mental health

Monster and Men Part II: Healing Toxic Masculinity, Disney’s new Beast

!Spoilers for Disney’s new live-action Beauty and the Beast follow!

Last week, I discussed Gaston from Disney’s new live-action version of Beauty and the Beast. I was interested in how the film makes space to complicate Gaston’s character while opening into a discussion concerning trauma and scenes of toxic masculinity.

This week, I’d like to talk about the new Beast from this latest film, and how his character functions within the story to reveal methods for healing situations of trauma, grief, and toxicity, especially when read alongside Gaston. As I previously suggested, viewing the Beast’s progression throughout the narrative reveals a path from reactivity, rage, and domination, to a space of receptivity and self-reflection. This runs directly counter to the character of Gaston, who moves into a more and more violent and toxic space as the film progresses. The Beast models a series of behaviors that allow for growth into a more empathetic, and, as the film insists, “love-able” character. It is this change in behavior over the course of the narrative that reveals the most important distinctions between Gaston and The Beast. While The Beast introspects and self-analyzes, Gaston pontificates and self-aggrandizes. The Beast takes a role of waiting, giving Belle the space to make her own decisions, restoring her agency. Gaston continues to pursue Belle as an object, his prize to be won, to dominate through his masculine power. The Beast is willing to take on modes of behavior traditionally considered “feminine” in order to move past his beastly behavior, while Gaston is certainly not.

Much like the new war backstory for Gaston’s character, we also learn about a past trauma in the life of The Beast (known as Prince Adam when not be-horned and fuzzy). The film indicates this event as causation for the development of much of his toxic behavior. We learn in this new version of the film that Prince Adam’s mother dies when he is a child. Within the scene that depicts this backstory, he is pulled from his mother’s deathbed by his disinterested-looking father. He is given no time to grieve, which necessitates his internalization of loss and feelings of abandonment. Lumiere also leads us to understand that Adam’s father, who raised him from that moment forward, was a cruel and cold man who taught Adam nothing but to mimic his heartless behavior.

I would argue that Adam’s obsession with lavish parties and his desire to be wanted by every woman in the room, evidenced by the film’s opening narrative, springs from this upbringing; he longs for power, prestige, and feminine attention. Additionally, his lack of ability to sympathize with the bedraggled woman who visits his castle leads directly to his curse when she transforms into the enchantress after his callous attempt to eject her. His own self-interest and toxicity are the very reason behind his current hairy predicament. He must come to a place where he understands his own toxic behaviors in order to transform and learn to love, which necessitates his ability to care for another more than himself, and empathize with Belle’s emotional experience.

This transformation demands several important realizations on the part of The Beast which stem directly from introspection. He must acknowledge his own privilege, the wrong of his past behaviors, and the necessity to forgo brutish, domineering behavior in order to enter into a loving relationship. This metamorphosis and the steps taken to achieve it take place in small scenes throughout the film, but are highlighted especially in The Beast’s musical number, “Evermore.” Composed for the film, but related loosely to the Broadway Beast number, “If I Can’t Love Her,” this musical number interjects into the narrative after The Beast releases Belle and sends her to find her father, an action which indicates his growth. Unlike the Broadway tune, which still carries elements of dominance, including the lyric “I could have loved her, and made her set me free,” “Evermore” takes a completely different tact. (See the song here.)

In the beginning of this song, The Beast makes three important statements: “I was the one who had it all, I was the master of my fate, I never needed anybody in my life, I learned the truth too late.” These short phrases go a long way in addressing The Beast’s understanding of the underpinnings of toxic masculinity that have already been parsed throughout the rest of the story: The Beast acknowledges his previous position of privilege, notes his attempt to master every part of his life including those parts which are out of his control, and admits to his attempt at brutal self-sufficiency devoid of support or partnership. These realizations about his past behavior, which led to his curse, must come from introspection and acts of remembering. Part of his healing process requires self-analysis, which runs counter to impulsive, reactive behavior.

Moving into the chorus of “Evermore,” The Beast reveals that he has finally moved past this rugged individualism and has allowed Belle close to his heart. By valuing her feelings over his own, he has granted her power to “torment,” “calm,” “hurt,” and “move” him. He accepts that loving another, and giving up the tight-fisted control which characterized his toxic behavior, involves the potential for hurt and grief, something he was not allowed to experience as a child. He then goes on to indicate just how far this shift from domineering power has gone when he admits to moving into a role of waiting and receptivity: “Wasting in my lonely tower, waiting by an open door…” He has given the power of choice and agency over to Belle in this situation, granting her control. If they are to fall in love and live together forevermore, she must make the decision to act and return to him. Until then, he will wait for her.

