Netflix’s series, “Spinning Out”, in its flaws and its triumphs, showed me a reflection of the most painful moments in my life.
TW: mentions of mental illness, psychotropic medicines, suicide attempts, sexual assault
By Nylah Burton
“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” — Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 1:9
I’ve long feared these beautiful words from the Torah. I don’t fear the words themselves, but the truth they might hold for me. Am I doomed to repeat the mistakes of those that came before me? Is there escape from this labyrinth of inherited trauma and mental illness?
And at 3AM on a Tuesday, I confronted that fear in the most unlikeliest of places—Netflix’s snow-white (pun intended) ice-skating series, Spinning Out.
In this show, aspiring Olympian Kat (Kaya Scodelario) and her mother Carol (January Jones) both have Bipolar Disorder, and the illness defines almost every part of their lives. Above all, it defines their relationship to each other—a relationship haunted by the spectre of Bipolar duality that can often exist in relationships between abusive mothers and daughters. Trust me, I know.
My own mother admitted to me that she had been diagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder, that she had been involuntarily committed to the psychiatric ward, and that she had experienced visual and auditory hallucinations.
My mother has also been physically, emotionally, verbally, and financially abusive, among other things. No trauma in my life—including multiple sexual assaults, five suicide attempts, and early brushes with death—has impacted me as deeply and as irreparably as my mother’s refusal to take accountability for her actions.
As my mother’s abuse became more frenzied and widespread—eventually tearing apart our entire family—I began to associate the cruelty with her mental illness. For me, the worst thing I could be was cruel like her, destructive like her. So, I attempted to suppress an undeniable truth about myself—that I am severely mentally ill as well. In the past six years, eight different doctors have all confirmed that I have Bipolar I Disorder.
I resisted it for so long because my heart told me that having Bipolar would mean I was just like my mother. And to me, being just like my mother means setting everything and everyone around aflame, and then claiming victory for emerging unscathed from the ashes.
Kat’s mother Carol is portrayed as an overly emotional and manipulative trainwreck. She steals Kat’s hard-earned money, she slaps Kat across the face, she makes degrading comments about her abilities and her body, and she pushes her younger daughter so hard that her hands bleed.
Throughout the series, Kat struggles with both the presence and fear of the duality between herself and her mother. Kat doesn’t share Carol’s worst qualities, but she is consumed with the fear that she’ll become Carol, and Kat spends an incredible amount of energy trying to prove she won’t.
When we seek treatment or comfort, those of us who grew up in dysfunctional and abusive households are often told, “You are not your parents. You don’t have to become your parents.”
This is true, and it’s helpful. But for those of us who have inherited our parents’ mental illness(es)—often the very same mental illness(es) we perceive to be the reason for the abuse we endured—that reassurance can feel hollow.
We are not our parents. Still, biologically and neurologically, we share painful characteristics with them that cannot be denied or repressed. In fact, attempts to deny and suppress them only make it worse, and put our lives in danger.
But how could we not fight to cleave ourselves from our mentally ill parents, when their abuse and their illness(es) seemed woven together, inseparable? How could we ever accept being like our parents, when society has taught us that to be severely mentally ill is to be dangerous, toxic, inhuman, and unworthy of love or respect?
For severely mentally ill parents, our rejection of them and our own self-hatred can cause unimaginable pain. But for abusive parents, it not only causes pain, but also presents itself as yet another opportunity for control.
Carol exploits this often, projecting her own cruelty upon her daughter, switching from the outright cruel (“You’re struggling, so you need to bring everyone else down too.”) to the subtly manipulative (“Everyday I wish you didn’t get my brain. But you did.”).
Even Kat’s little sister Serena uses the threat of Kat becoming Carol as a cudgel and a silencing tool. In an argument, Serena tells Kat, “Everyone thinks you’re this saint. But… you’re just as bipolar and messed up as [Mom] is.” Serena, who is neurotypical, knows the weight of this insult and the damage it will cause. Yet she wields it gleefully, enjoying the control it allows her.
