Tag Archives: mental health

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