How Star Wars Helped My Mental Illness | NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness

How Star Wars Helped My Mental Illness

By Bridget Kolek


I am a huge Star Wars fan. The movies mean so much to me. The entire first time I saw “The Force Awakens” I cried tears of joy. Literally. The whole movie. I had to wait in my seat five minutes after it ended to gather myself together to be presentable enough to leave the theater. True story. But the second time (two hours after I saw it the first time of course) was a different story. I found myself completely relating to the sinister antagonist, Kylo Ren. Let me back up. I suffer from bipolar disorder with some borderline personality disorder thrown in for fun. This causes me to be easily agitated, have terrible mood swings, angry outbursts and between those a persistent depressed mood. It’s normal to get irked by things in life; someone stole your reserved parking spot, you got a stain on your new shirt; normal stuff. And most people react to it with a few angry words, maybe cheeks a little flushed, but they go about their day. Not me. Something as slight as someone tapping their foot next to me feels like nails on a chalkboard. A stain on my shirt would lead to screaming, tears and lots of negative self-talk blaming myself for the stain.

Irritability is a symptom experienced by many people with mental illnesses. Things that other people would be able to just brush off ravish our minds and take over completely. You can’t just “let it go” (sorry Elsa). It’s pretty clear to see that in the movie when Kylo Ren gets some bad news and instead of just acknowledging it and moving on, he lashes out on his surroundings with his lightsaber in a fit of rage. When things don’t go quite the way I planned or I’m angry at myself I take to punching the walls until my knuckles are bruised and my fists bleed. I saw myself in Kylo Ren’s angry, violent outbursts of taking his lightsaber and destroying most likely very expensive space equipment. When I feel that internal rage I know to keep myself in a safe space where I can’t hurt anyone or thing, but myself.

I don’t want to do it, but I feel like I can’t stop. I’m sure he doesn’t want to destroy this specialized equipment. He’s in charge of the Star-destroyer and Starkiller Base, why would he want to break stuff on them? He probably feels like he can’t stop either. It’s embarrassing too. In the movie some Stormtroopers walk by during one of his fits and they run away. It feels so childish to have these adult temper tantrums, but sometimes I feel so out of control I just can’t stop it.

What really made my spine shiver with relatability was when Kylo Ren was facing his estranged father, Han Solo. He says “I’m being torn apart” and “I just want the pain to end.” Wow. Just wow. This is going to get a little uncomfortable for some people, but I struggle with suicidal thoughts a lot. I’ve had several suicide attempts in the past and was recently hospitalized for trying to hang myself. Those words spoke such truth to me. “Being torn apart” is exactly how I feel. This duality of the desire to live, but wanting the pain to end. This split between absolute self-hatred and loving myself for who I am. The belief that the world is a better place without me and the light of hope knowing that isn’t true. And the words “I just want the pain to end” have been spoken by every single person who has ever thought of suicide. The feelings of I don’t want to die, but I would do anything to make this pain end. Many people turn to unhealthy means to make the pain go away, at least temporarily. For some it’s alcohol, drugs and others like me self-injury. We know what we are doing is bad for us, but it dulls that pain even for a minute which feels like bliss.

Shame is a huge part of mental illness. Many of us feel like the disease has destroyed us, taken over, turned us into someone we’re not. Some of us feel like we are wearing a mask, that our true self is not something anyone wants to see; that we must cover up. For some that mask is to look happy all of the time, like everything is OK. While Kylo Ren’s mask certainly isn’t to look happy on the outside, it does cover his true self. Behind closed doors he struggles with the light and the dark, the good in him and the evil. But he cannot show this weakness, so he wears a mask—err, helmet. We must pretend like everything is OK on the outside while we struggle inside.

Part of my bipolar disorder is depression. It makes me want to isolate myself from the world. In the movie Ben Solo, err—Kylo Ren—has turned his back on his family. It is clear that his parents Han and Leia love him and forgive him for his wrongs; they just want him to come home. But sometimes that isn’t enough. With depression, people can love you and try so hard to bring you out of it and then not understand why it isn’t working.

Depression lies to you, convinces you that people don’t actually love you. Even though people might reach out, it forces you to shake off their invitations and close yourself off alone. You don’t want to be around anybody. I don’t think Kylo Ren had many friends in the movie. General Hux seemed like a jerk and Supreme Leader Snoke probably wasn’t a genuine pal—as Han says, “He’s only using you for your power.” Letting people in is a huge struggle.

Depression lies to you even more by saying you’ll never get better. Kylo Ren says it is “too late” for him to change in the pivotal scene with his father. I often feel like I have struggled for so long, tried so many medications and therapies that it is too late for me to change too. That there is no hope for me to get better.

Sometimes mental illness makes you do things you never wanted to do. A hallmark of bipolar disorder is mania and hypomania. Many people report doing high risk things like flying to another country or reckless sexual encounters. Those who suffer from psychosis do things their rational mind would never consider doing. The consequences of these actions can be permanent, like jail time. People’s lives have been ruined by the guilt and regret of their actions during an episode even years later.

With a mental illness sometimes you feel what you are doing isn’t coming from you. You’re not in the driver’s seat. I don’t mean to rationalize murder, but given that he still has light in him as he says, Kylo Ren will probably feel pretty bad about killing his father at some point in the future movies. Mental illness takes over your mind, making you do things you never thought you would do, but afterwards your rational mind is left to pick up the pieces.

So, after seeing the movie again I felt completely distraught.  How could I identify so closely with the bad guy? And it would be one thing if he was redeemed in the end, but he most definitely is not. It felt like a reverse inspiration, instead of giving me hope it took some away. I thought if he remains evil and unchanged what hope is there for me? I tried to rationalize like maybe Han Solo was a crappy dad who deserved to die. Maybe he didn’t mean to kill a village full of innocent people. I did find some hope in the realization that we have two more movies for him to be redeemed, and I think he will be.

However I did find hope and inspiration in the fact that I am not alone in feeling the way that I do. Others, even if a fictional character, struggle with the same things I do. It felt so good to see my struggle so eloquently displayed in my new favorite movie (I’ve only seen it seven times in two weeks). One of the hardest parts of mental illness is feeling completely alone. Feeling like you are the only person in the world who feels this way. For me sharing my struggles with others and hearing about theirs has been monumental in my recovery. I hope seeing these struggles on the big screen gives hope to others fighting mental illness too. May the force be with you—but in a good way, not the freezing people and reading their minds way.


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