Of Two Minds – Film Probes Bipolar Disorder

The Journey of Two Minds

Of Two Minds is an intimate documentary about people living and struggling with bipolar disorder, and ultimately making peace with it. The movie is the work of married filmmakers Lisa Klein and Doug Blush, who took more than three years to complete the project; it will be shown at festivals around the country throughout 2012.

Here, co-director Lisa Klein describes the journey to capture the experience of people living with the condition that some may know as manic depression:

When my sister Tina was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the early 1990s, I had a sense that there was something at play even bigger than the illness itself. Though she was hospitalized for it, only my mother and I came to visit. Upon her return home, no friends stopped by to lend support or bring flowers.

I was there through my sister’s manic highs and debilitating lows, which she fought hard to manage for years while pursuing two master’s degrees, establishing a social work practice and raising a son. But after a long battle she finally succumbed in 1994, and I will never know if she really meant to take her life or if she just wanted the pain to end.

Since that time, I have read every book I could find on mental illness—from William Styron’s Darkness Visible to Mark Vonnegut’s Eden Express, and from Kay Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind to Marya Hornbacher’s Madness and Terri Cheney’s Manic.

Personal memoirs on the subject particularly move me because they allowed me to explore the emotional worlds of those who are bipolar. Although the books gave me some perspective, the condition itself was like a question with no answer. But as the 14th anniversary of my sister’s death approached, I set out to gain more insight into what it felt like for her to be bipolar; why so many people are afraid of the disorder; and why they are unable to find the compassion that could help to eradicate some of the stigma around mental illness.

The idea for a film came to me on Mother’s Day 2008, when I was reading The New York Times and happened upon a profile of Philadelphia Weekly journalist Liz Spikol. She’s a strong mental health advocate in her community and personally struggles with bipolar disorder herself. Her story, told with intelligence and humor, drew me in and solidified my determination to shed light on this misunderstood condition. She seemed an ideal choice for a documentary subject.

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My husband, Doug, has worked on documentaries that run the gamut—from quirky character studies to intensive journalistic investigations of the injustices of our times. When we talked about capturing an in-depth look at bipolar disorder, we both knew it would be an enormous undertaking that could easily span 10 movies, each covering a different aspect of the disease or the advocacy surrounding it.

Liz Spikol, journalist and bipolar issues adovcate, and Vince Bertolini.
Liz Spikol, journalist and bipolar issues adovcate, and Vince Bertolini.

The key was to find a focus for the film, and we were fortunate that this focus became the stories of real people dealing with all facets of a bipolar reality in their everyday lives, including their jobs, their families, their loves and their losses.

The astonishing thing that we discovered everywhere— and that makes the film so important in our view—is that everyone has at most one degree of separation to bipolar disorder, meaning that everyone knows someone who is dealing with it. Over the years, too many have suffered behind closed doors, talking about their challenges in furtive whispers, and yet it’s a very common condition.

The first contact I made was with Liz in Philadelphia. But with all the calls she got from agents, publishers, and filmmakers after her Times piece ran, I had to make myself stand out somehow and get her to call me back. I wrote her an email and told her about my sister and my passion for this project, and that I was not like the others banging at her door. I was truly elated when she agreed
to be a part of our film, and having her on board gave me the confidence to find other compelling and passionate survivors who were willing to share their stories.

Early on, Doug and I attended a NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) conference to speak with another potential subject, and happened to stumble upon an artist named Carlton Davis, who had written a book called “bipolar bare” about his experience. I remember thumbing through it and thinking, “Wow, this man has been on the edge most of his life and lived to tell about it.” We asked if we could interview him, and he graciously agreed, regaling us with tales of a roller-coaster life. Our goal was to have three main subjects and to pepper their stories with a variety of people, including psychiatrists, psychologists and others living with the condition, along with their friends and loved ones.

A few weeks after we met Carlton, a therapist friend highly recommended a young woman named Cheri, whom she met in the midst of a suicidal depression. Cheri worked as a stylist in the entertainment industry and had not yet shared her situation with her celebrity clients because she feared the stigma around her condition would cost her work. However, she was adamant about overcoming that fear and converting it into social change, helping to create a world that chooses compassion for mental illness rather than judgment and shame. I asked her to think it over. “No pressure,” I said. But before I could finish my sentence, she let us know that she was in.

Terri Cheney’s Manic was a staple during the research phase of our pre-production process. I was so taken by her raw honesty that I knew I had to meet her and figure out a way to get her in the film. For years, she had been a successful Los Angeles attorney who, by day, worked closely with high-profile clients and, by night, struggled with an illness that often debilitated her to the point that she could not get out of bed for days. One day, she came to the realization that her survival depended upon showing the world who she really was, which led to her New York Times bestselling book.

Cheri Keating dealing with a depressive phase of bipolar disorder, and right: in the midst of mania.
Cheri Keating dealing with a depressive phase of bipolar disorder, and right: in the midst of mania.

I remember being intimidated, but I called her anyway. She responded with such warmth to our project that after I hung up the phone, I danced around my office and then proudly called my husband, announcing “We are interviewing Terri Cheney!” She became an important spokesperson for the film.