The key to The Beast’s healing here relates to his ability to be self-critical. He chooses to direct his critical energy inside, at himself, acknowledging his past flaws and failures and working to rectify those behaviors. This happens directly parallel to Gaston who consistently deflects by critiquing others. In the moment when the townsfolk are most likely to turn on him for his toxic behavior, he creates threats from outsider “others” (Maurice and The Beast) in order to divert critical view from himself. The Beast’s introspection makes him capable of growth as he accepts the necessity of his own grieving process, and his need to alter past behaviors in order to grow and learn to love.

However, The Beast’s personal transformation is not the only important move the film makes concerning toxic masculine behaviors. The film also works to reveal the societal frameworks and communities that allow for this type of behavior to flourish. Lumiere admits to Belle that the castle servants, who were Adam’s only friends, did nothing to curb his behavior or teach him more appropriate methods of interaction than those instilled by his father. The implication is that, if the community would have stepped in and told young Adam that his behavior was unacceptable, then his toxic behavior, and the curse it causes, may have never come to pass. Lumiere insists then, that the community surrounding The Beast is partially responsible for the development of his toxic behavior. This impact of community toward structuring toxic behavior is also highlighted in respect to Gaston in the tavern scene involving reprised version of his song, “Gaston.” The song has been changed from the original, and at one point during the tune, Gaston admits that he “needed encouragement,” to which LaFou replies, “Well, there’s no one as easy to bolster as you.” Here, Gaston admits that he needs continued encouragement in order to feel justified in his piggish, bullheaded and chauvinistic behavior patterns. LeFou’s response is more than hero worship, it indicates a pattern of affirming behavior on the part of LaFou and the other townsfolk which is reinforced by the rest of the scene. Their collective embrace of Gaston, and subsequent praise of the very behaviors which make up a large part of his toxicity, highlights the danger of a society where destructive masculinity is allowed to flourish because it has been normalized and held up as virtue.

In this live-action production, Disney has created interesting and timely commentary on the nature of masculinity, grief, trauma, and societal reinforcement and intervention. It provides for a whole new set of thoughts and concerns surrounding the figures of The Beast and Gaston, which were far flatter characters in previous iterations of the film. Here, now, are complicated men who demonstrate the embodiment of toxic masculinity and the sorts of behaviors necessary to overcome that behavior. As Gaston models attachment to domination, destruction, and violence which leads to his own demise, The Beast models behaviors of self-reflection, empathy, and receptivity which allow for healing not just for himself, but for the community that surrounds him. In this new tale, The Beast becomes a man, and the man becomes a monster.

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Monsters and Men Part I: Gaston, Trauma, and Toxic Masculinity

!Spoilers for Disney’s new live-action Beauty and the Beast follow!

Gaston rears his fist back, he’s intent on striking the man in front of him, Belle’s father, who has just said that Belle will never be with him. This is the most glaring example of his raging temper up to this point in the narrative.

But LeFou is there, stepping between them, holding his hands up as one might approach a snarling lion, shushing the beast that is the object of his affection. His voice is calming. “Remember the war, the blood, the bodies, the explosions,” he says.

Gaston pauses, emotions track across his facial features, his fist lowers as fury is quelled, replaced by a spreading maniacal smile on his face.

***

Out of all the moments in Disney’s new live-action remake of the classic animated Beauty and the Beast (1991), this is the scene that stayed with me, tossing around in my head over and over long after I left the theatre. It wasn’t the moment where the film made a tongue-in-cheek nod to drag, or the three seconds of screen time where LeFou dances with another man in the film’s much-hyped, historic “gay” moment. No, it’s a strange scene that presents a clearly disturbed and traumatized war veteran in a moment of mindless rage.

Now, I do not bring this up to come to Gaston’s defense and claim that he’s an upstanding fellow. He has certainly been a chauvinist pig in previous iterations (the original Disney animation, the musical), embodying all the baser points of toxic masculinity. He is self-obsessed and cruel, driven by violence and a need to dominate. He has served to normalize unacceptable destructive and possessive behavior behind the guise of the “man’s man.” Gaston has never been a “good” guy. But Disney’s re-make creates a backstory for Gaston that complicates both his character, and the film’s statements about trauma and mental illness.

Gaston is more sinister in his villainy this time around, going so far as to tie Belle’s father, Maurice, up in the forest and explicitly leave him there for the wolves to eat so that Maurice will not stand between Gaston and his pursuit of Belle. When Maurice survives this ordeal and returns to town, Gaston plots behind LeFou’s back and prepares to cart Maurice off to an insane asylum. He goes so far as to force LeFou to lie on his behalf to the townsfolk about his behavior toward Maurice. Then, after tossing Belle into the cart with her father as a response to her rejection, he whips the villagers into a frenzied mob and heads to the castle.

