That Shelley Duvall Interview

(Photo: Jean Jacques Levy, AP)

(Photo: Jean Jacques Levy, AP)

The other day on Dr. Phil's show, he did a controversial interview with actress Shelley Duvall, known for her roles in the classic movie “The Shining” with Jack Nicholson, and “Popeye” with Robin Williams.

The show caught the attention of my husband and I, for a couple of reasons. One, he is a huge Stanley Kubrick fan, and has seen every one of Kubrick’s few movies dozens of times. Not just for entertainment, but as a connoisseur of Kubrick’s directing style, his choice of music, and the writing. “The Shining” is one of those Kubrick films that ranks pretty high on my husband’s list (with “2001: A Space Odyssey” at the top!) for its cinematography and soundtrack. “Popeye” came out when we were kids, and even though the critics panned it, it’s one of those sentimental “movies that we grew up with”, plus it’s one of Robin Williams’ first film roles, so it’s watching history unfold. And who can forget Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl, and her rendition of the song “He Needs Me”. I’ve often teased my hubby with that song, because it fits us quite nicely.

Anyway, the show caught our attention for another reason: it focused on Shelley Duvall’s apparent battle with mental illness. In recent years, it seems that she has deteriorated significantly to the point where she has descended into a pretty severe state of physical and mental ill health. The show was…allegedly…Dr. Phil’s attempts to get her some much needed help, and to perhaps shed some light about mental illness.

My husband and I watched this show, and it left us feeling some kind of way, let me tell you.

I have extremely mixed feelings about it.

First of all, I am not a fan of Dr. Phil. I think he exploits people, and I think he is looking for ratings. Evidently it must work, since he is still on the air after all these years. I think that this show was a prime example. It was not about her, it was about HIM, and I think he took advantage of her for his own gain.

If the show had truly been about HER, he would have waited until she was in better condition and gotten her permission and cooperation to show the whole world what she was like unwell. I was appalled that for 30 minutes, we as an audience were subject to their “interview”, when it was obvious after the first 5 minutes that she was very ill. What more did we need to see? The whole time, I kept thinking “does she even understand that this is being shown to millions of people? How would she feel knowing he was catching her at her worst moments and putting it out there for the world to see??!! Did she agree to this? What is the point of this? Where is this going?”

Occasionally, he would interject himself on a soundstage with power points that gave clinical terms for what she was displaying as she talked to him…the flight of ideas, train of thought, etc. But he never offered any reasons for it…he never said “this is a classic example of symptoms of Bipolar or Schizophrenia”…or “this is what her brain is doing…” he was attempting to come off like an expert. He is not a psychiatrist, however, so really he had no business doing that. If he really wanted to be helpful, he could have at least had an expert on there to break it all down and help us as an audience truly understand what Ms. Duvall was experiencing. But no, of course that would not suit Dr. Phil’s self-serving need for ratings and to be the hero. Better to keep the camera on himself and on Ms. Duvall. Blah.

Finally, after 40 minutes of watching poor Shelley Duvall ramble on, Dr. Phil then showed the “gallant” attempts that he and his show made to get her some help. Dr. Phil to the rescue!!! They followed her on a harrowing journey from wherever she was to wherever they were going, that involved a flight, a car ride, etc. in which we continue to see the producers focus on Shelley Duvall in her terrible state, and talk about her behind her back. Exploitation.

In the last 5 minutes of the show, we FINALLY find out she refused the help they offered, and they took her back home where she is supposedly getting non-traditional help from local health care providers.

Talk about anti-climactic!!!

I had huge, huge problems with the way he treated her, and I am angry for her. I am apparently not alone in this, but I have my own personal reasons for my anger and frustration.

Even if she had consented to do the show, she was clearly not in a state of mind to realize what she was doing. The show would have come off much better for her, and for mental illness in general, if we could have seen her AFTER she got help in a much better state of mind, and then she could have participated more actively in educating America on mental health and treatment via her own example. But of course, Dr. Phil did not do it that way, because the show was not “really” about her.

It bothers me, because even though I write about how my own husband’s mental illness has affected our family, on my public blog I have not even so much as mentioned his name. I began the blog when he was not here, so technically, I did not have his permission or his consent to write about him openly. In fact  I have had a hard time with knowing how to tell our story, because while I want to be vulnerable and open, I also want to respect my husband. I would not dare display photos or videos of him at his worst, without his knowledge or consent. In private, amongst my closest confidants, I have shared more details, but never in a public forum such as a blog or Facebook.

I have taken great pains to protect his privacy and his dignity. Now that he is well, we actually just had a conversation the other day where we discussed my blog. He will probably never read it…it’s just not his thing. He knows of my writing and supports it, and trusts me. He gave his consent to me posting his picture, mentioning his name, and sharing more of his story, which I told him I would never do without asking him first. For me, it is a huge honor that he would trust me with his story, and because of that, I intend to treat it with the utmost care and concern…with the intent that our story could provide help, and offer HOPE,  for those who might be in a similar situation, and never an attempt to sensationalize or degrade him. He agreed to that.

