Today is my birthday. I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk about something different: mental health.
Last weekend we went to Birmingham, where I studied for my degree and my PhD, collectively spending eight years of my life there, the longest of anywhere I have ever lived save for where I grew up. It’s a city I know and love, and though it will always be a city in continual change — there are substantial building works taking place in the centre at this time, and there are more plans to follow — it will always remain familiar and comfortable. That’s a surprising thing for me to say, coming from the country, and I’ve certainly not been converted to city life, but it became home through good times and bad. Since those eight years we’ve moved house twice, moved towns twice, and are only now feeling remotely like we’re finding community again.
To revisit Birmingham this weekend, however, was a challenge. Our reason for going was to attend a ‘reunion’ barbecue, for it has been 10 years (well, nearly 11) since my degree started, and several old faces were getting together. It was very nice to catch up, certainly, but it was difficult too. On the wall at the party were photos from those early university days. I didn’t recognise myself in them.
People change. That’s a given. But I don’t even remotely remember the person I was then. Part of that is down to stress — certain aspects of work that I have experienced since, including my PhD, haven’t done wonders for my mental health, and in periods since I have needed extra help. The upshot of it all is that I struggle now to have emotions, to be happy or to be sad, and most pressingly I struggle to be excited. About anything.
So to see myself from back then was like looking at a ghost, someone who used to have all these emotions but someone long lost. To go back to Birmingham for the party was a wonderful nostalgia trip – and hard-hitting too: nowhere and at no moment since have I felt so comfortable. Hearing our old neighbour’s flat is now for sale, at a price we could actually afford to buy, confounded my thoughts even further: we could go back, this news suggested, raising my hopes. Except we can’t: we have lives elsewhere now.
I’m not writing this for sympathy. I’m aware it’s a jumble of thoughts and emotions that might not fully make sense to an outside observer, but then that’s my head – lots of life lessons and not much mental capacity to know what to do with them. And I’m better than I was, many of my issues I’ve worked through and their burdens have lifted. I’m aware, too, that many people have endured far worse than I have, but everybody has their struggles, and my nemesis is that ever-present multi-headed beast called stress, stress combined with my own high standards and low self-esteem no less. No, I’m writing this because of two further details from the weekend just passed.
On the Sunday morning we went to Rowheath Pavilion in Bournville, site of our old church. The church is still going, under new leadership since we left and with some old and many new faces. We were duly welcomed, hugs from old friends, and all was familiar. I always loved the church for its heart for its community, its wanting to share love with those in the neighbourhood, and that heart, I was pleased to see, was still there. Put simply, we haven’t found a church like it since, which has been one of the reasons we have struggled to find anywhere to call home.
In the past week they had hosted a family festival, and the service strayed from its normal structure to share stories from the three days on site. What struck me was the church’s willingness to share that love, with anyone. One of the speakers admitted talking about Jesus made her cringe. One of the festival helpers spent a few minutes talking about how playing video games had brought companionship (he’d hosted a PlayStation tournament as an activity for local children and teenagers). It gave me hope. Normal people, whatever their struggles, were just as welcome as those who have it sorted. First and foremost everyone was family.
Inside Out. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s about an 11 year old girl called Riley – except she’s not the main character, she’s the setting. Instead, the characters are five emotions (Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear and Anger), which live inside her head. They’ve been anthropomorphised, such that Joy is a Tinkerbell-type yellow-coloured character, Sadness a bookish, shy and retiring blue character, and so on, and together they live in a control room, pushing buttons and pulling levers to control Riley.
Forgive the exposition, but it’s important for this narrative (spoilers alert). Whenever Riley makes a new memory, it is stored inside an orb that is produced by the machinery of her mind. The orb is coloured according to the emotion that best defines that memory (joy, sadness, disgust, fear and anger are each represented by a different colour). At the end of the day, all these memories get sent to long term memory, a colourful warehouse inside the world Pixar have created. Sometimes, however, a more powerful memory, a core memory, is formed, one that establishes an aspect of Riley’s personality, and these orbs get stored in a central, secure console, powering ‘Personality Islands’. In the vast cartoon world of Riley’s mind these are literally islands, sitting alongside other important aspects such as Imagination (a theme park) and Abstract thought. All of this, I promise, makes more sense if you see the film, and see it you should.
Joy has been in charge ever since Riley’s first emotion (giggling as a baby). But circumstances suddenly change as Riley’s family move home: all of her friends and loves have to be left behind, and this causes an imbalance in her emotions — literally, Joy and Sadness get locked out of the control room, leaving Disgust, Anger and Fear to run the show. Things go from bad to worse for Riley, with the Personality Islands literally crumbling away inside her mind as the core memories are lost, and, because of a well-intentioned but badly thought through idea by Anger, she considers running away. Meanwhile, Joy and Sadness, lost amid long term memory and other aspects of Riley’s brain, have to learn to work with each other to get back home, an action romp involving a literal Train of Thought and a Hollywood-style Dream Theatre. Again, this makes much more sense if you see it, and see it you should.
The film is inventive, clever and funny. It takes complicated ideas and, through a silly cartoon, brings them to life. Most importantly, and most startlingly for a family film, it has a very different message to your average blockbuster, that is: it is OK to be sad. In fact, sometimes being sad is important. In the end it is Sadness, not Joy, that is able to help Riley find a footing in her new life.
It was a silly cartoon but it spoke right through all my confusion, my stresses and my inability to react with emotion. It told me that being sad was OK. It told me that not knowing what to do was OK. But it also gave me new ways of thinking about what I struggle with. Taking about mental health is difficult, and if allegories with coloured orbs and Personality Islands are what is needed to make sense of the fuzz then so be it. Riley’s long term memory largely glows yellow as most of her experiences have been joyous, but I wondered what colour my mind would be. More strongly purple I presumed, with extra dashes of blue. I could see how, just like Riley, my Personality Islands had crumbled over time, and wondered how I might rebuild them. It didn’t give me answers, but it helped me make sense of it.
And so I left the cinema a wreck, but better for it. It also (again, go and see it) left me humming a really annoying advert jingle.
It’s my birthday today. I’m 29 years old. And thanks to Pixar, a weekend of nostalgia and a demonstration of love in action, I understand myself a lot better than when I was 28.
With love to my parents, who will read this, and to whom I have not previously confided much of the above