The movies have always offered a refuge from reality, a few hours’ pause to sneak into the fantasies of an imaginary world or the dangers of a daring adventure. Buy a ticket to one of this year’s Oscar nominees for best picture and escape to a mythical bayou, take a journey alongside a wild tiger, or travel back in time to your choice of 19th-century settings.
Yet as the lights came up after Silver Linings Playbook, I knew I’d seen the most worthy contender for precisely the opposite reason: not because it transported me to another world, but because of how faithfully it reflected one I know too well. This special film isn’t a diversion from real life so much as a sensitive and significant recognition of it. It runs full speed into the experience of the disorders from which most people race away, peeling away with each stride the stigma that keeps too many from the treatment and compassion they need.
Like Bradley Cooper’s main character, also named Patrick, I’ve struggled with mental illness. To escape my reality—shame I couldn’t shake and depression darker than a movie theater—I spiraled down destructive addictions to alcohol and painkillers.
The challenges I recognized in the film felt familiar to the battles I’ve fought every day since being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Difficulty relating naturally to family and friends. The frustrating search for a treatment that might finally work among an arsenal of those that don’t. The isolation of everyone around you misjudging your competence.
And as deftly as Playbook reflects those obstacles, it also bravely dismantles one of the tallest: the stigma of mental illness. The filmmakers made the courageous decision to treat a serious subject with a smile, a choice that’s about much more than comic relief. If we’re going to better understand the brain’s shortcomings, we need to shed the shame with which we saddle them. And if we’re going to get rid of the stigma—one of the great civil-rights challenges of our time—we need more discussion in the real world, and less shame by those suffering with mental illness, or the loved ones around them. We’ve seen the tragedy and the loss of what happens when we hide the warning sides of mental illness out of discomfort or our own embarrassment. Realistic films like this one help remove that stigma. Take it from someone who understands what director David O. Russell means when he says his inspiration was not just to make a movie, but to make his son “feel like he’s part of the world.”
While most might not see themselves in Patrick the way I did, many relate to the parents, siblings, and friends around him. By telling the story of a guy we can picture as our neighbor, Playbook appreciates that bipolar disorder and depression don’t afflict only former congressmen like me or spies like Claire Danes’s tormented Carrie in Homeland. It plagues football fans, teachers, and amateur dancers, too. It doesn’t discriminate.
It’s rare that a work of fiction can feel more authentic than a historical reenactment or biography, but that’s exactly why it’s such a stirring picture. Its realism comes from its honesty; in the characters’ many conversations about optimism and recovery, none ever underestimates or sugarcoats the degree of difficulty.
I could take my first steps down the path toward sobriety and therapy only after I found the confidence to speak openly about my disease. I’ve since dedicated my career to helping others find the same strength.
One of the most gratifying moments of my 16 years in Congress was working with my dad, Sen. Edward Kennedy, to pass a law that ensures insurance companies recognize mental-health treatments are as necessary and worthwhile as those for physical pain. We also fought to help heal this generation’s veterans’ invisible wounds, like posttraumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. I recently left Congress to launch One Mind for Research, a national, collaborative campaign to unite scientists studying different parts and problems of the brain, and to find mental-health cures.
In the film, Patrick’s shot at recovery cannot begin until he overcomes the delusions that disguise reality. I’ve similarly learned that honestly confronting my limitations is a steep climb, one worthy of every ounce of energy I have.
But it’s not a journey we can make alone. We need our families, friends, and folks who just like going to the movies to understand that the 100 million Americans suffering with mental illness are not lost souls or lost causes. We’re fully capable of getting better, being happy, and building rewarding relationships. We need you to open your minds and arms, not shut your doors. And after all we’ve lost in recent months, our nation can’t afford any more belated realizations that we’ve missed the warning signs.
Silver Linings Playbook is a rare film that reminds us our imaginations aren’t built for the imaginary alone, and reality isn’t only for escaping. Sometimes, we can’t let it let us get away.