Tag Archives: mental health

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: A Touch of Healing

This episode takes place during a period where Whit was off in the Middle East, being a missionary adventurer archaeologist (no, I’m not making that up), and Whit’s End was run by his son Jason and his old friend Jack. This was actually a pretty good time. See, they couldn’t bring in a new character who would usurp Whit’s status as most perfectest human being, and instead they replaced him with two guys with good hearts and human flaws. Jason is proactive and inventive, eager to adapt new technology and trends to engage the kids at Whit’s End but often too hasty. Jack is more cautious and old fashioned. He needs Jason’s energy to keep up with the times, but he can also see where Jason is rushing in without considering all the potential drawbacks. As a result, formulaic answers delivered by a Mary Sue were replaced with actual debate and compromise, and room for the audience to think longer about an issue before deciding who they agreed with. It not only made the morals less trite, but also tended to force the episode quality up.

In this episode, Jason has developed a new program for the Imagination Station. I don’t think I’ve mentioned it before, which is astounding because it is a major part of the AIO canon; in brief, it puts kids into a world where they act out a story, programmed in by Whit or Jason, but brought to life “by the power of imagination.” It does actually seem to penetrate the mind directly, rather than just being a glorified virtual reality machine, which has some freaky ass implications. But I’ll have more opportunities to get into this later.

For now, Jason has realized that, since disabled kids can imagine they don’t have disabilities, he can program the Imagination Station to put them through an adventure, completely able bodied. Jack felt like there could be problems with this, but couldn’t offer anything beyond a vague bad feeling, and Jason more or less took that as a challenge. He went straight from idea to implementation to trying the program out on some Whit’s End regulars.

His first test case, Jenny, does not go as planned. Jenny was born blind. She can’t accurately imagine being sighted, and as she talks about it upon leaving the Imagination Station, it seems that she also doesn’t really see her blindness as a fault. It’s just a part of her, and she has a good life just the way she is. The second one, with Zachary, who became quadriplegic in a car accident, goes much better. He walks and runs, and what’s more, sees this as absolute heaven. This is, by the way, the same Zachary from Letting Go, but earlier. He was still adjusting in that episode, but here he’s positively raw from the double shock of losing his father and becoming disabled. As soon as he is pulled out of the program he becomes enraged and demands to be sent back. His mother, Eileen, who was not informed about what Jason was about to do, is furious. Jack takes Eileen’s side, but Jason can only think about how happy Zachary was during the program, and can’t understand their problem.

Meanwhile, Connie and her Mom are welcoming Connie’s paternal grandmother, Mildred into their home for the foreseeable future. Connie’s father, as you may recall, is largely absentee, and Mildred is dealing with some ongoing heart problems. It says a lot about Connie’s family life that she’s the one unanimously chosen as the best suited to take care of her grandmother. Mildred is sweet, warm and utterly delightful. Unfortunately, during her visit, her health takes a sudden and dramatic turn for the worst. She is admitted to the hospital, and when Connie visits, the two of them spend much of their time in prayer.

The next day, Jason finds out from Eileen that Zachary was a wreck after the Imagination Station. He threw tantrums and, when he finally went to bed, she found him crying in his sleep. He has also been refusing to go to physical therapy. PT apparently has the potential to help him, but it’s a slow, frustrating process for a kid who is already emotionally scarred. Zachary says that there’s no point anymore, since he can just go into the Imagination Station and walk like he could before. Eileen asks how Zachary is supposed to cope with reality when Jason has created a perfect fantasy for him to escape to. Jason, still wanting to defend his invention, thinks that maybe later on, Zachary’s experiences in the Imagination Station can help him be more motivated to go through therapy. Jack takes him aside and tries to show him how he’s undermining an already stressed out parent. He argues that it’s always been a policy of Whit’s End to never contradict parents when it comes to their kids. Jason doesn’t like that policy. I don’t either, but in this instance I’ve gotta take Jack’s side. He’s started messing around with Zachary’s healing process without even consulting his mother, and that’s seriously unacceptable.

The episode then cuts to Connie and Mildred in the hospital. By now, Mildred knows her own body pretty well, and she wants no more hopeful double talk from the doctors. She lists the problems, the transplants she would need to survive and her slim odds of getting them, and sums up her condition as terminal. The doctors are stunned, but admit she’s right. Mildred thanks them for their honesty, and Connie asks her why they have been praying if there’s no realistic hope.