By this point, even his faithful sidekick cannot bear the level of evil that Gaston has stooped to; during the song that ensues on their journey to the castle, LeFou acknowledges that Gaston has become the monster in this story, staring side-long at the man he once called friend. This plummet into monstrousness by Gaston is directly opposed by The Beast, who moves from a place of blind rage and reactionary behavior, “monstrosity,” to a place of humanity and compassion over the course of the film (more on The Beast next week).

***

There is a distinct difference though, between this version of Gaston and those that have come before: this Gaston has explicitly seen warfare, gruesome warfare involving “explosions,” and “blood,” and “bodies.” While the original animated Gaston is portrayed as a hunter, he is not a war veteran. In this new version of the film, Gaston’s experiences with the war clearly shape his behavior and responses toward the people around him.

Gaston’s behavior in the previously mentioned scene demonstrates several clear behaviors linked to individuals suffering from PTSD. First, Gaston enters a blind rage, a state of emotional hyperarousal. His emotional response happens suddenly and to a level not commiserate with the events of the moment. Additionally, he resorts to physical violence in an attempt to reassert control over the situation. His response mimics a threatened animal that chooses to fight instead of flee. LeFou recognizes Gaston’s fit of rage as behavior related to his war experience and uses iconic moments from the war to remind his friend that they are no longer on a battlefield. It is only after LeFou is able to bring Gaston back from his moment of reliving war-like conflict that Gaston sinks into a rather manic state of non-violence. His strange smile in the end of the encounter highlights this still-anxious state of emotional hyperarousal even though he has curbed his rage. [i]

Gaston is a man caught in the past, shaped by the traumatic experiences of the war in which he participated. Returning from battle, he has no ability to successfully reintegrate with his community. Instead, he depends on his homosocial bond with LeFou, forged during their time in the war. The praise lavished upon him by his companion, grants Gaston worth and meaning in the space of the village. His continues to hunt because his value to the village lies in his ability to commit violence. It is this attachment to violence that dooms him. Gaston is unable to step away from the violence of warfare, consistently seeking out an adversary, from his near fistfight with Maurice, to his final pursuit of The Beast. In the end, he meets his match in the castle of The Beast where he plummets from a tower to his death in the recreation of the classic fight scene.

After he falls, Gaston disappears from the story entirely. LeFou’s decision to change sides during the final battle necessitates that he not mourn for his villainous friend after the battle has ended. Indeed, no one in the castle so much as mentions him after he falls. But as a viewer, the death of Gaston didn’t leave me with the resolution that hovered over the castle in the end of the film. Instead, it left me conflicted and pondering. No matter how wicked Gaston might be, there is reason behind it, method to the madness. Gaston is no longer simply the arrogant chauvinist from classic cartoon, the villain I could easily hate and dismiss. Instead, he is a deeply troubled character who cannot escape from the war and toxic masculinity that has structured his identity and behavior. He inspires both empathy and revulsion in equal measure. This new film makes spaces for nuance in both monsters and men.

Next week: Monster and Men Part II: Healing Toxic Masculinity, Disney’s new Beast

[i] For information on PTSD symptoms and treatment related to war trauma, see https://www.ptsd.va.gov/


Hillarie ‘Rhyse’ Curtis is a Ph.D. student at Syracuse University where she studies (and occasionally writes about) queer narratives, masculinity, trauma, war, and fan fiction, among other things. 

Facebook and Uncanny Identity

I’m sitting in a meeting at the LGBT Resource Center. It’s Monday night, a few weeks past now. They have a large comfy couch, free pizza, brightly colored artwork on the walls, posters for other events. It’s only six in the evening, but I’m exhausted. Not the I-didn’t-get-enough-sleep-because-coursework kind of tired, but the soul-weary exhaustion that has been my constant companion since November. I’ve tried to put it into words, what I’m feeling. There’s spoon theory, or empathy overload, but neither of those encompasses what I’m feeling now. I’ve dealt with chronic depression and anxiety my entire adult life, and it’s never been like this before, not to this extent and not for this long. So I’m sitting in a meeting for Queer-folk and allies on campus, hoping that being around some other humans where I don’t have to appear fully competent and on top of things will help.

