Inside Out & Mental Health

As someone with mental disorders, I have to say I was a little nervous to see Inside Out.  The way the movie delved into the human mind in such a peppy, caricatured way both worried and interested me.  Would it stay in the realm of humor and light-heartedness, or would it maybe explore what might happen when all someone’s emotions aren’t quite in check? Could this movie, perhaps, provide people with a comprehensible metaphor for disorders?

Half of me went into the theater hoping for the latter, wishing for a movie aimed at kids to finally tackle mental disorders — and the other half of me hoped they’d stay well away from the area, lest they should just make mental disorders even more misunderstood.  I tried not to invest myself too much in the film, so I wouldn’t be too disappointed if it took a turn for the worse, but by the end of the movie, I could finally breathe a sigh of relief.

Disney/Pixar did choose to tackle one mental disorder, and in my opinion they did it pretty well.

Inside Out is centered around the idea that people operate on five main emotions — Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger, and Fear — that work together in the “headquarters” of their person to make sure they stay content and functioning.  In the beginning of the movie, Joy is clearly Riley’s primary emotion.  Despite being downcast about having to move to a new state, leaving all her friends back in Minnesota, she manages to maintain an honestly upbeat outlook on things, and her parents thank her for remaining their “happy girl.”  A little ways into the film, however, Riley loses access to two of her emotions: Joy and Sadness, leaving her with only Anger, Disgust, and Fear.

My hope for the movie was that Joy would go missing, and we would then see what happened to Riley as she tried to go on without one of her vital emotions, but having her lose Sadness, too, was an even better move.  Although depression takes on different forms for different people, I think it’s safe to say that for most, depression isn’t actually being depressed in the sense of being sad.  Quite often, depression is having to force emotions that you don’t actually feel (which are usually the ones that make sense in whatever situation you’re in), and having to try to control the emotions you feel too much (the ones that don’t make sense).

This is exactly the nonsensical, frustrated behavior Riley exhibits when she tries to talk to her parents with only Anger, Fear, and Disgust at hand.  Her attention isn’t focused; she hardly looks at her parents as she snaps back irritable responses without understanding why she’s doing it (“What was that? I though you said we were going to act casual!” Fear narrates).

In the following scene, Riley’s father comes up to her room and tries to raise her spirits with a joke the two used to enjoy.  Riley merely stares at him, unable to find it funny.

We watch her judgment cloud, her relationships with her friends and family crumble, and her interests fade away.  We watch her shut down (displayed literally as Anger, Fear, and Disgust grasp hopelessly at a control panel that won’t respond to any of their commands as it begins to break down), and we see that no one, not even Riley herself, can help because the problem was caused by an imbalance in Riley’s mind that she has no control over.  She literally cannot change her outlook on things, because her brain has not given her the proper tools to.

Although it was a heartbreaking moment, it felt absolutely amazing to finally see that happen in a movie — especially a kids’ movie.  Far too many children go without help simply because they don’t understand what’s happening to them and don’t see why they need to ask for help, or because their parents don’t want to label them and end up mistaking a serious disorder for “just a part of growing up.”  I hope Inside Out will help children understand what they’re going through and how to explain it to others, and that it will help friends and family understand how to help (and why “think positive!” does far more harm than good in some situations).

I believe Inside Out will also be a help to children without disorders.  For the majority of the movie, we watch Joy shoving Sadness aside, trying to keep her out of Riley’s life entirely, and we see the disaster that ensues because of it.  In real life, we’re often told to “cheer up” or to “look on the bright side” because “life is good,” even if it’s a perfectly reasonable moment to not feel happy.

It’s never a good feeling to try and stuff an emotion away and tell yourself you’re feeling a different one, and at the end of this movie, the very obvious message is that having a plethora of emotions is okay.  It’s okay to feel.  Riley’s memories (represented as little orbs that glow the color of the emotion that accompanied them) — which were previously policed by Joy, who made sure all the other emotions kept well away from them — turn from all-yellow to a beautiful mix of colors as her emotions finally learn to work together.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve tried to convince myself that I had a good day, when I really didn’t feel so good at the time.  Then, one day, I remember writing in my journal, “parts of the day were good, and parts of the day weren’t, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”  It may seem like a simple thought, but it was the most liberating feeling in the world to finally accept it and stop trying to make everything all good all the time.

