OF TWO MINDS is a powerful documentary film by Lisa Klein and Doug Blush that explores the extraordinary lives, struggles and successes of a few of the over five million Americans living with bipolar disorder.
The film intertwines the stories of three primary characters over three years: Cheri Keating, a Los Angeles-based stylist who works with high-profile celebrity clients; Carlton Davis, a Pasadena-based artist in his mid-sixties; and Liz Spikol, a Philadelphia-based writer and journalist. Their stories are complimented by brief interviews with other people who live with bipolar disorder. The film does a remarkable job of presenting the daily challenges, demons and passions of very interesting people who happen to share a diagnosis.
OF TWO MINDS TRAILER
One of the characters in the film, Liz Spikol, was an early supporter of OC87, championing the film and even offered up a quote for our first poster: “More than a film about mental illness – it’s a film about the human experience in all of its humorous, beautiful and torturous glory.” OC87 co-director Glenn Holsten was thrilled to learn about and watch OF TWO MINDS, and sat down with Liz recently to discuss the experience of being a subject in such a personal documentary.
In OF TWO MINDS, Liz recounts her lost years of extreme mania and depressions as well as the effects of electroshock treatments. We meet her loving and supportive parents who cared for her throughout her twenties when illness left her unable to function. Her very funny and vivacious mother Linda, and she share stories of pain with love and great humor.
The film goes on to detail how, after an entire lost decade, a chance at employment as a copy editor at the Philadelphia Weekly blossomed into a personal column that became a centerpiece of closet-busting activism, where Liz openly confessed her issues and advocated for mental health rights — first in print, then in a popular blog and a series of YouTube videos. OF TWO MINDS features many excerpts from Liz’ powerful and confessional YouTube videos.
ONE OF LIZ SPIKOL’S MANY YOUTUBE VIDEOS
Today she is thriving in her work and relationships and is a mental health advocate, which has evolved directly from her brave step to come out in her weekly column, “The Trouble with Spikol.”
Glenn Holsten: What did you think you were getting into when you agreed to participate in OF TWO MINDS, and what did you hope to get out of the experience?
Liz Spikol: I really didn’t know what I was getting into. There were two filmmakers, and one of them, Lisa Klein, called me and was very frank about her own experience with people in her family who had dealt with this. And she really made this strong pitch that this was a passion project for her and that it wasn’t going to be a sort of . . .
GH: Reality TV or something?
LS: Right, I didn’t really know what to expect, but her personal passion for the project was very persuasive. And when she said that she and her husband Doug were going to come and film me, I didn’t know what to expect.
I was actually living in a place that was new to me, I had left my partner temporarily and I had moved out and I thought, “Oh, there are going to be fancy filmmakers coming from LA,” so I decorated my place in case the camera was going to show my apartment. And as time went on with them, it got to the point where I was just so comfortable with them because it was a long time.
GH: How long is long?
LS: I think it was three years. And what I hoped to get out of it was somehow to be helpful, not only to people who would see the film and increase understanding and awareness of bipolar disorder and mental health issues, but I wanted to be helpful in guiding the filmmaking process –- sort of making sure that if there’s gonna be a film about bipolar disorder, that it was done right. I was worried about it from that point of view, and I thought, “If I participate, I can sort of help guide the process.”
But I didn’t have particular expectations. I definitely did not expect it to keep going and going. I thought that they would come and they would film me once, and for what ever reason I wouldn’t be a good subject, or we’d sort of run out of things to talk about. I didn’t expect it to turn into such a long-term commitment.
GH: Believe me, I know from experience that passion projects usually take that long! Did you meet any of the other film participants along the journey?
LS: No, I met them at the end. And in fact, while it was happening Lisa had told me a little bit about them, but they were talking to more people than just ended up in the film. And things kept evolving in interesting ways. I mean they weren’t even planning to include one of the characters — Petey — who ended up being sort of central because he ended up having his own struggles, and then there were other people who she would tell me about who sort of fell by the wayside. So I didn’t meet anybody until the end, but by the time I met them we all felt like we were family.
GH: Why? Had you seen rough cuts?
