Fans of Salome Chasnoff’s previously linked Hollywood Images of Disability (since disappeared) can breathe a little easier now; it hasn’t gone away for good, it’s just being reworked into a full length documentary titled Code of the Freaks.
Helen starts out as a seemingly happy, successful college professor with a teenage daughter, a second marriage, and a spacious house and a car. The onset of Helen’s major depression comes slowly, almost imperceptibly, as she sits brooding in the dark and tells her husband “it’s nothing”. It only starts to become more obvious that she has a combination plate of depression and anxiety when she has a seemingly unprovoked panic attack when returning student essays in class.
The true depth of Helen’s problem only becomes apparent when her husband finds her curled in front of the clothes dryer in a fetal position. When he brings her to the hospital, the doctor sends them to a neurologist, who goes through the depression inventory as Helen sits sullenly, and her husband initially answers the questions. To his surprise, her husband discovers that she has made a previous trip there 12 years ago, several years before they married. He expressed amazement that he had missed seeing the serious nature of her condition for so long. The neurologist told him; “some people hide it very well. You should see some of the clowns we have on suicide watch”. He prescribes an antidepressant and Ativan for the anxiety.
Meanwhile, one of her music students is experiencing a similar, albeit more dramatic, downward spiral into clinical depression. The movie intercuts to show the parallel track they take as their conditions increasingly impair their peace of mind and ability to function in society.
(I love the scene where Mathilda bangs her head against a glass partition in the hospital and cracks it. The The image very plainly portrays the collective frustration of any number of people with the medical and mental health systems as they exist in America today.)
When Helen’s medication seemingly fails to work and she makes a suicide attempt, her husband goes to the psych ward for help, and gets a different doctor who says she will change Helen’s medication, but will not hospitalize Helen against her will. Her husband is clearly frustrated, as Helen has made more suicide attempts, and he feels he can’t watch her constantly; to him, her need to be hospitalized seems obvious. This is not the case for the doctors who are not living with Helen, and who cite mental health laws as being meant “to protect people like her”, in this instance, by not society having people committed at the drop of a hat.
Meanwhile Helen grows worse, and her teenage daughter eventually ends up leaving her home to move in temporarily with her biological father (who has conveniently been waiting in the wings)
It is only after Helen experiences another non-lethal mental health crisis (she has taken too many Valium and won’t wake up) that the powers-that-be allow her husband to have her committed involuntarily.
It is then that Helen wakes up in the hospital. Helen and Mathilda meet as fellow psych ward patients and become friends and peers in a way that they probably would not have, had they remained teacher and student.
Of the two, Mathilda is the more damaged, and she is not only damaged by depression herself, but also indirectly. Her mother committed suicide and left her a house (a nice, clean beach house with giant picture windows) all ready for her and Helen to move in. Somehow, they seem to have enough money for groceries and utilities, even though neither of them have jobs, or were seen to file for disability benefits (I wonder how many of the mentally ill have prime beachfront real estate?).
Helen initially panicked at ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) being suggested for her, and argues when the doctor tries to talk her husband into consenting to ECT for her, but later, after her release from the hospital, chooses ECT of her own volition when she comes to the belief that by making the choice to have ECT, she is actively choosing the state of sanity. “Modern ECT” complete with general anaesthesia, an oxygen mask, and more, is depicted. The ECT experience is portrayed as a dream (the convulsions being muted by succinylcholine), and she is seen waking up (undoubtably with a huge headache) from a soft bed with a pillow.
This movie could be considered a modern-day morality play for the mental health system. As Helen spouts platitudes about mental health, and is presumably continuing her medication, she slowly returns to her normal activities prior to the depressive episode, and the dimmer switch in her home is turned up.
Mathilda, by contrast, deteriorates conspicuously. She is non-compliant (whether or not her medication(s) actually work and what sort of side effects they have is not made clear to the viewers), drinks alcohol (if you are in fact taking SSRIs, you are officially advised to steer clear of both alcohol and pot), and has sexual encounters in alleys with different men. It is not made clear whether she is engaging in the unconventional sexual activity from her own free will, or if the men involved are threatening or blackmailing her, or if she’s paying her living expenses with prostitution.
After Helen leaves the house for the ECT (it takes at least a day to recover from the anaesthesia given in modern ECT, and she apparently has a couple of ECT sessions in a row, so the timeframe amounts to at least a couple of days) she returns to find the home environment showing evidence of neglect, disorganization, and “impulse control issues”.
The cast interviews included on the DVD were revealing.
Ashley Judd said that the scene where Helen is eating dinner with her family while undergoing major depression reminded another movie crew member of what it was like for her family when her mother had major depression.
Alexa, who played Helen’s teenage daughter Julie explained that the character she played went to live with her biological father for the sake of self-preservation even though she knew her mother “would be devastated by it”. Alexa added that she wasn’t sure if she’d be strong enough to do what her character did if she were in a similar situation with her family.
“The people around the person that’s depressed are often affected as well, and this film does a good job of showing that”.
Based on the novel The Haunting of Toby Jugg, The Haunted Airman is set in a mansion in rural Wales during WWII. The main character is a former RAF pilot who has been shot down and has ended up in a wheelchair due to his injuries. However, his injuries are not soley physical, it is implied that he, like at least one other similar man in the tumbledown manor house being used as a makeshift hospital, is also suffering from PTSD, then known as “shell shock” or “battle fatigue”.
Having not lived through WWII and possessing only a limited exposure to England, I cannot speak on whether the portrayal of the facilities and technology at this particular hospital is a realistic depiction of institutions of this kind. But they are true to life in calling nurses “sister” and having them wear nun-like headdresses. And they are pretty spot-on as concerning some things that patients often experience in any sort of hospital. One of the early scenes in the movie shows the former pilot lying on a litter left in front of the hospital for what seems an indeterminate amount of time while people hurry by.