Dr. Phil did not show Shelley Duvall that same courtesy, and because of that, my heart breaks for her, and I am mad at him for her.

That being said…

As much as I cringed while watching the show, I do have to say this…

It gave a very accurate portrayal of what it is like to interact with a person deep in a mental health crisis. Every symptom she displayed is indeed a classic example of the symptoms of a number of mental illnesses, including what my husband has battled. It is extremely difficult and frustrating to interact with and reason with a person in that state.

Her behaviors were painful and embarrassing, potentially opening her up to judgement, criticism, misunderstanding. If not done in the right way, with the goal of eradicating ignorance and increasing understanding and compassion, it could do further damage towards perpetuating stigma. Dr. Phil did NOT do it in the right way. He made a spectacle out of her for his own selfish purposes. I'm glad to see that people are standing up for Shelley Duvall, and I am glad to see that, even though I think Dr. Phil was wrong, at least it is getting people talking about mental illness.

The other thing that I have to admit the show accurately portrayed is how extremely difficult it is to get someone help.

Ms. Duvall may have been almost completely out of touch with reality, and she may have even expressed that she needed some help. However, she was not a threat to her herself, she was not a threat to others, and she while she may not have been in the best of physical or mental health, clearly she was able to function somewhat, even if it was extremely difficult to do so. In the end, she refused the help that was offered to her. Whatever Dr. Phil’s motives, he did offer to provide her treatment free of charge, and give her anything she wanted or needed to get well.

But, she did not want it, nor was she obligated to accept it. In her defense, I'm not sure I would take help from Dr. Phil either...but the point is, she refused treatment.

And therein lies the horrific tension of WHY it is so difficult to treat mental illness. It’s not as simple as “why don’t you just take your medicine.” Clearly, Ms. Duvall does not know she is as ill as she truly is…which is another classic symptom. There is name for it, anosognosia. Dr. Phil failed to mention that. It could have also helped the audience understand her actions. As long as she is not hurting herself or others, she is within her legal right to remain in her own version of reality. If she doesn't want the medication, she doesn't have to take it...but she really doesn't fully comprehend that she needs the medication. It is a catch-22.

So after the show, my husband and I discussed it a little bit, but it was hard because it was so, so sad to see her in that state, and hit soooo close to home. What I found interesting is that watching her, he did not connect her symptoms with his own experience. I shared with him that I could relate to the difficulty that Dr. Phil had with trying to communicate with her, and that is some of what I experienced with him in his episodes. But he could not comprehend that. Why?

Because he could not remember being in that condition.

I learn more and more everyday about mental illness, and one of the things that I’ve come to learn is that it must be like being drugged or something…you don’t remember the episode when you come out of it. My husband has no recollection of certain things he said or did…and his interpretation of events are through the filter of the state he was in at the time, and not necessarily in reality. This can make recovery a challenge at times when it comes to healing from the consequences of the illness…something you don’t hear about much, but it is part of the challenges.

I don’t fully understand the way the mind works in processing episodes once well, but hopefully as I continue to walk this journey with my husband, we will learn more to help us stay on top of things and to help him stay well.

My heart broke for Shelley Duvall…if she were in her right mind, and she knew that Dr. Phil did this to her, I would imagine that she would be absolutely LIVID!!! I feel like he violated her. I truly hope and pray that she does eventually get the help she needs, and when she does? I hope she sues the pants right off him.

Back to my husband drawing connections between her condition and his own: I’ll just say this. As severe as Ms. Duvall’s symptoms were, trust me when I say she could have been in much worse shape.

As time goes on, I do hope to unpack a little more of my husband’s story, as he gives consent and as I find my words. It’s a hard story to tell, but I will say that it is truly remarkable. My husband…whose name is Scott…is a miracle. An absolute miracle. I know for a fact that he would not be where he is today without prayer, without Divine intervention, without the hand of the Lord on his life, without an amazing series of events that led him to the right help. I don’t know if Ms. Duvall is a person of faith or not, but I sure will be praying for her. I hope that if nothing else, Dr. Phil’s show will cause her to be placed on a lot of people’s prayer lists.

There is a person underneath all that confusion. We’ve seen this beautiful, remarkable woman’s potential in her movies, in her body of work, and the causes she has championed. She is clearly an intelligent, creative soul who deserves happiness in her life and deserves to be well.  She has so much to offer to the world. Even if she doesn’t fully understand her condition, she clearly does not feel well, and does not understand that she could feel better. On some level, I’m sure she wants to feel better, but just doesn’t understand how. She represents millions of people out there who suffer needlessly…if they could only get the right help, the right meds, the right support, the right compassion.

I don’t know what the answers are, but we have to do better somehow. I’m ever more grateful for our journey…it has been painful, but I am pleased to report that Scott is doing amazingly well!!!! Recovery has been a journey for us both, but he is on the right track. More on us later, but I had to vent about Dr. Phil. In my opinion, he did absolutely nothing for Ms. Shelley Duvall or for mental illness. Shame on him!