LS: I had seen a few rough cuts, but we also had the shared experience of being followed around and talking about bipolar disorder, and we all did a bunch of screenings together with Q & A’s, so I do feel I got to know them pretty well.
And that was true of the filmmakers as well, which is always a complicated relationship.
GH: I’m jealous that they made this film before I did. I loved meeting your mother in the movie. Was she happy with how it came out?
LS: Um, I think she was. She was surprised at how she appeared. I think that she didn’t know that — what did she say — she said “I seem like such a Jewish mother.” And my father and I looked at each other like, “Yes, indeed!” So there are certain things that she was surprised to learn about herself in terms of how people might perceive her.
For me, every time I saw a rough cut or went to a screening, up until the last screening that I went to all I could focus on was my appearance and not even what I was saying. “Oh that jacket looked really bad on me or my hair looked bad there.” Even though I was talking about my life, I couldn’t stop fixating on my appearance.
GH: It’s a visual medium. I think that’s understandable. What was the first public screening?
LS: At The Cleveland Film Festival. That was its premiere. And the reception was really good.
GH: What was your sensation while the film was playing for the first time in an audience full of people who didn’t know you, and that this was the way they were going to meet you?
LS: I was sort of wondering. Like I was listening to see what they would laugh at, and what they wouldn’t laugh at. I thought that that was interesting. I found this in screening after screening, there were a couple of remarks that my mother made or I made that I think are funny. And that Lisa thought were funny and that certain audiences have reacted to and other audiences have not. So it’s interesting to hear the reaction.
But another thing that I realized is that the first time I saw it is how — and I’m a big fan of documentaries, and as a journalist I understand that when you allow yourself to be chronicled — you’re giving up a certain amount of control, and I’m utterly comfortable with that. But there were definitely ways that I came across in the film that I thought were useful to the narrative, but not necessarily accurate, in terms of my own experience of my life.
So it’s interesting that the questions after the screening, the things that people were interested in and asked about were not necessarily what I expected. And as I went to more screenings were not necessarily the things that I thought were the most germane to my experience.
Everybody asked you know about Vince, my partner. Like, “What’s happening with you and Vince?” And I think that’s so interesting. There’s like this craving to know about the romantic story. I thought that was very interesting.
GH: One of the things I like so much about the film is that the storytellers shared many of the darkest moments of what it’s like to live with bipolar disorder. The reading of the suicide notes, for example, brought me much closer to the sense of hopelessness and despair experienced by sufferers than I had previously considered.
LS: I thought that was really good too, and I know that they struggled with how much of the personal relationships to include, and in my case, how much of the plot of the bisexuality, because it wasn’t really relevant. It just was what was happening at that time in my life. And I guess it didn’t pertain to the bipolar disorder. I think that there are other relationships in the film like Carl and his wife Ginger, where that marriage and the way that she supported him. Like that seems really important to his story.
GH: Have you done any new YouTube videos lately?
LS: I’ve been meaning to . . .
GH: Maybe they exist for that chapter of your life. They’re very powerful. When we were doing OC87 we looked at them and were inspired — you are funny, honest and brave.
LS: They were cathartic. I think doing the doc was cathartic too. And some of it was a little traumatic — reliving certain things and talking about things again and again, and them saying, “Oh, that take didn’t work, can we do it again?” Which just happens. That was all very cathartic.
GH: Here’s my Oprah question: What would you hope a viewer would get out of watching this film?
LS: One thing that I would want them to get and I think people are getting from the film is this understanding that people with bipolar disorder can just be people that you meet everyday and don’t necessarily seem like people with bipolar disorder. And I feel like a lot of what the different participants talked about was this sort of “hiding” like Cheri in particular, the make up artist, was talking about how when she was with her clients she puts on her “game face” and people wouldn’t know. And I think that’s good for people to see that and just because somebody has that diagnosis that they are going to be walking down the street saying things and hallucinating or being violent. So I think it shows people who you can relate to — well, that some people can relate to — who are dealing with the struggles. After you see them in the film, you might think, “Well, I could meet that person at a party.” So I do hope that people get that out of it.
I’m glad to hear that some of the despair comes through. I don’t think that people understand when you talk about mood disorders. I don’t think people understand what that means in terms of pain, cause it just seems like, “Sometimes you’re down, and sometimes you’re up.”
