caller from Hawaii was truly coming from a place of desperation, and, perhaps, wasn’t aware of other options available to him, or just what sort of response might kick in as the result of the call he made. He may have thought that by hanging up, he could just drop the whole matter. He may have scared himself simply by voicing the thoughts he was having about ending his life, and so tried to walk away from that.

But beyond my initial reaction to the portion of the film I saw back on that sunny Sunday morning, and my somewhat-tempered-by-time-and-new-information response now, I have mixed reactions to the film.

I’ll say that, overall, I think it’s an excellent depiction of some of the most challenging types of work that happen at crisis lines, and at the Veteran’s Crisis Line Center in particular, which the film notes “is the only call center in the U.S. serving veterans in crisis.” (A more accurate description would be that it is the only call center in the U.S. specifically established to serve veterans, and specifically engaging the particular protocols of that call center in order to assist veterans. Any crisis line in the U.S. will take calls from veterans, and do what they can to help. Call centers affiliated with Lifeline routinely take calls from veterans and their families, in part because the callers don’t always ‘press 1’ when prompted to get transferred specifically to the Veterans Crisis Line Center. And, while Lifeline workers typically will explain to such callers that they have not reached the veteran’s line, they always offer to help.)

Semantics aside, not all calls to a crisis line are life and death—or even crises. Each time the phone rings, it’s not a given that the caller is a someone on the verge of taking her/his life, or a family member of such a person. But you wouldn’t know that from watching this film. You only get the slightest whiff of the lighter calls, when, early on, the camera moves through the call center, the sound of constantly ringing phones and poignant snippets of dialog, reaching the microphones at just the right time: “really proud of you…Where were you stationed?..So twice you tried to hang yourself before?…Do you want me to send someone there for you?…Did you get injured while you were out on active duty?…diagnosed with PTSD?…If there’s anything we can do for you…”

Okay, so those don’t come across as all that light. That particular scene is one of many subtle manipulations used by the filmmakers—layering audio to create a particular impression of an “always on” call center. For the sake of drama, the filmmakers leave out audio involving callers who are just seeking information or non-emergency services. They leave out the repeat callers who are really just touching base and giving a brief synopsis of their day. They leave out those calls having any of a number of angles that aren’t even remotely related to suicide.

The filmmakers also choose to escalate the drama in a completely unnecessary way. For instance, the music, most often quiet, involves drawn-out, high-pitched tones that add to the tension viewers are meant to feel—as if trying to talk a stranger out of suicide isn’t drama enough.

I love this woman: Maureen--Crisis Line Responder, Extraordinaire

I love this woman: Maureen–Crisis Line Responder, Extraordinaire

On top of that, the final segment of the film takes place on Christmas Eve. The scene opens with outside shots of the call center at night, American flag flying, trees wrapped in colorful, twinkling lights, as a soft jazz version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” plays–the song adding a sting of dark humor with it’s ‘all our troubles will be miles away’ and ‘let your heart be light’ emotions. The timing of the scene was undoubtedly selected because of the heightened emotions many viewers are likely to have around the idea of a “Christmas miracle” or notions of family togetherness at the holidays. But it also serves to reinforce the popular, but ill-informed, notion that ‘the holidays’—Christmas in particular—are a time of heightened depression and increased suicide, an impression reinforced by a shot of the notepad where the crisis responder has written a quote from a suicidal veteran: “Holidays are depressing.”

There are other things that could be taken as manipulation, but which I think were not only clinically sound decisions, but also place the focus where the documentarians wanted it: on the people working at the crisis line. Not hearing the callers, for instance–while likely done just as much for clinical reasons, as for legal and artistic reasons–provides for greater control over how the information will be presented to the audience, and also removes any impressions viewers might have of the callers based on their voices, or the tones they are using.  While I obviously don’t know the specifics of how any of the callers in the documentary spoke or sounded, anybody who has spent time working on a crisis line knows that many of the callers can come across in a way that, shall we say, challenges empathy. Responders need to be aware of the potential biases they bring to calls, and need to develop skills for de-escalating and connecting with difficult callers. At any rate, difficult or not, hearing the callers’ voices would create a completely different film.

Still, one of the most valuable aspects of the film is in giving voice to the crisis line responders, not only in their moments of calm where they appear to be completely in control, but when they are giving voice to frustrations as well. During one call, Robert, a veteran himself, complains that the response time from police is “ridiculous.” In a separate interview segment, Robert expresses the anger that crisis line responders can feel toward callers: “How dare you take your own life?” But part of the reason Robert’s rawness comes across in a potentially endearing fashion is that the filmmakers also let him speak about his struggles with questions of his own abilities, whether or not he has made the right decisions, or whether he made them in time—questions born of situations where the interventions failed.

There are other responders in the film with whom I had a harder time connecting—feeling a sense of kinship, or understanding their particular reactions, or the ways they tried to connect with callers. I don’t want to dwell too much on my snotty, hypercritical reactions, though—or even mention them in any specificity. For one thing, I know only a very limited amount about what was happening in those particular situations. And I don’t know how those people move about in daily life, or in their routine work at the crisis line.

But why I will most back away from potentially harsh or nitpicky-sounding criticism of any of the responders is because I can’t imagine having to work a crisis call with the knowledge that cameras are on me, and that whatever I do could end up on HBO.

That said, there is one responder in particular, Maureen, who comes across as the undoubted ‘star’ of the film. Little is explained about Maureen or her background, except, perhaps, that she reveals that she has sons, as she is complimenting a caller on her handling of a difficult situation.

Beyond that, Maureen demonstrates the perfectly complicated balance of compassion and detachment that is rare in crisis line workers. She is able to connect to the callers, but does not get visibly drawn into the drama, despite mentioning calls that ‘stay with you.’ Early on, we hear her say, “It’s ultimately the veteran’s decision if they are going to live or die…and as a responder, you have to have a really good grasp of that.” Truer words have never been spoken.

Maureen is able to deliver lines of perfect connection to callers–lines that may seem odd to those unfamiliar with such situations. After asking a caller about how his friend (who died in combat) would react to news of the veteran’s suicidal intent, she listens for a bit, then says, “He’d kick your ass? So he’s a good friend.” Maureen is able to drably ‘contract for safety’ with callers, getting them to promise that they at least won’t kill themselves while they are on the line with her, and then works to expand on that promise.

Maureen is the responder featured in the final scene of the movie—the one that takes place on Christmas Eve. Against this backdrop of heightened emotion, she is tasked with drawing a soldier with a gun out of the desert, and back to his parents, despite much of his life unraveling. She is further challenged by limitations on her involvement—having to direct the veteran’s mother on how to bring him home, and then sitting silently, listening, and hoping it all works out.

In the end, Crisis Line: Veterans Press 1 leaves much to contemplate—whether from a clinical or technical perspective—or any of the other myriad perspectives that could be brought to the film. It is incredibly effective in that it is able to provoke a range of emotions, and could, potentially, be used as a tool for training crisis line workers and volunteers, service members and their families, or really anyone who wants a better understanding of how crisis lines work, how the mental health system can be accessed, or how the military is responding to concerns of suicide among its ranks.

It remains to be seen if the film will help draw more workers and volunteers to crisis services, or perhaps scare more of them off. And this is where I have the most difficulty with the film. How much is too much when trying to convey the intenstity of real-life situations? What level of manipulation and film-making technique serves to create understanding, and what level serves to drive only emotional response?

Granted, the vast majority of people who see Crisis Line: Veterans Press 1 will never work in a crisis line call center. But, there’s always a chance they might need one.

So (obligatory ending)…

If you are concerned that somebody you know may be struggling with thoughts of suicide, call (or get them to call) the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255—Veterans Press 1.

Box Office Schadenfreude? Nolte, ‘Selma’, and ‘American Sniper’

by JC Schildbach, LMHC

Full disclosure: I have not seen either ‘American Sniper’ or ‘Selma.’

