A Story of Defeating a Truly Terrifying Enemy… Yourself.
Bliss, the new movie starring Salma Hayak and Owen Wilson on Amazon Prime, is a very human, otherworldly delve into the human psyche. Greg Whittle (played by Wilson) suffers from an unspecified mental illness and has recently gone through a divorce. Now, he is about to get fired. This marks the doorway to Whittle’s psychological break.
Or, does it?
The movie presents two versions of reality. In the first (dystopian), Whittle is divorced, fired from his job, medicated, and avoiding his family. In the second (utopian), he is married to a beautiful woman, lives in a paradise as a successful doctor. The world is at his disposal. Through the movie’s course, the viewer is urged to go back and forth between which world is the “real” world. In the depressive version of his life, it appears that Whittle is using drugs to escape. In the blissful version, he is submerged into the depressive life via science and technology to provide perspective and gratitude for his life. As he travels between the two, both realities try to convince him of their authenticity. Herein lies the experience.
Critics of the movie cite the vagueness of the explanation of the experiences as a negative. I would argue that vagueness is a storytelling device. The vagueness expresses the sometimes disconnected nature of our conscious experience.
Wilson’s believes “it’s [Bliss] about making the right choice about finding something meaningful in your life to believe in.”1
The movie begins with the main character (Greg Whittle) expositing:
“I have a picture in my head of a place. Home, a woman. I don’t know if any of it is real. But it has a feeling. And the feeling is real”.
This thought illustrates the experience of our true desires and dreams being just out of reach, almost explainable. Yet, still only a feeling. At times, we are drawn down a path and don’t understand why.
Author Robert Greene tells us that the parts of the brain that process cognition and emotion are in two different and disconnected areas2. For example, when we become angry, we can’t be sure of the real reason. Researchers have found that trusting your gut is more than just a saying. More than 90% of the serotonin produced in the body is produced in the gut3. Serotonin controls mood, among other important functions. The gut is part of the enteric nervous system. This system works in the background of our consciousness and controls motivation, and influences wisdom.
The vagus nerve appears to have a great deal to do with well-being5. The vagus nerve is activated by serotonin produced in the gut4. The most closely related scientific term for gut feelings is interoception. Interoception is the capability of sensing physiological stimuli from inside the body. Examples include heart rate, temperature, hunger, pain, and irritable bowel. Interoception is the first response your mind gets when making an emotional decision. And while its main purpose is to regulate these physiological functions, recent findings on the relationship between emotional well-being and the gut suggests a much larger impact on emotional well-being than initially thought.
Greene posits that humans can’t possess the exact understanding of why we do what we do6. Much of this behavior is directed from the subconscious. I believe Whittle’s emotionally based true desires are illustrated in this initial exposition. The board is set, the destination is a fantasy…but the feeling is real.
This is an experience many of us share.
Bliss indirectly points to addiction as a key driver of Whittle’s experience. Taking the last pill from a prescription bottle, he calls immediately for a refill. He is confused about why he doesn’t have another refill available. At the same time, he avoids his boss’s incessant calls. He is distressed by their impending encounter. Whittle briefly looks out the window of his office, across the street, considering the sight of a rehab center.
The psychological process of addiction can be illustrated by the Excessive Appetites Model6. As we grow up, we are exposed to more choices in activities and behaviors. We experience things that give us pleasure or euphoria as well as other unpleasant things. We find that some of these behaviors or habits have a positive influence on our mood. We’ll tend to lean on mood-enhancing activities, especially when there is trauma or other causes of decreased mood. Much of this impact comes from our family and social network. As we learn what gives pleasure or escape, when stress arises, we commit to the behaviors that allow these desired effects.
Addiction can be biological but is strongly based on our psychology. Genetically, we can be predisposed to addiction, but no personality will predict addictive behaviors7. An estimated 21 million Americans have an addiction, and 20% of Americans with depression or anxiety also have an addiction8. The problem continues to grow. Drug overdose deaths have more than tripled since 1990.
Additionally, behavioral addictions are prevalent in society as well. Gambling addiction, sex addiction, exercise, and work addiction are all examples of behavioral addictions9. They follow the same reward pathways in the brain that provide pleasure, euphoria, or relief.
In the case of Bliss, it’s suggested that Whittle’s life is wracked with the consequences of his addiction.
The Nervous Breakdown.
This potentially overused, cliched phrase (not used diagnostically) is described as a “period of intense mental distress.”10 Often, this is associated with hallucinations, insomnia, paranoia, and extreme mood swings. Modernly, we refer to what Greg Whittle experiences in Bliss as a psychotic episode. While a psychotic episode is a symptom of schizophrenia, it is not as uncommon as one would think. Between 5-10% of the population will have a psychotic episode in the course of their lifetime11. In many instances, the event is short-lived. Depression, anxiety, and social withdrawal are many of the warning signs of a psychotic episode.
Although varying in extremity, one in five adults in the U.S. lives with a mental illness12. Recent data reports that depression among youth is a growing problem13. The COVID-19 pandemic has only enhanced this trend, quadrupling the number of adults reporting depression than the year prior14.
The experience of Greg Whittle in Bliss, is not as uncommon and far-fetched as many think.
What is Real?
