Rick Rossiter of REFOCUS on Infinitely Polar Bear
We spoke to CPsychI REFOCUS member (Recovery Experience Forum of Carers and Users of Services) and See Change Ambassador Rick Rossiter following a First Fortnight screening of Infinitely Polar Bear. The movie stars Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana and follows Cam (Ruffalo) who lives with manic depression and bipolar disorder as he takes full responsibility of his two young, spirited daughters, while his wife (Zaldana) studies away from home.
Considering the films balance between entertainment and information do you think the portrayal of bipolar is reflective of people’s actual experience and was it honest enough to combat stigma and raise awareness of what it’s like living with a chronic enduring mental illness?
Rick Rossiter: Well for me this film like most films it’s compacted to a certain time frame so I think it just opened a door to a lot of conversations. It didn’t give infinite answers to anything, it showed bits and pieces and you’ve got to reflect that this is a point of view from a child. This is reflective of the director Maya Forbes because this is basically her early memories of her own life with her father.
It couldn’t give an accurate depiction because there’s so many people with bipolar that have different experiences whether it’s down to the highs and the lows, what counterbalances each other, some people would have more highs, you know it’s different for everyone and it’s different with their whole environment, but this basically portrayed what she knows and what she saw which is mainly from her view as a child.
And the child will not see the dynamics of the really powerful emotions that are going on because a lot of parents shield their children away from the hardships. Like for myself my children don’t really have too many bad memories of my depression partly because you know we shielded them away or it was kept away from them as children, I wasn’t until they got older that they understood or I talked more to them about it.
Mary Hayes (MH): In the film they didn’t really touch on the history of Cam’s illness or whether bipolar ran in his family. But family dynamics can have an effect on people’s experience of mental illness, which we saw by the lack of nurturing and empathy from his grandmother. Do you think the audience would have benefited from a deeper look into his past or do you think it was more helpful for the audience to only see Cam in the present as he lives with his illness?
For the film itself it’s seeing him in the moment…but yes the family dynamics does have a major effect in anybody’s recovery, their journey through the illness. But yes you can almost see there is a certain detachment from his family to the real goings on of reality, and the same with his grandmother. She in the sense is wise, she’s trying to teach the daughters a proper understanding of you know ‘is this is a good way of teaching them?’ or for her considering giving her son the Bentley to go off and live in a rundown area, she’s detached from it so yeah sometimes there would be a greater exploration into the family dynamics but in this film I think it showed enough to get somebody questioning it.
MH: And I think aswell when you’re meeting people in real life, who have bipolar or other mental illnesses you’re not going to know their history or their back story but just seeing somebody as they live their life every day.
RR: And not everybody has that luxury, like I’m adopted so I knew of my family background, I knew who my real parents were but even at that I had that luxury because it was within the family, the adoption, but still the mothers side was still elusive even though I knew there were mental health issues but nobody talked about it, explored it or explained it. Knowing your family history especially with bipolar is very critical but if you don’t know you can only deal with what’s being put in front of you.
MH: With the film being set in the context of 70’s how do you think it compares to the care and treatment people with bipolar receive versus now? What’s better, what’s the same?
RR: I said it at a panel the other day that it was set in ‘78 but it could have been set now. There was not so much difference in the way a lot of the treatments are. Lithium is a major component in people’s lives, not everybody takes it, not everybody responds to it, so the film didn’t explore it too much, on his medical side of being in the hospital. It only showed you a snippet, him coming out heavily medicated, a bit of weight gain, stuff like that just gave it a bad taste because not everybody’s experience is like that, some could be worse, some could be better.
MH: And I think aswell the fact that they didn’t go so much into his treatment and his medication it kind of put an emphasis on Recovery, because he needed so much more than just going back to the lithium, you know he benefited from the routine and being with the kids and connection and meeting people in the building.
RR: People are only now associating Recovery with a multitude of actions that are going on in someone’s life where there’s interaction with their family, interaction with their friends, groups, getting out there, therapies, mindfulness, it’s not one thing that’s going to work, it’s a combination of putting these together in something that will work for the individual. It’s all individual based how therapy and Recovery is, you can’t set one goal for everybody, but it explored it that way and I liked that. Especially with bipolar, we do go off the medication quite often or some can or some can reject it altogether because they feel they lost part of themselves. I think in the conversation we don’t want to focus on medication because I never talk about my medication because what works for me won’t work for somebody else
MH: What stood out to me was the love and resilience in the family and the fact that Cam actually showed great judgment when it came to his daughter’s needs. He also seemed to thrive but at times crumble from the responsibility and routine of parenting. I know you are also a father and primary care giver and wanted to know what you find rewarding or challenging as a parent living with bipolar?
