Tag Archives: mental health

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: The Other Woman

This is the conclusion of the mental health series, and I’ll give both my final ratings for this episode, and my ratings for the topic as a whole.

A bit of background for this episode; at one point in the series, Tom Reilly becomes mayor of Odyssey. He has been a city councilman for a while, but wasn’t interested in seeking a higher office until some circumstances forced his hand. Bart Rathbone, recurring villain, ran against him and lost, which had something to do with the fact that he is a greedy, selfish pathological liar and, frankly, hilariously incompetent. And if I was writing this a couple years ago I’d make some comment about how it was implausible that Bart would even be taken seriously as a candidate, but obviously I can’t do that now… is it 2020 yet?

Anyway, this episode opens with Tom announcing that he is still considering whether or not to run for re-election, and he indicates that he is leaning towards not. This excites Bart, who thinks he might have a chance to be elected this time around, so long as he’s fighting some lesser opponent. He urges his family to think of ways to discourage Tom from running, which leads his wife and son to follow Tom around town.

They catch him going to Hillingdale Haven, which seems to be a kind of hotel or club, and get pictures of him wandering the grounds, romantically entwined with a woman. This raises the question of Tom’s wife. She hasn’t been around for years, but as far as anybody knows she isn’t dead and they aren’t divorced. Bart’s son insists he has seen her once, and this woman isn’t her; she is blonde, and Tom’s wife definitely wasn’t.

They take pictures and bring them to a tabloid. The editor is thrilled, especially when they tell him where the photos were taken. Hillingdale isn’t any kind of resort. It’s a mental hospital.

Naturally, when the story breaks, it comes out that Tom isn’t cheating at all. Tom’s wife, Agnes, has a passion for hair dye, and every couple of months she’s trying out a new color. Her mental illness is, of course, the reason why nobody has seen her, especially while Tom was on the campaign trail. It’s also the reason why Tom has finally decided not to run for a second term. He’s tired of the scrutiny of mayoral life, and the job has kept him away from her far too often. He’s done with it. This announcement does not give the Rathbones the joy they expected. Instead, Bart, for once, feels ashamed of himself.

This episode, as you surely notice, is the only one that explicitly mentions mental health. In all others, I rely on either cases where someone is showing the symptoms of a mental illness, which is not named as such, or someone is going through a short-term reaction to a stressful event; the kind of reaction that is not a mental illness in context, but in which handling the situation is still a mental health question, if that distinction makes sense.

You also probably notice that this episode has almost nothing to do with Agnes. She’s a plot device used to create a false scandal; any innocuous explanation could substitute. I’ve almost left her out of my summary entirely.

But this episode does discuss mental health, albeit in something of a footnote. After Tom’s announcement, Whit and Eugene talk a bit more about Agnes’ condition. What puzzles Eugene is that he has never heard about her. He understands why her mental illness wasn’t public knowledge, but he has never heard it brought up in church (Eugene is a Christian at this point in the series). Whit explains that, when praying didn’t improve her condition, people stopped being comfortable with the discussion.

“At first they prayed for her healing, but she just didn’t get any better. It was awkward. Eventually people stopped asking Tom about it, and Tom stopped mentioning it.”

This is something I’ve wanted to see from AIO for a while: an admission that prayer and faith don’t always work. Every Christian knows about somebody who wasn’t healed by prayer, who wasn’t spared suffering because of their faith. It’s typically not talked about, because it raises questions they are uncomfortable with. And Whit, surprisingly, admits it. When Eugene asks for his thoughts on the answer to those questions, this is the best Whit can do.

“I think there are a lot of Christians who have a hard time dealing with things like unanswered prayer. We want God to heal in our timetable, and problems like mental illness make it even messier for us. We like happy endings. We want these people to get better and get on with their lives, like good Christians… Christians who can’t cope are like poor advertising. They’re embarrassing to us. It raises questions we find hard to answer, like where is God when we become mentally ill?”

Here’s where we get a bit iffier. He’s admitting that stigma exists, but he isn’t really discouraging it. He isn’t exactly encouraging it either; clearly he’s sympathetic towards Agnes and doesn’t seem to think the problem is with her faith, yet he falls into stigmatizing language anyway. He doesn’t say “Christians who have a medical condition,” but rather “Christians who can’t cope.” The phrase “get better and get on with their lives, like good Christians,” casts a complimentary image of people who don’t get better because they’re not good Christians. Even if he’s not supporting this image in all cases, he is indirectly indicating that those who suffer mental health problems are at least sometimes at fault.

