Since an early age, I had always been interested in the interplay between environment and genetics. How do you become who you are? Is it all “destiny” (like Sleeping Beauty and the dark fairy’s curse)? How can environment help or hinder? Little did I know that a very moving analysis of this question lay at my own doorstep in the work of Signe Baumane, NY filmmaker from Latvia whose film “Rocks in My Pockets” has been recently nominated for the 2015 Oscar Awards.

“Rocks in My Pockets” is based on true events involving mental illness in the women of Signe Baumane’s family, with the author (bipolar herself) trying to find out how her grandmother died, and not being able to get a straight answer from her family. It’s like a detective story – who is the killer? Baumane also sees it as a mystery about our genetic inheritance. When Baumane says “It raises questions of how much family genetics determine who we are and if it is possible to outsmart one’s own DNA”(1), I was very interested in what she and her movie had to say. Baumane met me for coffee after the film screening on September 13th in Los Angeles. My conversation with Baumane plus information from her movie and writings, are the foundation upon which this essay is based.

It was Virginia Woolf whose fame made “rocks in my pockets” have a certain special significance…….she died at her own hand by filling her pockets with stones and walking into a nearby river. In Virginia Woolf’s case, family tragedies were especially important for her deep mood declines. Her “madness” was provoked by life-altering events, notably family deaths, her marriage, or the publication of a novel. Like Virginia Woolf, Baumane’s relatives in war-torn Latvia do not benefit from the death, deprivation and social isolation around them. For Baumane herself, dark obsessive thoughts during her college years and a suicide attempt gave an official diagnosis of schizophrenia (but it was changed to “manic-depression” after her parents bribed the Soviet-era medical officials).

Wondering whether ruminations over negative events might be an important factor leading to depression, I asked Baumane about this. Interestingly she replied that no, her depressions were not like that. They are more like a stab of a needle which then grew bigger and bigger and lasted for four weeks. Depression was heartbreak, pain, futility, paralysis, dread that something horrible would happen, a desire to be erased (thinking about this every 15 seconds) with feelings of confusion (waking up and no knowing where you are)(2). Baumane is unmedicated herself, so bipolar drug effects need not be considered here. What helped to put off suicide attempts? A higher purpose in life helped pull one through periods of depression, according to Baumane. For Baumane herself, this would include her film work on depression. In the movie, grandmother Anna postponed committing suicide until her eight children were old enough to go to boarding school. “As soon as she was able to force her eight children out of the nest and into Soviet-run boarding schools, she swallowed a bottle of antidepressants and died of “heart failure” at age 50…”(2). While swallowing a bottle of antidepressants makes cardiovascular disease an unlikely cause of death in the film, we should note that Miller and Bauer (3) have reported that cardiovascular disease accounts for about 35-40% of deaths in bipolar subjects, with suicide accounting for approximately 15% in their population. In addition, bipolar subjects were reported to die 10-20 years earlier than the general population. Thus while grandmother Anna died of suicide, it is also possible that she could have had cardiovascular disease at the time.

With such a devastating depressed mood phase one cannot help but wonder about bipolar college students with heavy course loads and tough exam schedules. If Virginia Woolf’s mood declines could be triggered by the publication of a novel, certainly major college term papers could easily fit into this category as well. Will college professors really understand that such students need a more flexible study schedule than most colleges allow?

What about creativity and bipolar disorder? For Baumane, “Everything was exciting and everything had to be made right now, on the spot. …..super intense 3 hours…..mind on fire…..The faster the thoughts run, the faster my hands move. It’s a miracle the paper doesn’t get torn to shreds in the process or doesn’t set on fire…..walls start humming again…..Papers flip faster and faster” (4). Baumane noted that periods of elevated mood (mania/hypo mania) may fuel the drive in creative processes, but drive and motivation do not guarantee high quality work. I would guess that “practice makes perfect” may help in some fields, however.
In the shadow of actor Robin Williams’ suicide and disclosure that his mood swings were due to bipolar illness, it is welcoming to see films and film makers reach out to the public to better inform them, to shed light on bipolar illness/depression and help open discussion on the best ways to cope and seek help. In history it has been said that one needs to understand the past in order to anticipate the future. This also applies to bipolar disorder whose genetic inheritance seems to pass so readily from generation to generation. In cultures which attach high levels of social stigma to mental disorders, presentation of popular films may facilitate seeking of medical help in such situations. It certainly helps that “Rocks in My Pockets” has been nominated for best foreign film in the upcoming Oscars, and has been featured in the New York Times. The Massachusetts National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) had a recent film screening and it has been featured for Mental Health Month. I am sure that Virginia Woolf would approve.

Author: D.M. Helmeste, PhD, previously visiting professor, University of Hong Kong, with academic research focus on antidepressants at the University of Toronto and University of California, Irvine (email: [email protected]).

1. Rocks in My Pockets by Signe Baumane.
2. Depression Question: How Does It Feel?
3. Miller C, Bauer MS: Excess Mortality in Bipolar Disorders. Curr Psychiatry Rep
2014; 16: 499-505.
4. Bi-Polar At Work.

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