One of the most damaging stigmas surrounding mental health is shame. The personal pressure to maintain a ‘normal’ façade is all consuming and perpetually draining. It is an onerous full time job shrouded in secrecy.
Others see a functioning human being – working, chatting, socialising with an occasional laugh or smile – but behind closed doors in the personal confines of home nothing could be further from the truth. We mask the all-encompassing darkness that seeps into every anxiety-ridden moment, a private Pandora’s Box that only self-erupts when alone.
Mental illness is a wholly internalised affair, it’s an endless production line of emotional affliction and outright frustration, which can sporadically manifest as painful self-mutilation. Every thought and feeling (not matter how microscopic) is so inwardly bound that interpersonal relationships become unwillingly stifled. Meaningful conversations are diluted to a handful of apathetic words, whilst scathing internal dialogue prevails even louder.
And yet, as I explored in this piece on Girl, Interrupted, cinema really can be a lifeline. Here, there’s a different, lower profile film I wanted to talk about.
Prozac Nation (based on Elizabeth Wurtzel’s same title memoir) is a tempestuous tale of college survival co-aligned with spiralling clinical depression. Embarking on her first year at Harvard with a coveted scholarship in journalism, Lizzie (Christina Ricci) is a prize winning student who rapidly envelops herself into a party scene of drugs, alcohol and promiscuity. Riding high on her initial success both academically and socially, she suddenly hits an impenetrable stumbling block after an all-night binge of narcotic-fuelled writing.
This volatile teenage autobiography saw Erik Skjoldbjærg (Insomnia) at the helm of the jaded film adaptation, which premiered at Toronto Film Festival back in 2001. It was ultimately limited to a minuscule theatrical release before receiving its US debut on the TV channel Starz (at the time, barely seen) four years later. A pity, because this film has real power.
In it, the free flow ebb of Lizzie’s life quietly judders to a joyless halt, it sees friendships tactlessly fractured and strained parental relationship hit breaking point. It’s a relatable yet arm’s length examination surrounding the ugly side of mental health. Lizzie quotes Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises when detailing the snake-like grip of depression, “Gradually, then suddenly” (referring to Mike Campbell’s character’s description of bankruptcy). “That’s how depression hits”, she muses, “you wake up one morning, afraid that you’re gonna live.”
In the soul scraping depths of desolation, death seems like the only and final solution. Existence is too much a burden, with every moment seeming harder than the last. In contrast, plateauing depression seeks to shield the undesired notion of feeling, in essence neither living nor dying but rather switching off altogether. Wurtzel shrewdly narrates these two rivalling states with excruciating dexterity.
The razor sharp accuracy of Wurtzel’s prose unflinchingly depicts the bare bones reality of mental illness. Lizzie lives through cycles of insomnia, substance abuse and suicidal tendencies, but behind all the agony is a narcissistic protagonist that flouts the convention of sympathy. This rapid level of egotism sits aside depression but simultaneously forces watchers to confront their own behaviours. Lizzie rages and rants at her overbearing, chain smoking mother (Jessica Lange) who through hell and high water has been her daughter’s greatest advocate. Belittling and humiliating her most caring relative at every given opportunity was hard to stomach, but then it dawned on me that I in some way was Lizzie too, albeit a watered down PG version.
Flashbacks flooded my conscious with archived memories which saw me shriek at my parents and sister. Tears streamed down my face when I first saw the film. I had always apologised and made up for my outbursts, and I never enjoyed fighting, in fact quite the opposite. It always stemmed from a bottled up repression of emotion, like a well shaken soda can ready to pop. There was an unspoken correlation between the increase in irritable upsurges and my deteriorating mental health.However, observing full blown arguments from an outsider’s perspective felt utterly monstrous. Witnessing this stone cold revelation reinforced my ideal of complete worthlessness. I felt wholly despicable and unworthy of love.
Even now, typing this sees a rush of adrenaline and fear swamp my nervous system. Yet my aim with this little series of articles is to relate a message of reassurance whether it be good, bad or ugly. I hope in laying my soul bare (warts and all) it will relay a sense of normalcy. No human is perfect and finding solace wherever it may be is vital. There should be no shame in personal faults, instead recognising and tackling our most detrimental traits is to be applauded.
During therapy Lizzie begrudgingly tells her unwanted therapist Dr Sterling (Anne Heche) “I just keep thinking that if I could just be normal, if I could just get out of bed in the morning, everything would be okay.”
Even to this day that line sticks with me, there are many times I still can’t get out of bed and just a trip to the bathroom seems the equivalent to climbing Mount Everest.
Prozac Nation’s dark and at times emotionally brutal narrative is refreshingly honest in its character flawed portrayal of mental health, which imparts a candidly humanistic depiction of blemished reality. And I think we should champion the films that have the courage to directly address this.