An interesting item turned up in my news feed earlier in the week. And by “interesting” I mean “simplistic and misleading.” That item was John Nolte’s “Box Office: ‘American Sniper’ Breaks Records, ‘Selma’ in Death Spiral” on Bretibart.com. You can see the whole piece here: Nolte’s faulty stats prove America loves LBJ, hates Oprah

In the article, Nolte argues that Americans are refusing to see the movie ‘Selma’ because it “lies about race,” and the public is just plain tired of “race hoaxes.” In contrast, Nolte says that honest folk are rushing out to see ‘American Sniper’ because “God, family, and country are box office bonanzas.” God apparently makes a cameo in ‘American Sniper’ but refused a starring role in ‘Selma,’ after its makers reportedly told God that they absolutely refused to include anything about family and/or country in their movie.

Nolte’s earth-shattering evidence for ‘Selma’ being dishonest is that the film portrays President Lyndon Baines Johnson inaccurately. And, while I grant that, from my understanding of the film’s content as compared to actual history, Nolte has some support for this point, can anyone really imagine that historical inaccuracies are a major factor in the decisions of American movie-goers?

“Honey, I’d really like to go see ‘Selma’ this weekend.”

“Well, I’m all for going to see a movie, but I hear that ‘Selma’ isn’t historically accurate in its portrayal of LBJ.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes, it’s true, unfortunately.”

“Those bastards!! Why would they do such a thing?”

“I don’t know. I think maybe they just hate white people.”

“Well, then we should just go see ‘American Sniper’!”

“I think it’s our duty as good citizens.”

One might note the weirdness of a Breitbart adherent championing the cause of a president who, by today’s standards, could only be considered an ultra-liberal Democrat. It’s also rather odd that Nolte labels ‘Selma’ as a “race hoax” despite not contesting anything else about the content of the film or its portrayal of events beyond LBJ’s lack of support for the Civil Rights Movement.

This is not to say that I think we should just ignore historical inaccuracies in films, but rather, that people need to understand that “based on true events” means that there are going to be elements that are altered for dramatic effect. Certainly, having discussions about such issues is worthwhile, much like the discussions that have been raised in regard to the accuracy of the portrayal of the main character in ‘American Sniper,’ which Nolte says is about “warriors…properly honored and honestly portrayed.”

I can't stand this victim mentality.  We're the real victims here.

I can’t stand this victim mentality. We’re the real victims here.

At any rate, Nolte gloats about how ‘Selma’ is tanking at the box office, compared to all other Oscar nominees for Best Picture that are still in theaters, and that ‘Selma’ is really getting trounced by ‘American Sniper.’

The problem is, that, aside from the resounding box office success of ‘American Sniper,’ none of what Nolte says is entirely true. Nolte has to cherry-pick box office statistics about fluctuations in ticket-sale-percentage to make his arguments appear true.  For instance, Nolte’s statistics about ‘Selma’ experiencing a downturn in sales/sales percentage is only true if you look at the ‘three day weekend’ (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday).

However, since Nolte claims that the Oprah Winfrey-produced movie about MLK allegedly tanked over “the Martin Luther King, Jr. 4-day weekend,” (Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday) many of his claims become rather shaky, some outright false. That is, while it’s true that, following the Oscar-nomination announcements, many of the other Best Picture nominees enjoyed larger percentage increases in sales than ‘Selma,’ when the whole 4-day weekend is considered, ‘Selma’ actually increased it’s box office draw by 22% over the previous weekend, rather than experiencing a drop in sales, as Nolte contends, with over $5 million in business on MLK Day alone. So, it seems that plenty of people, although not record-box-office-numbers of people, did decide to celebrate MLK day by going to see ‘Selma.’

