Friday, July 10, 2015

"Inside Out" Wrenches

Spoiler alert: If you’re planning to see the movie, you may want to read this later.

My husband and I have been looking for fun, escapist movies in the past two years far more than in the past. We routinely reject movies that deal with death or troubled people; I can’t even enjoy British mysteries if they dwell too much on dead bodies. But who knew that a Disney-Pixar movie full of the usual cleverness and whimsy would remind me of Noah’s struggles and bring on tears?

The movie animates the inner workings of the mind of 11-year-old Riley, with Joy in charge of the other emotions (Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust) in a huge storehouse of colorful balls (memories). Riley is a happy kid until her family moves to another city. Suddenly, the emotions are alarmed to see Sadness tinging Riley’s sunny memories with blue and Riley sinking into an uncharacteristic funk. As memories are tainted, entire “islands” of experience—family, friendship, sports--lose their color and motion and and collapse. Joy and Sadness go on a quest to retrieve Riley’s lost “core memories” and revive the islands that make her who she is. But Joy is flummoxed by the situation, and ultimately, it is the power of Sadness that brings Riley home after she runs away, prompts her to speak her heart, and allows the family to reunite around supporting her in her sorrow. What an unexpected message for a Disney film!

I saw the movie a few days before Noah’s birthday so maybe I was primed to be triggered. I couldn’t help thinking of Noah’s despair when I saw everything in Riley’s world being touched by Sadness, over and over. “I can’t help it!” Sadness says, and indeed, Noah’s depression seemed to have a life of its own. Like Riley, he became a shadow of his former animated self. He didn’t know what to do with sadness and couldn’t easily express it. It was sadness that made him notice others who were lonely or unhappy and reach out to them at college, as people he barely knew attested at his memorial. Yet he was ashamed of his own sadness and convinced he just had to “man up” to his problems.

As Sadness took over, Riley’s mind went out of control. More and more memories started to dim, as they no doubt did for Noah. When Riley’s islands of experience started to crumble in the movie, so did I. The longer Noah suffered from depression and anxiety, the more he lost parts of himself—his wit, intellect, curiosity, confidence, interests, pleasures, and ties to family and friends. Watching each island self-destruct in the movie was like watching the dissolution of Noah’s mind, piece by piece. It’s like watching a house warmly lit from within gradually go dark, window by window. This seems to be what many families experience as they live with someone who is mentally ill. I was consumed with fear and helplessness in the last 8 months of Noah’s life, though I always believed the devastation could be halted and fixed. 

When Riley finally confesses her sadness to her parents, she says she was afraid to talk about it because she knew they wanted her to be happy. Were we as blind as Riley’s parents when the seeds of Noah’s sorrow were first taking root? Did everyone’s high expectations drive him to silence and shame as sadness became more overwhelming? Noah once said that no one really knew him. Did I argue too much with his despair rather than really listening and giving him hope? 

Two psychologists who consulted on the film wrote, “The real star of the film is Sadness, for Inside Out is a film about loss and what people gain when guided by feelings of sadness. . . . Its central insight: Embrace sadness, let it unfold, engage patiently with a preteen’s emotional struggles. Sadness will clarify what has been lost (childhood) and move the family toward what is to be gained: the foundations of new identities, for children and parents alike.”

If only we could rewrite the script for our lost ones. When their suffering and suicide have plunged us into such a well of sadness, how do we find what is to be gained and remake our lives?

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