Instead of saying they are praying for a miracle, Mildred says that the prayers aren’t for herself, but for Connie; for her to have strength, whatever happens next. A short time later, she slips into a coma.

Over the next several days, while Connie works to prepare herself for the worst, Whit’s End is mobbed by disabled kids. Jason sees that Zachary’s not alone in his reaction. These kids have a brief experience of cheap release, but they leave either angry, because they have to return to a reality that now feels doubly unfair, or disappointed, because like Jenny they lack the experiences that let the program work on them. For those who can use the program, they mostly went through the same kind of pain Zachary did. The Imagination Station makes them go from a world where they’re struggling to learn how to be different, to a world where everything is as it was before, and then are thrust back into the real world, with no coping mechanisms, no tools to adapt to the transition. He hasn’t invented a way to heal them, but a way to torture them. He suspends the program indefinitely, until he can figure out a way to make it genuinely work for the kids, and apologizes publicly for the damage he has done.

Jack goes to visit Connie and Zachary. The conversations he has with both of them are about turning to God for emotional healing, even when the physical healing we hope for doesn’t come. These talks are both very different from the ones Whit gives. Jack spends a lot more time listening. There’s no railroading them into a predetermined point, so you get the sense that he doesn’t come in with an agenda. He hears what the other person says, gives his honest response, and then listens to see what they made of it. You know, like an actual conversation. With Connie, they meander through faith, prayer, sin, pain and the afterlife. She doesn’t emerge with any new answers, but she feels heard and loved in a way she didn’t get in the previous review. With Zachary, there’s a “let me tell you about Jesus” talk, but it comes up naturally as a result of Jack sharing his philosophy on spiritual healing, and Zachary asking to hear more.

In the end, Eileen and Zachary both are converted. Mildred dies, but Connie finds comfort in her belief that they will see each other again in heaven.

It is clearly indicated that the official message is that God is a more powerful force for healing, particularly mental and spiritual healing, than medicine and technology. I don’t agree with that basic premise, in partly because I think the latter exist and the former don’t, and also because my experiences with mental health have shown the opposite. Religion tended to exacerbate the problem, modern medicine had very good results for me. At the same time, this topic is handled with unusual nuance in this episode, and that does make it better.

In this episode, characters who disagree with the official moral aren’t strawmen. They have reasons and are given the space to fully explain them, so even though they end up proved wrong, you can still think about circumstances under which they might have been right. If Jason had collaborated with physical therapists and parents, for example, he might have set up a more helpful program; perhaps one where it’s a reward for therapy, to make the results more tangible.

The other thing that works well here is that there’s something organic about how faith is used. Connie, Mildred and Jenny have a long personal history of faith, so it makes sense that they turn to it. As for the conversion, while I don’t like what Jack says (he calls people who don’t believe in Jesus “spiritually handicapped”) I do think he has a right to share his faith with those who are interested, and Eileen and Zachary don’t feel forced into an out of character religious experience for the sake of the story.

Science has brought us a long way, but there are many things they can only alleviate, or haven’t been able to solve at all. The history of science is also full of therapies that were tried and did not work, or have the potential to be applied in both helpful and abusive ways (think electroshock therapy or lobotomies). While meds have made a significant difference in my life, and therapy can help many others, for other people religion is genuinely a source of emotional healing, and that’s great. When it comes to mental health, I’m happy for anyone who finds something that works for them.

Of course, this episode avoids a big potential problem by only portraying characters who are happy to turn to Christianity for healing. I’ve already talked some about ways that religion can be counterproductive for people with mental health problems. In the next review, Connie’s father shows up for Mildred’s funeral, and we get to look at how AIO treats characters who are hurting, and unwilling to convert.

Final ratings

Best Part: Jack comforting Connie. It was so genuinely warm, and after Fences I was really ready for her to get talked to like a human being and not a troublesome project.

Worst Part: They keep referencing an earlier episode where Jason tried to invent an arcade game that taught kids about the Bible, and Jack was so shocked because, you know, video games. That episode, to AIO’s credit, did not force Jason to realize video games were evil; only that they were loud and needed to be put in a soundproof room so they don’t disrupt the rest of the shop. The writers almost seem to feel guilty about making that compromise, because now Jack keeps saying that they can’t be healthy, what with all the lights and noise and punching buttons.