When Eugene asks, Whit tries to answer his own question.

“It leaves us where we’ve always been, stuck with the frailty of our humanness. Dependent on the power of God’s will, and obliged to keep praying hard for the Mrs. Reillys of the world, and the Tom Reillys who help them.”

I want to like that answer, because it is doing something rare in AIO canon. Whit isn’t conjuring up some theologically contorted answer. He’s just saying, a bit indirectly, that he doesn’t know. I feel like I’ve been waiting for that since starting this project. And, honestly, I really like to reward people who have the guts to admit that. It’s not easy for anybody, but I think that so many situations would improve if we were all just a little more honest about the limits of our own understanding.

That said, there’s a couple things that stop me from giving full credit. The first is that he doesn’t say “help people like Tom and Agnes” or “work to destigmatize their situation so they don’t have to hide like this.” He just says “pray.” To be fair, I know many religious people who would take it as a given that if you pray and then fail to also do what you can, you might as well not have prayed. But I also have known many religious people who, having prayed, feel they’ve done enough and can move on with clear conscience. And most importantly, it makes the real takeaway of this episode feel less like, “accept that some people have mental health problems that don’t go away on our time table” and more like “accept that, and for goodness sake don’t let it cause you to question the power of prayer!”

I’d have liked it if they had tried to deal with this problem, rather than just point it out and then pat themselves on the back for noticing it.

Final ratings (for the episode)

Best Part: While her appearance is incredibly brief, the interaction between Agnes and Tom is sweet. They tease each other in an obviously still in love way. Also, I do love that what you see of Agnes isn’t her being stereotypically “crazy,” but rather you get a conversation fairly typical of any old married couple, with a few key lines that reveal her conditions. 

Worst Part: I suppose I’m most frustrated by the description of Agnes’ actual diagnosis. They describe it as a “deep depression” but then she mostly shows symptoms of mild dementia? I mean, it’s possible to have both, but this feels less like an attempt to add nuance and complexity to her symptoms and more like they were lazy. 

Story Rating: There’s a lot wrong here. First of all, the tone is horribly inconsistent. All the Rathbones are decidedly buffoonish villains, so naturally an episode with all three will be joke heavy. The scenes of them bickering as they try to follow Tom are pretty funny, but when Agnes Reilly’s mental health problems are revealed, the tone shifts awkwardly.

Then there’s the lack of clear stakes. The main thing at stake seems to be whether or not Tom will run for mayor. It’s hard to root for this when he is so clearly ambivalent to start out. We also know he has main character plot armor. If the writers really wanted him to run again, he would shrug this controversy right off. I suppose we are expected to feel that, since Tom is second only to Whit in his perfectness, we should just want him to be the Eternal Mayor For Life and be devastated at any course that doesn’t keep him in charge forever. 

…. yeah, for failing to put together the events in any compelling or aesthetically satisfying way, this gets a D.

Moral Rating: As I said, I’m not sure if the message is supposed to be “love and support the mentally ill and their caregivers,” which is good, but poorly executed, and I’d give a C+, or “don’t let the mentally ill good Christians out there shake your faith,” which I’d give a D for screwed up priorities, or just “don’t make assumptions and try to smear people with gossip,” which is solid, well illustrated even though the story itself is bleh, and I’d normally give it an A. I’ll split the difference: B-

Ratings for the Mental Health Topic

Best Episode: Letting Go

Worst Episode: Nothing to Fear

Good Things They Said: Support people who are struggling, accept that bad things will happen but face them anyway. Sometimes people of faith still have mental health problems. These all should be common sense, but unfortunately even misconceptions this basic are endemic to both religious and secular communities.

Bad Things They Said: Religion fixes all the things, most mental health problems are spiritual, and people who lack religion can’t cope with death or traumatic life events. All of these are not only inaccurate, but for Christians with mental health issues they can actively make their problems worse.

