Hello and welcome to In Too Deep into Pixar, where I over-analyse a certain section of pop culture over a few months.
(Yes I know this one is the last in a series of blogs that haven’t been released yet, I just wanted to talk about it while it was still in cinemas. Also I’m not a medical professional, I’m just talking about my experiences with bipolar disorder. Don’t take my word as law for this condition).
Now confession time: I went into this movie hoping to find a way of explaining what bipolar is like to people who don’t have the disease. On the one hand I succeeded, since there is a way of describing it using the world the film presents. On the other hand, it’s a very complicated idea. Nevertheless using the ideas the film created, this is what it’s like to have bipolar disorder.
Lets start with the somewhat more relateable side of bipolar disorder, the depression side. I say more relateable, because no one seems to understand why being ‘too happy’ is a problem, but more on that later. What is it like to have depression? Well the obvious answer seems to be â€œto be really, really sadâ€, but there’s more to it than that. Depression in of itself is a rather wide-ranging emotional spectrum. So lets start with the standard image of depression, which comes from when Sadness is in control. Now in the film Sadness isn’t presented as a bad person, just someone who has yet to find a reason to exist (and the film’s biggest problem is making it hard for us to root for her when there doesn’t seem to be a very good reason for sadness at the beginning). So to start with, depression would seem to be like Sadness is constantly in control and is affecting your moods. But there’s more to it than that. There’s also the anger side of depression. Now I’ve heard it said before that depression is anger without energy. You’re angry, but you don’t have the energy or the motivation to direct that anger at anything. The anger is burning up inside of you, but you have no way to release it. For some this anger turns into self-loathing, leading into self-harm in self cases. So in this scenario Sadness and Anger are taking turns at the console, working together to make you feel bad. Then there is Fear and Disgust, that also end up playing a big part of what is going on. Fear and Sadness end up creating a sense of hopelessness and despair, where it feels like there’s no way out of the situation. It’s the fear of everything around you and the future that you hope doesn’t come but does anyway. Disgust is much like Anger in this scenario, but with the disgust more of being about who you are as a person. Disgust tends to be closer to the self-harm aspect of it than anger, sure, but they’re working hand-in-hand in this regard. But anyone who has seen the film can notice the one thing missing from all this: Joy. Because depression isn’t merely feeling sad, no. Depression is the feeling of having no joy. Imagine living in a world where it was always raining. After a while even the most hardened mind gets broken down and washed away from the lack of sun. Now the film sorta touches on the issue of depression near the end, when Riley just stops feeling anything. Again, this is almost the very apex of depression. If you can imagine depression getting worse as it goes on, the not feeling anything tends to be the worst of it. You just feel shut off from all your emotions, nothing more than a hollow shell. Your emotions aren’t in control any more. On the one hand this sounds great if you’re experiencing depression, because it means you don’t feel sad or angry. But as pointed out before, depression is more the absence of joy. But without those other emotions everything feels so… colourless. Almost as if everything was grey and lifeless. Now inside Riley’s mind we see everything freeze up when she gets a brain freeze, so in this scenario imagine all colour disappeared from the characters and setting. Everything was just a uniform grey, with the emotions frozen in place. Of course this doesn’t last forever, and slowly but surely the emotions start to take more control. Which isn’t necessarily a good thing. It’s often reported that a suicide victim seemed to be getting better before they killed themselves, seemed to be happier. This is because suicide, among other things, is a crime of passion. You can’t do it when you have no feeling whatsoever. So when your emotions start coming back, that’s when you’re the most at risk. Maybe Disgust will take over and push you over the edge, egged on by Sadness and Anger. Now depression isn’t a lifelong disease. Some people can get over it in time (that’s not to say they can just ‘snap out’ of it, but that they can recover from a period of sadness the same way you can recover from a broken arm or a bad burn), some people need to have medication to balance their moods out. To need antidepressants and whatnot. To put this in perspective, imagine if there were limitations on how much the negative emotions could control you. Instead of being able to turn the sadness dial all the way round, they can only go so far. Antidepressants help balance out your mind and stop the negative emotions from getting too much of an advantage. So that’s the depression side of things. What about the mania side?