The movie concludes with Whittle entering the rehab facility across the street from his former employer. Parallel to the first scene, Whittle exposits the final scene. He holds a picture of his daughter and says, “this woman says she’s my daughter…and I believe her.”
In the version of reality where Whittle is a drug addict, divorced, and lost, his daughter Emily refuses to give up on him. This is the woman in the picture. This suggests that this dystopian world is the “real” world. This would mean that Whittle really is so confused, and he can’t truly remember. This also suggests that he isn’t sure which version is real. But what is clear is that he has chosen the more dystopian of the two realities.
Ramzi Najjar, the author of The You Beyond You, claims “our thinking process is like a Lego game where we can associate, dissociate, re-associate or fully dismantle what has already been built inside and model it into something completely new.”16 Najjar conceptualizes our perception of the world as the result of a chaotic process of processing an infinite amount of information constantly being ingested by our minds. Dreaming is a process always happening just below the surface. It is important to derive a way to organize and filter the insurmountable volume of information taken in by our senses.
However, we did not evolve to see the world as it is. We see what we need to see to survive. Psychologist Donald Hoffman posits that this perceptive alteration of reality provides human beings with the ability to assign value to perceptive elements17. An apple is food. The visual experience of seeing an apple is how we process the data of this type of food. When we look away, there is no sign of the apple in our perception. Hoffman refers to this as a “fitness-payoff”. A compact and easy-to-use perception of what is. He refers to this as the “interface theory”.
The “gray area” implied in both Najjar’s book and Hoffman’s theory is that there is a tremendous amount of influence on the perception of our reality. With much of this influence, we can learn to direct. For example, if you are tired, you will perceive distances as farther than if you weren’t17. Body awareness can be useful in decreasing anxiety in high-stress situations.
And so we don’t know for sure what is real. Although most of our perceptions overlap enough to generally understand one another (emphasis on generally), the experience of psychosis does not exist in this overlap.
Does Psychosis Serve a Purpose?
To be clear, psychosis is a symptom, not an illness, itself. It impacts how the brain processes information and the victim of psychosis may see, hear or believe things that aren’t real18. It is commonly associated with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. But why does it happen?
A recent study describes a relationship between psychosis and stressors, mainly those involving social interactions19. This ‘hyperconsciousness’ is stirred due to the evolved need for social acceptance, calling on the mind’s ability to enhance social adaptation. Further, psychosis is this function on overdrive due to various sensitivities one may have in their psychology or brain physiology. The event of hearing, seeing or believing and the increase in the significance of details in things maybe the imagination attempting to drive the change necessary to attain social acceptance. This is further supported by the notion that most psychotic episodes occur during adolescence when the need for social acceptance is great19.
In Gregg Whittle’s case, the dystopian reality in which he is divorced (a social threat), fired (another social threat), and isolated, he begins to experience psychosis. Again, it is implied this is set off by the drugs he was prescribed. He embarks on a journey to get drugs from somewhere other than the pharmacy. This is where he meets Isabel, his homeless drug doing partner-in-crime, who convinces him that nothing in the world is real.
In the utopian version of life, Whittle can feel there is something wrong. Isabel’s colleagues suggest that her work with the technology of delving into a life of suffering to create gratitude has “problems.” Also, he is called back to the dystopian reality by a ghostly image of his daughter, who pleads with him to return.
In this framework, the triggers of getting fired, divorced, and the drugs may have created a psychosis that helped Whittle accept and gain the social and personal connections that he so desired. In this way, the story is of a man surmounting a crucible, a rite of passage. This is the hero’s journey.
An Unlikely Hero?
Joseph Campbell wrote of the Hero’s Journey20. This idea outlines the elements of a story’s main character arc. Simply, there are three stages, broken down into twelve events. Many of them apply here. Act I is the Separation—act II, the Decent and Initiation, and finally, III the Return.
In Act I, Whittle is shown as separated, fired, divorced, and avoidant. He descends into the underworld with Isabel, and a new version of reality that changes him is introduced. He is initiated. The first act takes place in the ordinary world, but the second in what Campbell called the Special World.
Jung wrote of these ideas in his work Symbols of Transformation21. He describes the journey as “the attempt to free ego-consciousness from the deadly grip of the unconscious.” This period is often referred to as the dark night of the soul. Historically, the consciousness has been a deadly beast or a wicked witch. In the case of Bliss, it truly is the unconscious which is the source of the ordeal.
The ordeal, the obstacle to be overcome, is Whittle’s choice of life. Which set of values and beliefs will he hold on to and bind to his character. What will drive him to do so?
Many times during the movie, I found myself cheering for the utopian side. It was his dream, his fantasy, and he was happy…on the surface. But in the end, he couldn’t bear himself being disconnected from his daughter. And so he faced the humiliation, the uncertainty, and made his choice. In the end, he was drawn back to the people whom he loved and who loved him.
An unlikely hero exists in the movie’s finality. But a culturally relevant one. Whittle has been through the crucible. He’s been given a glimpse of heaven and chooses to come back and face his life – to do the work. In an age where culture, technology, and the rate of change is in flux at exponential rates, many of us are on this hero’s journey with our own mental health. This movie stands as a great emblem of this journey.
What did you think of Bliss?