Things They Failed to Address: Actual, accurate descriptions of mental illnesses and disabilities, the role of conventional medicine. I don’t think this show has to be a PSA on mental health, but I do think that, if you’re going to broach the issue, you should research it as best you can. Furthermore, while conventional medicine is still in trial and error mode when it comes to mental health, it has also healed or at least alleviated the condition of many, many people. I’m not even going to say that this show, created for and by Christians, shouldn’t have promoted religion as a potential source of healing. I’m saying that an episode that, for example, promotes therapists and psychiatrists as a tool God provides for us would have been great.

Overall Rating: The bad messages are emphasized far more than the good ones, and sometimes directly oppose them. The things they fail to address are key to the topic as a whole. Because of this, I think the bad really outweighs the good here. D- 

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Where is Thy Sting?

This episode begins very shortly after the last one left off. Connie and her mother are going through Mildred’s things, and they discover a lovely music box that plays “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” is inscribed with “From Bill, First Timothy 6:17-19, in my prayers that you may find true treasure.”

Then they go pick up Connie’s father, Bill, at the airport. He is surly, but rather than rest up at a hotel, he wants to go straight to the funeral home and discuss arrangements. They meet with the funeral director, a local pastor and Mildred’s pastor from New York. As they talk, Connie says that she wants the funeral to be more than just a standard dour experience. She has been thinking about how hopeful Mildred was at the end, and how for Christians death isn’t an end, but a transition to a new and better life. She wants the funeral to focus more on celebrating that. Bill is furious.

“If you’re thinking that my mother’s funeral service is going to be some kind of a party, well then you’re on the wrong track.”

The others try to calm him down and suggest a balanced service, in which they talk about the sadness of her loss but also the hope she felt for a life afterwards, but Bill isn’t interested. He continues to mock Connie’s idea, accuses everyone else of ganging up on him, then storms out.

Now, usually I give a full summary and save my thoughts for the end. This is going to be one of the exceptions. There’s just too much to talk about here, and too much that changes from scene to scene, so I have to give my analysis as I go. Here, Bill is clearly being an asshole, and I don’t think his grief is an adequate excuse. Everyone else in that room is grieving too, with the possible exception of the funeral director. What’s more, all of them will need different things to help them through. That’s a pretty normal situation after someone dies. Connie shared the thing that is helping her through this, and how she would like to incorporate that into the funeral. But she didn’t demand it; she merely brought it up, which is what this meeting is for. Bill clearly needs something else, and doesn’t seem to know exactly what that is, which is rough. But his first response is to attack Connie, who is hurting just as much as he is. That’s only okay if you’re about five.

Afterwards, Connie talks the situation out with Jack and Eugene. It’s Eugene, of all people, who takes it upon himself to explain how Bill is probably feeling.

“Alas, take it from one who has explored many philosophies of life and death. If he considers death a void, then it may make him wonder if life itself is a void as well.”

This introduces us to the idea that, without God, there is no such thing as coping. They illustrate it with Bill, who is not only an atheist, but a nihilist. Contrary to popular belief among fundamentalists, most of the time those two don’t go together. I’m not going to say it’s never accurate, only that nihilism is not a sustainable ideology. We don’t do well with lacking meaning – it’s a human thing. To be a nihilist is to crave for a reason to be anything else. But that reason is not necessarily found in religion. I find it primarily in the people I love and the fight for social justice. I’ve known atheists who find it in a futurist’s utopian vision, an artist’s work, a family to care for, or a never-ending search for self-improvement. All of these things have value, here and now. It’s just a matter of discovering what speaks to you.

The idea of a nihilistic atheist being the norm is common. Fundamentalist Christians cling to it particularly hard, I think partly because they spend so much time putting down the worth of the world we have here. It is constantly compared to the value of the glorious, eternal afterlife. The present world is, at best, a pale facsimile, and at worst an active distraction. Switching mentalities from that to one where earthly love and human well-being is a perfectly valid reason to live and have hope is well, a bit awkward to pull off, even if you’re just switching your thinking temporarily to empathize with an unbeliever. I also think there’s a bit of confirm bias and survivor’s bias mixed in. Confirmation bias because fundamentalists want to see atheists this way, rather than consider that someone might be satisfied and happy without God, so they assume any happy atheist is lying. Survivor’s bias because the rare nihilistic atheists are the most likely to convert, and thus are the former atheists Christians are most familiar with.

This idea is impressed on the audience more when Connie’s mother talks to Bill, back at the house. She tries to reiterate Connie’s point about the balance of life and death, and the reward for believers.

