“That’s the trick, the mind-killer; your disease convinces you you don’t have it.” – David Haller
When Legion premiered on FX this February, critics were quick to deride its interpretation of mental illness. Early reviews jumped to conclusions of the show’s “mental health shaming” by trivializing it or using it as a cheap narrative tool to talk about superpowers and comic book absurdities with the fake veneer of something more adult and mature. Perhaps that’s true if you sat through the first couple of episodes and then got so offended that you refused to keep going.
The opening shows David Haller grow up as a troubled teen who later attempts suicide. We then see Haller in a mental hospital produced as a sort of highly medicated prison rife with unhelpful therapy sessions, a montage of pills in cups, and unnervingly dangerous looking or totally comatose patients leading completely unproductive and secluded lives in an environment pulled straight out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest via A Clockwork Orange (and the place is called Clockworks interestingly enough). As the first episode progresses, we learn that David is retelling the experience at Clockworks to a government agent who is investigating the extent of telekinetic powers they believe David has on behalf of something called Division 3. Their goal is to determine the extent of those powers and then to control them, or use them. The first episode ends with an action packed rescue from a group of mutants who are hidden in a retreat called Summerland. We later learn that they are protecting mutants from Division 3. The story is straightforward enough, but what happens inside of David’s head is not. Right when the viewer is convinced of one set of facts about what is real, the next episode opens with another version of something whether it’s the image of a leisure suit clad Jemaine Clement trying to explain some out-of-place philosophy while seated in a giant ice-cube or everyone in Summerland seated in Clockworks in the middle of a therapy session. In every episode we have to start over which is why the early criticisms were so wrong about what was really happening.
Throughout the show, David exhibits symptoms of a schizoaffective disorder. He hears voices, can’t distinguish between reality and mental projections, he’s paranoid, and talks to a series of characters that only he can see. He is ashamed of all of this and believes he is crazy no thanks to Clockworks reinforcing that belief. But we are presented with the idea that he is not insane, and rather has extraordinary mental powers that he has only confused with a mental illness because he can’t control them. Summerland is there to help him understand that he is not insane, but truly very powerful.
The first metaphor for mental illness we are presented with is “you are not sick, but unique and gifted.” This is a well-trodden path in the X-Men comics, the world from which Legion derives. In the comics, David Haller is Professor X’s biological son who he gave away at birth. There, David deals with dissociative identity disorder (split personality) where each of his mental powers takes on a different identity in his head. A major draw for kids to the X-Men is that in the mutant world the thing that makes you feel different or odd is also the thing that makes you special. People will always find a way to exclude. Foucault argued that the age of reason saw the confinement and casting out of the mentally ill or “mad” from society through political and social mechanisms which only lends mental illness a perfect canvas on which to paint the X-Men mythos. Even if having really amazing powers that should astound people can make you an outcast, think of all the little things about you that don’t conform to the world that will cause people to exclude you. The solution: find other oddballs, be yourself, and cherish your uniqueness in the world in a healthy community that respects you.
I get it. If Legion stopped there, it would sanitize mental illness with a nice message for kids struggling to fit in, but would be a weak exploration of the issue for a decidedly grown-up audience. It cleanses mental illness to where it does not really harm us, but makes us stronger. It’s a nice, temporary coping strategy, but it hardly respects the reality that metal illness can kill you if you don’t do something about it.
Thankfully, the story doesn’t stop there. We learn that David didn’t know he was adopted, his sister kept that secret from him, and even if all of his mental illness was just a manifestation of his powers, he still had to work through all of the same issues that any person with schizophrenia would have to work through. He still has issues that he has not worked out and they keep manifesting themselves throughout each episode. And then it goes one level deeper. What we learn is that David’s cohort of imaginary voices – a beagle, a creepy children’s book character, a blob with yellow eyes, a frenetic woman named Lenny Busker who goads him to misbehave – are all manifestations of the thing from which Professor X tried to hide him – the powerful mutant Amahl Farouk also called the “Shadow King.” This being lodged itself into David’s brain when he was a baby in order to siphon off his power until the day when he could overtake David’s whole mind and body. The cause of David’s mental illness symptoms is not something that is naturally part of him – it is a parasite.
Health comes from overcoming the struggle and that means not identifying with one’s mental illness.
