Through her storm- Britney Spears and Social Stigma against Bipolar Disorder


Within hours of Salman Khan’s 5 years sentence, his lawyer announced his brain ailment and how it could worsen if he was sent to jail. Immaterial of the legitimacy of that claim, it’s become practice today to use medical reasons to ‘get away’ from things. I’ll come back to the “get away” reference later. It just prompted me to write this post in tune with some related posts (both art and poetry) that I’ve written on this topic earlier.
This post is neither about Salman Khan as an actor, as a criminal nor about Britney Spears as a singer. It is about mental illness as an excuse a VS. genuine cases of temporary psychotic disorders that even educated sections of society does not sympathize with.
Much could be said about Britney as a cultural icon: how she has had an impact on our notions of femininity (or how our notions of femininity have dictated her), how her particular small-town white-girl to pop star image is played out in the entertainment arena and how her becoming a mother and wife disrupted that trajectory. From an iconic star to an uncertain wife and mother to qualifiable  mentally unsound. Britney Spears is an inevitable part of every 1990s girl’s life and fashion, irrespective of whether we liked her music or not.  Don’t tell me you never wore the plastic tattoo choker necklace? The crop top, silky straight hair and flat abs look that were in fashion those days, a look actress Simran wore about that time. Britney is an example of someone we’ve seen over the years. . Her story tells about how an identical mentally ill subject is perceived differently just because of  race, class or gender and how this plays in social inclusion and acceptance of the mentally unfit.
She was at her career high when we were in middle school and the year we graduated high school was about the time of her fall. 2007 was the year magazines and newspapers were filled about her hospitalization, alcohol, loss of control and loss of custody of her children, loss of money to her ex husband in a case, in and out of rehab of sorts. Britney was a complete wreck. Nothing happens over night. Series of experiences leading to a meltdown and ignorance of that leads to a complete trainwreck when the person is finally put into a psychiatric care or conservatorship. What is unfortunate is that bipolar patient is often the victim and the society will punish him for being one.
In the movie Silver Linings Playbook, Bradley Cooper plays the role of a Bipolar patient, his father has OCD and Jennifer Lawrence has borderline disorder. Bradley is actually the victim. His wife cheats on him and he constantly tries to “get back” to her. The society finds his wife’s behavior  “acceptable” but the patient is institutionalized because he may harm people. Bipolar patients constantly try to rebuild their life only to be punished for even trying (in their desperate, crazy ways) to and their inability to let go of it.
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Finally, the only solution for a Bipolar patient is to cut his losses there,give up on the battle and move on. Because a person who can “silently” cause harm is more “socially acceptable” than someone suffering in his own anxiety
Like I said, there are two stages- a period of melt down (where the patient begins to obsess over things that are not going right) and a train wreck period when they are desperately or hysterically expressive of themselves.
Bipolar disorder or maniacal depression among most other temporary psychotic illness has a stigma attached to it, unlike depression that sounds more popular. Bipolar and the closely related borderline personality disorder are often misdiagnosed and that can lead to a host of other unwanted illness. A wrongful diagnosis of depression can cause drug induced mania or bipolar condition because a perfectly normal person was taking anti depressants that he never needed in the first place.
The biggest problem a Bipolar disorder patient has is in finding the right medical help- most often wrongful diagnosis or inability to find the right kind of medical attention can prolong the suffering. Most counselors go by an hourly rate but psychological conditioning requires constant support (from friends and the counselor- a luxury not all psychiatrist/therapists can give a patient). In the movie, Anupam Kher becomes an active part of Bradley Cooper’s social life and recovery. The next problem is both on the patient and the conservators or custodians of the patient. It is tiring to manage to a Bipolar patient and impossible to be comforting to them always. At the same time, a conservator’s actions can have huge impact on a highly reactive Bipolar patient and further delay their recovery. Medical attention – is two way- drugs and the counselling- which are both very expensive.  Bipolar disorder is debilitating – Most bipolar patients loose their job and cannot afford their own recovery. The next problem is post recovery, a bipolar patient is like a new person but a medical history of instability can disable them from being able to get jobs. In 2004, Emirates Airlines fired an airhostess on discovery of her medical history.
Coming back to the movie, the sexualization of disorder is mild in Silver Linings Playbook. Jennifer is characterized as someone who slept with random men at work. And of course the progression from the “bad girl image” to the “mad girl image”.The point in here is that, that is just merely unnecessary – why is a man’s mental instability portrayed only revenge, violence or alcoholism?  And why is a woman’s mental instability only portrayed as uncontrolled sexuality and lack of feminine hygiene or fitness?
A huge disadvantage to celebrities going through their “instability” (as I would call it)  is the media’s representation of it and indirectly that influences society’s understanding of the bipolar people around them.  A flabby Britney with post pregnancy bloated face began appearing in track pants in public which is “not in order” with her flat abs look (1000 crunches a day, mind you).  And the media began exaggerating what she was possibly “suffering”. Around 2004 (meltdown phase), Britney went from the “teen” icon to “bad girl” image with her Vegas wedding and next day annulment of the wedding. Within months she married Kevin Federline, the marriage that possibly caused her wreck. By 2007, she was a mother of two going through divorce. The media spotted her in public “shabbily dressed” like any mother of two would, and began proliferating her diagnosis with symptoms even Britney’s doctor may not have been aware of . She was spotted driving with her son on her lap and not in the baby car seat- media used the “bad girl” image to proliferate her “bad mother” image.
 