“Well, that’s great, but if you believe the way Bill Kendall believes, you live and you die and the people you leave behind spend years trying to get over losing you.”

She also shows him the music box, and asks if he knows what the inscription means… kind of a weird question, given his clearly expressed disinterest in the Bible. He doesn’t know, he’s annoyed by the whole thing, and he goes for a “walk,” and isn’t seen until the viewing is almost over.

When he turns up, at the very end of the viewing, he is staggeringly drunk. He cries, snarks, and waxes poetic… if you expand the definition of poetry to slobbering doggerel.

“I am grieving the loss of my mother the only way I know how. You do it by having happy funerals and I do it by trying to forget.”

I have mixed feelings about this scene. On the one hand, I love how, despite his relentlessly dickish behavior, you are made to feel for Bill. He’s no simple villain. He’s a human being who is expressing his pain destructively, but you are made to feel his grief along with him nonetheless. On the other hand, it’s clear that the writers of AIO struggle to understand how a non-believer truly thinks and acts. Even for a nihilistic atheist, Bill’s statement is a little too on the nose, too perfectly aligned with where the writers are determined to take us.

Bill manages to behave through the funeral, and afterwards he goes up with Connie and her mother to view Mildred one last time. He reflects that the service was actually quite beautiful, contrary to his expectations. He also reveals that he and his second wife are getting a divorce. He feels like a failure on every level; he can’t keep his marriages together, he missed his mother’s final days because he was off on a cruise, and he can’t help making a mess of the mourning process, swinging his grief around like a club that keeps everyone at bay. Connie comes in with her solution. He needs to become a Christian. She emphasizes that the Bible verse on the box was an exhortation to pray for unbelievers, especially those obsessed with money and fancy living, and how it proves that Mildred wanted nothing more than for Bill to accept Christ. Bill reiterates that he can’t believe, and can’t forgive himself either. Connie tries again, and Bill runs off. Connie’s mother reflects that they probably won’t see him again, and how she’s realized that she has a choice between handling life the way Connie does or handling it the way Bill does, and it’s about time she became an official Christian.

I’ve already explained how bad that dichotomy is, so I’ll go into the other big problem with this scene. Based on my experience, there are two ways to deal constructively with someone acting like Bill; someone full of pain who is simultaneously incapable of caring for themselves and lashing out at others. First, you can put up some boundaries to protect yourself from their attacks, and focus on your own healing. Second, you can sit down with them, listen to them, let them vent while taking nothing they say personally, and hope that somewhere along the line you both figure out what they need. Both are valid choices. The latter can be noble and admirable, but when you can’t juggle your pain and theirs at the same time, which is typical, there’s no shame in the former. Better to successfully heal one person than try and fail to heal two.

What’s not okay is to insist on this being the moment the other person radically change their worldview, so they can grieve correctly and heal in the way you’ve decided they need to. Healing is complicated, beliefs are complicated, human development is complicated, and all of the above are incredibly personal. In the scene at the funeral, what Connie does is like trying to collect an insect with a sledgehammer. She is saying he can’t heal and grow unless he somehow acquires a belief in God. He doesn’t believe, and can’t will himself to accept it, because nobody can even at the best of times. Bill is too raw for her statements to do anything but drive him deeper into a feeling of hopelessness.

I do agree that, in the long run, Bill needs deep, transformative change in order to become a functioning adult. But Connie, at the end of this episode, expects him to convert entirely to her method of coping, and offers no other way to help him. In a way, she’s doing the same thing he did to her earlier in the episode. She goes about it in a nicer way, but she is still more hurtful than helpful, for exactly the same reason; she’s refusing to acknowledge that his pain needs to be dealt with on its own terms.

Final ratings

Best Part: When Jack and Eugene go to the funeral and are just their adorable selves. Which is to say, Jack quietly listens and hugs and makes everything feel a little warmer, and Eugene goes on a ramble about “the historical development of necrology and it’s impact on Etruscan archaeology…” and then remembers he’s at a funeral and apologizes a few thousand times. It’s sweet. 