Inside Out may not have touched on many (still highly misunderstood) disorders — and it may not have been its intention to feature any — but in my opinion, what it did, it did well.

…Oh, and one more thing.  Everyone’s emotions were personified as either all female or all male, except for Riley’s, which were a mix of both.  Could we, perhaps, have our first non-binary Pixar character?

The Glass Case — Prosetry

When I have a really good day, I understand how hard it must be to empathize with someone with depression, because even I forget what depression is.

“And what is depression?”

Depression is a glass case. Sometimes the walls build up around you slowly, and sometimes the whole thing just comes crashing down on you, already built. At first, you think it’s okay — you think you can just keep going. So you set your hands on the walls of the case and push it around with you. You tell yourself you’re strong enough and you smile through it, and for a while, you do okay.

But one day, the case is heavier. A lot heavier. You wake up and you feel like it’s crushing you. But there’s no reason for it, right? Nothing’s wrong, so why do you feel so bad? You don’t have an answer, so you get up and push the case through your day again. You tell yourself you feel fine, and you almost believe it. You smile in the mirror and feel the case let up a little as you stand still inside it. You can control it, you know you can. So you go downstairs and find your family eating breakfast. You pick a seat at the table and sit down, but something feels wrong. There’s not enough space. The case has doubled in size overnight, and nobody’s moving to accommodate it. They’re loud, and their words echo around the case. You feel claustrophobic, you feel horrible. The walls are starting to fog up, and you’re beginning to perceive the people around you as blurry, distant, yet still too close. Your mom says something to you, and you snap back at her. You didn’t mean to, but you feel so tense inside that your words come out that way, too. She’s offended, maybe hurt, maybe mad. You feel sick. You want to say sorry; you want to explain, but you have no explanation. So you get up and leave.

You’re in the bathroom again now. Just standing there with the fan on to block out the sound of your panicked breathing. You’re panicking because you can’t control it anymore. You’re starting to break under the weight of the case. It feels absolutely impossible to go back outside and interact normally with the case still with you. You want someone to help haul it around with you, but that’s wrong, isn’t it? To want to burden someone else with this? You know it’s wrong. So you feel even worse now, because you don’t just feel horrible for no reason. You feel horrible because the case is still breaking you down, and now you also feel so immensely weak and selfish and guilty because you’re starting to doubt your ability to get through this on your own. You know you can’t keep giving in to yourself, so you go back outside even though you still feel like you’re on the verge of tears.

And that’s how you spend your days — for days, weeks, maybe months at a time. Every now and then you’ll get a day where the case is lighter, and feel like you might even be able to break through the paper thin walls. And then other days, it’s twenty times thicker and even a tiny tap on the glass throws you, shaking and sobbing, against the corner because just having to carry around the weight of the case has put you so on edge that you can’t deal with anything normally anymore.

Sometimes people just get mad at you because there’s no broken arm, no scar across your face, nothing physical that they can see. Sometimes they try to empathize, try to ask you what’s wrong and how they can help, but they always just end up frustrated because you can’t find the words to answer. And meanwhile you feel like your entire head is screaming, and also like it’s completely shut down. You don’t know if you want to talk to someone or not, and you definitely know you don’t know how. You’re embarrassed when you break down in public and spend days trying to apologize, but just feel even guiltier and more embarrassed when all you can say is “I don’t know what’s wrong.”

You see other people living so effortlessly, reacting to things so rationally, being so . . . happy. You wish you could be like them, but all they’ll tell you is “choose to be happy,” “life’s too short,” “life’s what you make it,” and countless other things that just make you feel worse because they don’t have any effect on you.

And the worst thing about the case? It’s glass. It’s the finest, clearest glass in the world, and no one can see it. Not even you.

Note: this isn’t meant to describe everyone’s experience with depression/anxiety. People experience depression and anxiety in vastly different ways, and this is my way. Really, I was just trying to make sense of what I felt.

[Also, I don’t know why this is written like an interview. That’s just how it formed in my mind and I went with it.]



Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash