Tag Archives: sadness

In Defense of Sadness

Recently, M and I sat down to watch Inside Out together and I live-tweeted it, which was fun.

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I was excited to see the film for the first time — the previews looked great and as I mental health advocate, I had high hopes for this film that would be all about getting to know your feelings. As I watched, however, I felt that, as a person who lives with a behavioral disorder, the film doesn’t really do anything positive for the representation of people who have mood disorders, who are introverted, or who are non-nuerotypical in any way. Given the positive reviews this film received from the mental health community when it was first released, I was surprised and disappointed to see that this film actually promotes several negative stigmas, particularly in regard to the character of Sadness.

In the beginning of the film, there exists only Joy — that is the first emotion to come into being inside the main character, Riley’s, newborn mind. Sadness joins shortly thereafter, in a serious reversal that I believe any parent would attest to: what newborn shows an actual capacity for happiness in their first few months, let alone moments, of being? Sorry, Disney, but most babies are just crying, pooping potatoes for the first few months of life, with nary a giggle to be seen.

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Oh yeah, that’s the face of Joy right there.

Immediately following the arrival of Sadness, the two characters are shown to be in direct opposition to each other. While Sadness seems to be largely indifferent to Joy’s presence, Joy is persistently trying to be rid of Sadness. Joy’s constant attempts to undo the presence of Sadness are troublesome. In the beginning of them film, Joy says that she doesn’t know what Sadness does, that it seems that Sadness to serves no obvious purpose (at least, compared to the other emotions), and that Joy has checked and “there’s nowhere for her to go”. That’s a very sophomoric perspective on the role of sadness in the human experience. Sadness is a very important emotional function — just as much as joy, fear, anger, or disgust. However, Joy’s complete rejection of Sadness’ utility is continually played out as she persistently bullies Sadness for simply existing.

The other emotions, Fear, Anger, and Disgust, despite being negative emotions, seem to meet with Joy’s approval because they each serve a clear and present purpose in the life of Riley. The filmmakers and writers obviously tried to increase the utility of Fear, Anger, and Disgust by having each of them appear to be multifaceted in their expression of emotional states of being. While Joy appears to embody only that which is effervescent and positive, the other Emotions are observed to act both as their functionary titles and with correlated emotions. The character of Disgust, for instance, not only represents a biologically programmed aversion to new foodstuffs, but also cattiness, sarcasm, and social acumen.

This approach by the filmmakers allows the audience a fairly intuitive grasp of the purpose of each Emotion. The character designs were carefully planned out to reinforce the correlation of the given emotion to the personified character. Fear is thin, anxious, and prone to surprise. Anger is short, stout, and blocky. Disgust is green, for crying out loud! But then, there is Sadness. Sadness is depicted as dowdy, short, and plump. She wears glasses and she’s extremely soft-spoken. Despite appearing to be well-meaning, Sadness is revealed to be a trouble-maker in the eyes of her cohorts, if an accidental one. In every way imaginable, Sadness’ character was designed to imply that she is undesirable. Additionally, by casting Sadness as the foil to Joy’s character, the writers reinforce a harmful societal value: that sadness, introvertedness, and introspection are wrong and therefore we must all strive to be happy, one-hundred percent of the time.

It’s disingenuous to portray Sadness this way. Many people, myself included, don’t experience happiness in the over-wrought, excited way in which the character of Joy is portrayed. For us, happiness comes from time spent alone, in introspection, gaining energy from our communion with ourselves. In that way, Sadness might be in my driver’s seat — but that doesn’t make me perpetually sad, and it doesn’t make me wrong. It is simply the way I best interact with the world. But instead of making her dynamic as the human experience, Inside Out’s Sadness is written as a witless castaway, unworthy of merit.

Meanwhile, Joy is clearly made out to be Riley’s primary and most desirable emotion — of course, considering the only four other options: Fear, Sadness, Anger, and Disgust — Joy is the only character that doesn’t have a negative connotation to compete with. Of course you want Joy to be in charge! You wouldn’t want any of those other bad emotions to be responsible for your world interactions, would you?

This is heavily reminiscent to me of the way that I am often treated by well-meaning extroverts: Why would you want to stay home and be sad all weekend? Because I’ve had a busy week interacting with people, and I am out of spoons. Why do you listen to that sad music? It only makes you feel worse! No, this music jives with my soul, and it is healing me.

You see, just because I experience the world differently from you, doesn’t mean that I’m wrong. I am just different. Please, allow me to be different without fear of reprisal.


 

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“Being sad reminds us how to appreciate being happy.” Yeah, no.


By the end of the film, we begin to see that Emotions can work in tandem to create memories, which is meant by the filmmakers to be a redeeming moment for Sadness and Joy. I felt less resolved, though. The film still hasn’t given Sadness a purpose except as a foil to Joy. This is a harmful dichotomy for a lot of reasons, one of which we actually see play out in the film when Riley’s mother asks her to be happy about the move for her father’s sake. The end result being that Riley internalizes her negative emotions about her family’s move (with help from Joy) until she detaches from her family completely, almost running away from home. It isn’t until Riley is permitted to feel sadness that she is able to synthesize all of the feelings she has and move on from them. That’s an important lesson for us all, but the filmmakers failed to represent it as such. Instead, we are shown that Joy fights Sadness almost to the point of obliterating them both (certainly to the point of obliterating several of Riley’s internal mental structures, memories, and processes), only to finally acquiesce to Sadness’ presence, while still failing to validate Sadness’ reason for being.

In real life (read: in all of our lives) sadness actually serves a very important purpose. Though not highly valued in our current culture, sadness and other “feel-bad” emotions help us to slow down, confront troublesome circumstances, and come to a deeper understanding of ourselves. Sadness improves your memory, heightens your better judgment, increases your motivation to enact positive changes in your life, and can, in some cases, improve your interpersonal communication. Perhaps this is why, in the film, Riley’s mother has Sadness in the driver’s seat — Sadness isn’t just about feeling blue, it’s about feeling, period. Sadness allows us the increased capacity for compassion, discernment, and responsible decision-making that makes life fruitful.

To say that Inside Out was entirely upside-down wouldn’t be fair. It’s a cute movie, it was well-animated, and it is definitely a powerful tool to give children access to the language needed to talk candidly about their feelings. But as a representation of the depth and breadth of the emotional landscape within each of us, it falls short, particularly in the eyes of this gal living with bipolar disorder.

Someday, when she is old enough to have this conversation, I will have to sit my daughter down and explain to her that Mommy’s brain doesn’t work like everyone else’s brain. I may even need to have a conversation with her, in some distant future, about how her brain doesn’t work like everyone else’s brain. This film does not give us an appropriate schema for that conversation. After all, what good does it do to tell someone besieged by sadness to “let Joy takeover”? That would not be helpful, and it would not be fair to disrespect their experience so callously. Instead, we might say, “Sadness in taking the wheel right now, because it’s a road you need to travel.”

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Yuletide Blues

Christmas-time is a difficult time of year for everyone, it seems. All of the togetherness, peace, and good-will toward men comes with a grand helping of isolation, sadness, and guilt. Without meaning to, the holiday season does its damnedest to remind us all of what we’ve lost.

Christmas was a big deal to me when I was growing up. My mom was positively possessed of the holiday spirit. Every inch of our five-bedroom house was decorated; the banisters festooned with garlands, mechanical singing-and-dancing merry-go-rounds on the landing, and an eight-foot-tall tree front and center in the living room. Our hand-made stockings were hung with care o’er the fireplace with limited-edition stocking holders care of the Disney Store. Special towels and holiday-scented soaps were strategically placed in the bathrooms. Stuffed polar bears, reindeer, and Mickey Mouse in a Santa hat were my once-a-year friends. These artifacts became integral to my experience of the holiday season. Without them, the holiday felt pale, lackluster, deficient.

The year I turned eleven was the last of the great Christmases of my childhood. You just can’t stuff a two bedroom apartment with yuletide glee the same way as a two-story home. Being a child of divorce made it happen that Christmas time was more “hum-bug” than “ho-ho-ho”. As I grew, I came to realize that this meant there was no home-base to return to. No childhood bedroom filled to the rafters with relics of my past. No safe-haven to return to after a bad break-up or a fight with the roommate. There was no longer a place to safely store the artifacts my my childhood until such a time came for me to pass those things on to children of my own.

