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January 8, 2011: New Year, New Hip, New Movies (“Black Swan”/”The King’s Speech”)

Happy New Year!

In the January issue of my e-newsletter, “Self-Empowerment: Have the Life You Want!”, I’ll be discussing how to set your goals for 2011 to feel empowered to make the positive changes in your life that you want to see over the next 12 months. Sign up now on my home page to get on the list. (I’ll also do a podcast version of this on iTunes; see “Have the Life You Want with Ken Howard, LCSW” under Health>Self Help>Ken Howard LCSW).

I’ve been recovering from having the second of two hip replacement surgeries (my left one was done in April, 2008; this is the right one) on December 6. When I’m not in the office seeing clients, I’ve been relaxing seeing some of the recent movies. Favorites include “Black Swan” and “The King’s Speech”.

I’m heartened in that both of these movies do address topics related to mental health, though I’m not sure about the “gay men’s” mental health part. Perhaps just “ballet” and “British royalty” themes are sort of “gay enough”.

In “Black Swan”, Natalie Portman does a beautiful job of portraying a star-but-still-shy ballet prima donna, who apparently has some sort of delusional disorder. Throughout this movie, I was attempting to “diagnose” exactly what was going on with her, because in my 18 years of providing psychotherapy, I’ve never worked with someone quite like this. Delusional disorders, yes, but not this particular blend of paranoia, hallucinations, and dissociative fantasies.

I think what I liked best about it was the sense that dealing with a serious psychotic disorder, especiallly when the patient knows they are in distress, is a very scary thing. I think the movie, while titillating and teasing its audience, also helped to sensitize the public that mental health disorders are real, and that people going through them need as much understanding and compassion as we can give. I think the movie also did a wonderful job of depicting a story about “reality testing” (how often do you hear that?), and plays with the idea of perception. Many times in therapy, we have to discuss what is “real” (particularly in anxiety management, trying to figure out true threats versus worries of tragedies that are very unlikely to occur). Portman’s performance and Darren Aronofsky’s expert direction help to blur the senses and make us question what we see. We can condescendingly pity Portman’s character, Nina Sayers, but who among us hasn’t had times in our lives when we are scared, frustrated, and held back by our own anxiety, if perhaps on a smaller magnitude. Who among us hasn’t struggled with the “white swan” and “black swan” parts of ourselves? Freud would say that’s the function of the Ego, to regulate between the base impulses of the Id, and the inhibiting moralism of the Superego.

Anytime a movie can sensitize us to our common humanity, including the struggles in mental health that we all share, trying to manage our anxieties and reconcile our subjectivity from objective reality, is a good thing.

Same thing with “The King’s Speech”, about the stammering problem that Britain’s King George VI, father to Queen Elizabeth II, had in his childhood and adulthood. The film depicts the relationship of “Bertie”, as Prince Royal Albert Philip Arthur George, aka later King George VI, and his commoner speech therapist, Lionel Logue, who addresses the king as “Bertie” to level the treatment playing field. Although Logue is not a psychotherapist, he makes a good point that Bertie’s stammer has its roots not just in the mechanics of speech, but also in the trauma of being raised by the verbally abusive King George V (Michael Gambon, last seen as Professor Dumbledore in the “Harry Potter” movie series). By helping Bertie come to terms with childhood abuse, he also helps him to literally “find his voice”, which is something I see frequently in my psychotherapy office. The cognitive effect of abuse, in many cases, or even “just” the relentless negative haranguing of hypercritical parents, teachers, coaches, clergy, or peers, will erode a person’s self-esteem and inhibit their confidence, stride, and sense of self — in other words, induce stammer, whether actually vocally, in Bertie’s case, or psychologically, keeping us from vocally claiming our fair stake in the world.

The King/Commoner “bromance” that develops, accompanied by the expert Helena Bonham Carter as the woman who was known at the time as “Queen Elizabeth” and later “Elizabeth, Queen Mother”, is heartwarming not only for showing the (platonic) affection between men, but also in the professional-but-still-loving clinical relationship between practitioner Logue and patient Bertie. This movie, too, like “Black Swan”, helps to sensitize us to mental health issues and their effects on the people who endure them.

I’m hoping that 2011 continues to bring us responsible portrayals of people who are challenged by mental health issues — not in a way like “Psycho” and numerous other movies that teach us to be deathly afraid of anyone who isn’t “normal” mentally, but to evoke intelligent understanding and compassion. Not bloody likely, but one can hope.

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