They ask us to share a rough spot and a bright spot from our week. Rough spot, for the first time in a while, is a quick answer for me. Usually, it’s been a toss-up between any number of novel and horrifying developments, but this week it’s simple: The rough spot was turning on my phone and seeing the repeal of bathroom protection for Transgender students. I cried, staring at my phone, at the headline that one of the default news apps decided to plaster across my unlock screen. I cried for the teenagers who will face even more bullying in their school halls, I cried over the lives that will be lost because it’s not really about bathrooms but about basic humanity and decency, I cried over the level of ignorance and hate that would drive someone to make such a ruling about a group of marginalized young people who we should all be working to protect. When I shared my sadness, the faces in the room mirrored back what I imagine mine looks like now on a daily basis, weary sadness.

Finding a bright spot has become incredibly simple for me over the past few months. Did I get out of bed? Did I make it through the ten minutes of time I allot myself each morning to check out my social media and news apps to see what latest violence has been done against marginalized groups? Did I feed myself? Did I attend or teach class? Those actions are a bright spot each day, moments when I didn’t let despair sit on my chest like too-deep water. These moments of caring for myself, for my queer body in this hostile environment, are small, empowering moments of radical resistance in my day-to-day. I showed up. It’s my bright spot. There are nods and half-smiles in response.

As we circle the room, the concerns change: several foreign students are concerned about the attitudes toward LGBTQIA+ individuals in their home countries. What might it mean for them to be denied a job in the U.S. after completing their degree? Another student is struggling with a family member who purposefully misgenders them and says that they will always be their dead gender (I can’t help but hear the rhetoric surrounding the bathroom bill echoing through my head). Another student is concerned about the example of Gay-ness presented by Breitbart editor, Milo Yiannopoulus, the virulently hateful and, allegedly, pedophilic poster-child for acceptable Alt-Right Queerness. The concerns are different. The exhaustion is the same.

Each person in this room is exhausted, emotionally empty, rattled and just a few moments from tears. But why?

***

I’ve been trying to sort it out since late-December, reading the think-pieces and the status updates from my friends, attending rallies and marches and poster-making sessions. The sadness and tired hangs everywhere, but I still couldn’t figure it out. So I did what so many academics do, I compartmentalized it, allowed that part of my mind to fill up with pertinent data, waited for a late night “Ah-hah” moment when it finally clicked. It didn’t. I moved on, left it to simmer in some back part of my brain, focused on reading theorists, and grading essays, and getting out of bed in the morning. I left the sadness and its answer for a different day.

I started listening to musicals. I’ve been a bit behind the curve, so Hamilton was a new and heart-wrenching beauty in my life. I wept the first time I listened to the soundtrack. It was good to cry.

Next, my brother suggested I listen to the soundtrack for Fun Home. (He blessedly warned me that it might hit close to home in some ways. He was right.) I listened to Alison Bechdel’s coming-out story about her life again, this time accompanied by music instead of the panels of the graphic novel where I first encountered it. I remember watching a video of Bechdel creating one of those panels, taking Polaroid pictures of herself to use as reference. The time and effort that went into each panel was astonishing. The music from the play recreated that experience of her writing and drawing the graphic novel, that astonishment and awe. I was hooked.

After spending the majority of late-January and February listening to the soundtrack on repeat, a question popped into my head. What was it like for Bechdel to see her own life played out on stage in front of her? Luckily, Alyssa Abbott asked the same thing of Bechdel shortly after the show’s first performance in 2013 in an interview for The Atlantic (which can be found here. Two statements from Bechdel struck me as she described her experience of seeing the show: she described seeing her own life on stage as “very strange and surreal” and also described the experience of seeing the show with her brother’s and aunt—“There were no words. We just let it wash over us.” I couldn’t peg down why those statements struck me as particularly important, but I stored them away in the random bits of knowledge part of my brain that may one day make me a Jeopardy star.

***

Their importance came a week ago, when discussing a project for one of my classes involving the subject of the uncanny. Stephen King describes terror as “when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute.” This description has been used by Lucy Hunter, a contributing editor for Critic magazine out of the Otago University Students’ Association, in her article “Journey into “The Uncanny Valley”” (which you can visit here). When discussing experiences of the uncanny, Hunter describes the “Uncanny” as “the sensation of something being both strange and familiar. It helps explain the reason why some things scare us, while others just creep us out. The uncanny is not simply a matter of the mysterious, bizarre, or frightening: it involves a kind of duplicity (both in likeness and deception) within the familiar. A disturbance of the familiar.”

