Bandersnatch, What’s Free Will when you’re Mentally Ill

Spoilers ahead, please watch the movie first.

Black Mirror is one of my favorite television shows, once you get past the episode where that guy had to do that thing with the pig. After that, you really learn to appreciate the show. This British drama lays the best and worst of humankind, forcing us to reevaluate what we as a species actually appreciate (I hope it’s not pigs, at least not in that kinda way). The latest and long-awaited release of Bandersnatch did not disappoint. Like many British shows, I felt as though it had a slow and mildly confusing start. I tried to watch this movie when I was about to sleep, but the interactive aspect was a bit lost on me. Once I did actually have the energy to brave this movie I ended up getting absolutely wrapped up in the characters life, so much so that I got lost in my own anxieties.

Bandersnatch follows the life of Stefan, a 19-year-old aspiring video game designer, who is living during the year 1984. Stefan lives in an ordinary town in England with his father, and frequently sees a therapist for what I assume is anxiety and/or depression (possibly a long-term adjustment disorder). In the film, Stefan is given the opportunity to bring to life his video game Bandersnatch, based on the novel by fictional author Jerome F. Davies (the genius who cut off his wife’s head). This Netflix movie mimics the storyline of the novel, and game(s) Bandersnatch creating this meta-analysis of free-will. As we progress in the film, we watch the decline of Stefan’s perceived (and actual) freedom. He becomes a victim of his impulses, a victim of our decision. We watch him lose control of his ability to choose, fighting inexplainable drives, and spiral into a pool of is own mind. He begins to question if anything is real anymore if we are all just P.A.C. (Program and Control) Men trapped in an inescapable maze.

I won’t act like I have the best explanation for this movie, but I do want to throw my hat into the ring. Bandersnatch, in my opinion, is a metaphor for Mental Illness. The protagonist of the film is living with it, and it’s not lost on me how Colin (Stefan’s idol/guide/mentor) also seems to be impacted by it (educated guess). When watching the film, some might assume that Stefan is suffering from Schizophrenia. As where I can understand why that is a conclusion some would come to, I’d like to point out that the DSM 5 outlines the below criteria must be met to make that diagnosis:

Two or more of the following for at least a one-month (or longer) period of time, and at least one of them must be 1, 2, or 3:

  1. Delusions
  2. Hallucinations
  3. Disorganized speech
  4. Grossly disorganized or catatonic behavior
  5. Negative symptoms, such as diminished emotional expression

There’s a bit more that goes into a diagnosis for Schizophrenia, but I’d like to point out that the only symptom of the 5 that I think it’s fair to say Stefan exhibits is hallucinations. I’d argue that he can’t possibly be suffering from delusions because there’s nothing false about his beliefs, and it may be ‘crazy’ from the outside looking in, but given context, we see there’s truth to his beliefs. It’s arguable that he does suffer from hallucinations because there are two separate times (that I’ve seen) that he comes across the lion in Bandersnatch, however, it’s worth noting that one of those times he’s under the influence of acid/LSD. I don’t think he has a disorganized speech at all, nor does he exhibit grossly disordered or catatonic behavior (when put into the context of his unseen reality). I think it’s debatable to say he showcases signs of negative symptoms of Schizophonia, but it’s extremely important to take into consideration that he was under extreme pressure and wasn’t eating/sleeping to meet a deadline (could also explain his hallucinations). Never the less, his therapist doesn’t diagnosis him as having Schizophrenia (or so we know), and that’s what’s most important to me.

Regardless of if Stefan suffers from Schizophrenia or not, the reference to the matrix and free-will wasn’t lost on me. We as humans need to believe in free-will, even if it is just a myth. Without it, we lose hope. I also couldn’t help but appreciate how Stefan’s impulses, his reality, and his experience was discounted because of others we unable to see it. As a Black woman, I could relate to him. My experience with racism, sexism, homophobia, etc is constantly dismissed and gas-lit in this society and my cries for help and understanding are also taken out of context. Medication is given to people like me, because either my reality is dismissed, or all I can do is try to cope with it.