Literally, he complains about the kids punching buttons. The whole time, I’m thinking, “you hear that your childhood BFF invented something that literally induces hallucinations in minors and you’re fine with this, but video games are bad because buttons???”

It was a minor point that didn’t detract too much from the overall episode, but it was still annoying.

Story Rating: The dialog was natural, and the conflicts progressed very naturally. At no point did the story feel like it was relying on contrivances or manipulation to make it’s point. I got genuinely invested in all the characters and how things were going to turn out. A

Moral Rating: I think the basic point is problematic, but of all the takes on this idea, they took the best one. C +

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Fences

When this episode begins, Connie is waltzing through Whit’s End, narrating her sundae-making like she’s on a game show and complimenting everyone in sight. Her father is coming to town. As we learned in previous episodes, Connie’s parents have divorced, a rarity in Odyssey, and her father lives back in California. We, the audience, have never met him, and it’s implied that she has barely seen him since they moved. So it’s devastating when, upon arriving home, her mother says he cancelled his trip.

Apparently her father’s new wife’s mother is sick. Connie tries to be understanding, but she can’t help but mope through life for the next several days, and things only get worse when she learns that her father has a chain of upcoming business trips and meetings, and so has no plans to reschedule his visit with her.

Whit and Eugene, her coworker, notice her sudden change in behavior and ask her about it. She is honest about how she feels; miserable, mixed with a little guilt over feeling miserable. No matter how often she tells herself the reasons for his cancellation were out of his control, the hurt will not subside. So she goes through the motions of her ordinary life, hoping that eventually non-nauseating emotions will return again. Whit and Eugene have an aside about how she is behaving. They agree on the following; 1. Connie is upset about her father, 2. They want to help her, 3. Connie won’t let them help her.

The first point is rather obvious. She says as much, explicitly. The second is an admirable response, and an expected one. The third, however, is bizarre. The problem is not that she won’t let them help her, but that there’s nothing they can do to help. Connie’s sadness is not an inappropriate reaction. Whit and Eugene cannot change her father’s mind, nor can they fly to California and drag him back to see her, and furthermore Connie can’t ask them to. Instead of accepting this, they frame it as Connie being stubborn, and hope for her to get her mind back on God. It feels almost like they are blaming her for not enabling them to fix her. What do they expect? Do they want her to give them an itemized list of things that will make her feel better? There’s nothing wrong with her. A truly upsetting thing happened, and she’s going to be blue for a little while.

Now, I can think of one thing they could do that might make her feel better, if not immediately, then in the long run; validate her pain. Part of what’s hurting is the contradiction between her conscious desire to defend her father, and her unconscious understanding that something is up with his behavior. And one character does do this, albeit accidentally. Her elderly neighbor, Mr. Mitchell, is having a fence put up, courtesy of his son, who hopes it will help protect him. While they watch the construction, they chat about family. Connie asks, if his son lived in California, and couldn’t come visit, but Mr. Mitchell could get around more easily, how often would he visit? Mr. Mitchell says he would make the trip four or five times a year. Connie is dumbfounded, but Mr. Mitchell doesn’t think it’s a surprising answer. He loves his son, and no matter the distance he would have to make visiting a priority. Connie realizes that the problem isn’t her. It’s her father. Yes, life gets in the way, but the problem isn’t that this one time, he had trouble with his schedule. The problem is that Connie, his own child, is about seventieth on his list of priorities, which just makes him a shitty human being.

What does this revelation make Connie? A feminazi.

No, seriously. That’s what they think the next logical step in this character arc should be.

She gives a Bible study lesson that consists of listing every man who ever screwed up in the Bible, quoting verses that announce that men are filth (it’s never pointed out that she’s using examples where the Bible is actually saying humanity is filth and using “men” and “all actual human beings” interchangeably because sexist archaic language) and making posters of male models with their heads cut off. This causes every girl in her Bible study to spontaneously form the Men-Haters Club and go around locking boys in closets.

Again, I’m not making this up. That is literally what happens; they corner guys, lecture them on how awful they are, and lock them in closets. Because of one crappy lesson.

There is so much wrong with this. First, if Connie has the ability to so radically change people’s behavior with one lesson, that is a seriously misapplied talent. She should be going into peace talks and hostage negotiations. Second, this reaction makes no sense as a consequence of what happened to her. I thought it was weird even when I was a kid, and now I find positively enraging. I’ve also known actual women who, after a series of traumatic experiences, went through a distrusting-men-generally phase, but mostly it’s nothing like this. They are still basically tolerant and get-along-y towards the real human beings in their lives, but take a little longer to really trust new men, and get really into analyzing the ways that male privilege and toxic masculinity does teach men to solve problems in aggressive, hurtful ways. That’s not to say people who aren’t truly, actively mean to men in general don’t exist, just that there’s really only one type of person who does that; an asshole. Connie’s not an asshole. That’s what gets me really mad. Why the show is willing to assassinate Connie’s character like this? Of all the ways for her to act out, why the hell did they go with something uncharacteristically mean and petty?

I’m sure the answer has nothing to do with a desire to squeeze in a message about how feminism equals men hating, so as to discourage their female listeners from paying attention to actual feminists.

Anyway, Whit gets mad at her and tells her not to come back to Whit’s End until she gets her act together. He’s not firing her, he’s just… grounding her? I’m not saying it’s unreasonable for him to keep her out like this in response to those things, just pointing out that his role in her life is weird. He switches so frequently between mentor who happens to also be her boss and boss who happens to be her mentor that it gets hard to figure out the boundaries.

The resolution is shitty and contrived. Mr. Mitchell has a heart attack, on his porch and out of sight because of his fence, and he nearly dies but a series of coincidences let Connie find him just in time. She’s a hero, and Whit arrives to lecture her about how the fence that nearly killed him is a metaphor for the bad writing attitude that is cutting her off from people who want to take care of her. If she wants to get better, she needs to let people help her, and also God. God will fix everything, and if he hasn’t already it’s because she didn’t let him. Connie says that he’s right, and she’s now suddenly her normal happy self. Her father’s still a piece of shit, and he’s still rejecting her in a way that would fuck up a real human being in a serious long term way, but she is totally fine, because she realized her whole life can be explained with a metaphor about fences.

I was torn between putting this under the upcoming social issues theme, to talk about the shitty straw man representation of feminism, and mental health, to talk about what they teach kids about how to handle stressful, painful situations. It ultimately went under the latter because I think the straw feminist problem of the former is fairly obvious; too obvious to even be worthy of analysis. What’s more insidious is the fact that they let a misguided attempt at making fun of feminism get in the way of handling an important character moment for one of their most significant cast members. Connie is being rejected by her father. That is one of the most painful experiences possible. Yet, instead of showing how she gradually goes through a grieving process and eventually arrives at a semblance of acceptance and closure, they force her to lash out in a way that is out of character, then berate her for not being perfectly well behaved throughout the entire episode.

There is nothing complex or constructive here. Worse, because her actions do not resemble actual human behavior, this show, which prides itself on being a moral authority for kids, does not leave them with any constructive guides on how to handle real pain. Instead it has aphorisms about shutting people out and how that’s bad; it’s true, but without a well-constructed story, those aren’t enlightening. They’re just generic cliches. AIO is capable of writing complex character stories, as we saw last week. But unfortunately, this type of story, where they go for a contrived, cheap plot device, an obvious epiphany, and no real character growth, is far more common.

Final ratings

Best Part: the brief moment of happiness at the beginning

Worst Part: The Men-Hater’s Club

Story Rating: Contrived and awkward. D –

Moral Rating: Remember everything positive I about the last episode? This is the complete opposite of that. Also D –

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Letting Go

This week I’m going to talk once again about an episode that does better than average. My current theme is mental health, and this episode starts on the topic of grief.

This episode follows Zachary, who lost his father in a car accident that also left him in a wheelchair. He comes home early one day to find his mom, Eileen, being walked home by a guy. This guy is Blake, who she met at work and has started dating. She was waiting to see how this worked out before telling her son, and now that Zachary knows, they decide to all get dinner together.