Finally, with this idea of the uncanny bouncing around in my head, it all clicked. Alison Bechdel’s statements about watching the play of her life had hit me because she described it as “very strange and surreal,” and experience that had to “wash over” her and her family. These were moments when the familiar elements of her life has been disturbed, replaced by the interpretation of the playwright and the actors and the musicians, a strong resemblance, but not the same. This was my every day experience looking at the headlines on my phone or the posts on my Facebook wall. The headlines identified me: “Millennials say ‘Not My President’,” “Trump Repeals Obama-Era Transgender Protections,” “Radical Left Professors Poison University Campuses.” These were terms I had used for myself, modes of constructing who I was, but they had replaced me in the narrative. These headlines had walked into my house, taken me out and left a replica in my place, an ill-informed idealist, a supposed predator, a target for hate and ire.

They came so quickly, these stories of horrific ignorance and self-centered greed, invading every moment of my life, from my Facebook wall, to my classroom discussions, to chats with colleagues and mentors in the halls. Me, who I had thought of myself as, was existing out there somewhere, an uncanny version for people to then assign back on to me with the same words I had used as a method of empowerment and self-realization. But these things that they said were not me. I may be an empathic idealist, but I pride myself in remaining informed, I am not a predator, I am kind and compassionate, I am not a rabid automaton of Leftist-rhetoric set on indoctrinating young minds in my classroom, I am a hard-working teacher who values pedagogy and the success and growth of my students. These headlines made a straw man of me, dressed it in my clothes, and trampled it to bits with their rhetoric, and I could not stand as my own witness. I could only offer my testimony in noxious comment sections and wait for the flame-war to ensue.

I was left to feel the weight of these events, so far outside my realm of immediate influence, wash over me with no time to process. Every event comes now in a rapid fire stream, so many executive orders, and bills before Congress, and life-shattering decisions tossed about like pawns in a game of Chess, meant for sacrifice and violence.

***

 The night at the LGBT Resource Center provided some very essential insight for me.

The media available to me for self-expression had been insufficient. Posts about my experiences on social media were met with affirmations from my colleagues and friends, who felt the same way, and virulent declarations of degradation from others; I should “grow up,” my life “sure must have been easy if this Presidential election is enough to break [me],” and “I sure hope you never have to face any real hardship in your life.”

My attempts to witness about the trauma of existing in this moment felt hollow. How do you provide testimony about a violence that exists not in blood spilled but in existence denied? Laverne Cox put it so much more pointedly than I had been able to when speaking about what the bathroom bill meant for transgender people on MSNBC: “When trans people can’t access public bathrooms we can’t go to school effectively, go to work effectively, access health-care facilities — it’s about us existing in public space,” she said. “And those who oppose trans people having access to the facilities consistent with how we identify know that all the things they claim don’t actually happen. It’s really about us not existing — about erasing trans people.”

I felt not only useless to witness for myself, but useless to help those who are without voice in this moment. Not all trauma is equivalent. I am in a place of privilege where my white skin, my social class, my vocation, my regional location, and even my ability to still pass as female in public spaces has granted me protections that are not available to so many others who exist in a far more marginalized space than myself. I want to make space for them, to open the floor and hold the haters at bay and let them scream out their truths about themselves, witnessing to their own trauma and terror in a country that has robbed them of their right to humanity and existence.

In this political moment, there has been both erasure and replacement of me as a non-binary, trans, millennial in the education field. And until that night at the LGBT Resource Center, I had had no way to witness about it in a way that felt real, to talk to others who had the same expressions on their faces that greeted me in the mirror before I plastered a smile on my face each morning. But in that room, it started to come together, the kernel of knowledge in the swirl of emotion and struggling thoughts. In that room, I could hold space for others, I could be the listening ear that is so essential for those testifying about their experiences. In that room, I could witness while others held space for me.

***

So what does it all mean? I’m living in a strange world where my life is related back to me and my value and identity determined by people in rooms hundreds of miles from me, and then blasted out over the media that permeates my life. It’s uncanny, and terrifying, and emotionally exhausting, yes, but I’ve got a framework for it now, a way of understanding where this feeling comes from, for me at least. And for me, as a scholar, having that framework to understand is usually my first step to finding a solution.


Hillarie ‘Rhyse’ Curtis is a Ph.D. student at Syracuse University where she studies (and occasionally writes about) queer narratives, masculinity, trauma, war, and fan fiction, among other things. 

A new way forward: healing from depression (25 Nov. 2015)

I used to love goal-oriented words like “achievement” and “success”, but after my experience with depression, they’re more likely to make me uneasy than swoon. An inordinate focus on what I achieved, rather than an appreciation for my nuanced person, is part of what led to my struggle with mental health. Having refocused the way I interact with myself and the world makes me never want to go back to my old model of measuring self-worth.

six sigma

I want my life to be filled with a lot less of things like Jack Donaghy’s (30 Rock) Six Sigma seminars.                   