See, bipolar disorder isn’t the same as depression. Depression, in the broadest possible terms, makes people feel very sad. Bipolar disorder makes people swing from being very happy and very sad on a pendulum. For example, I can start at a baseline, then slip into depression. After a while I move out of that depression and move back into my baseline. Then I start to move into my hypomania and, for some individuals, full on mania. So what is mania and hypomania? Lets put it this way: You ever cheered when something good happened, at a sporting event or what not, when your team won? Or felt particularly proud of yourself because you did very well in something and you’re happy with yourself? Or you’re just having a really good day and everything seems to go right? Right, now imagine that cheering, prideful happy feeling lasted for days if not weeks on end. Doesn’t sound too bad, you say. Well imagine if you keep feeling this even when you shouldn’t. What if you keep being proud of everything you do, even when what you’re doing is terrible (and that anyone who tries to convince you otherwise is a complete and utter idiot)? What if this cheering mood meant you spent lots of money on pointless stuff because hey, you’re celebrating, right? What if you’re so happy you could bounce off the walls in excitement, even though you really shouldn’t be doing so at a time like this. That’s essentially hypomania in a nutshell: You’re so happy it’s bad for your health. You start to think you’re right no matter what, and everyone else is an idiot for thinking otherwise. You buy stuff and waste money and make mistakes because it feels like a good idea at the time, even though it isn’t. You stay up all night because you’re too busy with this great new idea and it doesn’t matter about your other responsibilities because this is just so great you guys. Believe it or not, it can get worse. I’ve often described the difference between hypomania and mania as such: â€œHypomania is believing you’re bigger than Jesus. Mania is believing you are Jesus.â€ People suffering from mania can start to have hallucinations and thoughts that we would classify as ‘crazy’. They might think the government is coming to get them, or that they’re surrounded by angels, or that they really are the embodiment of Christ. They start to see and hear things that aren’t really there, do things that don’t make any sense, because in their mad state it makes perfect sense. It’s incredibly unpleasant, and I’ve only experience the tail-end of it. But what is it like using the characters in the film?
Well, depression and mania are somewhat the same thing, only replacing Sadness with Joy. In this version Joy is completely in control and refuses to listen to sense or reason. Everything must be fun and happy at all times no matter what. So what about the other emotions joining in? Well Joy and Anger lead to a very nasty case of egotism. As I said before, when these two team up, you get unbelievably mad at anyone who gets in your way. You either agree that I’m the single smartest man I’ve ever met, or you’re a complete idiot who deserves to be shot. You get angry at any little thing that goes wrong because you’re the one whose suppose to be in control damnit. You get unbelievably irritable, to the point where you want to punch random strangers in the face for taking too long at the checkout or not walking fast enough in front of you (and yes, I have actually felt the urge, hypomania is no laughing matter). As last time, Anger and Disgust tend to be inter-mixed in this state, but with Disgust’s function being more aimed at hating other people for… well, like I said, for being there when you don’t want them to be there. Now while the combination of Sadness/Anger/Disgust leads you to feeling bad and hating yourself, Joy/Anger/Disgust leads you to hating pretty much everyone else. It’s the complete opposite reaction of depression, where you’re so happy everyone else is bad in comparison. Then there’s when Joy and Fear get together, leading to paranoia. Now this tends to be more of a problem in a manic episode than a hypomanic episode (at least in my experience), since the paranoia tends to come from a complete psychotic breakdown. It’s that fear that they’re all out to get you and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. So while depression is the absence of joy, mania is essentially the absence of sadness. And as the film proved, you need both in order to be healthy. When you only have one or the other you tend to have serious mental health problems. So that’s the two extremes in a nutshell. What about a mixed episode?
Yes the best part of my disorder is the mixed episodes, where I get both hypomania/mania fighting with my depression at the same time. Essentially I am angry at both myself and the rest of the world, disgusted at myself and the rest of the world, and constantly scared that something bad will happen. In worse case scenarios it ends up leading to suicidal thoughts (my last episode being bad enough that I almost did kill myself) since you’re so emotionally shattered. So to describe it in terms of the film: Imagine that Fear, Anger and Disgust were turning their dials up to the maximum and pumping you full of those emotions. Meanwhile Joy and Sadness were constantly battling with each other about who would be in control, causing you to swing wildly from happy to sad (or at least happy in relation to the other three emotions, and sad in relation to the other three emotions). I could go from happy and overjoyed with life to suicidal within a matter of hours, then swinging all the way back. So Joy and Sadness were fighting each other, both trying to control me while I was completely out of control. The reason why so many bipolar people are linked to substance abuse (whether it be alcohol or drugs) is because these tend to help balance out the moods, or so it appears. Drinking is seen as a downer, a way of stopping Joy from taking over. Likewise cocaine and the such are seen as an upper, in order to keep Sadness at bay. Now I’m somewhat blessed and cursed with the fact that I don’t drink or do illicit drugs, but instead turn to caffeine and sugar as my mood stabilizers. As you can imagine, whenever I get sad I’d eat a lot of chocolate, building up a mania that lead me to buy more because it made me happy, only to crash back down to sadness when it stopped working. Same goes for soft drink. But that’s just what’s going on in the control centre. What else happens in my brain?