Things disappeared gradually, so much so that I didn’t realize they were missing until it was too late. I assumed the ubiquitous storage units my parents each rented when they moved separately into sad-divorcee apartment blocks would be kept in perpetuity. I assumed that both my mother and father knew, instinctively, that I was counting on keeping my great-grandmother’s china, our family albums, and other assorted pieces from around our home. I assumed that my mother’s horde of Christmas decorations was just as sacred to the adults around me as it was to me personally. In retrospect, perhaps it was all wishful thinking: I wanted these things to be true.

Things were jettisoned over time, in part out of necessity. When my mother and stepfather moved from California to Hawaii in 2003, they could only afford to ship so many things with them, and my grandmother only had room in her garage for so much. Again, I assumed that the things that were being saved and stored were the things that mattered so much to me. In the end, I won’t ever know for sure if that was true.

I came to live with Mom and Al in November of 2004. By Spring of 2008, they were both gone, consumed by separate but voracious illnesses. When Al went, we kept everything. A closet full of aloha shirts, a silver menorah, and a baby grand piano neither of us could play. When Mom got sick two years later, the decision was made that she would move back to the Mainland for treatment and stay with her mother. The piano went with her, but a great deal of Al’s other belongings were passed on to his daughters or donated. We boxed up our whole apartment, including most of my journals, photo albums, and knick-knacks — I was going to live in a much smaller place with a roommate and I wouldn’t have space for it all. I assumed (what was that thing your mother always said about assuming…) that everything would be stored at Grandma’s house, next to great-grandma’s china and Mom’s Christmas Horde. After Mom was gone, it gave me comfort to know that once I was a real grown-up, I could go retrieve those vestiges of our shared past.

We lost a great many things in that fire that consumed my mother’s life. She was more than just the person that gave birth to us. She was our home and the lynch-pin that held our family together. Our greatest cheer-leader and supreme boo-boo kisser. When she went, I lost my friend. My siblings and I, we lost our memory-keeper. And in the intervening years between losing my mother and having a family of my own, I lost my history.

It’s all gone, you see. Every journal I kept from age 13 until 20. Every note and token of love from my first love, which I saved in a (literal) heart-shaped box. Crappy candids of my friends and me in school. Baby-blankets and a sweater knit for me by my Grandy. All of the tangible pieces of the first twenty years of my life. Great-grandma’s china. And all of my mother’s holiday collection.

I frequently force myself to remember that these are just things. Things are not love and they can’t replace the people that you’ve lost. I try to remind myself that I don’t need to cling to these fragments of my past or of my family, because I’m making a new family and building new memories. But it’s hard. It’s hard to decorate a Christmas tree with my daughter and think of a legacy of joy that I won’t be able to pass on to her. It hurts to sit around a table of my in-laws and listen to them tell stories about my husband as he was growing up, knowing that I can’t reciprocate by sitting him down with my mother and having her relive my history for him. It’s sad that so much of what we all seem to take for granted as being permanent and unchangeable, is in fact completely fragile.

I have had to let go of a great deal, but I carry on with traditions and hold my new family close. I’m M’s mommy now. I’m her history-keeper, and I take this appointment seriously. Her stories are written down in baby books and documented in photos. We are building a life and a foundation for her to jump off from and I will make sure that it persists in case she ever wishes to return. Every year, we buy a new ornament and add to our Christmas collection, rich with fondness for what we have and bittersweet joy for what we lost.

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Wrong. All we can do is learn to float.

 

You Don’t Look Sick and Other Microaggressions

Having a mental illness means fighting a war on all fronts. I wake up in the morning to fight the same hellacious demons that prevented me from sleeping the night before. And while those dogs follow along snapping at my heels, I navigate a world that is filthy with social landmines: impossible-to-detect people and situations that will inevitably blow up in my face. Some of the worst of these hidden bombshells are the well-meaning, ignorant, or otherwise unaware kind. Harvard psychologist Chester M. Pierce initially coined the term “microaggressions” to connote the insults and dismissals that non-black-Americans hurl at people of color. Later, the term came to apply to all statements of ignorance made by the majority about a minority. For those of us living with a mental illness, these statements belie an underlying dismissal by those who are neurotypical on the bases of invalidation, assumption of inferiority, fear of mental illness, shaming of mental illness, and second-class citizenry.