RR: They challenge you and they ground you, and I know you could be on the dark side of the moon but once you’re there and you’re focused with them, they bring you back and they can be the part that anchors you down. For most bipolars routine is a key thing to your life because it is so exhausting trying to keep on top of things, trying not to procrastinate, not to dwell in the moments and keep on looking back on life and saying what if what if. You’ve got to focus here, now, in the present and you know if you find a good relationship with your children and you explore that it can be one of the most rewarding parts and you saw that in the film. They really anchored him down and showed responsibility with him and then he showed it back and it was like a mutual understanding at the end of how they worked together.
I find that with my children, like my kids say they don’t consider me normal but they know me as me. I used to threaten my daughter when she was younger, I’d say I’m going to be a normal dad tomorrow if you don’t behave [and they’d say] “No don’t be normal, I don’t want you to be like other dads” and stuff like that. It’s just the way it works, because with most bipolars if you say to us we’ll take bipolar out of your equation, [we’ll say] no, this is part of me, this is who I am. There was a time that I used to say I’m bipolar or somebody would look at me and say “you’re bipolar?”. No it’s part of me and there’s a distinguished part of it, like I wouldn’t say to somebody with a physical difficulty like ‘oh you’re cancer’, ‘you’re lukemia’, no it’s a small part of you but it is a part of you so you’ve got to work with it. I mean if you’re someone who’s doing well with bipolar you either medicate yourself well or you’re in the mindset of what works and you keep going; you stay away from the triggers, or you balance things out, your relationship is second nature to everything, so it works out.
MH: Were there any standout scenes for you or just your favourite scene in general?
RR: There’s so many there was a scene where he was standing in front of an open fridge looking in and he was in slow motion but everything around him was moving. You get that feeling because you could be in a room with 100 people and you would feel as if you’re the only one there, no matter what conversations are going on around you, no matter what else is happening around you, you’re just lost in your own thoughts. That stood out but it only stood out when somebody mentioned it to me. And then there was funny moments like when he was finally cleaning up his room and he was taking this huge box with wires and I was like ‘oh my god I’ve got that at home’ or when he was taking apart things I was like ‘I’ve got pieces of laptops at the house!’.
You sort of look at the whole story and say my God this was a lot of me, and you look back on your own actions and things that you would consider normal but your children would look and say ‘yeah you were a bit over the top at that time’. Like I remember when my daughter was finishing primary school and I was joking with her saying me and my son would be outside with placards screaming for her. Then at the last moment my son was in work that day and I said I’m going to do it, and I wrote out 2 placards that said ‘You’re my No. 1.5 daughter!’ stuff like that. I see her screaming walking out of school, parents are looking at me and laughing, and the kids are like ’Rick you legend’ and for me it was a fun emotion and I find humour is so beneficial in my life for everything around me. So you know my daughter would say ‘you embarrassed the hell out of me’ but she loved it.
MH: That’s so special because there are a lot of daughters who wouldn’t have that.
RR: My son sat down once and he started crying and said ‘you’re the best dad and thank you for this’. I look at my life, and I especially look at my daughter’s life and there’s things that are going on in her life, social media, bullying and all that, they are going through so much [trauma]. I opened up to my son when he was 15 about a lot of my issues, about my first suicide attempt and everything at 15 and he cried, in the car and got all emotional. But I had to have the same conversation with my daughter when she was 13 because the same things were happening in her life but younger, she was more understanding and more relatable because of things happening in her life whether it was school, bullying, or suicides in her school, so the kids are getting younger and younger and being presented with more challenges.
MH: And it’s almost like a blessing in disguise you know, because you have had that experience and you’re able to tap into them when they’re at such a young age and tackle it before it becomes an issue, or just to talk about it because obviously it’s important to talk about. And obviously there are people with ‘normal’ families and they’re not having these conversations at all.
RR: Yeah I think there needs to be a conversation about how we think around mental health, especially with our children because they’re not dummies, and they’re seeing things at a younger age and unless we teach them how to deal with them they’re not going to deal with them.