Trigger warning for discussion of mental illness, fictional murders and fictional rape and sexual assault.So when I was in the hospital I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. This wasn't entirely a surprise, because I was once also told that I showed signs of this disorder but wasn't full-on Borderline. Nor is it my only mental illness diagnosis. However, it is my newest, so I really don't know much about Borderline Disorder at this point other than what the psych/med-student told me in the hospital, and what I read over on the National Institute of Mental Health website.
I also watch a lot of Law & Order.
If you're thinking, Wait, how are these two things related? then you and I are starting out on the same page.
I watch L&O as background noise when I'm trying to sleep or when it's late and I'm talking to my boyfriend (usually via Facebook chat--distance is a bitch) and I can't decide on music. Having watched all of the Special Victims Unit episodes on Netflix and then trudging through at least a season of Criminal Intent, I'm well aware that L&O, like most crime/police drama, is filled with problematic things. SVU especially, seeing as it deals with fictional rape and sexual abuse cases, and those cases tend to fall neatly in line with stereotypes and the occasional shock tactic plotline.
Criminal Intent is only slightly better. It's usually a murder case, and most of the time the culprit falls into "jilted (ex)lover" or "mentally ill serial killer" categories.
Last night I was watching a Criminal Intent episode entitled "Love Sick", which falls firmly into the latter category. If for some reason you're completely set on avoiding four-year-old L&O spoilers, I suppose you can stop reading now, since the rest of this deals with one specific episode.
In this episode, there was a series of murders--women who had gone to the ER and then later been brutally raped, murdered, and scrubbed clean, only to be "dressed as prostitutes" and left on the street. Lots of back-and-forth WhoDunnit stuff happened, but in the end, a woman and her boyfriend were arrested for the murders.
It became obvious as the episode progressed this TV woman that she was the instigator of these crimes. But what got to me was how her character was presented.
Not only did the writers, whoever they were, make her unhealthily dependent on her domineering boyfriend, extremely Other Woman Hating (you know, all other women are whores and trash who aren't good enough), but they heaped on an unhealthy side of Daddy Issues (also the typical TV kind, where there really is no reason for them but somehow all her present actions are tied back to him) and inaccurately portrayed the typical use of bondage gear (as well as perpetuating the idea that all submissive women are mentally ill, and/or that their submission stems from this illness, but damn, that's a rant for another time). At one point, the two detectives have this exchange:
"Some women dedicate their lives to making a man feel superior."
"Yeah. [The female suspect] has markers of a borderline personality. Borderlines are dominated by an overwhelming fear of abandonment. They're needy, desperate to belong."Now, it's worth noting that as I was watching this episode, I was literally rolled over, lights off, not looking at the screen, and half asleep.
This exchange not only woke me up, but kept me awake for nearly two hours afterwards--well past 3 AM.
As someone who's always struggled with being identified as "the weirdo" in one sense or another, I've battled against mental illness diagnoses for years. I had--and, in many senses, still do--the idea that if you can't point to me with a label-maker and print out an accurate term, there must not be anything wrong with me, and I can go on living life as usual. In the past year or two, I've narrowed that rebellion against diagnoses down to a few key reasons, the most evident being this: as soon as someone has a label for you, they tend to be less interested in hearing what's actually going on.
Of course, that statement does not apply to everyone. Several of my close friends either struggle with their own mental health and so understand that a label is not a story, or are entirely willing to listen, diagnostics be damned. But what kept me awake last night was the idea that, had I not done a tiny bit of reading of my own about Borderline Disorder, this fictional quip about a fictional serial killer might be my introduction to my understanding (or lack thereof) the diagnosis. In fact, thousands of people have seen that particular L&O episode, and of those thousands, odds are that for many of them, that is their only information about BPD. That, or some other television dramatization used to villify a fictional serial killer or other Insane Bad Guy. (Or in this case, Bad Chick, since most sufferers of BPD are women, and I would wager my next paycheck that all those depicted in fictional crime shows are women.) So if I meet someone, and become close enough to them to even want to maybe explain the chemical imbalances and disorders that sometimes make me difficult to live with, their first association might be of a fictional serial killer who was willing to literally clean up after their boyfriend after he raped and murdered multiple women.
That scares me.
There has been a lot of campaigning recently about not keeping your mental illness silent, in order to de-stigmatize it. While I whole-heartedly agree that this is an extremely important part of dismantling preconception about mental health, I would hasten to add that there is another half of the issue that is being ignored, and that is how serious mental illnesses or mental health issues are thrown around as cheap plot devices, most often in order to demonize villains. After all, how do you know the Bad Guy is the Bad Guy on shows like Law & Order--as opposed to Breaking Bad, for example, which is a wonderfully shining example of real-life moral ambiguity, and how who's Good and who's Bad depends incredibly upon your point of view?
I would argue that shows like L&O do one of two things: they make your empathize with either the victims or the Good Guys (often by throwing in an Underdog Backstory or something similar); or, they make the Bad Guy distinctly Other. And what's the most common way to make someone Other in the TV Crime Show Universe? Slap a mental illness diagnosis on them. The more serious-sounding, the better. No matter what they've done, their actions will now be attributed to their Incurable Mental Disease or Disorder. They're no longer a character that can be changed for the better, or reasoned with, or given hope of redemption. They're also no longer someone the audience is supposed to feel connected with. Joe Blow and his wife, Jane Doe, are supposed to react to the idea of Mental Illness with an emotional and mental drawing-away. Take a metaphorical big step backwards. Cheer when the Bad Guy ends up giving their confession to that episode's crime--be it rape, murder, kidnapping, or some other horrible event--with dull eyes and a sick smile, as if now that their illness has been found out, they can stop pretending to even interact with others in a normal fashion. They're carted off in handcuffs, the TV Cops high-five and leave to go get a drink, and the screen cuts to black. Joe Blow and Jane Doe are supposed to be left with the sense that all is now well in the TV Crime Show Universe--until next week, when the next Bad Guy comes through. Odds are he's got a diagnosis too.
I'm not saying that mental illness has no impact on people's negative actions, nor am I saying that it is not, in some cases, the cause of things like murders. What I am saying is that, if anything, my reaction to receiving a new diagnosis is not setting me on the path to self-help and mental wellness--not as a first reaction. No, because of the constant bombardment of negative portrayals to an increasingly desensitized audience, the idea of a new Mental Illness Label terrifies me. In fact, the description of people with BPD as "needy" and "desperate to belong," obviously used in a negative sense, actually heightened many of the fears that Borderline Personality Disorder hands me to begin with: constant, irrational fear of being abandoned; the sense that I am not as good or capable as my peers; paranoia that I am not myself, not real, or not operating the same was as Everyone Else. Rather than helping me understand myself, the new diagnosis is feeding back into itself, all because of something a TV character said to no one in particular in the middle of the night.
The path to mental health and mental wellness is unique to every individual and their situations and problems. There is no Magic Answer to help any/all mentally ill people at once. But there are things that we as a society and as creative individuals can do to make the road to recovery and wellness easier for ourselves and our loved ones who struggle.
I think that taking a serious look at how casually we use our own and others' illness as a cheap plot trick might be a good place to start.