This is the grownup moment in how the show deals with mental illness. No responsible psychologist or psychiatrist should ever tell you that to treat a mental illness you should just take drugs and accept it as a part of your identity. They will tell you that you also need to be social and find a community of healthy friends, eat a healthy diet, get some exercise, and sleep among other strategies like meditation or yoga. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) teaches you strategies to mine your brain for those negative messages that you tell yourself and rather than accept them, reverse them and change them through action and practice. It’s like playing table tennis against a champion. You need to learn how to return the ball and reverse its spin in order to keep playing the point. This requires practicing a set of learned skills. It’s difficult. But make no mistake, mental illness is an opponent in your mind and body that you have to work hard to compete against daily in order to be healthy and happy. The struggle with mental illness should always be a temporary event like a runner who struggles with soreness and exhaustion or a scientist who needs to step away from an experiment that keeps failing in order to let it all simmer for a new insight to emerge. Life is never healthy when it is a constant struggle. Health comes from overcoming the struggle and that means not making one’s mental illness the core of one’s identity. Counselors want their patients to get to a point of accepting that they have a mental illness rather than they are identified by their mental illness.
One method of therapy similar to CBT is centered around “self-directed neuroplasticity.” In short, this is grounded in the theory that patterns of thinking and action not only change habits of the mind and body, but literally transform synaptic patterns in the brain. Therapies have been developed around this theory grounded in research at UCLA and the clinical data supports it as a way to think and act your way our of destructive patterns of behavior. Clinicians have used this method to treat patients with even severe OCD issues. What emerges from these therapies is a focus on retraining the brain and body to act in ways counter to their mental illness symptoms in order to produce healthier, happier, and more whole people. No mental illness is permanent in the way that it currently is believed to exist in the brain. Also related is the argument that emotions are not hard-wired in the brain and sit there latently until some external stimulus provokes each of them into being. Rather, a more nuanced theory is that emotions develop as concepts that we learn to associate with certain stimuli. This view, supported by research from Lisa Feldman Barrett of Northeastern University, means that we have far more control over how we feel the world around us and how we make sense out of those feelings. What we believe literally shapes our feelings, relationships, and perceptions of the world. Correcting beliefs that produce unhealthy feelings and behaviors can change much of how we understand mental health conditions even when some of those symptoms benefit from medication.
Those times when I least want to do the things that will make me the most healthy are the most important times to do them.
As someone who has had a mental health diagnosis, I understand that interpreting mental illness as an immovable facet of one’s identity is both alluring and destructive. It’s nice to know that others struggle with it and that you are not alone. But accepting constant struggle as something permanent is a miserable way to live, if we can call that living at all. At the root this is a belief that produces learned helplessness, and it’s not true.
After many years of struggle, I refused to continue to believe that I had to accept my illness as a part of my identity. But I had to change my thinking and my behaviors dramatically in order to reverse the spin. It required patience and discipline to develop a new set of habits. I was playing table tennis with a master of deception and I had to study all of the things that made it powerful. I had to practice new ways to challenge the messages it was tossing at me knowing that early on it would be difficult. But with enough time and practice I would eventually master it. I had a parasite in my brain. It was my Shadow King, my Amahl Farouk, my Lenny Busker. Cunning, deceptive, and powerful with years of practice, I had let it kick my ass. It was only when I accepted that I had something in my brain that made me unhealthy that I learned a set of strategies to make me healthy.
This is why I identify with David Haller’s narrative arc of mental illness. But unlike Haller, I can’t just trick my unfriendly mental resident into leaving. It lives there permanently and even though I know how to lock it away in a tiny little corner where it won’t bother me, once in a while I forget to check the locks on the door and it sneaks out. So I will run, sleep, eat healthy, spend time with healthy people, walk the dog, get some sunlight, clean my living space, etc. This toolbox of strategies that I have found to work are my ways of reversing the spin on the ball and acing the serve almost every time. To be healthy, I need to accept the challenge, play the game, and win. There are many times when I don’t want to play table tennis with this parasite, but I have to do it anyway. Those times when I least want to do the things that will make me the most healthy are the most important times to do them. When I do, I kick its ass and it leaves me alone for a good while. Not accepting a mental illness as a natural part of my identity took patience and discipline to achieve and it was, and still can be, exhausting. But I have tried all of the alternatives and they just don’t work. What I know for sure is that identifying with the very thing that makes me sick is about as unhealthy a strategy I could ever devise. I wouldn’t do this with pneumonia. Why would I ever do it with Bipolar II. Kudos to Legion for getting it right.