After a year of research, outreach and gathering potential subjects, it was time to start the interview process. We followed our three main subjects for three years, experiencing their lives through the prism of their bipolar reality as well as beyond it.

Carlton told us tales of his descent from successful artist and architect into a hidden life of darkness, mania and despair. Cheri revealed the pain she’d felt since she was a child and the struggles she endured to maintain her professional life while hiding her emotional turmoil. She also introduced us to her boyfriend, Petey, who, ironically enough, was later diagnosed with the condition, and became part of the film as well.

We took several trips to Philadelphia to interview Liz, her family and boyfriend. Each setting and discussion revealed the layers of Liz, a funny, quirky mental health advocate. We also gave our subjects small HDV cameras with the simple instruction to record whatever they wanted of their lives, whenever they felt they had things to share. Though we only use a small amount of it in the final film, we found the intense intimacy of this footage very revealing and that it broke down the wall between subject and audience even more.

In the course of filming, we spoke to a range of psychologists, psychiatrists, authors, actors, bipolar rights activists and a chorus of people fighting to manage this illness while maintaining relationships, careers and day-to- day responsibilities.

Actress Jenifer Lewis provided the perspective of somebody in the spotlight who has struggled with bipolar disorder while maintaining acting and singing careers. She started out on Broadway and went on to do films, including What’s Love Got To Do With It and The Princess And The Frog, and TV shows such as Strong Medicine and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. She has been very open about the condition, discussed it on The Oprah Winfrey Show and in her hilarious and raw one-woman-show Bipolar, Bath and Beyond.

As filming continued, I took a closer look at my role in the process. Was I searching for answers? Yes. Did I think I could help others by doing this? I desperately hoped so. Was I trying to save the people in our film the way I couldn’t save my sister? Yes. After a lot of soul searching, I had to admit I was.

It was critical to build trust and to share with our subjects my story, as I got to know theirs. That’s where the boundaries of friendship and filmmaking become a little fuzzy. But it could never have been a one-way street.

Doug had not been as personally exposed to bipolar disorder as I had been in my family growing up, but that all changed during the course of the film.

“As I got to know our subjects and became close with their families and friends,” Doug says, “I discovered once again the greatest element of documentary film-making—tossing out my preconceived notions and old ideas by actually seeing the real thing. There were issues that I previously may have viewed more as black and white, and even things I’d never thought of, that our subjects opened up for us and made gloriously more complex. For example: Are psychiatric medications good or bad? I think the film offers what we actually found in our travels: that there’s no one right answer, despite the passionate arguments pro and con.”

Author and artist Carlton Davis.
Author and artist Carlton Davis.

The beauty of the editorial process was that the characters finally spoke to us the loudest out of all our material. Simplicity and emotional truth are so often the key to an effective documentary; it’s ultimately about storytelling. We were able to hone the film into a real narrative experience during post, guided by a number of test screenings, which are an absolute must in developing a documentary. Preview audiences have loved our main subjects, and by keeping their stories central through the movie, we created a compelling story that’s both painful and painfully funny.

The expression “a film is never finished, only abandoned” is often half-jokingly spoken by filmmakers, in that it’s always difficult to let go, particularly after nearly four intense years. But due to the personal nature of this subject, we don’t think Of Two Minds will ever be “abandoned.” We’re now ready to get the film out into the world. I hope that it will honor my sister and reach out to the brave people who have shared their stories with us, along with the millions of others who struggle with the condition every day.

Bipolar Disorder

It’s estimated that about 5 percent of Americans suffer from some form of bipolar disorder, and it is believed that genetic factors contribute significantly to the manifestation of bipolar, although environmental influences are also implicated.

While the condition manifests differently in each individual, it is on the spectrum of mood disorders where a person experiences one or more episodes of extreme manic behavior—including but not limited to highly elevated sexuality, grandiosity and sometimes delusional behaviors. There is also debilitating depression where it can be all but impossible to get out of bed. These extreme behaviors may alternate gradually, separated by periods of “normalcy” or they may swing from one to the other, known as rapid cycling. A milder mania is referred to as hypomania, which is what people often find exhilarating yet manageable.

The most dangerous aspect of bipolar disorder is the mixed state, where the energy of mania is mixed with the distress and desperation of depression, a devastating combination that brings on an elevated risk of suicide. Many people with bipolar disorder live highly productive and successful lives; it is crucial that they move past the obstacles that stigma and shame create and get the help they need.

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by Lisa Klein and Doug Blush

Lisa Klein and Doug Blush live in Los Angeles. She is a writer who co-directed the festival documentary short What A Ball, and the Fox Movie Channel special interest documentary Cult Culture. He is a longtime documentary filmmaker, working as a director, editor, cameraman, writer and producer. He edited the hit documentaries Wordplay and IOUSA. His recent projects include Freakonomics and The Invisible War, by Kirby Dick, which Doug edited and associate produced. War took the Sundance 2012 Audience Award for Best Documentary.



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