All is a foursome, not a threesome; Blake lost his wife to cancer several years ago and has a daughter, Jill. Throughout dinner, Jill is sweet and chatty. Zachary tries to follow suit as Blake asks him about his interests. Unfortunately, Zachary quickly realizes that Blake is faking interest in science and model trains in order to connect with him. The longer the conversation goes on, the more stilted and uncomfortable it becomes.

Eileen convinces Zachary to give Blake and Jill a second chance, and they go out to the mall a few days later. Jill drags Eileen off to look at cute hats, and Blake attempts to impress Zachary with his pitching skills at a speed throw. After boasting about his college days, he throws an utterly pitiful fastball and nearly throws out his back. This actually nearly creates an opportunity for some real bonding; Zachary prefers laughing at Blake, the actual human being, rather than making stiffly polite chitchat with Blake, the guy reciting All The Right Things. Blake tries to capitalize on this banter with an invitation to a baseball game, but this kills the mood. It’s only later that he learns that ball games used to be Zachary’s guy time with his father.

Despite these fumblings, the four continue to hang out as a group. One day, Jill corners Zachary and starts talking future plans. She hasn’t seen her father so happy in ages, and is one hundred percent ready for a new Mom, to the point that she has already been researching wheelchair accessible houses for them all to live in. Full points for good intentions, but she freaks Zachary out, understandably. This prompts a confrontation between boy and potential-stepfather. When Blake comes over a few days later to pick up Eileen for a theater date, Zachary asks him point blank if he plans on marrying her.

Blake doesn’t know yet, but he does really like her. He counters with his own honesty challenge; what does Zachary really think of them? The honest answer is that Zachary doesn’t like the way Blake is rushing his way into their lives. Blake sees his point, but feels the need to remind Zachary that more peoples feelings are at stake than just his.

Afterwards, Blake finds himself conflicted. He postpones their theater date to instead go out to dinner and talk. He does feel bad for moving so quickly, and understands how this must feel to Zachary, who hasn’t had nearly as long to move on as Jill has. When Eileen comes home to tell Zachary about this, she finds him watching old home videos of his dad’s birthday. The anniversary of which, by the way, is tomorrow, the same day that Blake and Eileen have moved their theater date to.

That morning, Blake finds out that Eileen has taken the day off work, and goes to check on her. He learns she is being hit unexpectedly hard by her former husband’s birthday, and tells her how his wife’s birthday has the same effect on him. He offers to drive her and Zachary out to the cemetery, even though it’s a two hour trip.

At the grave site, the two of them reminisce. Zachary’s dad had a great sense of humor; Eileen tells a story about how he made her crack up in the middle of their wedding vows. Zachary realizes that, like Jill, he wants to see his Mom happy like that again. Eileen has her own realization. She never gave Zachary the “he’s not a replacement for your Dad” speech. There is a difference between being open to new, good experiences and forgetting the old ones.

Zachary says he’s ready to give Blake another chance, and a while later, they all go to a baseball game together. As they pile into the car, Zachary finds himself talking to Blake, not like a Dad, not like a distrusted doppelganger, but just like a couple of people who are excited to see some baseball together.

What makes this episode work is that Zachary isn’t rushed into a moral epiphany. He is allowed to have mixed feelings, moments of frustration, and conversations that don’t end in everything being magically better. Instead, he goes through a variety of reactions, none of which is perfect but each of which moves him a little closer to a healing. Nor does anybody else react perfectly. Everyone is in a new situation, and everyone makes at least one mistake that they have to learn to get past.

Like many shows (secular and religious) AIO often ends on a moment of revelation, as if all flawed behavior could be fixed by just realizing what was wrong. The reality is that healthy, appropriate reactions to tough times are a skill, just like writing or cooking or running a marathon. With any skills, no matter what you think should happen, actually doing it is another matter. There will be mistakes made before the desired result is reached. Epiphany therapy shows just set up people to believe that, if they can’t just will their emotions into matching what they think they should feel, there is something wrong with them. Worse, they can lead to people supporting those who are struggling to think that, if the grieving or hurting person just understood how they were supposed to feel, they would stop being so inconveniently miserable. We need more stories like this, that show what realistic adjustment looks like.

Unfortunately, this approach is pretty rare on Adventures in Odyssey. Over the next few weeks, I will get into some examples that are more typical of how they approach pain, grieving and mental health crisises.

