Mental Health Writing Bipolar

Why I Love Carrie Mathison

My husband and I are watching the eighth season of Homeland, a TV series recommended to us by friends a few weeks ago. We are binge watching, getting pulled deeper into Carrie’s world. And my husband keeps looking over at me, questioning.

I have Bipolar 1 Disorder. It started in 1976, when I was a freshman at university. I finally got diagnosed in 2002. I had already been diagnosed with my double whammy of ADHD in 1998.

By 2002, homeless, I could barely take care of myself.

Glenn, my husband, and I have known each other since 1993 and he has seen the good, the bad, and the crazy. Even though he has witnessed my tumbling world, I still have hidden crannies.

I have been reading a lot of memoirs about others bipolar lives over the past months. Many of them have followed a similar path, drinking, drugs and hops into bed. I want to know the why’s of it all. See the whole person.

Carrie shows us that a Bipolar life is not extremes every day. To those authors, what happened in between?

I did the drinking and the questionable nights. But my life was much more than these episodes. That is why I am writing my books and encouraging others to do so. The wider the net of experiences portrayed, the larger dialogue we can have.

I have read articles praising or trashing Homeland. And I think many of them, on either side, miss the mark. Carrie is one person. And Homeland is her story.

Just like my story will be entirely different from someone else’s. Homeland isn’t about the diversity of persons with Bipolar 1.

For that, we need to enter the discussion with our realities. Honestly. Together we, the ones with mental illness, are the ones that can show diversity.

I love the discussion going on about Carrie.

But don’t get confused, after all this is television. And Carrie is not an average person.

People may hate her or love her, but at least they are talking about her. For eight seasons.

Carrie’s character has evolved. She can recognize her limitations, but still she needs to push the envelope. Still jumps into situations. Still feels driven. Still isn’t perfect. As a woman, agent, mother, friend and family member, she has work to do. For us, the work never stops. It is one foot in front of the other and a hope for improvement.

Therapy, sleep and medications are key to managing this illness. In “normal” land, not in a CIA world, those of us who have Bipolar Disorder can create a life of days, months and years following this regimen. Get into a routine. Dial life back. At least some of the time.

Carrie doesn’t have that luxury.

Homeland is a drama. Just how far Bipolar 1 can take someone is only one part of the story. The one of debilitating lows, unraveling highs, middle ground. The rest is a life we have only heard of. And doubt we would want to be in. 

Maybe we are getting confused because a fictional character dealing with mental illness lives in a world becoming all too real to us. Lines get blurred.

A lot of criticism says Carrie is being portrayed as a superhuman, getting into and out of outrageous situations with her razor sharp, creative, out of the box mind, and that it is unrealistic.

We are not spies, however. We do not navigate through life altering experiences like she does. We cannot put our feet in Carrie’s shoes, and we need to stop trying.

Would we be as critical if a powerful TV male character was grappling with Bipolar? Doing what Carrie does. It is just a question.

Remove the CIA element, the life and death situations, and I bet many of us will find common ground with her.

We have all gone off meds at one time. We thought we had lost our creativity, missed the manic high. 

We have all barged into situations without thinking. Made bad spontaneous decisions. Hurt those around us. 

Carrie’s mind can fly faster than others can follow. Can make connections, develop a big picture. She takes risks, and not everyone follows. 

I could do all of that too. I just wasn’t doing so with world problems.

Relatively speaking, in my world, I was as nuts as she is.

A small sample:

I was an information hound like Carrie. Researching the flurry of random thoughts and projects gathered in my head. At home, I had post-it notes on walls, papers strewn like a carpet over my floors, and piles high on my desk. Pieces that looked a mess to others made perfect sense to me.

I spent a fortune on books, thinking if I couldn’t keep ideas in my head, they would be the vaults of information. When I was in San Francisco, I would go up and down streets of bookstores, grab the books they had on the free tables and stuff my backpack. It didn’t matter what the subject was, it just mattered that the books were on my shelves. I could reach them.

I created collages only I could understand. To do so, I spent months sitting on the ground cutting up anything I could get my hands on. Although I was on my roller coaster, this repetitive cutting became zen like with hyper-focus, but I still had a motor running.

My ADHD didn’t help. 

My emotions and moods had a switch, when flipped I became a raging bitch ready to claw and slap whoever was near me. Scream out in rage, cry hysterically.

Decisions were often destructive. But at the time I didn’t think so. I didn’t have a brake.

When I felt out of control, and felt challenged by authority, I would enter my fishbowl world and see everything as though through beveled glass. I was floating. What was reality? I often questioned that. I would “wake up” moments later to fuzziness and guilt.

I got paranoid. Creating scenarios.  I would escalate even before having the correct information. I thought I would lose my social services, my apartment, my access to meds and therapy. And in the end, I would die. Homeless, lost.

I was on my hamster wheel for years, getting no, or and hour or two of sleep nightly. I called people in the wee hours. I emailed or faxed ten or more single-spaced pages of ideas to my inbound operator in India when I had my business. They warned me to get help, slow down, concentrate on one thing at a time. I am sure they got to dread my nightly missives. I sent them anyway. Over and over.

I thought my greatness was worthy of an Oprah appearance. No one was better than me. I would give an awe-inspiring interview. I was special. 

I became a hoarder with a friend who had 50% off at the thrift store on Mondays. When books are ten cents, blouses, handbags, pants are forty-five, I could get a shitload for a few bucks. Soon I could barely move in my bedroom. I still went out every Monday, still threw my purchases in a pile. 

I refused to be hospitalized during the worst of times. But I should have been. I just knew deep down that I would become worse stuck in pee green walls and a locked ward. Or forced to eat when I was seventy-eight pounds.

I would stay in bed for days, a week, only my nose out of the covers to breathe. No food, no energy, only darkness. And pain.

Common sense was not my friend. Most Bipolar will agree with this.

These may seem like small things compared to Carrie’s spy life.

But they are not insignificant to me. There is so much more (wait for the book).

Regardless of what our own challenges are, those of us dealing with a mental illness need to speak up. Get out of the shadows. Stop feeling stigmatized. Stop with the comparisons.

Homeland brought our mental illness into the open. And it still showed Carrie to be a compelling, strong, independent woman, struggling like us all, but not beaten down.

Popular media can place things in front of us. It makes an impact. Let it.

So put the criticism away for a moment. Can we all agree that in the open is where the dialogue belongs?

Encourage it.

Thank you, Carrie. Thank you Claire Danes.

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2 Comments

  • Reply
    Barbara
    September 2, 2020 at 4:07 pm

    Your writing gets better with every post This was impressive and I hope it gets lots of well deserved reads.

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    • Reply
      Ria Talken
      September 2, 2020 at 4:15 pm

      Thank you!!! I hope people read it too. For me, Carrie is a bulldozer putting mental illness in our faces. I hope others are starting to feel more comfortable with sharing their own challenges and successes. When I decided to write my memoirs I stopped being ashamed of the bad choices I have made.They are a part of me, I can’t change that. Without them, I don’t think i would be the person I am today. Resilient and strong. Finally finding happiness.

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