In 2007 Brittany Spears stopped wearing panties. Paparazzi lost their minds with excitement, taking picture after picture of her cruising around Santa Monica, stepping out of cars fully exposed. Her expression revealed the smug satisfaction of someone who’s gained the upper hand over an imagined opponent.
And it turned out that was just the beginning. Soon to follow she attacked a photographer with an umbrella. Snap, snap, snap went the cameras.
Paparazzi, in their most feverish dreams, couldn’t have imagined the horrifyingly glorious climax. Brittany, in a now fully unrecognizable state, shaved her head with a huge grin on her face, eyes sparkling with madness. Soon we were watching her smash the windows of an SUV with a bat.
Snap, snap, snap, snap, snap.
All this was black comedy for much of the public. I was laughing along with everyone else. I devoured the pictures, the clips on YouTube, the articles in People. As a lifelong depression sufferer, I watched through the lens of someone desperate to be less sick than someone else. All my years of numbness, pain and lost productivity had nourished a cruel streak. A blackness had taken hold.
“Hold up, pictures of her vagina! LOL”!!
12 years later, we still poke fun when celebrities start acting crazy. The Kanye West episode in the Oval Office is perhaps the purest example. What’s changed isn’t the compulsive coverage, endless speculation and jeering. But I have. My depressive illness, chronic and always waiting in the wings; once a source of darkness is now an excess of compassion. I’ve watched a family member almost lose her life to Bipolar illness.
When I saw the crush of cameras filming Kanye ranting and raving to the President, tears streamed down my face. A protective instinct, just as strong as the one I feel towards my own loved ones, surfaced with vengeance. I saw an ill person being sacrificed to the wolves.
As we move collectively as a society towards more understanding of mental illness, it’s important to find ways to measure that movement. The Kanye episode was a discouraging data point. But in the aftermath I’m seeing some wonderful things happening. Kanye’s interview with David Letterman marks a watershed moment.
And we’ll keep doing better if we keep talking. And that, my friends, is why I’m here.