For our Mental Health Awareness series, we're kicking it off with Undone a show that by any other approach would be a superhero origin story. Gabe talks about how it effectively and appropriately handles the topic of mental illness and Kat talks about how to be an ally to someone with schizophrenia.
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Undone (2019 - ) Creators: Kate Purdy & Raphael Bob-Waksberg (Bojack Horseman)
Summary by IMDB: A woman discovers she has a new relationship with time after surviving a car accident that almost killed her.
Undone: Mental Health Superhero Origin Story
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
This show follows our protagonist, Alma, as she navigates the narrative of what would otherwise be a superhero origin story. We have a woman who, after experiencing a traumatic event (car accident) seems to unlock her true potential. She is visited by her deceased father who is adamant she is no longer constrained by the rules of our reality and can navigate throughout time and space in any way she feels. She is Neo taking the red pill and exiting the Matrix. She is Miles Morales, bit by a radioactive spider. And she is also someone with big brain ventricles and a family history of schizophrenia. And that is what transformed this show from being something that was simply interesting and incredibly creative to something profound and impactful.
There are SO many things I truly appreciate about the show, Undone. Thanks to friend and Ghoul Scout, Jeff for telling me about the show. He first told me about it because the protagonist is deaf and uses a hearing aid. He was impressed by the show's representation of this and how it’s never really made into a big deal, it's simply a part of her character. I really appreciated that as well and am always looking for good disability representation. But the show didn’t stop there.
This is one of the best shows I’ve ever seen regarding mental illness. Though not specifically horror, you know we often go off the beaten path, the ideas expressed throughout of losing your sense of reality, sense of self, and juggling with our role in the universe under the heavy-handed fist of capitalism can be rather terrifying.
And the protagonist is Mexican-American! Jeff and I also talked at length about colorism and certain expectations for POC in life. But I really enjoyed not only the presence of a mixed family but also the strength in using their culture as a major point in the story. Traditional and cultural ideologies, dances, and places serve as a point of comfort and empowerment in the show.
So, all of this is to say there are so many reasons to love and appreciate this show. I’ve watched it twice now and am eagerly awaiting season two. Also, before I dive into the core questions we look to explore during this series, I wanted to talk about how cool the animation is on this program! They actually used rotoscoping to create the animation - rotoscoping is an animation technique that animators use to trace over motion picture footage of real-life actors, frame by frame, to produce realistic action. One film most people are familiar with is A Scanner Darkly with Neo, Keanu Reeves. The animation really helps to make the blend between reality and hallucination or time travel, whatever, really smooth. I imagine it is quite the process but so worth it.
Now, let’s dive into some important questions.
Does it appropriately represent the horrors of a mental illness? And does it inspire empathy & compassion towards an individual with this mental illness?
First off, the show is inspired by creator, Kate Purdy’s own experiences with generational schizophrenia. According to an article on Bustle which features many quotes from Kate Purdy and co-creator, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, titled, How 'Undone' Creator Kate Purdy Re-contextualized Her Mental Illness With Gorgeous Animation by Samantha Rollins, Purdy explains how they discovered their own large brain ventricles and coped with the history of schizophrenia in their family.
“The first time Undone creator Kate Purdy got a glimpse of her own brain ventricles was in college, in a CAT scan for viral meningitis. They were enlarged, the doctor explained, but it wasn't a big deal: Some people have big noses, and others have big brain ventricles. It wasn't until she read an article about a study that linked large brain ventricles to schizophrenia that she began to worry. Schizophrenia was in her family; her grandmother Geraldine had it.”
My family actually has a history of mental illness, including schizophrenia. Purdy goes on to discuss the fear and caution they experienced approaching their 30th birthday. It’s a thought and experience I am familiar with. Eventually, Purdy experienced some mental trouble and had to find a way to navigate her new reality. How she coped with it and continues to live with it have inspired the show greatly. The article goes on to say,
“A few years later, she experienced a mental break and found out. "I didn't know what was happening to me, I didn't know how to move out of it or what to do," Purdy recalls to Bustle of being in the throes of serious depression and anxiety.”
“‘Yes, it’s a mental break and mental illness, but you can also call it incredible healing, or the potential for healing,’ she says. Purdy eventually found healing for herself through a combination of psychiatry and Ayurveda, a traditional healing practice from India, and she notes as Odenkirk's Jacob does in the series that plenty of shamanistic and indigenous traditions view mental health differently than we do traditionally in the West. In some cultures, for example, hallucinations are considered powerful and valuable visions, not signs of life-threatening madness.”