To make things great for the media, Britney did in fact end up as “crazy” that year. That is where a bipolar patient brings so much delight to those who waiting to see them fall. Britney was spotted violently attacking a car and posed nude for Harper’s Bazaar. A patient with heavy dose of psychotic drugs and a recent mother of two does not look like a Disney princess but oh well….society loves to see someone fall. Britney was sent to psychotic observation and much to the delight of those who called her bad, she shaved her head that same night. Britney had finally gone from the “bad girl” to “mad girl”.
At impromptu debate session during the first year of my college, a verbal terrorist (as I’d like to call her), offset her opposition who had given an example of Britney Spears with the words, “so your points are based on a mad woman?”
“Mad?”
“Yes. My mother taught me to sit with my legs crossed at the age of two. Flashing her privates, shaving her head bald by herself one night, drinking in front of her kids naked……….yes, she is mad.”
The flow of her language, the spontaneity and conviction with which she called Britney “mad” and how logical it sounded, makes me remember the words even now.
To us, flat abbed crop top and jeans sexy Britney was normalcy. Years of normalcy is replaced with “mad” almost instantly just when she went to comfy lounge pants and expressed anger and despise.
Anyway, today she’s a mother of two boys and has pretty much shown us, “the only way out……. is through”.
Britney’s music or how successful her career was after the “storm” is not the topic. The topic is about, how she made it through and has a right to live as happily and peacefully as any one else.
In the movie, Bradley Cooper’s friend’s wife wants to keep him away because of is illness but she is still good friend with his wife, because she is a “normal” person immaterial of her marital loyalty.  If we have a movement for social inclusion of all kinds – LGBT, disability, etc, bipolar is definitely an issue we cannot escape from and needs awareness. There are many around us going through their “storm”.
After years of normalcy, when one goes from fun and jovial friend to confused, shocked and maniacal, it does not bring much empathy from the same people who will other wise “be there for you” at any party or celebration. This isn’t because they lack care, this is because most people are ignorant of mental health.
My college mate even went on to say “such people are selfish and just use mental illness as an excuse for the trouble they cause intentionally and throw up all this fantasy drama”. It shocked me to hear this from someone who’s father is in and out of mental health support systems all his life. Well of course, you can see nothing in darkness except you will see who your true friends are.
Another truth is bipolarity or instability related mental illness are inconvenient and it exhausts the people trying to help. It is rather easy for people to handle with a depressed person who would quietly cry or end their life than a bipolar person who combats their problems in a defensive, confused, hysterical maniacal way. Social awareness of such things will take a long, long time-  the real issue here is audacity of someone to think that illness is “faked” just because it does not appear in the stereotypical mental way of “being mentally unsound” or “being depressed”.

And the other way around, the social generalization of anyone who is not in control as “crazy” as caused a lot of unwarranted therapy. The media proliferates psychiatric symptoms and treatments that even doctors are possibly not aware of. There are a slew of non-clinical “holistic” health therapists. And the society’s labeling of someone as “crazy” causes further stigma. Anything goes wrong, a counselling is recommended rather than sitting down to solve the issue at hand. Counselling doesn’t solve anything.(Refer opening scene of the movie – Tanu Weds Manu Returns where Madhavan calls his wife Kangana – Bipolar). But a Bipolar patient will go to any length to set things right. What begins with counselling will lead to a “physically normal” person taking unwanted drugs to end up as a havoc much like how people had branded him/her- “crazy”.