Earlier in my Ph.D., I lived for the feeling that came from a grant being recommended for funding or receiving positive feedback on a talk. There was a certain high that came along with external validation – particularly because I didn’t do enough to internally validate myself. In a sense, I was my accomplishments and my goal of becoming a tenured professor. I used my academic performance and future to justify my worth.

Without a strong sense of intrinsic value, I was easily punctured. If a funded proposal justifies your existence, a rejected one can be devastating. The worst harm, though, came from my own words, goading me to excel at any cost. Self care? Not for me. It was something I neither needed, nor indulged in. I got all the reassurance necessary from elusive academic successes.

It was untenable.

mountain vista

I’d rather my life be filled with moments like this.

A major component of my healing from back-to-back episodes of major depression, complete with visits to two hospitals, was a greater focus on myself. I learned to listen to what I really needed and, spoiler alert, it wasn’t another first-author paper. I started treating myself gently and cultivating positive self-talk. I took time to notice.

All of this self-assessment and noticing led me to a surprising conclusion: I no longer wanted to go into academia. I continue to think that science is fascinating and wonderfully weird, but I no longer have the drive to be the one doing the discovering. I also don’t envy the long hours of and high demands on pre-tenure faculty members. I’ve come to the comforting conclusion that I can continue loving and advocating for science without being an academic scientist.

Biodiversity

Isn’t Biology grand?

These days I spend most of my time wrapping up my dissertation on the sex lives of incredibly promiscuous beetles, but I carve out chunks of time for my future career path of science communication. I write for SU’s College of Arts & Sciences communication department and I love it. I get to talk to scientists across the college studying topics ranging from climate change, to genetic disorders, to micro-scale physics. I get to indulge my curiosity and focus on improving my writing, a practice I adore.

I don’t like to ascribe utility to depression, but in my healing I’ve found a more sustainable way to live. I am not the number of papers I’ve co-authored, nor am I the latest feedback on a grant proposal. I am an artist. I write for fun and hopefully will write for a career, too. I love science and movies and cooking. I look for joy and intellectual stimulation in life. I am not my C.V.

As I close out my month of writing for metathesis I want to thank everyone who has taken the time to read my posts (if you missed any of them, check out my experiences with depression, thoughts on mental health and academia, and insight into what psychiatric hospitalization is really like). Depression dismantled my life, but with an incredible support network I was able to put together a new, more compassionate one. Open, honest discourse is needed to tear down the stigma associated with mental illness and hospitalization. As such, I encourage you to share anything that spoke to you as widely as you’d like.


As a Biology Ph.D. candidate, Liz Droge-Young studies the incredibly promiscuous red flour beetle. When not watching beetles mate, she covers the latest science news on campus for Syracuse University’s College of Arts & Sciences communication department. She is also a mental health advocate, a voracious consumer of movies, and a lover of cheese.

Behind the doors of psychiatric treatment centers (20 Nov. 2015)

McLean hospital

 Exterior of McLean Hospital, the institution referenced in Girl, Interrupted (photo by John Phelan)

 “Is it going to be like ‘Girl, Interrupted’?” I cautiously asked my husband before being taken to the psychiatric wing of our local hospital. He assured me it wouldn’t and, in unfortunate ways, he was right.

I spent less than four hours under the hospital’s care, but what I saw I did not like. I was wheeled on to the locked floor by two security guards, past patients that didn’t look like me; they seemed overwhelmingly middle aged and male. I passed people in hospital gowns and people who were not high functioning. I was terrified.

I was condescended to as I tried to explain why I thought this was a higher level of care than I needed. I had signed away my autonomy at check in and was now in the unenviable position of trying to convince the psychiatric nursing staff that I was sane. Though I knew how it would look, I couldn’t help myself from sobbing out the words, “I’m not crazy.” In the end, they let me go that night. As scared as I felt in the hospital, the truth was I did need that level of care and had for months.

I should note that this, the first and briefest, hospitalization was to be followed by two additional trips, each substantially better than the last. The subsequent hospitalizations were both critical for my safety. Moreover, I count my stay at the last hospital among the most important experiences of my life.

There is so much misunderstanding and stigmatization surrounding mental health, and this is pushed to the extreme with hospitalization. Because people feel ashamed to share their experiences, and understandably so, the only picture the general public often has of a psychiatric hospital is from popular culture. Psychiatric hospitals are the light-on-patient’s-rights, long-term care units of Girl, Interrupted. They are places where unruly men are lobotomized in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. They are insane asylums filled with deranged patients of American Horror Story’s or Modern Family’s gross misrepresentation of modern inpatient care. As a gleaming exception to the rule, It’s Kind of a Funny Story provides a modern account of psychiatric hospitalization that felt close to my experiences. It’s because of the paucity of the later example, and a profusion of the former, that I choose to share my experiences.

