Why not call Mel Gibson ‘bipolar’?

edge_of_darkness_poster3The media, from biggest slick magazine to the rowdiest talk radio host, is making Mel Gibson out to be the ultimate celebrity narcissist. His career survived a few bigoted rants about religion, homosexuality and race, they say. But now – more than three years into a downward spiral where he’s abandoned his seven children and wife of 28 years, gotten his arm candy pregnant, and become so vicious that she filed a domestic abuse complaint and recorded his rants for the world to hear –now they agree that “every man dies” and so must Gibson’s professional career.

The collective wisdom chants: In Gibson, a mythic screen hero, the narcissism of our culture has finally also achieved its own mythic meltdown.

No one seems to be able to hear that something else is happening. In interviews in 2002 and 2006, Gibson said he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Even in the midst of the abusive tirades she recorded, his girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva, tells him over and over, “You need medication.”

What do they know that we won’t admit? And why won’t we admit it?

Mel Gibson is successful. He’s received six People’s Choice awards for his popularity as an actor; was named the world’s most powerful celebrity by Forbes. Before his divorce, his net worth was about $850 million. We don’t believe that mentally ill people can be successful. And part of the reason is that “unsuccessful” mentally ill people live with their parents or in group homes. “Successful” mentally ill people live in the closet. You know them. You just don’t know they’re living with a chronic illness.

Seeing him ill confuses us. For decades, we thought we knew who Mel Gibson was. We thought of him as the paradigm of upright masculinity, except for those weird rants when he went on a boozy bender. Now he appears to be … something else. Which Mel Gibson is the “real” Mel Gibson? Mental illnesses confound our fundamental understanding of human identity. We depend on people to behave in predictable ways. When someone who is mentally ill has an event, their behavior becomes unpredictable. We’re uncertain how to decide which person is the “real” person. And that uncertainty disrupts the core of what we understand “personhood” to be.

Thinking of him as “ill” frightens us. If Gibson’s behavior is just bad behavior, then it’s his fault. We can blame him; we can shame him. But if this is a mental illness – if Braveheart could be so far off base without even knowing he’s left the reservation – then this could happen to me or you. And that possibility is far too fearful to imagine.

The simple math is that, by the most conservative estimates, if you work in a small business of 25 people, the odds are that one of them is experiencing a mental illness now. If you attend an average-sized church of 100, six mentally ill adults are in the pews. If there are 200 in your college dorm, 12 of those young adults are today struggling in the early years of a mental illness.

And as long as we blame and shame and fear and refuse to believe that they could possibly succeed in life, all of them will bleed with Braveheart. Quality treatment, offered without stigma, is the only cure for a Braveheart’s broken mind.

Carlene Byron and her husband. James, were NAMI family educators in Wake County, North Carolina for seven years, helping people learn to live successfully with the mental illnesses of their family members. She works as development officer for the Durham, NC branch of an international nonprofit organization.

Copyright © 2010 Carlene H. Byron

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