In further contrast to Nolte’s claim that ‘Selma’ is in a “death spiral,” ‘Selma’ was the fifth-highest grossing movie in the U.S. whether you look at the 3-day or the 4-day weekend. Currently, ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ and ‘The Imitation Game’ are the only films among the Best Picture contenders other than ‘American Sniper’ to have earned more total money than ‘Selma,’ with ‘Selma’ likely on the way to besting ‘The Imitation Game.’ But I guess actual earnings are not a metric that fits in with Nolte’s imposed reality.

And although Nolte crows that ‘American Sniper’ is now the top-grossing MLK Day weekend movie of all time, and highlights its box office dominance compared to last year’s MLK Day weekend top-grosser, ‘Ride Along’, Nolte doesn’t mention that the previous all-time earnings record-holder for the MLK Day weekend is ‘Paul Blart: Mall Cop’, a movie rife with historical inaccuracies.

I’ll leave it to you to ponder why, at the end of his historically/statistically semi-accurate movie-earnings rant, Nolte later tacked on a brief paragraph urging his readers to go watch the PBS Civil Rights Movement documentary ‘Eyes on the Prize’, or Spike Lee’s ‘Malcolm X’ or ‘Do the Right Thing’, just as I’ll leave it to you to contemplate the strangeness of a man gloating over a movie about a sniper earning more money than a movie about a black Civil Rights leader who was assassinated by a man using a scoped rifle.

Until next time, see whatever movies you want—and don’t be afraid to think critically about them, or to learn more about the events portrayed, or to question the accuracy of statements made by people who really should see a therapist about their anger toward Oprah.

Three Frightening Movies that Aren’t Traditional Horror, or Suspense, or…

Well, Halloween is over, but who cares? You can still keep on scaring yourself, right? Only, rather than the usual gore and mayhem, how about some unsettling horror, the kind that makes you question the reality of the movie, it’s characters, and your own thought processes?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of the traditional monsters-and-bogeymen (bogeypeople?) style of horror. But sometimes it’s good to be scared by things that aren’t quite so over-the-top. And speaking of over-the-top, you’re probably already irritated with all the ‘Early Black Friday’ specials and the ‘Holiday’ ads anyway.

The movies listed here also get at some small bit of what it is/might be to cope with various forms of mental illness, or to deal with others who are struggling with it. They spotlight what it is like to be unsure about what is happening, and to have a difficult time understanding what constitutes legitimate forms of support. These are movies that cause a tightness in your chest, and not the kind that is alleviated by the next hissing cat springing out of a cabinet, or garden tool splitting open some body part or other.  They carry with them the kind of dread that has a real impact.

And I’m going to say there’s probably a good chance that these movies should come with some trigger warnings, in case that’s not obvious from the descriptions.

Safe (1995): From Todd Haynes, writer/director of Velvet Goldmine, I’m Not There, and Far From Heaven, Safe sees Julianne Moore as Carol White, a woman who, after much confusion from a wide range of medical, mental health, and ‘other’ providers, is diagnosed with Environmental Illness, a disease that makes her hypersensitive to various chemical agents that are common in everyday life in modern American.

But is she really suffering from anything, or is the disease a physical manifestation of the sheltered nothingness her life has become? The only people who claim to understand her and her disease have clear motivations for convincing her she’s sick, while those who tell her she’s fine seem to lack any concern for her whatsoever.

As much an indictment of the “American Dream” of being completely carefree (there’s no such thing as “safe”), as it is of various forms of mental and physical healthcare, and the lack of clear, irrefutable knowledge to address all maladies (despite ‘professional’ claims to the contrary) Safe will have you clearing your throat, checking your temperature, wondering just what that smell is, and…wait, that’s probably not the best way to encourage anybody to watch a movie.

Safe is a bit difficult to track down. They don’t have it available on Netflix in any format, and Amazon only has it for sale as a DVD or Blu-Ray. Here’s a trailer (that kinda sucks)…

Affliction (1997): Written and directed by Paul Schrader (writer of Taxi Driver, and writer and/or director of numerous other impressive works), based on a novel by Russell Banks, Affliction sees Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte) descending into unreality, or perhaps hyper-reality, during what should be the routine investigation of a hunting accident. Having grown up in the shadow of an abusive father, played in frightening fashion by James Coburn, Wade never quite makes it out into the light that might help him establish some reliable sense of self.

