Taking mental illness for what it is: What I learned from Anne Hathaway’s Modern Love episode

Last week I decided to dip my toes in a podcast I listened to years ago, except this time it was a TV show. Modern Love was something I often listened to when I went for a walk, or sometimes a drive. Short episodes about love, not always romantic love, were a pleasant companion for an afternoon stroll or a road trip. While I am yet to read an original Modern Love column from the New York Times, I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered 8 TV episodes on Amazon Prime.

The first two episodes were heartwarming tales of a woman who has a very trusting relationship with her doorman, and a young man who gets back together with his ex. Both were nice episodes and a good way to introduce people to the concept of Modern Love, though neither left me wondering.

It was the third episode, titled “Take Me as I Am, Whoever I Am”, that took me completely by surprise and taught me something. Written as a column for the New York Times in 2008 and featuring as a podcast episode in 2016, the story that inspired this episode came from author and former entertainment attorney, Terri Cheney.
The episode features Anne Hathaway as a young single woman called Lexi, who lives with bipolar. She works as a lawyer and goes on dates with men, though her coworkers don’t know about her condition, and the men she dates don’t learn about it. She leads what appears to be a double life, and most people only see one side of it.

Before watching Anne Hathaway depict Lexi, I honestly didn’t know much about bipolar disorder. I’d heard the term ‘bipolar’ used to jokingly describe when someone has a mood swing, though this episode taught me that having bipolar isn’t just about being in a bad mood.

Lexi’s lows seemed so crippling and all consuming. She doesn’t get out of bed for days and nobody knows what’s going on, not her coworkers or her prospective dates. At one point she is in the middle of doing her makeup, getting ready for a date, when she sinks to her bathroom floor, weeping.

The reason no one knows what’s going on with Lexi is because her good moments are so good, and she convinces those around her that everything is just fine. In fact, things aren’t just fine, they’re fabulous. The reality is that she lives with a condition that can strike at any time, and she’s pretty good at hiding it from people.

The most hopeful scene of the episode is when her coworker takes her out for coffee, and listens. Lexi opens up about her illness and as a result she feels like an elephant has taken one of it’s feet off her chest. She finds a new friend in her coworker, and relief in sharing her struggle.

I like to think I am broadly aware of mental illness and how it affects people, and this episode was still an eye opener for me. I was struck by how debilitating bipolar is for Lexi, and how much it upsets her. She knows what she’s living with, though she has no control of when, where and how it will strike.

I am conscious that not everyone who lives with mental illness will have a story like Lexi’s, and more importantly that mental illness does not define a person. It’s something that people may walk alongside as they go through life, sometimes leaving it, sometimes not.

While this 30 minute episode of Modern Love doesn’t show a full story, it reinforced for me that mental illness is just that, an illness. It’s not something that can be switched on and off, picked up at the right time, or put down when you’re finished.

I hope Lexi’s coworker shows everyone that listening, without always giving advice, is sometimes the best thing you can do for someone who is struggling. A warm smile and a sense of being heard, even just for a moment, is what may change a person’s day, and maybe even their life.

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Featured Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

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