Defensively, Kat replies, “I’ve been able to manage it, she hasn’t.” Watching this scene, you get the sense that this is one of many times that Kat has had to defend herself by distancing herself from her mother, by atoning for her illness.
In many depictions of hereditary Bipolar Disorder, the illness is a tragic curse passed through the blood, like an heirloom. It is the spook in the night, the chill in the air. It is the sharp-toothed wolf lying in wait, ready to pounce and tear apart our main character’s life at any moment.
It is not an illness that can be managed, but it is a fatalistic horror trope. There is no redemption for the Bipolar Daughter, no matter how hard she tries. She is doomed to fight the villain, only to become the villain by repeating her mother’s abusive behavior.
However, in more recent depictions, a path to grace is laid out for these characters. Atonement can be found by making exactly the opposite choices, which Kat does. She cares for her younger sister, fights for a stable relationship with a man she loves, takes her medication consistently, and pursues the skating career her mother gave up.
It’s not enough for Kat to reject repeating Carol’s abusive behavior. She must transcend, attaining incredible professional success and near-perfect interpersonal relationships. The children of bipolar mothers can redeem themselves, but they aren’t allowed to be messy.
For the whole series, Kat walks a thin line between being her mother’s foil and becoming her duplicate. But when Kat goes off her medication, believing it will make her a better skater—and causing her boyfriend to break up with her—this is Kat’s lowest point. The decision to stop taking her meds almost destroys the life of everyone close to her. She is horrified to see that she is indeed becoming like her mother. And she must make amends.
Kat’s redemption lies in the implication that she must commit herself to not having an episode again. It’s made clear that her boyfriend and his family, along with her skating coach and best friend, will not tolerate another manic episode. This is consistent among portrayals of Bipolar Disorder. Periods of mania—but not depressive episodes necessarily—are portrayed as a flaw that the “dysfunctional” mother will always have, but the daughter must eliminate in order to truly be a good person.
But for Bipolar patients, this isn’t realistic.
Carol is also offered a chance at redemption. But both Kat and Carol’s redemption seems to lie in medication more than anything else. Lithium—one of the most widely used medications for Bipolar Disorder—is almost a character in its own right. And both Kat and Carol’s decision to go off medication is framed as a deliberate and selfish choice. Non-adherence to prescribed medications is actually a symptom of Bipolar Disorder, but Spinning Out doesn’t quite give readers a chance to see this.
Pathologizing medicinal non-adherence is dangerous, as it sets an expectation that is incredibly difficult for Bipolar people to meet. Most of us, at some point, will go off our medication. What’s more, we will often need to adjust that medication. Medication does not rid us of the symptoms of Bipolar in perpetuity. It is a finicky tool, not a cure.
Alex Echakowitz says these portrayals of Bipolar mothers and daughters reflect the “feminization of mental illness.” She believes it shows that for cismen, mental illness is seen as a “tragedy brought upon them by society, while for women, it’s an inherent part of us. And we are the ones inflicting tragedies upon others.”
For men, mental illness is often shown as an adventurous odyssey, with healing and success waiting on the other side. For women, it’s a lifelong burden that disqualifies them from having any meaningful romantic, platonic, filial, or parental relationships with anyone.
For over two years, I convinced myself that I had received a “misdiagnosis” and that I didn’t need to take medication. This decision upended my entire life, and almost caused me to lose it. After that experience, I know that I will never be able to “cure myself” of Bipolar. The symptoms will likely follow me until I have grandchildren. Part of allowing myself grace means accepting that I’m likely to have manic or depressive episodes again, but this doesn’t mean that I’m doomed to repeat the same abusive mistakes as my mother.
Spinning Out, in its flaws and its triumphs, showed me a reflection of the most painful moments in my life. It held up a mirror to my deepest fears about myself and my worth. And most importantly, it helped me to interrogate those fears and begin the hard work of ridding myself of them.
Nylah Burton is a DC-based writer with bylines in New York Magazine, ESSENCE, Bustle, and The Nation. You can follow her on Twitter, at @yumcoconutmilk.