An occasionally brutal meditation on familial abuse, PTSD, and other forms of trauma, this one is a slow crawl over gravel, peppered with the occasional hot coal. It’s available right now streaming or by disc on Netflix, as well as on Amazon Prime.

Here’s a trailer (that isn’t all that bad…)

Take Shelter (2011): From Jeff Nichols, also writer/director of Mud, Take Shelter stars Michael Shannon, aka General Zod and numerous other amazing roles, as Curtis, a man convinced that tornado season is bringing something much more sinister than twisters. Curtis jeopardizes his job, his financial security (including money saved for a cochlear implant for his daughter), his friendships, and his marriage to Samantha, played by Jessica Chastain, to build a storm shelter that can keep his family safe from not only storms, but perhaps the end of the world.

Nichols keeps the audience off balance by providing plenty of information that is clearly accurate, or at least witnessed by people other than Curtis, and also including a number of elements we can’t be so sure of. Is Curtis the only one alert to the signs of danger all around? Or is he suffering a breakdown of some kind?

Take Shelter is currently available via disc on Netflix, via Amazon or AmazonPrime in multiple formats, and on Starz—both on-demand and in the regular schedule.

Here’s a trailer (which is pretty darn good)…

So, happy no-longer-Halloween season. And remember, Thanksgiving and Christmas are still a good, long way off…as well as being great times to share disturbing films with family and friends.

Suicide?!? Shazbot!

By J.C. Schildbach, MA, LMHC, ASOTP

Before we get started, let me just mention that I spend the better part of my workweek involved in crisis intervention and suicide prevention. And let me note that anybody’s reaction to the death of another is going to be personal, and related to the kind of connection between them.

Now, let me tell you something horribly, selfishly, insensitively awful about me.

When I first heard of Robin Williams’ death by suicide, my thoughts were, more-or-less in this order…

1)  Damn!

2)  60-something-year-old man…history of mental health issues…history of substance abuse…makes sense.

3)  I wonder what else was going on with him.

4)  I am NOT going to write a blog post about this.

5)  Uggh! There’s gonna be a shitload of extra calls on the crisis line tonight!

Somewhere down the line was, “Shazbot!!” I totally f*cking wish “Shazbot!!” had been my first thought.

Anyway, before you climb all over me for my previously-mentioned insensitivity and selfishness, or whatever you might want to call it (I think I’ll call it “appropriate clinical detachment”), let me explain, in order of those thoughts.

1)  Yes, “damn!” It was shocking and unexpected to hear such a thing, essentially out of the blue. As for the context…I received a text message from my daughter about Williams’ death while running a plethysmography assessment (look it up). What this means is I was sitting in a small, dark, very stuffy and hot room running what I imagine would seem to most people to be a very disturbing clinical assessment to determine what kinds of really terrible things might lead to…ahem…responses for somebody with some admittedly inappropriate arousal patterns.

In such a situation, I didn’t have a lot of options for furthering a conversation or following whatever breaking news may have been happening. I had to shelve whatever thoughts or emotions I was having, and continue on with the assessment.

(You may ask why I wouldn’t have turned my phone completely off during a forensic assessment, but the reality of it is that the trace of the assessment is being recorded for later review, where it’s much easier to spot problem situations, and that turning my phone off only leads to things like my daughter destroying a sliding glass door because she locked herself out of the house on a cold day in early March—long story—well, not really, I think I just told it).

2) Which leads to…”60-something-year-old man…history of mental health issues…history of substance abuse…makes sense.”

Sitting in that dark, stuffy, hot room, staring at a double-lined forensic “trace” on a computer screen, with few responsible options available for furthering my knowledge/understanding of the situation, the defense mechanism of clinical detachment kicked in. Think about it, yelling “Oh my God!,” or sobbing openly, or exclaiming, “Shazbot!” all would have been pretty inappropriate.