There’s one person in particular, Terry Chaney, who says to me the absolutely most powerful thing in the film in terms of something that I could relate to — when she says that she was so depressed and it took her, I forget how many, hours to move her hand from the bed to the phone. Just that image struck me. I thought. “Oh my gosh, I have been there so many times.” And I think moments like that in the film are really powerful for people who don’t know a lot about it.
GH: Did the film impact your relationship with your parents at all?
LS: No, not at all. I felt sorry for my dad because he was filmed so much at such length, and he’s a really quiet guy and he said some really amazing things and then he just got cut out of the film! But he didn’t care.
I did end up becoming close friends with the filmmakers, and as we were becoming attached as human beings I kept on saying, “I know I’m just a subject to you.” And so this friendship that we feel, I sort of didn’t trust it. I felt this is going to end and we’re not going to be friends. This is not a friendship, this is sort of a working relationship. But it turned out that we were friends.
GH: It’s hard to describe the relationship between a filmmaker and a subject, which is oftentimes based on admiration. You need each other for the duration of the filmmaking, yet life goes on after the filming, and the roots for friendship are there.
LS: When I profile people as a journalist I mean, maybe I’d like the person, but I don’t necessarily want to be friends with them.
GH: True, though I do want to have you and your mom over for dinner.
LS: She would love that.
GH: Would you do it again?
LS: I think I would. I guess it would depend on for what and in what context. I know Vince would not do it again, which is interesting. He regretted doing it immediately after doing it and watched a rough cut of it and would never watch it again, never went to any of the screenings. And I think just some people are more private than others. You know they [Doug and Lisa, the filmmakers] came over for dinner, and asked, “Can we just do some filming?” In his inclination to be polite and a people pleaser he went through with it, but he completely wishes that he hadn’t. Which is interesting.
“‘Mad Pride’ Fights a Stigma”, The New York Times story about Liz Spikol that peaked the interest of OF TWO MINDS filmmakers Lisa Klein and Doug Blush. Photo of Liz Spikol by Shea Roggio for The New York Times.
GH: I’m always hoping that participants of films feel like they are in control. Is there anything during the course of the filming when you said to the filmmakers, “This is off the record?”
LS: I guess my feeling about it is once you agree to be in a documentary film you do give up a certain modicum of control. And I felt that was part of the deal. I didn’t say anything was off the record. Maybe I should have! But I didn’t. If I hadn’t written a column for ten years about my personal life maybe it would have been different. And I know for the other participants in the film who hadn’t disclosed before, it was extremely difficult. But for me it was like — ugh! There’s nothing I haven’t told already, so.
GH: This seems like a natural evolution of your storytelling about your lived experience — first the column, then the YouTube videos.
What advice do you have for people who might be asked to participate in a documentary film about their lives?
LS: I do think that if you’re asked to participate in a film first of all, see what the filmmaker has done before and make sure you feel comfortable with their style and approach. But also, if you want to maintain control of your narrative, don’t do it. Not because the filmmaker is ill-intentioned, simply because it’s a craft. And there has to be all of those things that make a story good — there has to be a conflict, there has to be stakes involved. All of those things. So if you’re very nervous about the way that you’re being presented or the way that your story is being told and you want to have control over that, don’t do the film.
GH: Did you learn from other people’s journeys in the film?
LS: I did learn a lot. There were aspects of the whole debate about medication that was very interesting to me. And I was really interested to see Cheri’s journey going off of medication, so that was an interesting thing for me. I’d never seen people interviewed who had a loved one commit suicide and that was so devastating. That part of the film. I thought it made you understand what the impact of that is. And then there was so much about Carl’s experience in terms of his sexuality, his cross dressing, his drug use for me it was so fascinating — his creativity — so fascinating the way all of these things were tied together and it was just such a complex picture.
I was watching these people and I was thinking, “Is that my life?” to a certain extent. I think I related most to Petey, because there were moments where you could just see that he was in terrible shape and there were other moments when he was like, “OK, I can deal with this. I’m good.” And I thought, “That’s probably how I look to people,”
OF TWO MINDS is available for purchase.
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