How can you relate to someone with mental illness?* I’m not talking about those who can function in ordinary society, even with difficulty. I’m talking about those whose illness makes them unable to function at a high level at all: In short, those who are in some sense “crazy”. Schizophrenia, severe bipolar disorder, any form of psychosis, to name just a few. Left to their own devices, such people pose a significant (though unintentional) danger to themselves and/or others.
I’ve lived with mentally ill family members for years, often as caretaker. And as is usually the case, experience complicates what might at first seem to be simple answers. In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice; but in practice, there is.
And I’ve learned a lot about mental illness, especially its severe manifestations, and those who suffer from it. I’ve learned that there are far more people who suffer from it, or who have dear ones suffering from it, than I first expected. I’ve learned that mental illness, even the same mental illness, can manifest in wildly diverse ways in two different people; or even in the same person at different times and under different circumstances. And I’ve learned that life is hella complicated as a result.
What I’ve yet to nail down, though, is a simple, easy, and comfortable approach to dealing with the mentally ill. (Some people have a natural gift for that sort of thing. Good on you. I don’t.)
Lars and the Real Girl is a 2007 movie (not an anime) about a young man suffering from schizoid personality disorder. He obtains a life-size doll and treats it as a real girlfriend. Eventually, his community accepts this and out of kindness begins to treat the doll as his girlfriend, too.
First off, kudos for making a film that treats mental illness sympathetically and actually grapples with this question. Second, I find the film’s answer intuitively unsatisfying.
And that’s where we arrive at Gate.
As some of you may know, Gate is one of my favorite anime series. Despite its shortcomings, I have watched the entire series more than once, and portions of it multiple times. One of the many things I appreciate about it is its treatment of mental illness, through the character of the orphaned elf-woman, Tuka.
The main character, Itami, finds Tuka nearly dead from a dragon attack that took the life of her father. Tuka can’t accept that her father is dead, and her psychosis (or break from reality) gets increasingly worse. Initially, she makes comments like, “I’ll have to tell Dad about that.” She wanders through the town looking for her father, and begins to ask for double portions of supplies. Finally, she imagines that Itami is her father, clinging to him during the day and sleeping beside him at night.
Itami naturally tries to figure out what to do for his friend. His first approach is like Lars and the Real Girl‘s: He plays along with Tuka’s delusion. But unlike in the movie, where this helps the main character to heal and overcome his disability, in Gate the situation becomes increasingly unstable. Situated as they are in a military base, with Itami on active duty, Itami’s responsibilities frequently come into conflict with the life that Tuka wants with her ‘father’. Finally, he decides that the only way forward is to try to heal Tuka, and for that she needs to confront the dragon responsible for her father’s death.
Long story short, it works! Tuka faces the reality of her father’s loss and accepts it. She moves on and becomes a genuinely delightful, fully functioning individual.
But what if healing is not an option?
Mental illness is an odd thing. There is frequently a biological cause for it, not (as in Lars and Gate) a purely psychological cause. And often there is no cure.
What, then, to do?
Although it’s really brief, Todoroki from My Hero Academia gives a sweet example of such a situation. Todoroki’s mother went crazy when he was a kid and attacked him with boiling water, leaving a scar. Years later, Todoroki visits his mother in the psych ward, apparently for the first time ever.
The visuals of this brief scene are spot on. Todoroki’s mother sits motionless in her room: It’s bright and clean, but sterile and lifeless. The bright light comes from the sun through the open window; she can see it but cannot leave her room: Thus, while the light suggests happiness and hope, it’s seemingly a deceitful hope that she can never attain to. So she just sits and stares out the window, at a world she longs for and can never even try to have. Her perfect stillness suggests no change or progress, a soul trapped in a moment as the rest of time speeds by her.
And then Todoroki calls out, “Mom.” For the first time she moves, turning her head towards him. Her face transforms in disbelief. Although it’s not stated explicitly, it’s clear that he’s forgiven her. What is more, he intends to build a new relationship with her.
As I look at her face, it seems to capture perfectly the state of the real people I’ve known in the same situation. There is confusion, a lack of complete comprehension—and yet, there is also recognition, surprise, and appreciation. The mind may be somewhat or entirely gone, and yet the person is still there: the heart that longs for love and relationship still beats, even when the mechanisms by which those things are usually formed have been damaged beyond repair and recognition. That’s what makes it difficult to understand and relate to the mentally ill, since they may not even recognize what is good for themselves or that they are being shown love. And that’s what makes those who do persist in loving them, like Todoroki, heroes.**
“In order to become my ideal hero, I need to see her and talk to her.”
— Shoto Todoroki
* I realize, of course, that the very way this question is phrased privileges those of us who do not suffer in this way—in academic language, it makes the mentally ill person the “other”. That’s simply because my intended audience is those who do not suffer from a severe mental illness. In no way do I think the mentally ill are in some way less valuable or less human than the rest of us, as I hope this post makes clear.
** I realize that calling people like me “heroes” may sound like self-aggrandizement, but that’s not my intent. It’s rather to provide encouragement, based on my own experience, for a group of people who often do not receive adequate support and appreciation.