Monday, March 14, 2011

Pain, popcorn and orphaned socks

Last weekend I unknowingly spent my precious Saturday sandwiched between incredible emotional pain and an enormous pile of laundry. Deciding that I should find out what all the fuss was over, I watched the much-lauded The Black Swan. Within ten minutes I began to wonder how anyone would chose to fill such a lovely day with pain similar to drawing ones' fingernails across a blackboard. Virtually every scene was excruciating, and I'm not talking about the haunting ones where the main character saw demons and monsters in the form of possessed ballet creatures. The truly painful parts of this movie were those where the main character, Nina, shared space with her mother. To accentuate their suffocating relationship these scenes were mostly confined to their claustrophobic apartment-- cluttered with souvenirs of the younger's present career and the elder's former one.

Moving my laptop to the dining room, where there is almost no way to actually see the screen because it is flooded with light, I wedged it firmly between two piles of winter clothes that needed folding. If no one was actually going to open a window in that stuffy apartment I was going to do it myself…virtually. I folded a shirt and glanced at the bleached-out screen; stop and start watching was just about right for getting through this nightmare of a movie. I considered turning it off, but with so much in the news about horrifying mothers, girls' low self-image and cutting, this story of personal pain seemed an important one to struggle through.

The extreme manifestation of Nina's pain, in the form of self-injury, is one that albeit unbearable, definitely needs addressing. Assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the University of Chicago, Dr. Niranjan Karnik, explains: "Youths who "cut" are typically not trying to kill themselves, but say that harming themselves helps them cope with other mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression and frustration." This sobering news does nothing to calm this mother of three. To add insult to injury a new study (February 21, 2011) published in the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics found that non-suicidal self-injury (already granted nifty initials: NSSI), which effects an alarming percentage of teen-agers: 14-24%, is being encouraged by its broadcast on YouTube. "The nature of nonsuicidal self-injury videos on YouTube may foster normalization of nonsuicidal self-injury and may reinforce the behavior through regular viewing of nonsuicidal self-injury–themed videos. Graphic videos showing nonsuicidal self-injury are frequently accessed and received positively by viewers. These videos largely provide nonsuicidal self-injury information and/or express a hopeless or melancholic message."

This growing epidemic has garnered so much attention on its own that it is being considered for inclusion as a Diagnosable Mental Disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. In a recent Psychology Today blog on the subject, Dr. Leonard Sax wrote that researchers at Yale University recently reported that 56% of the 10- to 14-year-old girls they interviewed reported engaging in NSSI at some point in their lifetime, including 36% in the past year." These numbers are both astounding and frightening. Although I was desperate to look away from the physical wounds Nina inflicted on herself (especially as she tore her cuticle—that was just disgusting) I realized that the pain of the life imposed upon her, with its obviously unbearable pressures, was far greater and might somehow be, dare I say it, instructive.

Enter: the Queen Mother. That probably sounded like a non sequitur so I'll smooth this segue by explaining that I don't go to the movies anymore. That's an odd sentence coming from someone who loves them as much as I, but it's sadly true. So many things in my life have come in the way of my ability to walk out of the house, drive to the cinema and enjoy a flick on the silver screen. There were years when I couldn't slip out because I either had to get a babysitter (an excessively expensive option for a 90 minute film) or wait for the late show (an costly 10pm nap). Since I've actually been able to get my foot out of the door my life has been overwhelmed by the needs of my growing children, actual projects for work, early morning work-outs and just plain exhaustion. All of this is complicated by the fact that the closest movie theater is a good drive away. We used to have one five minutes down the road but business was bad and they closed up; so much for being able to offer our children to meet their friends at the movies. Now any such gesture goes beyond my generosity as a parent, entailing hours on the road during my official "time-off".

