Having depression means that I deal with a range of struggles on a regular basis. But one thing that I find the most difficult is explaining what having depression is like to people that have never experienced it. It is so rough to find just the right combination of words or the ideal analogy to sum up what it feels like to be depressed.
So last weekend when I watched Pixar’s Inside Out I nearly jumped for joy. Well, not literally. In actual fact I sat and watched the film with my mouth agape, occasionally brushing away a tear. The gaping jaw and tears were the product of watching a film that so accurately summed up what it feels like to have depression. The joy came later when I realised that I might just have found a great movie to recommend to people who want to better understand the experience of depression.
*Note: This post contains spoilers*
Today I’d like to touch on some of the aspects of Inside Out that I felt brilliantly illustrated what it’s like to have depression.
Everything Turns Blue
When Riley’s depression begins, her emotions are shocked to see that everything Sadness touches begins to turn blue. Slowly her collection of glowing golden memories are tainted by Sadness, and even her core memories (the most important memories which build aspects of Riley’s personality) begin to take on an inky hue. To me this felt like such a great metaphor for depression. When you’re depressed, sadness seems to seep into every aspect of your being. Even once-happy memories become tinged with regret, anxiety and longing. Finding a positive spin on your negative thoughts becomes nearly impossible.
I particularly liked the part where Joy picks up one of the now-blue memories and begins to frantically rub at it, trying to turn it back to gold. This made me think of all the times when someone has told me to “just look on the bright side” or “think positive thoughts” as a means of turning my depression around. As much as you’d like to be able to rub a little happiness on your emotional wounds, depression isn’t fixed that easily.
Feeling cut off from personality traits and interests
When Riley’s depression really begins to take hold, her emotions lose contact with her “Personality Islands”. Each Personality Island represents an important aspect of Riley’s personality, from her values, her favourite hobbies and the things she holds most dear. One by one, the Personality Islands begin to crumble and decay. I felt a tug in my heart when this started to happen, because I could relate so strongly to that feeling. When my depression deepens, I sometimes feel as though I’m losing touch with the things that make me “me”. Hobbies and interests stop being interesting. I will go through the motions of doing the things that usually bring me joy, and feel intensely frustrated when I don’t feel anything. It’s as though my personality traits become dulled and I’m a colourless version of myself. Two of Riley’s Personality Islands represent Friendship and Family, and the crumbling of these two islands is particularly poignant as she becomes more isolated from her nearest and dearest.
Frustration and confusion.
Two words I use frequently when talking about depression are frustration and confusion. And these two concepts are brilliantly depicted in the film. When Riley’s memories begin turning blue, her emotions are beside themselves with worry. They simply can’t figure out why it’s happening. Even Sadness can’t explain what’s going on even though she’s the cause of all the trouble. This feeling of “why is this happening?” is so common with depression. When it starts creeping into your life, it’s terrifying and you feel so confused as to why you are feeling this way.
After the initial shock, Riley’s emotions become frustrated as their attempts to turn her negative feelings around don’t work. They try to contain Sadness by asking her to stay within a circle drawn on the floor, they attempt to distract her with meaningless tasks and they make her promise not to touch any memories. But she continues touching and making things worse. And so the emotions become annoyed and upset with her. The thing I found the most interesting was that even Sadness was frustrated with herself. She didn’t know why she kept touching things, she just felt drawn to do the very thing she wasn’t supposed to. And that’s the frustrating thing about depression: you don’t want to feel this way, you don’t want the sadness to take over but you can’t help it. And it seems as though any effort you make to contain it is fruitless.
Fear, Anger and Disgust
When Joy and Sadness head off to figure out a solution to their problems, Fear, Anger and Disgust are left in charge of Riley’s internal engine. Which in turn leads to a slew of inappropriate emotional responses. While this part of the movie was filled with comic relief, there was a very un-funny message behind it. In my experience, once my good feelings have bolted in the face of a depressive episode, I’m left with Fear: which makes me anxious and wary; Disgust: which makes me judgemental and sarcastic and Anger: which gives me a very short fuse. It is no fun trying to get around with those three driving the ship. While it was pretty funny watching Anger, Fear and Disgust try to figure out what Joy would have done to handle the situation, I was reminded of how difficult it is to maintain the appearance of normalcy when you just want to scream at everyone who crosses your path. I remember going to work and having to force a grit-teethed smile onto my face and try to sound polite as I dealt with each customer. I vividly recall trying to arrange my face into the closest approximation of a pleasant expression when attending a party with friends. It is exhausting and difficult to maintain a normal life when your emotions are out of whack.
Sadness isn’t the bad guy
One of the aspects of the film that I felt was the most important was how the character Sadness was dealt with. Sadness wasn’t the villain. Although the other characters get annoyed with her, she isn’t the bad guy in this film. Sadness was a part of Riley’s emotional team from the beginning, and I think that’s a really important distinction to make. Sadness is a normal part of being human. But depression is what happens when Sadness gets out of control. I thought it was great that the film didn’t try to make out that all sadness is bad, and that any negative emotion should be swept under the carpet. It was great to see that recognition that we all go through a range of emotions, and that it’s only a problem when those emotions become unbalanced.
The truth is, Inside Out wasn’t a perfect representation of depression. There were some aspects of the story that didn’t gel with my personal experience. But I still feel that it came closer than most other movies I’ve seen at describing what it is like to live with depression. I am so heartened to have found this film that so beautifully illustrates one of the least-beautiful aspects of my life.