Final Ratings

Best Part: There’s a lot of options I could pick from. For purely subjective and arbitrary reasons, I like the moment when Blake messes up the speed throw and his perfect nice guy facade to reveal a still pretty nice guy.

Worst Part: I honestly can’t think of a scene in this episode that didn’t feel authentic and moving.

Moral Rating: Honest and affirming without being cloying or preachy. A+

Story Rating: Well rounded characters with relatable conflicts resolved realistically. Also an A+

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Afraid, Not!

For my first theme in this reboot, I’ll be talking about how Adventures in Odyssey handles mental health. The fourth episode I ever reviewed was awful. It took a kid with every symptom of an anxiety disorder, made her fear magically go away by singing about God, and ended by informing anxious kids everywhere that God’s love casts out fear. Sounds positive, but the real world impact of that message tends to be damaging to people with real medical problems. They absorb the belief that their condition wouldn’t exist if they just loved God enough, which tends to A. actively make the symptoms worse and B. discourage them from seeking treatment. That’s not to say you can’t use religion to comfort fearful kids, just that you need to be thoughtful about how you use it.

This episode takes up the topic of childhood anxiety again, and I’m happy to say it genuinely does a better job. The story opens with a kid named Danny refusing to go to school. His parents assume he’s just going through a school-hating phase, so they give him a lecture about the importance of education and see him off. But before the day is over, his mother is called to come pick him up. Sometime between leaving home and getting to school, Danny got a black eye.

It takes a while to get him to open about what happened, but it turns out he has a stalker. No, seriously. Danny walks to school every day. A girl from another school has a crush on him, and she has been cutting classes to follow him around. She’s been getting aggressive, chasing him and demanding that he say he likes her, and finally she punched him in the face. Which… wow, dark shit. I’m not even going to say this is unrealistic, because I know this kind of thing sometimes happens, but it’s unusual for AIO. They’re usually too committed to the Mayberry picket fence image to admit that this kind of intense harassment is a reality.

The principal convinces Danny’s parents to call the police. They’re worried that’s too drastic, but eventually agree. I’m torn about this solution. On the one hand, I think this does need to be taken seriously. On the other hand, I’ve heard some scary stories about cops being sent to handle misbehaving kids and taking things way too far. Danny seems to be seven or eight, and this girl is implied to be only a little bit older. I worked with aggressive kids for about five years and could probably do a whole post on my thoughts and experiences, but this isn’t the place for it. So I’ll just say that it’s complicated and cops usually aren’t well informed about the difference between handling a kid and an adult. (not that they have all been doing great with the latter either, #blacklivesmatter)

Anyway, the next morning Danny is afraid to go to school, even though his father has agreed to drive him until the girl is caught, but before this conflict is resolved they are called to the station to identify a girl the police found in the woods. The girl is scared straight offscreen, and everybody expects that Danny should be fine from now on. A woman cop even jokes about how this isn’t actually that unusual, and how she once gave a kid a fat lip because he said he wouldn’t say he liked her.

Um, ew. Seriously lady, either you followed him and pushed him around for several days, in which case that wasn’t ok and the fact that you think it was makes me think you shouldn’t be a cop, or you just had a stupid one-time fight and learned from it, in which case you were being a regular kid, in which case you shouldn’t be comparing the two situations and normalizing her behavior.

I do feel the need to acknowledge that part of their intent is to emphasize that Danny isn’t a wimp for being beaten up by a girl, no matter how he feels. That is great, honestly. That’s an important message, especially coming from a show that is normally so gender conformist. I just have a problem with how they went about it.

After this uncomfortable detour, the episode gets back on a good path. As I said, people tend to assume he’s fine now, but he’s not. He puts off walking home from school until the last minute, because even though the girl probably won’t bother him again, he can’t be sure. When one of his teachers realizes what’s going on, he offers to give Danny a ride home, but Danny refuses. The kid isn’t just terrified of his stalker. He’s also scared of the kids, who might mock him for needing help and being beat up by a girl.

I think Danny’s reaction is much more nuanced and realistic than the portrayal of Shirley in that earlier episode on anxiety. I like that he’s torn between different fears, that he feels like he doesn’t have good options, and that he feels the pressure to put on a brave face even though he doesn’t want to. He feels like a person in this episode, in a way that designated-lesson-learning-kid-of-the-week often doesn’t. After he refuses his teacher’s offer of help, he spends the walk home looking out for signs that the girl is still out there, waiting for him. When he starts hearing snapping twigs, he tries to convince himself it’s all in his head, until he no longer can deny that there is definitely someone else in the woods with him.