We have enough stories about the “mad” or the “bad” but never how and why it happened? What or Who caused the anxiety and the mania? Was it a natural “dark phase of life” or a side effect of other drugs?
Coming back to the first line of this article, any accused claims “mental instability” as an excuse to escape imprisonment. Salman Khan’s lawyer took minutes to come out with the claim that was not previously known.
It is completely true that an unsound mind deserves pardon. A Bipolar patient often goes through the feeling to cause harm to others and oneself, as against depression where one wants to harm oneself. However in real life, an mentally weak person has hardly ever caused real harm (like Salman Khan has.) A patient is often afraid of himself and what he might end up doing and it put into preventive institutionalization to prevent any harm they could potentially do to the society.   Mental illness sounds like a taboo word. Institutionalizing has its own stigma attached to it and most  people with temporary disorder are kept at close and visible quarters of their friends and family. And people with real mental disorders, though eligible for pardon or employment break legally, never actually get the support – be it legal, social or  personal. These people are given up. Their custodial rights are taken away and painfully, they loose the battle they are fighting for because of their “mentally unfit” status.There is no actual benefit our society or system gives to a person with a real battle. Unlike Salman who’s illness surfaced in the middle of a courtroom.
Meanwhile, to those going through the “storm”, if Britney can get through 2007, so can you.
PS- Related work poetry and art .
 
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8 thoughts on “Through her storm- Britney Spears and Social Stigma against Bipolar Disorder

  1. Said I have BPD, lucky me, Financially secure and real caring family, yet dreams have been a struggle, because of their phobia. Earlier days people weren’t tagged BPD or otherwise. Yes tags help with curing and caring. My query is all of us are unstable but as of yet untagged, so why not call all of us as phase1 of normalcy and those with an aberration as in phase2 etc.

  2. hi! Nice piece about mental health and society ! I have a masters in Clinical Psych and many of my friends are intimidated by psych! I have followed Brits ‘life’ since she first started- I don’t think it’s bipolar I’m pretty sure it is schizoaffective disorder which is a combo of BP & Schizo my father is an attorney and he said the only way her dad could have total control over her is if she has a debilitating disorder so that if she went of her mess she would be a danger to herself and kids and not cognitively know or be aware that she is ill! Bipolar of itself it is rare of psychosis and you are able to know what is real

    1. @deb – thank you for reading and your comment. As I mentioned exact diagnosis is a big challenge. My point was more about the lack of awareness about mental health and how people can take advantage of their vulnerability.

    2. Your answer is totally incorrect
      Bipolar can have both characteristics.
      Please continue education this
      Illness has so many different
      Qualities. The key to control it
      In people including myself is finding
      The right Dr willing to invest many
      Hrs and devotion in it.
      First convincing you to be true to
      Yourself as to how you feel.
      Been doing well since being diagnosed
      In 2007. The biggest struggle is
      Living with it after. Destroyed my
      Family. 2 children don’t believe you
      Don’t speak to you 2 grandchildren
      Havent seen ever, more needs to
      Be done on that note. A misdiagnosis
      Is true failure for all Dr and person.
      Took 2 years for Dr to find right
      Combination of meds and time to take
      Them. Now 2016 and doing relatively
      Well. I ask why me everyday.
      And always hopefull that one day
      My kids will see it before I die.
      It’s a very misrepresented illness
      Sometimes used wrong but
      Mostly not.

  3. […] The opening scene of Tanu Weds Manu-Returns is four years after where it’s prequel ended. Four years after marriage, Tanu (Kangana Ranaut) and Manu (Madhavan R) are seeing psychiatrists ‘cause they cannot stand each other anymore. The movie opens with Madhavan claiming his wife is mad and has bipolar disorder. I almost threw a glass at the screen at how stupid men cannot handle their marriage and make wives go through insanity and oh well, the nerve to call them so. (Refer to my previous post on Bipolar disorder. […]

  4. Nicely written. Appreciate your writing. But felt like its loooong one (I never read blogs).
    I read somewhere the same, I mean Bipolar patients never tries to hurt anyone, but themselves alone. Some movies frames like they try to hurt the people who surrounds them.

  5. okk that was really a food for thought. To be true I have nvr thought such thing ever, but definitely.
    Mental illness sounds like a taboo word. yes it is , I have actually observed few people who could have been suffering from OCD, but then People are afraid to admit it, accept it, While people who actually suffers are never being taken care of , this is being used as a Get away for real big people.
    These things we are afraid to discuss, accept and get treated in a proper way.

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