by Jacob McEwen
I remember falling in love with Homeland just as most of America’s viewing public has. The slow ratcheting up of tension, new information changing the plot and the ever-present question, “Will he do it?” I raced though each episode seeking the answer to that question, when I was stopped dead in my tracks by a revelation in that plot that caused me to radically change what I was looking for in the show. In Season 1, Episode 11 “The Vest”, C.I.A agent Saul, a supporting character goes to visit agent Carrie Mathison, the lead played by Claire Danes, and finds her acting erratic. He is told by Carrie’s sister that the shock of the previous episode’s explosion has sent her into a manic episode. With those words, suddenly the pills Carrie had been sneaking and her passion for patterns and connections suddenly created their own patterns and connections. She’s bipolar, just like I am.
I grew up in a smallish place out west, went to school, did well and wound up here at Boston College—all without incident. I never questioned myself about how my mind may work in contrast to others, or if there may be something wrong with it. Is that even a question that a successful high school graduate with (at the time) a 3.8 GPA at BC and an attractive girlfriend asks or even thinks of? I think not. But, like many, I was full of foolish youthful pride. After returning from a trip to Ireland spring break of sophomore year, I had my first manic episode, triggered by lack of sleep, extreme time zone change, and too much Guinness—yes, it’s that good.
When I thought of the label “bipolar”, I had images of hot-headed, temperamental, and anti-social behavior. Though I’ve been known to exhibit the former from time to time, it seemed impossible that I could bipolar. However, when you’re in a locked room having discussions about electroshock, you begin to take them seriously. But still… After the doctors, tearful phone calls, and hospital beds, how is it possible to tell your friends and loved ones what happened and why? Many have reacted in disbelief, some in fewer words than others, but there was always a pause… As if asking oneself, “What now?”
That is a question I asked myself for a long time—over a year. It’s hard to develop an identity when you don’t know how to communicate yourself to your peers. Understanding yourself as bipolar and living a normal life becomes difficult when the excess of any normal emotion can be reduced to a diagnosis that inherently raises suspicion. Such is the case for Carrie, whose entire case against the series protagonist, Sgt. Brody, is essentially abandoned and written off as the product of an unstable ex-Agent. Sometimes the strongest words lose strength in the mouths of those different than us—even when that difference is clinical.
As a race, and especially at BC, we tend to put distance between ourselves and those “other” people. Carrie, as may have been expected, loses her position at the C.I.A. as a result of hiding her disorder, despite her decorations. That comes as no surprise, as all field agents require a rigorous psychological exam that would disqualify anyone with a “mental illness”. It may come as a surprise, however, that Boston College denied me access to campus upon my return and “asked” me to “take” leave—despite the fact that it was I that went to them with concerns and my (mostly) unblemished record. It took calling in the parentals from out West to finally get a meeting in where I could hear why I was being “asked” to take a leave. Essentially they thought that I would not be able to make it through the semester academically and socially, despite that I had been here with my disorder undiagnosed for three.
The realization of agent Carrie Mathison’s diagnosis was more than just an opportunity to swap horror stories. All of these experiences and their emotions have already filled countless pages. No, it was moment of radical awareness that transcends words: as if I suddenly was fully attuned to her and our suffering became conjoined. Only a few times in literature or film have I had such a moment of consuming sympathy. However, I never could have fathomed the extreme empathy I felt for those around her. There was the shock of suddenly learning, an internal revision of how I understood her character, even looking for signs of the disorder in her past. And then I asked the question, “What now?”
I hope that the writers of Homeland allow Carrie’s bipolar diagnosis to remain a plot element, just as it is in my life. I also applaud them for brushing past the stereotypes and presenting a realistic depiction of the disorder. As one who writes, there are just some topics, due to their nearness or distance, where words have always fallen short of experience. Homeland has allowed those with the unique experience of a bipolar diagnosis to let people in a little bit more, and answer that question.
“What now?” Surrounded by people whom I loved, I finished the semester with a 3.6. In fact, it was a semester for the books.