“Whenever you’re planning suicide,” my fellow patient answered. I had asked her when she knew it was time to seek hospitalization. During the year surrounding my hospitalizations, I frequently wondered when it was time to go in. Her answer draws a bright (and appropriate) line separating inpatient from outpatient services. In practice, I can tell you it’s much muddier. If every day is progressively a little worse than the last, it’s hard to identify the tipping point. In my second two hospitalizations someone else had to make me see that we had already moved well beyond the line that indicated it was time to turn to enhanced care.

hospital hallwayModern psychiatric wings may look like a standard hospital hallway

When I was hospitalized the second time at the local hospital it was Valentine’s Day and I wasn’t supposed to be there. Let me clarify, I very much wanted to be at a hospital, but because of my lingering fear of the local options, I had been scheduled to be admitted to a private institution in Connecticut. That morning we heard that I would need to wait through another weekend until a bed would be free for me. I couldn’t handle the small extension and it was back to the local, public hospital we went. I had strongly diametric feelings about going to a private versus a public hospital. I didn’t want steak and risotto for dinner, I just wanted to feel safe with other patients that wanted to heal. New York’s public hospitals include people who are there voluntarily and involuntarily and they take all patients. They both need to and should accept all patients because every person deserves care, irrespective of level of function or financial status. It does, however, mean that the care they provide needs to meet a wide level of needs. Necessarily, safety is prioritized above deep healing.

In some ways the local hospital was like you might imagine. Yes, the doors are locked, they take away your belts and shoelaces, and depending on the nurse, the staff might make you open your mouth after taking a pill to confirm that you actually swallowed your medications. We had the option of meeting daily for group psychotherapy and occupational therapy, which could be helpful or just a way to pass the weighty hours between other activities depending on the day.

On the whole, by keeping me safe from myself, I was able to stabilize at the hospital, but not for lack of a few major missteps. I focused on processing feelings on my own and in frequent meetings with an intern psychologist. I learned new coping skills from the occupational therapist. My meds were rapidly changed as we settled on a new cocktail to which I better responded. I was often treated with respect by the nursing staff, though that was not absolute. Interactions with rotating students and some of the other patients were less helpful. After hearing about my good marriage and successful research pursuits a med student told me he didn’t understand why I was depressed, and went on to ask me what I thought I would get out of suicide. I experienced friction from a few religious patients who strongly suggested that I talk to a priest, or vocally expressed their displeasure at my atheism. A psychotic male patient, and I mean that in the clinical sense of the word, physically threatened some female patients with sexual assault and made me fear for my safety until he was transferred to a different unit. Despite these complications, my first true hospitalization was both needed and successful in my stabilization.

Four Winds

The grounds of Four Winds Hospital, the site of my last hospitalization

My experience at Four Winds Hospital eight months later was so very different. From the intake procedures, which included a visual inspection of your body for any signs of physical harm, it was clear the doctors and staff were there to care for your whole being. Unlike my first experience, Four Winds provided programming throughout the entire day to build coping skills. This programming was offered in addition to regular meetings with a therapist and psychiatrist. Breaks to let the mind rest from the emotionally intense work of healing included walks around the autumnal, tree-lined campus, or art therapy with more media than I could get into in my 10-day stay.

At Four Winds I worked on deep emotional issues with a fabulous therapist, a bulldog of a psychiatrist, a convention-busting art therapist, and a whole host of supportive and encouraging nurses. I was introduced to the powerful system of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. I wrote prose and poetry. I poured out the pain of my core into paintings and sculptures. I laughed with fellow patients at the absurdity of what mental illness had put us through. I worked hard. And I healed.

The two hospitals could not have been more different in many ways, but at their hearts, they were both needed to keep me safe and alive. Despite a multifarious system of caregivers we assembled who ensured I was never alone “on the outside,” both times I was admitted I needed more care than my unofficial team could provide. Both hospitals were instrumental in my ultimate healing. Unfortunately, the more depressive episodes someone has, the more likely they are to have another major episode. Because of this I can’t say that I am “cured” and will never need to be hospitalized again, but knowing that facilities like Four Winds exist heartens me that, should I again need inpatient care, there are good facilities that provide true healing.