Yes, in real life, patients really do get left lying around. When he experiences incontinence and the nurse changes the bedsheets and tells him it’s nothing to worry about, but something that tends to happen “at the beginning”, that’s quite accurate too. (Real nurses are quite blase about things like this and talk about bodily functions openly, including the ones that embarrass most people.)
However, he’s got bigger problems than paraplegia or PTSD. It is hinted early in the picture that he is having or has the potential to have, an improper relationship with his aunt (aunt by marriage, at least), a thing that many people would find quite shocking, but it doesn’t seem to bother him, and the aunt seems amenable to it in the middle of the picture, holding hands with him and kissing him romantically during a visit with him. On later visits, she grows more distant, presumably on the doctor’s advice. By the end of the picture, she had repudiated that sort of relationship with him. When he makes sexual overtures to her, she is unwilling… and then his Oedipus gets even more complex.
Where the film starts to diverge from reality, however, is in depicting some of the frightening, hallucinatory experiences that he has.
It is true that the building in which he is in is an older building with a lot of dark wood and stone and shade trees is perhaps a theatre in which an overactive imagination can romp. Spiders are also prominently featured; perhaps they assume increasing importance to him because he is less able to avoid them with his present mobility-impairment and wheelchair use. The wheelchair they have him in is not the kind that he can push himself, and on one occasion when the nurse pushes it, she wheels him right into a big spiderweb. Another reason that spiders assume additional importance is because he has a situation of enforced idleness, and it is perhaps fair to say that he notices them more than when he was working.
Or maybe, there are just simply a whole lot of big, ugly spiders around.
In spite of the large and prominently featured spiders, insects in numbers make an appearance, too. At one point he sees a number of beetles walking by while he is in bed and he falls out of bed trying to chase them away. On another occasion when something like this happens, he drags himself away from his hospital room and into a bathroom, where he retreats to a bathtub, which (the viewer sees) has spiders in the drain. The doctor who is treating him (it is hinted that this doctor is acting as a therapist of sorts whether or not he is actually recognized as a psychiatrist) characterizes it as an attempt to retreat to the womb and the amniotic fluid in spite of the fact that the bathtub in fact had no water.
It can be hard to follow this picture because it is sometimes unclear as to whether some of the things they show are hallucinations on the part of the airman, or real but unpleasant things (like the spiders) just setting an uncomfortable and “creepy” atmosphere. I do not know whether this is deliberate on the part of the filmmakers or accidental as a limitation of the technology and/or the storyline. But it is a reason why one of the nurses in the beginning of the movie told him “we don’t use the terms ‘mad’ and ‘normal’ around here. Everyone here is a little bit psychotic”, she said, looking down through the window at one of the doctors, the one who would later endeavor to give him therapy.
For the teenage girls in your life, here’s The Haunted Airman 27 x 40 Movie Poster, featuring Robert Pattinson looking appropriately haunted.
The title of this picture, “As Good As It Gets” comes from lead character author Melvin Udall’s complaint to his psychiatrist, who diagnosed him with OCD. “Maybe this is as good as it gets” he told his psychiatrist, referring to his ability to function in the world and his lack of compliance with the standard professional boundaries the psychiatrist had set.
If I were his psychiatrist, I might have diagnosed the fictional Melvin Udall with a personality disorder as well. Most people would say he was a misanthrope, and from the unkind and sexually charged insults he uses on his openly gay neighbor, he initially seems to be a homophobe as well. Upon further encounters with other people of various races, genders, and walks of life, it would seem that he is an equal-opportunity hater, like Archie Bunker. However, he is wittier, “smoother”, savvyier, and more “in your face”, than the likes of Archie. Jack Nicholson portrays characters like this so well and so often that you have to wonder where the “actor” ends and the real man begins.
The perhaps unrealistic premise is that this man, who is set in his ways and seemingly hostile to those who are different from him, changes his attitude when his gay neighbor gets seriously beaten by a gang of burglars and needs financial help and housing when medical expenses bankrupt him. Udall takes in Simon’s dog, which he previously disdained and maltreated, while Simon recuperates in the hospital and later returns to his apartment in a wheelchair. A bit later, having gotten to know Simon and see his humanity, he takes in Simon in his spare room as well.
Another crisis, “his” waitress being absent from her job because her kid constantly gets sick and needs multiple trips to the emergency room, precipitates more relationship-building. It starts with sending a doctor to find out about the boy’s ailments and give him a full allergy test, prompted by “enlightened self-interest”. He is later able to move further towards genuinely unselfish behavior, but there are stops and starts and backtracking on the way.
The OCD this character exhibits is portrayed in the movie as obvious but not serious habits on the part of the protagonist, such as stockpiling bars of glycerine soap in his medicine cabinet, bringing plastic silverware to the restaurant he habitually patronizes, and taking pains to avoid stepping on cracks in the sidewalk. The commentary track on the DVD to the movie revealed that they were going to show Jack Nicholson’s character engaged in some other OCD-indicative behaviors during some scenes in the movie in which they didn’t in the final cut. It was explained that the decision to change the original portrayal in this instance was to make the behaviors more minimal as the story went on.
The premise is that he gradually loses OCD compulsions as he becomes more involved in the emotional lives of the people he is in contact with, when he is put in circumstances where he ends up getting to know them personally, instead of just superficially. When Nicholson’s character finds a genuine ability to care for others and to successfully establish a relationship with a woman, his OCD behaviors gradually disappear. Whether or not this is actually a successful means to ameliorate OCD which cannot be found in a pill or a therapist’s office, I don’t know, but it makes for a very heartwarming and optimistic story.