Worst Part: It’s a tough call between the various lines that oversimplify the nature of unbelief, and how unbelievers can cope with death. The worst, I think, is actually Eugene’s. Eugene is a kind of intellectual jack of all trades, and at this point in the series he’s actually something of an agnostic. Eugene is probably my second favorite character after Connie, but all too often, AIO uses him as a legitimizing mouthpiece. He confidently asserts something that we are to assume is well founded, because A. he’s smart and B. he’s not a full-fledged believer so it’s also coming from an objective perspective. But of course, those statements are written without any actual research. His statements don’t follow his character or a coherent philosophy, but are simply what the writers want him to say, dressed up with the aide of a thesaurus.

Story Rating: Honestly, if I just look at the bare bones plot, without the ideas explicitly discussed, it’s a pretty good idea for a story. The central conflict is between two different methods of grieving; that’s interesting. The execution isn’t all bad either. Many of the scenes are well constructed and much of the dialog sounds like how actual humans talk. There’s still a bit that’s stilted, but overall… B – 

Moral Rating: “If you don’t believe in my exact religion, clearly you can’t cope with death and you’re doomed to misery forever.” D – 

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+

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist; Nothing to Fear

Revisiting these episodes is reminding me of what a pedestal they were on. In my family, Adventures in Odyssey episodes were imbued with a kind of mystical reverence. I believed they held keys to existence and that taking their advice seriously was the secret to good Christian living. Not as much as the Bible, of course, but they were awfully Biblical and, frankly, easier to understand.

I’ve briefly worried that this is biasing my reviews. Am I blaming them too much for screwing with people’s heads, just because the status they held in my family helped them screw with mine? Then I realized that no, it can’t just be me, because they weren’t passively placed up on that pedestal. They actively campaign for the position. I mentioned in my first review that an annoying lady named Chris gives us a preview of the moral, and a summary of it, just in case we haven’t had the point thoroughly hammered into our head yet. She also makes promises that the upcoming episode will answer our questions, interpret the Bible and make our lives generally perfect.

For example, in this episode she says we will learn a way to make our fears go away, and never come back. Those are her exact words, “go away and never come back.”

The protagonist, Shirley , opens our story with a nice scream, because her friend Jake is showing off his pet mouse, Luther. And by friend I mean “asshole who occasionally associates with her.” After deliberately shoving a phobia of hers in her face, he laughs, and Whit comes over to see what the trouble is. He learns that Shirley is scared of mice, as well as heights, fire, crowds, being alone, turtles, the merry-go-round, toy guns, stuffed animals, the street, the woods, bikes, the dark, loud noises… he actually fails to find something she’s unafraid of. He even asks if she’s afraid of him, and she says, “no, except when you wear your big jacket. It’s kind of creepy.”

Whit gets her to gently hold Luther, which seems to be helping her realize there’s no danger, until it bites her. She drops it and the mouse runs off. This isn’t the part I have a problem with. Gradual, controlled exposure to sources of anxiety can help people overcome fears, both ordinarily and ones that are parts of mental illness. I’ve sometimes used a kind of self-guided immersion therapy to deal with my anxiety disorder. It’s just bad luck that Luther the mouse doesn’t cooperate.

Unfortunately, supportive, gradual exposure to triggering stimuli is not the actual theme of this episode. The actual theme is what Whit tells her.

“There are fears we need to overcome, not just because they are harmful to us, but because they show a lack of faith in God. The Bible says that perfect love casts out all fear.”

To make his point extra clear, he compares God’s love to a light switch in a dark room. You don’t have to move the darkness out to make room for the light. One is there, or the other is. The light casts out the darkness instantaneously.

This is incredibly harmful, because it won’t always work, and when it doesn’t, it creates feelings of shame and inadequacy on top of the existing fear. To be clear, I’m not just saying it won’t work because I don’t believe in God. Many people of different and mutually contradictory beliefs find comfort in their beliefs. A religion doesn’t have to be true to be consoling. I even rather liked the Veggie Tales episode on being scared. But Veggie Tales also affirms that fear is normal and okay. Whit makes any lingering nervousness a direct measurement of your lack of faith.

Shirley goes home to get the bite looked at, and has an intense nightmare about a giant mouse eating her alive. She wakes up to her Mom using the vacuum cleaner, which is also a source of anxiety for her. As she sobs in her mother’s arms, she asks why she has to be afraid all the time, and her Mom is unable to calm her down.