My greatest hope for this brief post is that it grants insight to the locked facilities that are psychiatric hospitals. They are not the places portrayed in mainstream media. They vary in quality and clientele. They are chronically underfunded and overstretched. And they are crucial to the healing and survival of so many.


 

As a Biology Ph.D. candidate, Liz Droge-Young studies the incredibly promiscuous red flour beetle. When not watching beetles mate, she covers the latest science news on campus for Syracuse University’s College of Arts & Sciences communication department. She is also a mental health advocate, a voracious consumer of movies, and a lover of cheese.

 

Depression – a coming out story (6 November 2015)

Fig1

Chandelier II, a sculpture from my art show, “The Strength in Our Scars”

Two years ago I came out: not with a revelation about my sexuality, rather an announcement about my mental health. At the point I came forward, I had been struggling with major depressive disorder for roughly a year, but things had recently gotten bad. Cutting myself bad. Fantasizing about suicide bad. In need of hospitalization bad. At that point I needed to let loose the secret I had so closely guarded.

I don’t want to abscond with the language developed by the LGBT community and simply coopt the description of the brave announcement of their true selves, but I see useful overlap in the two experiences. It is the overlap of stigmatization and fear of consequences in both processes that leads me to respectfully borrow the term.

As much support as mental illness sufferers may get from friends and family, mainstream society routinely “others” mental illness.  You need look no further than the recently re-aired Modern Family Halloween episode, AwesomeLand for an example. In AwesomeLand, one of the show’s main families decorates their house as an insane asylum, complete with patients in straight jackets or chained to beds. A neighbor is offended by the decorations, to which her husband explains, “she spent six months in a cuckoo farm in Nevada. Sorry, she gets mad when I say that. It was Utah.” Mental illness, particularly cases extreme enough to require hospitalization, is a punch line. Mental illness is a Halloween costume. Mental illness is something the mainstream, thankfully, does not have.

Fig2

Hold too tight, a sculpture from my art show, “The Strength in Our Scars”

For a country where 6.7% of the population experiences a major depressive episode in a year and 1 in 5 adults annually deal with some form of mental illness it seems mental illness should be discussed in an honest manner far more frequently. As someone who was afraid to tell her story of struggles with mental illness, I suspect some of this may be due to fear of professional or personal fallout. While it’s true that the American’s with Disability Act makes it illegal to discriminate against an employee with mental illness, practice does not necessarily follow the law. I’ve had a friend fired from a job when his anxiety disorder got in the way of productivity. I have another friend, who though she bravely discusses her struggles with bipolar disorder with close friends, will not tell her colleagues for fear of losing her job as a teacher.

It was these fears of stigmatization, misunderstanding, and concern over future job prospects that kept me from discussing my experience with major depressive disorder for far too long. I knew that the mainstream characterized those with mental illness as “crazy” or “weak”. I worried about word traveling to future employers that I would be an unpredictable hire due to my disorder. It took for my disease to become debilitating, when I felt like I had nothing else to lose, before speaking up.

In my own coming out story I shared things in stages. First I admitted that I was dealing with depression, and had been for too long to handle. I posted a note to Facebook about my struggle, which received a few comments and a grand total of 4 “likes”.  The appropriateness of Facebook as a platform for conveying complex experiences aside, the public reaction was less than reassuring. But, people who also struggled with mental illness reached out to me personally to share their stories and the experiences were beautiful.

Mixed in with the affirming interactions to my depression were a few great misunderstandings.  More trying responses included someone trying to convince me that depression didn’t exist, proffered “miracle” cures of motivational seminars, and a suggestion that my atheism may have played a role in my condition. It wasn’t easy, nor was it entirely positive, but letting my secret out into the world felt freeing. The same relief would later come when I shared that I had been hospitalized twice for my disorder, but that admission was not – and is not – without a continued concern of judgment. I’ll dedicate a whole post to a (i.e., my) true experience of psychiatric hospitalization later this month.

Fig3

Chandelier I, a sculpture from my art show, “The Strength in Our Scars”

Now that I am in a stable place, I do what I can to normalize mental illness. I’ve shared my story in two local art shows, On Waking and The Strength in our Scars. I volunteer with the National Alliance of Mental Illness in Syracuse. I walk in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness Walks. I am that insufferable person who calls out stigmatization and interrupts strangers maligning those with mental illness. I try to live my life as someone who is “out”.


As a Biology Ph.D. candidate, Liz Droge-Young studies the incredibly promiscuous red flour beetle. When not watching beetles mate, she covers the latest science news on campus for Syracuse University’s College of Arts & Sciences communication department. She is also a mental health advocate, a voracious consumer of movies, and a lover of cheese.