Just as he’s about to run for it, Whit emerges. This being a small town, Whit already knows the rough outline of what happened, and he listens to Danny talk about it some more. He tells Danny that he gets scared sometimes too, and when he does there’s a Bible verse he likes to remember. He offers to teach it to Danny while they walk together, giving the kid a face-saving excuse to have some companionship.

Isaiah 41:10. Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.

The next morning, Danny tells his parents he doesn’t want to be driven to school. He wants to walk, and use his verse to stay brave. They remind him that his father doesn’t mind, and it’s okay if he’s not ready to walk to school, but Danny insists. He wants to learn to face his fear. I really love that. This is how you actually deal with fear; not by finding a way to erase it, but finding a way to move through it, even when it’s hard. And for the record, I don’t care whether that way is a Bible verse or an Oprah quote or showtunes from Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog. I personally prefer the latter, but you do you.

As he’s walking through the woods, he gets ambushed by Rusty, a recurring bully character. Rusty teases him for having been beat up by a girl and then demands his lunch money, but Danny starts shouting his Bible verse. Rusty, already freaked out by this weird behavior, hears somebody approaching to investigate and takes off. That person turns out to be Whit, who congratulates Danny on standing up for himself, and the two walk off together into the sunset.

Well, not the sunset, because it’s morning, but there’s a definite metaphorical sunsettiness.

This episode is good because it never tells Danny that he doesn’t get to be scared. Instead, it gives him tools to be brave despite his fear, and vicariously makes the viewers stand up for themselves. This is how battling real world anxiety works, whether normal or pathological. The religious angle is much healthier here; there’s a universe of difference between “truly loving God stops you from being afraid” and “God is looking out for you, even when you are scared.”

Final Ratings

Best Part: Danny standing up to Rusty

Worst Part: the whole bit with the cops

Story Rating: B+

Moral Rating: A+

Mental Health and Creativity

I’m not sure how to categorize this post. It’s certainly not a review, and its not exactly writing advice either. I suppose, in a way, its my own personal PSA.

Starry Night

I just read yet another book where the author went on a rant about what would happen if we had medicated Van Gogh. Psychiatric drugs are turning us all into zombies and the negative feelings in life fuel our art and many great geniuses would have been diagnosed with mental health problems today. Therefore meds are bad! Sigh.

I do think we often rush to medicate when other options might be better, and there are people out there with good, educated opinions on this issue. But when your example of someone who should not have been medicated is a man who mutilated himself and took his life at 37, my bullshit alarm starts clanging. These arguments make me angry for many reasons, but one of the biggest is that they, at one point, prevented me from even exploring the option of medication. I have an anxiety disorder, and as it turned out, a low dose of an SSRI was extremely effective in treating it. Medication isn’t the answer for everyone, and I’ll get to that in a minute, but first I want to talk a bit about our ideas about the relationship between mental health and creativity.

The idea that creativity and mental illness are linked is an old one, but studying it is problematic. Search the internet for mental illness and creativity studies, and you’ll find a tenuous statistical connection that raises more questions than it answers. People who spout the Van Gogh argument tend to assume that when mental illness comes along with creativity, the former is essential to the latter. This is only one explanation. Here are some others;

  1. Artists tend to live unstable, stressful lives. This means that those who are predisposed to mental health problems are more likely to develop them.
  2. People who happen to be both mentally ill and creative often turn to art as a kind of self-therapy. If they hadn’t been mentally ill, they still would have been creative, but would have channeled their abilities into other arenas.
  3. Mental illness and creativity share a genetic cause, a bit like those genes that cause both blue eyes and deafness. Just because a person wears a hearing aid, that doesn’t mean their eye color will change.

It’s funny how those who wail the loss of a hypothetically medicated Van Gogh never mention Monet, Manet, Renoir, Pissarro, Cezanne, Morisot or Degas. All of them, like Van Gogh, produced moving Impressionist art that is beloved today. They used the good and the bad in their lives to inspire them. See Morisot’s portrait of her husband on holiday…

 

eugene-manet-on-the-isle-of-wight

… and Monet’s portrait of his dying wife.