When you step back from the narrative and look at the story we’re being told, we’re to believe a young woman has just unlocked her mind’s true potential. She is navigating time and space unbound by our limitations. It’s a superhero’s story in any other context. I was honestly worried, as the story went on, that we would end up with a story that suggested that folx with schizophrenia or similar psychosis should neglect their medication and that their hallucinations are real. But this show truly does not let you down. There’s an interesting and unexpected conversation between Alma, her mother and the priest about her medication. The priest has been talking with Alma’s mother and shares her concerns with Alma’s wellbeing but he also mentions to Alma’s mother that she was way out of line for filling her prescription and trying to force this on her. I honestly appreciated how they show the complexities of not only the person who is working to manage their own mental state but also the effect of those around them. It is so easy in film and media to villainize people with mental illnesses. In horror, there is a gross history of just this. We’ve talked about it on this show many times. So to see a show that treats mental illness respectfully regarding all who are involved, I got really excited! What grounds this show is that while we are watching Alma’s supposed superhero story unfold, as she learns to manage the tools of her newfound freedom from space-time-continuum restraints we also see how those around her are viewing her interactions. At moments when she is moving through time and talking with her father, the characters around her like her boyfriend Sam, are watching her talk to herself or clearly see she is “losing time” during conversations. A particularly stressful scene has her running through a mirror to travel through time and try to save her dad, only in real time she’s actually crashed into the mirror in front of her pre-school students.
Creator Bob-Waksberg explains their decision to deepen this superhero origin story in the Bustle article, "Usually there’s a very quick journey from, Hey, everything you thought about the way the world works is wrong and all of your lived experience is not true and you can’t trust anything anybody’s ever said before, [to] OK, well, guess I’m a superhero now," Bob-Waksberg says. "I just felt like, if this were to happen in the real world, that you were visited by somebody or given some sort of power or perceived the world in a brand new way, I think your first reaction for a very long time would be to question it, and be like, This goes against everything I thought I understood about how the world works, I’m not just gonna jump on board and be like, OK, I guess this is it now."
Alma certainly fights against this newfound information and her undead father’s reasoning quite a bit before sinking into that idea. Given the choice, wouldn’t you rather have a reality where you have unlocked your potential than live in a world where you are losing grip on reality? In the beginning of the show, Sam makes an offhand comment calling Alma crazy in a joking way to which she responds with vitriol - she is not crazy. Clearly, Alma has always struggled with the potential future in which she, like her grandmother, has schizophrenia. It’s a delicate subject that Sam smoothly moves away from. You can see Purdy’s influence in scenes like these which make the show even that much more real and relatable.
Something I found refreshing that I mentioned a bit before is the religion and cultural inspiration throughout the show. We’ve also discussed on this show, the overwhelmingly christian narratives that permeate the horror genre, as if other religions or cultures don’t experience similar events and have their own way of understanding and dealing with these supernatural events. As if vampires couldn’t be harmed in a non-catholic country free of crucifixes. In Undone, we see a beautiful interweaving of indigenous culture and influence. We also get some conversations throughout that critique the misuse or misunderstanding of these cultures through the use of white characters such as her father who understood Shaman were spiritually more powerful and used them for his own selfish needs. Alma critiques the Alamo recreations in her town and even groans when told that the new priest of their catholic church has a fascination or appreciation for “indigenous cultures”. I enjoyed these instances peppered throughout. However, Alma’s history and ancestry greatly influence her experiences and understanding of her mental illness. It adds to the empowerment in her superhero manifestation.
In that wonderful Bustle article full of all the answers, writer Samantha Rollins goes on to say, “Viewed that way, perhaps Alma's visions of her dead father aren't disturbing signs of a woman losing her mind, but "an ancestor reaching through to shake you out of your reality," Purdy explains, "so that you make choices that are better for you, and better for the people you love." It's impossible to know for sure, but the beauty of the world of Undone is that the only thing we know for certain is that the answer is always going to be complicated.”
If you are looking for more twists on superpowered-maybe-mentally-unwell-protagonists then I suggest watching The OA. This is another show that Jeff and I geek out about! Talk about mind efff, maybe one day we’ll cover it here!
Living With Schizophrenia: How to Be a Mental Health Ally
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
To start today’s facts section I wanted to explicitly state that I do not have a personal experience with Schizophrenia and express that I am presenting information that I don't have personal context for, and hope that nothing I say is inaccurate or damaging. I know that oftentimes with mental illness classifications, or honestly anything that happens with the brain, that the definitions or blanket interpretations of an illness can be damaging or contrary to the feelings or views of individuals who actually have said mental illness. I also grew up within western society, and process daily how much of what has been taught to me is inaccurate or skewed to benefit capitalism and white supremacy, so if there is anyone who has had a different experience with Schizophrenia, either culturally or personally and they want to let us know so we can know better, please don’t hesitate to send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
What is a Schizophrenia?
From the Mayo Clinic. Schizophrenia is a mental disorder that causes people to interpret their reality differently or abnormally. It can manifest itself in a combination of hallucinations, delusions, and disordered thinking and behavior that can be disabling and impact daily functioning.
