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Kristen Wiig in ‘Welcome to Me’ (Alchemy)
In the funny, fascinating drama Welcome to Me (now in select theaters and available on VOD), Kristen Wiig plays Alice Klieg, a woman with borderline personality disorder who uses lottery winnings to produce a television show entirely about herself. Alice is an unusual movie character, sympathetic in her desire to be loved like Oprah, yet off-putting in her bizarre, irrational behavior. But does she provide an accurate portrait of borderline personality disorder, a condition characterized by unstable moods, behavior and relationships?
According to Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Dr. Steven Schlozman, she does indeed. Furthermore, Welcome to Me offers a much more sympathetic, realistic take on BPD than most Hollywood films, which have generally characterized it as a disorder of stalkers and serial killers (i.e. Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, Kathy Bates in Misery). “The compelling storyline of the rageful, murderous person, who is presumed to have BPD, finds its way into movies a lot,” says Schlozman, “but people with what we’d call BPD are hardly ever violent, except maybe towards themselves.” We asked Schlozman to explain how Wiig’s actions in Welcome to Me — from her TV obsession to her angry meltdowns — jibe with her diagnosis. (Warning: spoilers to follow)
Plot point: Alice spends most of her abundant lottery earnings on a television show that she makes up as she goes along.
The explanation: People with borderline personality disorder often exhibit reckless behavior — including impulsive spending (of which Alice’s is an extreme example) and jumping abruptly into sexual relationships (which Alice also does in the film). On the flip side, people with BPD are often paralyzed by indecision, as Alice is, when her psychiatrist (Tim Robbins) asks if she wants to continue treatment, and she replies, “Yes. No. Yes. No.”
Watch the trailer for ‘Welcome to Me:’
Plot point: On her TV show, Alice dedicates entire segments to calling out people who have been mean to her — even if the offense was a passing remark she heard as a child.
The explanation: She’s engaging here in a behavior called “splitting,” in which she sees people as either all good or all bad. For someone with borderline personality disorder, other people can “go from being on a pedestal to being the worst there is, almost in the blink of an eye,” Schlozman explains. “And that’s an adaptive mechanism, because it’s easier than tolerating the pain of disappointment.”
Plot point: When Alice accidentally spills a crockpot during a cooking segment, she has a violent meltdown.
The explanation: When people with borderline personality disorder are under stress, they can experience “micro-psychotic episodes,” in which their view of reality becomes inconsistent with how other people see it. “It’s not like hearing voices or seeing things,” Schlozman says. “It’s more like feeling that you’ve just been horribly maligned by somebody, when they really didn’t say anything that bad at all.”
Watch a clip from ‘Welcome to Me:’
Plot point: Alice gains a cult following for her TV show, even as she alienates her real friends.
The explanation: Schlozman says that it’s not unheard-of for people with BPD to have magnetic personalities. “There’s a lot of drama with BPD, and to be good at drama, you have to have charisma,” he says. “Like Marilyn Monroe — obviously I never treated her, but people have postulated that she suffered from BPD. She was amazingly charismatic and incredibly smart, but had such a hard time getting close to people.”
Plot point: Alice is obsessed with re-watching the same episodes of The Oprah Winfrey Show over and over.
The explanation: Not everyone with BPD obsessively re-watches their favorite TV shows, but for people who have trouble relating the world, the predictability of television personalities can be comforting. “Oprah’s always going to give something away, and she’s going to make you feel good about yourself — and it’s nice for all of us!” says Schlozman. “But it might be especially nice if the world often doesn’t make sense to you.”
Plot point: Alice hints at a rocky past with her mother.
The explanation: While not everyone who experiences trauma develops BPD, and not everyone with BPD has a traumatic past, childhood trauma in particular is often associated with the disorder. In Welcome to Me, Alice indicates that a parent did something horrible to her, though no details are ever revealed. However, Schlozman also points out that Alice’s perception of what her mother did and the actual event might diverge. “That’s one of the most interesting things about the movie: We don’t even know if that’s real,” he says.
Tim Robbins in ‘Welcome to Me’ (Alchemy)
Plot point: The psychiatrist played by Tim Robbins stops treating Alice after she broadcasts a session on TV without his permission.
The explanation: If a psychiatrist’s personal feelings interfere with his ability to treat the patient, Schlozman says that the ethical thing to do is help the patient find a new doctor. “He was so angry and hurt by what she had done, and felt so betrayed that he recognized he couldn’t continue to do good work with her,” he postulates. And while Schlozman says he personally wouldn’t have stopped treating Alice, he gives Robbins’ character high marks overall as a psychiatrist. “His boundaries with her are pretty good, as is his willingness to use humor with her.”