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We Will Not Take Away Elvis


Sheila O'Malley

The end of 2023 marked the ten-year anniversary of a lot of life changes. Every month has its marker.

10 years ago:

I was in the office of a mood disorder specialist. I felt I was there against my will. But what is the alternative when your whole family organizes an intervention? It was February and it was freezing outside and I was in his warm toasty office and I refused to take my coat off. Or even sit down. I wanted him to know: "I'm not STAYING here, pallie, so let's make this QUICK." He told me later it was like having a wild stallion in his tiny office.

I ranted at him that I didn't want anything to take away my creativity, or slow down my output of thousands of words a day. Thousands of good words. I didn't want him to tell me I needed to stop getting obsessed or passionate about things. I didn't want anyone - ever again - to tell me to calm down, to stop getting so into things. I yelled at him: "My obsessions are literally THE ONLY THINGS that makes me happy so I WILL NOT CALM DOWN."

He remained calm. "We are not interested in taking anything away from you ---" I cut him off because he was FULL of it. Everybody wanted to take away the stuff that made me happy. Everyone was UNHAPPY with WHO I WAS. I remember being as purposefully contemptuous as possible so he really got my meaning. I was so mean to him. (This is why I side-eye people who make fun of celebrities having what appear to be open nervous breakdowns and "behaving badly." I'm not sure what these people - who often are in the "let's destigmatize mental health issues" crowd - think a true breakdown looks like. Adorable and sympathetic? No. It often looks awful and completely socially unacceptable. If there was actual video footage of me in this mood clinic, ranting and raving and being mean and vicious to everyone, I am sure Twitter would have criticized me, and the self-righteous would have said, as they always do, "I have [insert mental health problem] but I don't think that gives me the right to act like an asshole." So glad your mental illness is so manageable! Your comments are so helpful in "de-stigmatizing" mental health problems!

As he was trying to reason with me, I said to him, as commandingly as possible, still STANDING in his office, in my huge down coat with my hair long and wild: "If you tell me I have to stop writing about Elvis, we are DONE here."

His calm Italian accent came: "We will not take away Elvis." (He didn't even know at the time of my whole Elvis thing. He had no idea what I was talking about.) He went on, "If anything, you'll be more productive in your Elvis work."

Me, contemptuous, exaggerated eyerolling: "If you say so."

This was the tail-end of the months-long crackup that led--finally--to the bipolar diagnosis. A diagnosis that saved my life. The calm Italian mood disorder specialist saved my life.

I am now ten years in to the diagnosis. I meet with him every six months to check in. I just met with him last week. We started talking about Elvis--he always asks--because he is up to speed on my interests and projects. We started talking about creativity and mania and his thoughts on what Elvis might have been "managing," clarifying he wasn't diagnosing the man, only that he sensed the suffering/transcendence in the voice alongside the dazzling output, and he wondered what it might have been like inside Elvis' head.

A long time back, one of his colleagues did a study about the incidents of bipolar in the rhythm & blues community from the Delta-area, particularly the old-school generation from the 30s/40s before there were treatments and/or understanding. I'm just spitting facts. You see why this mood disorder specialist, whom I was thrown at when things got so bad nobody else could deal with me, was the right man for me. I am interested in the connection between illness and creativity, since at its apex my illness generated so much nonstop work. Even mentioning a possible connection is very controversial, I am aware, but I legit don't care about those who disagree.). Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament by Kay Redfield Jamison (1998) is the gold standard of this controversial area of study. He and I talked a lot about that book. We talk about the things I'm interested in exploring in my writing. He read the piece I wrote a couple months ago for Criterion on Elvis' movie career. He's very supportive and curious.

Time is weird. It feels like just yesterday we had our very first meeting and I shouted at him, "If you tell me I have to stop writing about Elvis, we are DONE here."

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Sheila O'Malley is a regular film critic for Her work also appears regularly in Film Comment. She has written for The New York Times, The L.A. Times, The Criterion Collection, Sight & Sound, and others. Follow her cultural commentary on Substack: The Sheila Variations 2.0