At any rate, the quick run-through of Williams’ risk factors is the kind of clinically detached comment that I suppose is hard for a lot of people to take, especially when it has not been filtered at all. I can’t speak for everybody in the field of counseling/therapy, mental health, or even crisis intervention and suicide prevention, but there’s an odd dichotomy that exists in most people who get involved in such fields: we tend to be highly sensitive people; we learn to be very objective about that sensitivity.

If I wanted to get all sci-fi, I could say people in this field are empaths…empaths who have honed their skills away from making them one big, raw nerve, and toward using that sensitivity to discern a deeper sense of what is happening in others without being overwhelmed by it. Most of us have some pretty pronounced defense mechanisms. So, ideally, our training leads to an ability to pick out risk factors and make judgments about how those risk factors affect a situation, so that an appropriate course of action can be taken. Such risk factors are not predictive, but tend to be more actuarial.

Furthermore, the assessment of risk factors tends to weed out irrelevant elements. I’ve heard so many people go off about Williams’ fame and money as if that should have kept him from suicide, but those factors are irrelevant to a suicide assessment…except perhaps in the context of Williams’ available resources for obtaining help. But, and here’s a big generalization (as well as a big but), for somebody who is at the point of committing suicide, the concept of “help,” regardless of one’s resources, has become rather abstract and unreachable. From such a viewpoint, the available “help” appears to have been exhausted and shown to be inadequate. So, pushing past the money and fame, if one looks at Robin Williams from the standpoint of demographics and his personal history, he fits into a high risk category—or, rather, multiple high risk categories, even before other information about his health was revealed.

3)  “I wonder what else was going on with him” was merely a further part of the assessment of risk and what led Williams to his course of action. In suicide risk assessment, this is a huge factor. (Can I get a ‘duh’?). If the demographic factors alone played the deciding role in whether somebody was going to commit suicide, then we’d have near-universal suicide by people who fit into the same demographic categories as Williams.

Hence, one of the things that is always asked of people expressing suicidal thoughts is some variation on “Is there anything in particular that’s leading you to feel this way?”

The big idea behind such a question is to open up a conversation with someone who has, perhaps, not had such an opportunity to discuss what’s going on with them. A lot of people who attempt suicide, or are headed in that direction (here’s another big generalization) have been very closed off about their thoughts, and what they’re going through. Sometimes, broaching this conversation, being able to “normalize” suicidal thoughts (let people know they’re not as rare as they might think), and giving somebody a chance to talk through their immediate experiences, can lead to a person discovering that they have supports and strengths they weren’t considering when they were staying closed off and keeping it all to themselves.

4) The idea that “I am NOT going to write a blog post about this” came from a number of places. As someone who works in suicide prevention, and who writes a (mostly weekly) blog it seemed almost obligatory for me to at least note Mr. Williams’ passing. I shudder at “obligatory.”

Also, following any highly-publicized suicide, a whole slew of TV pieces, articles and blog posts (among other things) commenting on suicide and depression and the lives of those who complete or attempt suicide go flooding out into the world. It makes sense that people want to find out what happened, or understand how it could’ve happened, or share their personal feelings, or pay tribute, or say obnoxious, ignorant things…and there is often plenty of overlap in all of that.

And all of the posts and articles, and TV pieces close out with the phone number for Lifeline, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, urging people to get help for themselves, or for anybody they know, who is considering suicide or having suicidal thoughts.

As I’ve noted in other posts, I don’t do death too well. And I don’t really like talking about a particular celebrity because they died, or talking about suicide because that’s how someone famous died. I don’t generally shy away from talking about suicide, but I’m not deep into worrying about what celebrities are doing in their private lives. At any rate, when such conversations happen, I find myself slipping too far into the clinical, or just keeping my mouth shut. As for Robin Williams…I’m pretty sure I saw the entire run of “Mork and Mindy” and the “Happy Days” episode that spawned Mork, although I couldn’t really tell you much of anything about any of those storylines…as apparently memorable as they were, what with the rainbow suspenders and flying eggs and all. I’ve seen several, but definitely not all, of Williams’ movies.