Saturdays are fairly sacrosanct in my house, starting off early in the morning with a lengthy bike ride. From 6am-10am my boys and I are out struggling along one trail or another, with our individual triathlon groups, while the lucky three at home are happily tucked in and asleep. (I've included the dog in the count because she is one of my best sleepers). When we return from our efforts, have showered, and are "kicking back", we aren't looking for any further fireworks; in fact, a good movie is just about the perfect way to round off the day.

This past weekend, frustrated after sitting through yet one more Oscars ceremony without having seen even one of the nominees for best picture, I officially ended my opprobrium of watching first-run movies on a miniscule screen. I whipped out my laptop and, going for broke, submerged myself in a digitally stream-fed, double-feature. First up: The Black Swan. Although I'd originally planned on stopping right there, the need to restore the beauty in life, which had been crushed and smothered by this horror show of a movie, propelled me to continue on to The King's Speech.

Here's where the Queen Mother comes in. Helena Bonham-Carter's character offered me the perfect anecdote for the one played so sinisterly by Barbara Hershey. The dissimilarity between these two maternal figures who'd wandered in between the twisted t-shirts on my dining table this sunny Saturday could not have been more striking. The polar opposite of the Evil Queen (officially squashing all other candidates for the Mommie Dearest II award)  the young Elizabeth takes care of her own--including within her fold not only her two children, Elizabeth and Margaret, but also husband Bertie and the whole of Olde England. Her sympathetic ear, offered with a slight tilt of the head throughout the movie as she follows the progression of Bertie's speech therapy and emotional transformation, signifies her infinite patience, hesitant modesty, devotion, love, acceptance and faith. Whereas one reviewer described this film as "a pudding of a movie, easy in, easy out", "its lack of chew ideal for those porcelain veneers twinkling in the dark at the Kodak," it offered this Saturday viewer serious consolation. What could have been more healing to my Black-Swan-bruised-psyche than the relationship which developed between the soon-to-be-King and his therapist!

Something that struck me, while working my way through the meter high pile of clothes on the table surrounding the screen, was the personal pain of the main characters in both of these movies. Primarily derived from the expectations of those around them, Nina, by her mother, and Bertie, by a damaging early Nanny and the altered reality that comes from not being first in line to the throne, it seemed not only predictable but furthermore, realistic. Quite relevant to my own attempt at helping my children to overcome their various struggles was the manner in which these two battled their evils to contrary ends; one in suicide and the other in the assumption of self-confidence that led to a successful rule (I'm sure quite overdramatized by the film). While Nina was smothered in pain and unable to escape its grasp, Bertie conquered his difficulties with the help of his faithful supporters. Searching amongst the pile of orphaned socks, pulling out legs of pants that had been hastily shed and clinging to the sweatshirts still warm from the dryer, I was reminded of the fragility of the human spirit and the importance of a warm, supportive set of embracing arms. As I said, Saturdays at home are sacred.


  1. and now to music......
    the game of life is hard to play and you cant win it anyway...
    suicid is painless it brings on many chnges...
    live and love... its easy and the only way.

  2. lovely. sad. we can only take in so much. then, we need to be home again.

    & yes, the laundry so allows us back in, although i cannot for the life of me figure out where the socks all go. can you ?

  3. Each of these two movies had special meaning to me as a parent.

    I almost walked out of The Black Swan as it was so painful to watch, especially since my daughter has gone through very difficult periods of depression and anorexia. But I saw it through to the end, and thought that there was a bit of genius in the way it was presented.

    Bertie was an inspiration, as my son suffers from Tourette and has battled with so much just to live a normal life. Continually rejected by the army, even as a volunteer, he never gave up and in the end - not only was he accepted as a volunteer- but he was later offered a position in "keva" (permanent army) and has been serving there the last seven years. He has also shared his story on an Israeli TV special, in the hope that his own story can serve as an inspiration to others like him.

    We live our children's pain. We help them struggle through it and try to share with them our strength, even when we are crumbling within.

  4. David, Thank you so much for sharing your personal stories here.