Tuesday 30 January 2018

Drummer meets Keeper

In September, as I've done for the last ten years, I rocked up to the Blackstairs Film Society [multiprev] and paid my annual sub for the season. Eight (8!) films with sub-titles for a €5er each - can't be faulted for bargain . . . if you get to them all. Well dang-and-blast-it, I missed the Oct, Nov and Dec screenings because we were in other counties at the time. Last Saturday, we had cleared the diary for BFS and then heard that Dau.I and her Plus1 were coming down to visit, so we made up a party to go to the movies. That required us to go for pre-event drinks in Osborne's the boutique bar and hostel across the street from the hall where the films are shown. Very civilised, very old style: you can buy wellington boots and sweets are Osborne's as well as beer and crisps.

And the film?  It was The Drummer & The Keeper [review RTE] written and directed by Nick Kelly. It was widely toured round the back-country earlier in the month as part of First Fortnight - Ireland's Mental Health Arts Festival. Whoa! Mental Health films? Like A Beautiful Mind? Is that going to be family entertainment? Seems like a lot of families thought so because instead of a few handfuls of getting-old aficionados of sub-titles, the venue was rammed with teenagers . . . and the usual elderly film-buffs. Drummer & Keeper is the heart-warming story of an unlikely friendship between two young men. Gabriel is the 20-something drummer in a rock-band and Christopher is a middle-class 17 y.o with Asperger's. The Drummer is troubled - the label is bi-polar - but can afford to get help from the same therapist who treated his mother before she offed herself. The bit of money inherited from his mother pays for the therapist and for his obsession with setting fire to material goods in unlikely places. The therapist is threatening to institutionalize the Drummer but holds off if he will join a mixed-ability soccer camp; which is where he meets Christopher; who has his own basket of obsessions - Lego, goal-keeping [he is the titular Keeper], woollie hats and statistics. He becomes the roadie for the rock-band because he can put everything back in the same place like assembling an elaborate Lego kit.

I won't give more of the plot away because you really need to get out and see the Film - it has won prizes at festivals and is going on the road beyond these green shores during 2018. You can, of course, buy it as a DVD and watch it all bobby-no-pals at home but I don't recommend that. We were privileged to have Nick Kelly the director at the BFS showing to watch it with us and have a short Q&A afterwards. One of the points Kelly made at the afters was that he likes watching the audience watching the film: every showing is different because each audience entrains and starts to react together in unpredictable ways - must be the pheromones.

Two points though. One is that the film is awash with money; it lubricates the boys' journey. I can't imagine poor mentally troubled people getting more than ten minutes at the GP and a script for drugs to trick about with their neurotransmitters. In Ireland we are a long way from treating mental illness as an illness like pneumonia or hyper-tension where timely intervention can deal really effectively with the problem. If you are troubled in the mind, the waiting lists are far too long for timely intervention. Which brings me to my second point:

The Drummer describes the Up cycle of his bipolar as being 'like more of who you are' which is why it is no longer considered appropriate to call it manic-depression. Not every bipolar person goes/is manic: the wildly fluctuating flux of neurotransmitters enhances the true self. The meds damp down the surges to establish a calmer equilibrium state. For the mathematician John Nash the wilder reaches of his mental shore won him, eventually, a Nobel Prize but also thrust him off the last point of stable land into a turbulent sea of troubles. Nick Kelly makes the point that the Drummer's meds really don't help his drumming, because they make him less of who he is. Teaching Human Physiology at The Institute, my running theme / leitmotif is homeostasis: we normally exist in an exquisitely balanced equilibrium maintained by complementary neurotransmitters, hormones and negative feedback loops. A small shift out of line (on core body temperature; blood acidity; glucose concentration; cell division, water balance, mood) is brought back on track within seconds - well before it is a perceptible problem. Medications, even give three-times-a-day after meals, are as a bludgeon to a scalpel: think Factor VIII for haemophilia. And taken orally, they act systemically: knocking The Problem on the head perhaps but also crashing about the body on other wholly unexpected fronts. Anti-psychotics screw with your sense of balance and gait (and rhythm!), gum up your insides and make you more likely to suffer a stroke. That's why the small-print list of potential side-effects on any medication is longer than the list of ingredients in a shop-bought cake. Cue Yeats
I balanced all, brought all to mind,   
The years to come seemed waste of breath,   
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

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