Bipolar, Review, Stigma

Enlightened: A series worth watching

“You’re a mental patient.”

These four words were used as a weapon.

Those words cut me to the core when I heard actor James Rebhorn spit these words out to actress Laura Dern in the HBO series Enlightened. With those four words, he undermined all she was working for to make positive changes and help others. He used these four words as a weapon, a knife to the soul.

How many of us, who have struggled with mental illness, have been pained by the ignorant words of others? Sometimes, we feel the judgement in others’ silence, as well. We lose friends, jobs, support systems. We’re “too much” for others. Hard to love. Hard to appreciate. Hard to understand.

The series Enlightened premiered October 2011.

Surprisingly, the show was gifted a second season even though viewership was utterly low (only about 222,000 viewers in the second season). It was an ahead-of-its-time program and canceled before the planned trilogy could be completed (only 18 episodes in total). Dern plays the lead role of Amy Jellicoe; she also co-created and co-produced the series with director, writer, and actor Mike White (who plays her timid, lonely coworker).

White & Dern as Tyler and Amy in Enlightened.

The Upshot of the Show

Enlightened is a dramedy featuring Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern) returning to work after a nervous breakdown. During her time away from work, she seeks treatment at a holistic rehabilitation facility. Upon returning to the company, Abbadon Industries, she finds that her position had been filled. However, due to her new diagnosis of bipolar disorder, the head of HR rehires Amy because otherwise she could possibly sue for discrimination on the basis of a medical condition.

Amy’s new position is demeaning, and she views this transfer as an attempt to get her to quit of her own volition. Soon Amy realizes that the company is corrupt; and she wants to be an agent of change by taking it down from within as a whistleblower, leaking incriminating emails to the Los Angeles Times. Upon learning this, CEO Charles Szidon (James Rebhorn) explodes. Just as many other series, subplots move along with the overall story and offer a larger picture of Amy’s life as she struggles to make positive life changes.

Despite Amy Jellicoe’s many flaws, her heart is pure.

Living with bipolar is messy, especially in the beginning before learning and practicing coping strategies and getting proper treatment. Amy is no different. Even I, as someone with a bipolar diagnosis, cringed at her behavior many times throughout the 18 episodes. However, I also understood her. Relationships are hard…and harder when living with bipolar. And, Amy Jellicoe’s relationships are rocky; a few of these include: her ex-husband Levi (Luke Wilson), colleague Tyler (Mark White), mother Helen (real-life mother Diane Ladd), and LA Times journalist Jeff Flender (Dermot Mulroney).

Levi (Luke Wilson), Tyler (Mark White), Helen (Diane Ladd), and Jeff Flender (Dermot Mulroney), all with Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern)


Despite low ratings, Enlightened was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Television Series — Musical or Comedy. And, Laura Dern won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress for her role in the series. Yet, I did not know of this show’s existence until 2018 when I came across it on Amazon Prime.

A Review that Perpetuates Stigma of Mental Illness

Upon reading reviews written during the initial release of the series, I found one by David Keeps of New York Magazine that turned my stomach.

David Keeps says, “Dern is both luminescent and lunatic in the role of a 40-year-old divorcée whose moods swing from ‘Kumbaya’ optimism to unbridled rage — from zero to bitch in 60 seconds.”

In a show where the protagonist suffers from mental illness, those words cut deeply. The ignorance and unwillingness to be kind are repugnant, and David Keeps perpetuates the stigma of mental illness.

Interminable Road

As much as mental health/mental illness is discussed publicly today, the road to understanding is interminable. I often believe that prejudice of those with bipolar and other mental illnesses will persist.

What can we do?

Continue to battle the stigma.


Originally published on Medium March 2019.

Copyright © 2019 Alicia Rust. All rights reserved.

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