Being in my 30s and not really feeling like I have my life in order is probably the single greatest cause of anxiety in my life right now. Granted, that is a big umbrella of a problem underneath which a lot of frustrations can fit, but I guess another way to frame it is like this: As a kid, I watched like 50 hours of TV a week. I have easily seen over 1,000 movies (I’ve rated over 1,200 on Letterboxd) and in all those movies I saw what I thought life was supposed to look like. I looked to my parents and their siblings and their lives looked like this. My older cousins all had lives that felt balanced and normal and possibly even a little boring.
Even in the old movies like the screwball comedies of the 1930s, people were always depicted as a little wacky or eccentric in a way that was harmless, not in a way that might need a prescription or some therapy.
We’ve really come a long way in addressing mental health in the media, but it is still something tough to talk about, understandably so, because we have decades of hiding crazy relatives form the public and people pretending to be as “normal” as they can. When I look around now though, I can find so many shows and movies in which people have flaws but are not labelled crazy. It is a relieving change of pace, and sometimes I think people are not even realizing the shift is happening.
Wes Anderson aside, there is no current director whose movies I am more excited to see than David O’ Russell. It may seem like his interests are all over the place and no real theme to what he is doing, but I think he is taking some of the lost cinematic genres and redeeming and reinventing them. The Fighter takes boxing movies in a whole new direction. Three Kings is a movie that reinvented the war genre and became one of the first films to really tackle Desert Storm.
Then there is Silver Linings Playbook, which is a screwball comedy of the 1930s populated with characters with actual, identifiable mental issues instead of just “quirky” people. It isn’t just Bradley Cooper’s character who is struggling. His love interest played by Jennifer Lawrence has intimacy and grief issues too. The movie is very clear that these two are mentally not in a great place, but the whole supporting cast struggles too. Cooper’s mom is a classic enabler, his father clearly has obsessive compulsive disorder, and even Cooper’s best friend has some anger and resentment issues.
Most of the movie is really funny, which isn’t to say they are making fun of the mentally ill. Life is funny, even when you are struggling. If you can’t joke about the rough things in life, what can you joke about? But there are also brutally honest moments of how frustrating dealing with issues can be.
I feel for poor Bradley Cooper, who gave a remarkable performance in this movie that numerous people have labelled as a very accurate depiction of what mental illness can feel like. Hard to be up against Daniel Day-Lewis playing Lincoln and walk away with the Oscar though. You just can’t beat that. But this movie got its fair share of awards recognition and I think part of the appeal is that in this movie no one is stigmatized, because even the characters that spent time in a mental facility seem relatively comparable to those who are deemed to be living normal lives. You know why? Because we’re all a little messed up. It is another one of those Gen X sentiments: yes, you’re a little crazy, but don’t worry, we’re all a little crazy. The fact a movie with that sentiment is being released in 2012 gives me hope that the rah rah yay for your differences mentality of the past decades that seems to willfully ignore that some of these differences are in fact mental health issues that might be improved with medication, therapy, or at least a general awareness that this isn’t just some quirk, but something that can be addressed instead of suppressed, will be a thing of the past eventually.
Parenthood is another show that peels back the façade of seemingly having your life together to reveal that none of us really do. The Braverman clan consists of the patriarch and matriarch, four adult children, and their respective families. In the early goings, there were two kids who had things together, the oldest, Adam, and the youngest, Julia, while the middle kids, Sarah and Crosby, were the lost souls of the family.
The more this show went on though, the more it became clear that every single solitary person on this show has their flaws and their problems. Adam and his wife Kristina have a kid with Asperger’s, but even the two of them as a couple are amazing because they are two of the most socially awkward nerdy people ever recorded on TV. They say dumb jokes, they freak out over silly things, and you can see that they are a little dorky without throwing a pair of suspenders and glasses on them. You love them because of this, not in spite of it, which is why this show should never be watched without an ample supply of Kleenex.
Julia and her husband Joel (who, for the record [and I think the ladies will agree] is actually perfect) is a type-A perfectionist to a fault that, when one thing in her life goes wrong, the whole thing spirals out of control. Her children, one biological and one adopted, struggle to get along. In other words, in a family of 17 people, there is not a single person who doesn’t really have some sort of issue affecting their mental health and happiness, except maybe Drew and Haddie, two children the writers never seemed to have much to give them to do. But Drew certainly seems like a sullen teen, and who knows what Haddie got up to once she headed off to college.
My mom’s family is big like the Bravermans. Her parents begat seven kids that begat 16 more and, once you throw in who married in and the great grandbabies, our family consists of around 65 people. Growing up, I thought everyone was living this wonderful life with children and the occasional hiccup related to health like a cousin who was born with a chromosome piece missing. But once people started dying and those 16 grandkids started growing up, it became clear that some may seem to have their crap together, but most of the families were putting their best faces forward at the holidays, trying to hide their issues.
Nowadays, we’ve had several deaths, several health scares, and several struggles that we just don’t pretend things are fantastic. It is kind of nice though. Our family has been tested with tragedy and we’ve come out okay. We don’t have to hide and pretend because we know they are not going to ever turn us away.
It is a love song, but when it comes to my family, Jason Mraz’s I Won’t Give Up pretty much sums us up. The song stayed in the Billboard Top 40 for five months because, simple as it may be, the sentiment that you are going to be there for someone is such a universal sentiment. It is the kind of sentiment that can settle those anxieties and concerns that you’re a little off or a little crazy because here is someone telling you that it is okay, and, more importantly, that it will continue to be okay.
Friends express surprise when I tell them I am close with my cousins because it isn’t particularly common, but even though I hardly see them, thanks to Facebook and to us growing up and being able to admit a little more about our flaws, I am so confident they’re never giving up on me.
Like I said, Mraz wrote this as a love song, but it is a tune that I associate with my family, especially the refrain about skies being rough and still looking up. In fact, it is almost a joke with my mom and I now. “It’ll work out or get better,” she’ll say. I always ask, “How?” “I don’t know Jessica. I’m just looking up and hoping it will.”
Our family is far from perfect. In fact, we have a fair share of drama and a little division. But unlike my childhood, when we all pretended we didn’t, now we are the Bravermans or the Silver Linings Playbook cast. We have our ups and downs, some of us struggle more than others at times, but I love them even more now knowing they aren’t perfect, I’m not perfect, but that doesn’t mean we are ever gonna give up.