My interpretation of the film is that the Audience/Netflix is a metaphor for Mental Illness, and Stefan is us. When you suffer from any mental illness, often time you feel trapped in a maze that you’re incapable of escaping. You are a P.A.C. man, trapped in this game we call life, forced to consume the bullshit that comes with it. Grasping for cherries for short-term highs as attempts to cope/escape from the demons that are chasing you. No one else but you and other mentally ill people understands and validate your reality. You’re passed off as crazy, and the only people who have an idea of how crazy you are, are passed off as crazy too or eccentric as well (see Colin).

This piece has no fair ending, much like how Bandersnatch has no fair ending. There’s no escaping Mental illness, you can only learn to cope with it. This film forces us to consider if the sense of control and security we have over our lives is false. It challenges us to reconsider if free will is actually real. Most importantly, it makes us ask the question: Who or What is controlling us?

How Do We Fill the Empty Feeling?

One of my best friends texted me last week expressing that she was “Sick and tired of being sick and tired.” That quote resonates with me all too well, both from experience and observation. Life is hard, and when you’re young it can be so overwhelming because you’re just starting to figure things out (I don’t think we ever totally do). In high school we might be facing difficulties fitting in, and social relationships might seem intimidating. In early adulthood we are a bit more self focused, trying to chase enjoyable moments and career prospects. In young adulthood, I’ve found that now life seems to be a balancing act. I am juggling my personal health, relationships and dating, friendships and social relationships, my career, my free time, and a ton of social responsibility. Admittedly, I am still trying to figure it all out.

For most of my life I found that I seemed to be carrying this empty feeling inside of me. I felt like an ominous Black hole that was unwilling to be fed; and even if it was hungry I didn’t know what to feed it. I carried that feeling with me when I hung out with my friends; “Do they really want me here?” I had the feeling when I was with lovers; “They are all just going to leave me, right?” I think I even became familiar with that feeling when I was around family; “I’ve always felt pretty alone.” I’ve tried to fill the feeling with food, sex, money, shopping, and alcohol; “I think these things make me feel worse about myself.” I did try less dysfunctional ways of fulfilling myself, I would confide in friends, attend group therapy, individual therapy, take medication; “I still feel so f**king empty.” Depression was something I’ve faced for the majority of my life, then with age came anxiety. College and graduate school were difficult for me for a number of reasons, I felt like I wasn’t represented and I felt misunderstood. With experiences though, came the ability to put words to my frustrations. I could pinpoint what made me feel empty:

  • Lack of representation
  • Lack of community
  • Being around toxic people
  • Not making enough time for myself

Then I learned the importance of self awareness, understanding self, and expressing self. I realized that yes I may not have control over the circumstances I am under, nor may I have control over the events that unfold before me. But what I do have control over is my ability to exist in the present, and my attempts to plan for the future. I realized that a lack of representation and community went hand and hand, so I decided to intentionally befriend more Black women around me. Being around toxic people in many cases is inevitable; “Sometimes you just have to grin and bare it at work.” But other times you can either cut those people out of your life even if it’s difficult; “Call it radical self love.” Which led me to not making enough time for myself, this was something I could control. I’ve been filling my space with plants, which requires me to take time out of my day to care for them. I find it peaceful, when I give to them it feels like I give to myself. I am also learning not to make solid plans on weekends, and I am forcing myself 30 minutes every day (sometimes I skip) to exercise. Even though it seems like a small amount of time, the time we allot for ourselves adds up, and I think that pieces of our self esteem do as well.

It’s been 3 months that I’ve made changes for myself, and I don’t feel so empty anymore. I don’t feel so depressed, and I don’t have such high levels of anxiety. Mental health and wellness isn’t an easy, and I’d argue it’s a life long effort (as we change the way we love ourselves may have to as well). There are going to be days where you’re going to be rocking it with mental health; “I’m so happy for you!” Then there are going to be days where you’re just too tired to heal yourself; “That’s ok, there’s tomorrow.” But I hope that you start to see yourself as worth putting other aspects of your life on hold, and deserving of treating yourself with the love you are seeking to receive.

I welcome you to comment ways you can exercise loving yourself; “what’s worked for you?”