Last night I finally watched the movie, The Soloist, starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Jamie Foxx on cable. From the previews, I got the idea that the movie would be an uplifting view of how a former Julliard string musician is found and redeemed from his life of homelessness. Not so. (Spoiler alert!)
It turns out that The Soloist is perhaps one of the most truthful films on mental illness made in Hollywood. It's based on the book, The Soloist: A Lost Dream, written by Downey's character, Steve Lopez of the L.A. Times. Lopez met Foxx's character, Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, in 2005, and wrote about him in his Times column, which led to the book.
The film does not gloss over the fact that Foxx's homeless musician is mentally ill with schizophrenia. Nor does it extol the Downey columnist's nobility in befriending a homeless man. Ultimately, the film delivers the message that sometimes, all that we can do, all that is asked, is that we are a friend and that we show up. That's not an easy to digest or even believable message for those of us who have do-gooder genes in our DNA. We have been inculturated to imagine that we are somehow capable of saving someone else if we just do enough to lead them back to the right way of living and being.
But mental illness is intractable, especially for those who refuse counseling and drugs. At six decades of living and counting, there have been a number of mentally ill people in my life, including very close family members. There were several who suffered from severe, clinical depression, which I didn't recognize until years later, in retrospect, and long after the emotional damage had ruined our relationships. One young daughter of a close friend killed herself at age 27. Others killed themselves more gradually through neglect and self-destructive behavior, which none of us knew how to interrupt, and about which some of us made value judgments, condemning the person for her or his mental illness.
Back in the '50s and '60s, we didn't address mental illness in ordinary discourse or polite company. The subject wasn't polite or genteel. The mentally ill were warehoused in state run and funded "hospitals," and the mantra was "Out of sight, out of mind." The mental image was of disheveled women and men with bad hair, drooling and barefoot in white gowns, with attendants nearby ready with a straitjacket or other restraints. In the '60s, the mentally ill who were cool enough to embrace some elements of hippie life were either cool or crazy, and both were acceptable modes of behavior. The recreational drugs of the '60s somewhat leveled the playing field, since it was difficult to tell what was mental illness and what was drug induced behavior.
In my teens and early twenties, I experienced very deep depression, feeling so bleak that I was suicidal. Later, as more research was done, SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) was recognized as something that can cause the blackness that I experienced. Since my early twenties, I've lived in much friendlier places for those afflicted with SAD: California, Hawaii, Texas and Colorado, where the sun shines daily in great abundance. In the wintertime, I have a full spectrum light box sitting next to my computer that I turn on for long periods on dark mornings to dispel the darkness in my spirit.
If only it were so easy for those afflicted with far worst instances of mental conditions that rob them of their ability to have hope - merely to turn on a light box and feel better an hour or two later. It's up to the rest of us who have been blessed with many good days to show up and befriend those who don't have many good days. That might be as good as it gets for some who suffer from mental illness. It won't always be fun or rewarding for us, but it will be meaningful for everyone involved.