The impact of Schizophrenia and the way in which it manifests in the mind can sometimes be different based on the cultural context it occurs within. The symptom of delusions center around whatever is culturally and contextually important to the individual. In an article from Big Think called Schizophrenia by Culture provided the example “Cultures in which the family is more important will have delusions centered around their family, cultures in which religion is important often have religious delusions, and so on.”
This can also extend to how mental illness is perceived by society, and how it can impact daily functionality in said society. For example in a society like the USA, where fitting a mold is essential to functioning within capitalism, and thus essential to survival, mental illness has a greater impact on the daily functionality compared to a society that embraces different individuals and meets their needs where they’re at,
What are some of the things someone with schizophrenia encounters?
A very obvious one is America’s long history of violence against individuals with mental illness, be it through police response, or through institutionalization. Schizophrenia is also oftentimes misrepresented in media, and especially in horror as a blanket cause of a character violence against other characters. As we mentioned in our Mental Health Representation episode, in contrast with how mental illness is often portrayed in film, individuals are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness outlines some of the symptoms of Schizophrenia for us. It also outlines the difficulty in finding a diagnosis for specifically teenagers, as many of the early warning signs align themselves with common and nonspecific adolescent behavior. Regardless of age it is an essential to get a comprehensive medical evaluation in order to obtain the best diagnosis.
For a diagnosis of schizophrenia, some of the following symptoms are present in the context of reduced functioning for a least 6 months:
Hallucinations. These include a person hearing voices, seeing things, or smelling things others can’t perceive. The hallucination is very real to the person experiencing it, and it may be very confusing for a loved one to witness. The voices in the hallucination can be critical or threatening. Voices may involve people that are known or unknown to the person hearing them.
Delusions. These are false beliefs that don’t change even when the person who holds them is presented with new ideas or facts. People who have delusions often also have problems concentrating, confused thinking, or the sense that their thoughts are blocked.
Negative symptoms are ones that diminish a person’s abilities. Negative symptoms often include being emotionally flat or speaking in a dull, disconnected way. People with the negative symptoms may be unable to start or follow through with activities, show little interest in life, or sustain relationships. Negative symptoms are sometimes confused with clinical depression.
Cognitive issues/disorganized thinking. People with the cognitive symptoms of schizophrenia often struggle to remember things, organize their thoughts or complete tasks. Commonly, people with schizophrenia have anosognosia or “lack of insight.” This means the person is unaware that he has the illness, which can make treating or working with him much more challenging.
How do you manage schizophrenia?
This is not something I can’t answer from a personal standpoint. I can provide advice for being a supportive friend or family member, and I think the show provides some good insight as well.
Honestly, this show has definitely shown the good and bad ways of helping someone you care about navigate a diagnosis. You see the ways in which characters are being supportive or damaging towards the main character and I think it’s a good lesson to reflect on when approaching the situation. Ultimately forcing someone into any situation, invading their space, gaslighting and other damaging behaviors aren’t going to help anyone you care about, including someone dealing with Schizophrenia. Being in situations where you are ultimately powerless to sway an individual that you are worried about is hard, but it doesn’t give anyone the right to take control of their life. At the end of the day, that person needs to come to their own conclusions for whether or not they want to seek treatment through therapy or medication. The best thing to be in that situation is supportive but also clear on how you feel. There’s a thin line that separates support and enabling and you have to figure that out for yourself and decide situationally. Just as you’re entitled to cut someone off for dangerous or damaging behavior, they are entitled to making their own decision on their treatment.
In Mayo Clinic they also provide some advice for helping someone with Schizophrenia. The biggest thing you can do in that situation is talk to the person you care about and express your concern and love for them. Offering potential support or treatment options is also a totally okay way to approach a person. It also states that because Schizophrenia causes delusions that treatment often falls to the family or friends who care and express such, so doing so is a pathway to treatment. What you shouldn’t do is what the Mom in Undone did at first, which was try and force change and force medication. If your relationship with that person fringes upon whether or not that person seeks the help you offer, then you have to be willing to deal with the possibility that they might choose to lose your relationship instead of seeking treatment. Mayo Clinic suggests that if your loved one is a danger to themselves or others, that calling 911 or another emergency responder is an option, but I would disagree here. With the number of individuals being murdered as a result of mental health crisis response calls by police I can not in good conscience recommend that option. I would instead suggest trying to get the support of mental health trained professionals, social workers, or individuals trained in de escalation. Individuals that can ensure that everything possible will be done to get that person safely to either hospitalization or calm. Ultimately if you are fearing for someone’s life, and the person in question is not in a rational state, calling the police is not a safe option in the United States.
At the end of the day, dealing with any individual experiencing a mental health issue needs to be approached with empathy and compassion. Helping that person feel loved, seen and heard are important trust building steps that could help someone get treatment. It is also something that can be lifesaving for someone dealing with navigating a diagnosis for a mental illness.