With the help of illustrator, Ms. Alex, I am pleased to present you with a few of my favorites. (Read: things I’m really fucking tired of hearing.) I would love to see yours in the comments!


“But you don’t look sick.”

imageAnd you don’t look like a doctor. When I hear this from people, I often want to ask them what “sick” looks like. Should I be a homeless bag-lady? Would that my my illness more legitimate? I wonder if this means I need to prove my illness to you. Like, “Here is a list of my symptoms. Is that sufficient evidence to back my story?”

“But you always seem so confident/put-together/capable.”

imageI get that you probably mean this as a compliment, so thanks. I put a lot of time and energy into making it appear as if I have my shit together. And I typically don’t let everyone in on my little secret, so I guess: ha ha, I fooled you!

“Oh, I know what you mean! I’m totally bipolar/OCD/schizo, too!”

imageNo, you’re not. You just think it’s cute to liken your non-clinical experiences of sadness and anxiety to serious mental illnesses that require treatment. But it isn’t cute. Knock it off. Appropriating serious terms for various levels of average experiences within the human condition when you don’t actually have an illness isn’t cute and it promotes a negative stigma about those of us who actually do have chronic conditions.

“I know that you’re anxious/depressed/angry about ____, but really you should just be grateful that ____.”

imageWow. You’re right. I should be grateful for the good things that are going on — but check this out: I am a complex, fully-formed human being, and I can divide my attention enough to feel both gratitude for what’s positive in my life, AND anxiety, depression, or anger about another situation at the same time. Imagine that.

“Well, I’m not a mind reader!”

imageNo, you aren’t, and I don’t expect you to be. I don’t think you should have to anticipate and fulfill my needs the very moment they arise, but it would be lovely if you could have a little more compassion for how gut-wrenchingly difficult and uncomfortable it is for me to ask for help. I would rather floss with barbed-wire.

“You really only needed to ask.”

imagePlease see the above re: BARBED WIRE. I get that to you, and most other people, asking seems like a very simple thing. But I have been trained that asking places me in a high-risk situation where neglect, rejection, or even outright humiliation are all potential outcomes. My very being shies away from any course of action that could potentially cause me harm, and in doing so, I tend to either ignore my needs or run rough-shod over others in order to get what I need without their help. I’m sorry — I know that’s shitty of me. Please try to understand: it’s about my wonky brain, it’s not about you.

“I didn’t invite you because I knew you wouldn’t be interested/would cancel.”

imageYeah, you’re probably right. Can you do me a favor, though, and ask anyway? Because I tend to cope with stress by putting my blinders on, which lands me in a rut. By the time I look up to catch my bearings, I’ve overlooked how isolated I’ve become, and I need you to interrupt me with messages of love and support. I need you to take the time to encourage me to step out of the rut and try something new. And sometimes, I need to be dragged out kicking and screaming.

“I love you, but…”

imageDo you? Do you love me? Is it a love without conditions? And I don’t mean “unconditional love”. I mean “a love without strings attached”. Because I can’t accept love or kindness that comes bound up in expectations. I am clumsy. I will trip over my good intentions and my own words. I will tangle myself up all the strings that bind me to you, and I will hang myself with them. No question. So if this is the only way you are fit to love me, please love me less.

“Wow. This is mighty selfish of you.”

I know. I know, and I feel like crap about it. Try to understand: I am tip-toeing the line between “selfish” and “self-care” while blindfolded, forty feet in the air, and without a safety net. I don’t want to burden you, or land you with the sole responsibility of maintaining our relationship. I promise, this isn’t permanent — it’s just one of my bad turns, and I will get better. When I come out of it, things will be easier for us both. But please don’t leave me behind when things get rough. I have a lot to offer in kinship with someone patient and compassionate enough to love me in spite of my faults.
Everyone is always telling me to “hang on” when my brain tries to kill me — could you hang on, too?