So, for the record, the official stance of this episode is that Shirley is a “scaredy-cat.” Chris actually uses the dictionary definition of scaredy-cat to introduce her. Shirley’s also called a coward by Jake. Whit protests that but seems to object more to the name-calling than the accuracy of the statement. The one label he doesn’t want to put on her is “crazy,” which disturbs me. I wouldn’t call Shirley crazy either, but I would say she shows every symptom of having an anxiety disorder like me.

  • Time. Shirley talks like a seven-to-ten year old, in terms of both voice and vocabulary. Everyone acts as if she’s been this fearful all her life. It’s normal for children to go through phases where they are a bit shy or anxious, but typically they get over them. Longstanding anxiety like this is a sign that something’s chemically imbalanced.
  • Intensity. Look at that list. Look at the severity of her reaction. Look at how pants-wetting panic is her default mode. That’s not normal.
  • Lack of a cause. A child who is experiencing stress at home or has been through a traumatic event will probably have some heightened anxiety for a while. Shirley’s home life seems to be happy and stable.
  • Irrational fears. A few of the things that scare Shirley are rational, like fire, but most are completely harmless. She can intellectually acknowledge that she’s not in danger, but is still afraid.
  • Quality of life. This is the most important one. It’s the ultimate divider between mentally healthy and in need of help. Do the symptoms interfere with your ability to go about your everyday life? Do they take something away from you? Shirley is miserable. She is driven away from places that are supposed to be happy and safe, because she can’t control her fear. She cries over her inability to stop being afraid. She has an anxiety disorder, and she should see a doctor.

For the record, I’m not saying she needs meds. Maybe she does and maybe she doesn’t. I’ve known people who rushed to medicate themselves or their children when some patience and therapy would have done the trick. I’ve known people who put off much-needed medication because of nebulous stigmas, and I include myself in that category. What Shirley needs is between her and her hypothetical doctor, but what she doesn’t need is to be taught that if she can’t control her fear it’s because she’s a bad Christian.

Meanwhile, Jake decides to punish her for losing Luther by luring her into the basement of Whit’s End and exposing her to darkness and generally scary noises. He even rigs boxes to fall over and such, just to maximize the creepiness. Did I mention he’s an asshole? His plan backfires and he falls into his own booby trap. His ankle is twisted and he can’t go get help, so Shirley has to make her way through the dark to find someone. She does this, because people with anxiety disorders are often quite brave in a crisis, because they’re used to being scared so suddenly being in a scary situation doesn’t faze them she sings Bible songs and is filled with the love of Jesus and is magically fearless.

Afterward, she gets some ice cream at Whit’s End and talks to Whit about how Jake will be okay, although he’s grounded for pretty much eternity. Shirley explains, for the benefit of the audience members who haven’t gotten the point yet, that loving Jesus is magical fear-repellent. She declares that she might never be afraid again. Connie then comes in with a cool bug she found, which causes Shirley to shriek in terror.

Whit and Connie laugh. Because it’s funny that her lifelong battle with irrational terror isn’t over yet. Because it’s funny that either she doesn’t love Jesus enough or vice versa. Because somewhere in the development, they decided to end every goddamn episode with Whit laughing, and who gives a shit whether this undermines the whole point of the story.

I have emphasized the medical because, the way Shirley is written, it’s easy for a person with actual mental health issues to identify with her. I remember I did. And the sad truth is that this kind of message isn’t even uncommon in religious circles. I’ve known many Christians who are supportive and knowledgeable about mental health, but I’ve also known Christian communities that stigmatize it and treat it as pure lack of faith. Because of this, I’ve known people who have suffered silently and attempted suicide, rather than seek treatment. When you heap guilt and threats of divine condemnation on top of a chemically fragile mind, the cost can include a human life.

And what really bothers me is that, with that final scene, there seems to be some inadvertent admission that this magic bullet isn’t quite so flawless as they make it out to be. There’s no other indication that this whole “love Jesus and stop being afraid” thing might not be that simple. Remember how Chris opened the episode? Yet, it makes sense that on some level they know it’s an exaggeration. I mean, they must have felt how their own worship never makes the fear go away completely and permanently. Brains just don’t work like light switches. Despite this, they are comfortable telling impressionable, inexperienced children that if they experience fear, it’s because they lack adequate faith and love in Jesus.

Thankfully, I didn’t actually listen to this episode that often. It scared the crap out of me.

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