Well, one part of the film features the train of thought. Essentially using the classic concept of thoughts passing through your head, the characters attempt to hitch-hike on it to try and get where they need to go. Well my mind is the same… only worse. Because I suffer from something called ‘racing thoughts’. The best way to describe it is this: Imagine if someone was screaming in your ear constantly. That’s how painful it is. Now you can focus on one thing and keep your train of thought going pretty well. Sometimes you lose it, but that’s natural. Now me, I have about six or seven trains of thoughts running at the same time… all on the same track heading for the same station. As you can imagine, it gets pretty chaotic in my head when trains keep crashing into each other. It makes me unable to concentrate, since my thoughts just won’t keep still. For an example, go open about ten YouTube videos right now. Doesn’t matter which ten, just go open them up. Let them play at the same time. Now… how many of them can you actually understand properly? Sure you’ll probably pick up pieces here and there, but good luck focusing on them when you have so much going on at the same time. You’ll constantly switch attention from one thing to another to the point where you can’t focus on anything. Which is especially a problem when you’re in a lecture theatre or something, and you have to focus on something. Hell there have been times where I tried writing when my mind has been racing, with the blogs turning out less than spectacular (hint: if there’s ever a blog where I end up repeating myself a lot in a short space of time, it’s because my thoughts are racing and I’m forgetting how the sentence started before I finished it, along with the previous few sentences before that). As you can imagine, this can get in the way of life at times. Try do anything when a train crash is going on in your head. So that’s what racing thoughts are like in relation to the train of thought metaphor. What else can I talk about?
Well the main problem of the film is that Riley loses her core memories (along with Joy and Sadness) and struggles to do things she use to enjoy without them. Now some might say this is a depression allegory, but it’s not quite like that. The film presents it as if Riley forgot how to do these things more than she doesn’t want to do them. But when she doesn’t want to do them it causes the islands that each core memory represents to crumble away. So what’s it like with bipolar? Well, from my perspective, the islands are constantly crumbling away. It won’t be a shock for me to say that your memories are affected by your mood, but when your mood is this extreme, your memories are even more affected. Imagine the island isn’t only crumbling, it’s constantly morphing and shifting. My memory of working for Disney, for example, will constantly shift between being a good core memory and a bad one. It’ll constantly swing from a nice place to a terrible place. But more than that, a lot of it comes from actively trying to repress my core memories. Course this tends to come more from the massive amounts of trauma I’ve suffered in my life (which is another issue in of itself), but my control centre tries to isolate itself away from those core memories for its own safety. But that doesn’t mean I can’t remember anything, far from it. A funny scene in the film features a bunch of memory removers dumping forgotten memories into the pit of forgetfulness while sending up a memory of a commercial that’ll never leave the mind. The joke here is that you’ll always end up remembering that annoying jingle because of how catchy it is. My mind is like that… but replace ‘catchy jingle’ with ‘thoughts of despair, self-harm and depression’ and you realise why it’s not so fun. These intrusive thoughts tend to be negative more often than not, with the mind remembering stuff I wouldn’t want to remember. Its as if a bunch of little drops are sending up really horrible stuff in my memory to make fun of me or something. But how much that’s related to trauma and not bipolar is an iffy concept, so we’ll leave it there.
So the question we have to ask is: Is Riley in control of her emotions, or are her emotions in control of her? The film is somewhat iffy about this. On the one hand it seems as if the emotions are in complete control, since they’re the ones who are making her feel things. But, at the same time, she does seem to be completely independent to them. It wouldn’t be too absurd to presume that Riley’s anthropomorphising her thoughts and emotions into these characters, with her thinking that she has no more Joy or Sadness and feeling nothing but Disgust, Fear and Anger. It would explain a lot of the film a bit more. After all, could Joy be in danger of being completely forgotten when it’s a core emotion? No. But is that feeling of depression like feeling that you’ve forgotten how to be happy? Yes. Likewise can Joy and Sadness be destroyed as abstract concepts? No, but we could read that as Riley trying to come to terms with her new situation and processing whether she’s happy or not. I could dedicate another blog by charting Riley’s emotional journey with the somewhat physical journey of Joy and Sadness, but that’s a blog for another day (a day when I have a copy of the film in question to analyse it better). But what about me, and people like me who suffer from bipolar? Are the emotions in complete control? Well… yeah. While Riley can be said to be in somewhat control of her emotions, my emotions are in complete control of me. I can’t choose to be happy or sad, my emotions work independently from my thoughts. Now the science side of this is that my brain is producing too much of a certain chemical (which is why I take drugs to regulate the chemicals in my brain), but to use the Pixar side, it really is as if my emotions are constantly fighting to control me. It’s tiresome, it’s painful, it’s more likely than not fatal, but that’s how the mind of a bipolar person works. We don’t have our emotions working together to achieve harmony. We have our emotions fighting against each other to be top dog. Which really makes life suck, at the end of the day.
So there you have it. A look into what it’s like to have a mental disorder using characters and ideas based around aspects of one’s mental makeup. If you disagree with anything, or have anything to add, feel free to leave a comment. Till next time.