I just got finished watching the first episode of the new series Black Box, which features a bipolar lead character, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I must be doing a really terrible job of being bipolar: I’m not attractive enough and the last time I wore thigh-high stockings didn’t end well.
First, I want to acknowledge that the show does portray some points with honesty and realism, such as the protagonist promising she won’t go off her meds again and her brother replying that it isn’t a promise she can make. It makes an attempt to capture the conflicts of someone who really feels that her unmedicated self is such an important part of her she doesn’t want it gone, but risks dire consequences when she chooses not to comply with her meds.
In that sense, it gives heart and emotion to one of the most difficult issues present in mental health treatment today.
That being said, I want to draw attention to what I feel is an important misrepresentation of bipolar disorder and mental illness in general.
In a conversation about Dr. Black’s condition, it is stated that she is “fine” as long as she takes her meds. It’s a very clearly drawn line, in fact. Taking the meds equals fully functional neuroscientist. Skipping one dose sends her into the stratosphere, and restoring them brings her back to her fully functional state in a matter of hours.
Seriously? Am I the only one who rolled my eyes at this point?
I take my meds religiously, and I am not fine. My condition ebbs and flows, my meds need monitoring and adjusting, and I have a variety of symptoms even when the meds are as good as they can be. And I am certainly not working as a freaking neuroscientist, despite a high IQ and some good education.
The oversimplification of Dr. Black’s condition is a disservice to many sufferers. It implies that those who are disabled by their mental health problems are always responsible, when in fact there are many who are fully compliant with treatment and work hard to manage their condition.
Psych meds, as I wrote about in A Bittersweet Pill, are imperfect and full of guesswork. They can take weeks or months to work fully, and the ones that work quickly would probably have side effects that interfere with the kind of job this character is portrayed as doing.
I hope that the creators of the series will continue to make an effort to humanize those who suffer, and I hope they will be aware of the potential harm in glamorizing, trivializing or oversimplifying this mysterious condition.