I watched the documentary God Knows Where I Am on Netflix last night. For those of you who haven’t seen it [spoiler alert] here’s the description from Rotten Tomatoes:
“Linda Bishop was a loving mother, a well-educated and happy woman. Then her body was found in an abandoned New Hampshire farmhouse, marked by cold and starvation. What was once Linda Bishop had quickly become a mystery, accompanied by her diary that documents a journey of starvation and the loss of sanity. For nearly four months, Bishop, a prisoner of her own mind, survived on apples and rainwater during one of the coldest winters on record. Waiting for God to save her. As her story unfolds from different perspectives, including her own, we learn the heartbreaking reality about a systemic failure to protect those who cannot protect themselves.”
I’m so saddened and moved by this film. Much of the movie is someone narrating her diaries, and I really felt what it must be like to be inside her head. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar, bipolar with psychosis. Whatever it was, her words resonated with me. I felt what it must be like to lose one’s mind.
Something else she did seemed so familiar to me. She patrolled New York’s ground zero holding an American flag, calling herself the “head of hell’s chamber of commerce.” The New York Post published an article about her in which they say: “In less than a minute, she can provide a slew of ground-zero details.” It sounded so much mania, like my mania. She’d probably obsessively learned tons of information about ground zero, talked fast and probably too much, and I’m sure she thought she was saving people’s souls. I’ve been there, I’ve felt those delusions of grandeur that you’re going to impulsively drop everything and just go to the heart of a war zone to save people, to learn everything you can about the area and act as tour guide, inserting yourself in like a resident expert on a mission to heal those who are hurting. There’s nothing wrong with this actual behavior in and of itself. It’s altruistic, it’s honorable, it probably does some good. But it’s also manic as hell.
The filmmakers interview her daughter, with snippets of her commentary on her mom’s illness and erratic behavior sprinkled throughout the movie. Someone her daughter said really hit home with me. Her daughter said:
“I blame her illness. I don’t blame her. With my mother there are two very clear different people. There is my mother, and there is Linda Bishop. My mother is the person I grew up with, the person who I came first [with]. Linda Bishop is her illness. Linda Bishop is who I hate.”
When she said that, I felt a chill run through my whole body. I know how it feels to have a parent with an illness that changes their personality and makes them unrecognizable. I grew up hating my dad, and now that I’ve learned to accept my own bipolar diagnosis, I know that wasn’t him. All those times he scared me, his outbursts, his irritability and anger, it was his illness that frightened me.
Of course, when I was a little girl, I didn’t understand any of that. And even now, as an adult, it’s hard to tease out which behavior was his and which was the illness. I have the same ongoing struggle with myself too. Am I sad right now, or is this my depression? Am I a happy extrovert, or am I manic? It’s a thin blurry line and it’s constantly wiggling like a sound wave.
I’m so glad this movie came out though. It’s encouraging to see mental illness being tackled through a mentally ill woman’s diaries and through the perspectives of her family and healthcare providers. It really shows both sides. That’s what I’m hoping to do in my memoir too.
And finally, this film shows how a severely mentally ill woman who thought living on 300 apples and rain water, and then starving herself to death, was able to refuse treatment and escape protective guardianship from her family. Between the lack of state funding for psychiatric institutions and the laws around civil liberties, this poor woman suffered and no one could help her. She claimed she was OK, refused treatment, and was released from the hospital. Once the system washed it’s hands of her, she was left on her own, and she died. I hope this documentary—like Making a Murderer did for Steven Avery’s case—shows people how broken our system is, and how it chews up innocent, helpless people.