Williams, like almost any accomplished artist who is around long enough, and productive enough, is going to put out work that is great, and some that is less great. The last thing I saw him in was “World’s Greatest Dad”—strangely enough, a story about a man who becomes a sort of celebrity after he ghost-writes a suicide note to cover up the fact that his teenage son died from autoerotic asphyxiation. I really enjoyed this movie, like I’ve enjoyed all of Bobcat Goldthwait’s movies (the ones he writes and directs). They tend to involve a kind of dark humor and exploration of at least mildly taboo subjects that are right up my alley. And, as a special bonus, “World’s Greatest Dad” was partly filmed at a bookstore and “mall” about five minutes from my house.

Williams as the most talkative mime ever in "Shakes the Clown"...shattering expectations for better or worse.

Williams as the most talkative mime ever in “Shakes the Clown”…shattering expectations for better or worse.

But then again, I had also written some spotty notes about how “Good Will Hunting” is one of numerous movies that gets the therapeutic relationship all wrong. I could continue on about liking how “Alladin” made good use of Williams’ rapid-fire joking, as did “Good Morning, Vietnam” and how he did some good stuff around mental health issues, like “Awakenings” and even “Patch Adams.”

I could tell of how I once spent half of a 9th-grade biology class trying to stop laughing uncontrollably after attempting to relay part of a Williams comedy routine to my lab partner (who is still my closest friend, not counting my wife). To completely butcher the joke, it involved Williams doing an impersonation of E.T. saying “ouch” because he was standing on his testicles.

5) Which leaves only “Uggh! There’s gonna be a shitload of extra calls on the crisis line tonight!”

I’ll concede that this is a pretty damn selfish thought. But, to provide some context, the call volume on Lifeline, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline on Monday, the day of Williams’ death, was double the call volume of the day before. On Tuesday, August 12, Lifeline had its highest call volume ever in the history of the service.

It’s true that not all of those calls involved people with suicidal thoughts, or suicidal intentions. The calls were not all from people standing on a bridge, or sitting in their living room with a gun in their lap, or lying in bed with several containers of pills and a bottle of gin beside them. Many of the calls were people asking how to get help for people they know. Many were people upset and sad at Williams’ passing, and just trying to process their own thoughts. But many were from people struggling with suicidal thoughts and intentions, several of them consumed with the idea that if Williams, with all he had achieved, was going to kill himself, then why shouldn’t they?

And, of course, people being the way they are, whenever the Lifeline number gets widely published and shared around on social media, there were more than the usual number of prank calls. (Quick note, kids: DO NOT prank the Lifeline—we have to take suicidal threats seriously, which means you might get a visit from the police as the price of your little joke, and as the price to the people of your hometown, who now have police officers responding to a non-emergency situation because you thought it was funny to be the kind of asshole who mocks people suffering from depression).

On top of the massive increase in Lifeline calls, most of the Lifeline call centers also serve as local crisis lines, and there was a huge uptick in the calls to local crisis lines (I don’t have specific numbers on this one yet, but trust me). Several of the Lifeline call centers, including the one I work in, also serve multiple functions within the local mental health system. To say the least, things got a little overwhelming.

I could go on about a number of other factors involved here, like how, while some call centers may be able to call in additional volunteers to address the short-term spike, generally speaking, the staffing, as with any business, is aimed at addressing an ‘average’ workload.  And there isn’t any way to suddenly increase the number of telephone lines and work stations to deal with what is, ultimately, only going to be a short-term (even if massive) increase in call volume.

By Thursday night/Friday morning, things seemed to be calming down a bit, easing back down to normal…at least in terms of call volume.

But we’re all still left with the sadness and the loss of an entertainer who reached people worldwide, and the struggle to understand and accept whatever this means to us personally, or societally, or clinically.

And, oh yeah…

If you or anyone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE call LIFELINE, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, at 1-800-273-TALK.