To hope may be human, but don’t deceive us about possible cures

Not everything can be cured by the love of a good woman

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The Independent Online

Scarcely a month goes by without research somewhere suggesting that an innate or progressive condition can be cured.The latest was a study in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, arguing that some children diagnosed with autism may grow out of it. As someone for whom my husband’s Parkinson’s is a fact of our lives, I detest such reports. You can only imagine the false hopes they raise, the lengths to which parents will go to place their child among the favoured few, and the guilt they will feel if they fail.

Fictionalised hope is, to my mind, even worse than the scientific kind. I was, frankly, amazed that David Russell’s film, Silver Linings Playbook, received the eight Oscar nominations it did. It’s a simplistic rom-com in the American mode, no more and no less, with the standard feel-good element. But publicity for the film focused on its supposedly sensitive treatment of mental illness, and specifically of bipolar disorder, once known as manic depression.

To be simplistic about it – but not as simplistic as this Hollywood effort – those with bipolar experience acute mood swings; they can be depressed for periods, but also enjoy “highs”. Drugs can help – the sort of drugs that, like many remedies for mental illness, have a numbing effect that deprives sufferers of the pluses – the exhilaration, verging on genius, that a “high” may bring – as well as the minuses of depression. This unwelcome effect of medication features, to a small extent, in the film, as do the bizarre social responses that can flow from “highs” and “lows”. But that’s about the best that can be said for it.

The message you are invited to take away is the age-old one: that everything can be cured by the love of a good woman. Unfortunately, it can’t. It may help, but it won’t ensure that everyone lives happily ever after. For another glimpse of mental illness that seems to resemble what would now be called bipolar, read the memoirs of Katharine Graham, long-time grande dame of The Washington Post. Her husband, Philip, was not easy to live with, to put it mildly. He turned to alcohol, had a breakdown, was committed to a psychiatric hospital and one day, while on weekend leave, withdrew to his study and shot himself. False optimism is quite as bad as the false pessimism Silver Linings Playbook affects to overcome. 

The taxman's reply cometh

A belated New Year’s honours list. In an Independent column before Christmas, I berated HMRC for fining my husband for an overdue tax return. Amazingly, his appeal was successful (and it had nothing to do with anything I wrote; the letter was in the post before my article appeared). So credit, where credit is due – because this hasn’t been an isolated experience of prompt service from officialdom.

Last summer we needed a new blue badge to match a new car registration. We had to send the original, so I photocopied a clutch of documents anticipating their likely loss, or at very least severe delays. The new badge arrived practically by return – from the north of Scotland. And my sister, who lives in southern Italy, recently sent her passport to the UK consulate in Paris for renewal; she received the replacement within 10 days. You may also have wondered, idly, where the annual complaints about Post Office queues went in December. Well, there were a lot fewer of them, because many Post Offices extended their hours in the run-up to Christmas. Thanks, everyone – and keep it up.