Monet's Wife

For most of them, there is no historical evidence that they suffered any kind of mental illness. Others, like Cezanne or Degas, did have some moodiness and isolationism that might have been signs of a disorder, but then again, maybe they were just shy eccentrics. It’s almost as though great creativity appears across a spectrum of functioning, rather than being dependent on extreme mental anguish.

Now, I should say, there have been people who have tried medication and then gone off it, because the side effects were awful, or because the meds didn’t help, or because they felt they could manage it better with therapy alone. Some people who use the Van Gogh argument just mean we shouldn’t force medications on people who don’t find them a net positive. I do agree with that point. Unfortunately, it is just as often used as fear mongering by people who don’t really know anything about either psychiatry or what its like to be mentally ill.

The stigma around mental illness made my parents inclined to ignore it, and the image of the tortured artist was a convenient way for them to explain away the warning signs in young me. I wasn’t really miserable. I was just “moody, like all the great writers were.” Growing up with this as the way to understand myself made me feel guilty even considering that I might have a medical problem. When I considered getting help, my brain filled with some Orwellian nightmare of personality erasure. Even when I broke away from them, these images fed my anxiety disorder and added one more boulder to the massive wall of issues stopping me from seeking help.

For years, I managed my anxiety by educating myself on calming techniques, recognizing my own personal triggers and picking my battles. At some points in my life, that worked fairly well. I would face my fears in order to maintain friendships or keep my job, and then I would go home, cry and crash, not because anything had gone wrong but because I was exhausted from fighting through my fear every time I was around people. Other times, I had to miss out on things I really wanted to do, because I did the math, and I knew I didn’t have enough spoons to both see my friends and face the crowds of strangers at the grocery store. I thought I was doing pretty well. The tears and shaking became almost invisible to me, because they were so normal. Then, I moved in with my boyfriend, and those breakdowns weren’t private anymore. He was loving and supportive, but simply having another pair of eyes on me made me realize how unusual my mental state was.

Then, last fall, my long estranged older brother started reaching out to me. I had to take advantage of this, because I loved and missed him, and our visit went very well. Unfortunately, the trip was so hard that the anxiety crash didn’t take an afternoon of crying. It took weeks, and I couldn’t limit my outbursts to home. I started having breakdowns at work, over nothing. My boss took a moment to talk to me privately about what was going on, and shared her story about how she had gotten on medication. Obviously that story was private, but it debunked a lot of my worries and got me to set up an appointment with a general practitioner (I had tried to get an appointment with a therapist, but invariably my first few calls would go to people who weren’t accepting new patients, and of course one of my major anxiety triggers was making phone calls).

Now I’m on meds. I still feel fear, sadness, and all the other normal negative emotions that we all need to function. What changed is that after I feel them, I calm down normally, without exhaustion, tears and shaking over something that I know, rationally, was no big deal. It hasn’t harmed my creativity. If anything, I have more time and energy to write. Once again, I need to say that everyone reacts a little differently, and what worked for me might not work for someone else. My point is not “go on medication, you will definitely be fine.” Instead, my point is twofold.

To those of you who struggle with mental health problems but have been spooked by those who say you’ll lose your ability to feel, let me tell you, they don’t know what they are talking about. Psychiatric medication might not be the best option for you, but then again it might improve your life more than you ever thought was possible. And here’s the great thing; if you try a medication and you hate how it affects you, you can stop taking it. Do talk to your doctor first, because sometimes you need to wean yourself off gradually, but any decent doctor won’t make you stay on something that is hurting your quality of life. If they aren’t willing to listen to you, change doctors. There are plenty of good ones out there. Your brain is a wonderful, powerful instrument, and your life is a precious thing. Take good care of them both.

To those of you who spew the cliche about Van Gogh, I understand that you probably didn’t mean anything by it. You probably hadn’t thought of this perspective. I hope I’ve given you something to think about. I leave you with this. Perhaps Van Gogh would not have responded well to medication, but given how much pain he was in, he should have been given the choice, and that choice should be respected by us all. If that would have resulted in a world without Starry Night, I dare say we’d have consolation enough from Monet’s Sunrise.

Impression, Sunrise