After watching Birdman, I have come to the conclusion that my mental illness is not Hollywood material. My depression, my anxiety and my panic attacks are not caused by any kind of artistic existential crisis. Rather, my mental illness simply exists and it does not need a reason to be.
Unlike the Hollywoodian type of mental illness, my inner voice makes me lethargic and uninspired. I do not ponder about my reason of being nor do I feel the need to prove myself to the world. In fact, I think about not being at all, ceasing to exist in the most discrete and painless way possible.
It is scary to think that numbness can strike out of nowhere, for no particular reason. In movies, there are always actions and reactions: character A is depressed because of X. That’s the easiest way to understand another human being suffering from mental illness. But what if there is no particular reason for mental illness? What if something starts to go bad inside you and you cannot point to a cause?
Before committing suicide, Robin Williams gave an interview to The Guardian where he talked about him mental state. I always think back on this interview because I resent the ‘tortured artist’ trope: Robin Williams did not kill himself because he was a disturbed artist with too many ideas. Robin Williams killed himself because he was sick and he was in pain, and thousands of people across the world who are not artists or actors go through that every day.
What stood out for me was the following, when he is asked if his alcoholism and drug dependence are about his friend Christopher Reeves’s death.
“No,” he says quietly, “it’s more selfish than that. It’s just literally being afraid. And you think, oh, this will ease the fear. And it doesn’t.” What was he afraid of? “Everything. It’s just a general all-round arggghhh. It’s fearfulness and anxiety.”
Of course the interviewer had to ask what he is afraid of, but this kind of fear is not palpable or definable. I do not know what I am afraid of or why my chest hurts or why I want to sit at home by myself for a few days when I am depressed. It has never been as simple as a career crossroads like Birdman’s Riggan.
Obviously, when someone kills themselves you want to ask: Why? – the possibility of someone taking their own life because of an illness is way beyond our grasp. Why? Was he disappointed with his career? Was he disturbed by one of his parts in his recent movie? Why? How could he? He was so talented! The idea that the crushing pain of mental illness comes without reason is disturbing. The idea that this pain can override everything we have achieved in our lives, everything that we are, is scary. I get that.
I enjoyed watching Birdman: it was interestingly done, the acting was incredible and I wasn’t bored. But as a sufferer of mental illness who has lived with a separate voice from my own in my head, I resent that Riggan’s issues were glamourized in the usual ‘tortured artist’ format. It felt like the subject of mental illness was avoided when it was in plain sight and isn’t that how we already treat it in everyday life?
I would like society to reach a place where depression is understood as an illness, not as a kind of crisis that can be fixed with picking the right path or impressing the right people. It is uncomfortable to stop searching for a reason why our idols or friends or family harm themselves in such a way but I am sick of the tortured artist trope. It’s repetitive and I doubt it has done much to help people who suffer from these illnesses. It means we are constantly searching for what is making us hurt, as opposed to getting treatment for something that is completely curable or in the least manageable.