Content warnings: Disney Frozen spoilers. Also possible triggers: mental illness, isolation, oppression, stigma, emotional abuse, childhood trauma, problems in Western psychiatry, passing mentions of self-harm and death.
I absolutely love the movie Frozen.
In case you haven’t seen it and have somehow managed to avoid being bombarded by ads and YouTube videos and Buzzfeed articles and conversations… Frozen is a computer animated musical about a young woman with magical powers that allow her to create and control ice and snow. It tells the story of her journey in learning to control her powers, and also focuses on the relationship between her and her younger sister Anna (who does not have any supernatural abilities herself). Now if you’re wondering why the heck a review of a children’s movie is on a blog about radical mental health and neurodiversity, know that this is not actually a movie review. I’m not here to discuss my thoughts on the movie as a whole, but to discuss how the main character Elsa speaks very strongly to me as another person who lives outside the norm (in my case because of my madness, neurodivergence, and disabilities). The main reason actually why I love this movie so much is not because it is enjoyable to watch (although it is), or because it has a particularly groundbreaking message (although it does have a few lovely and important morals), but because pretty much everyone I know who’s seen it has expressed being able to relate to at least one of the characters. When media can do that I think it really says something about its ability to portray humanity in a nuanced way, even in fantastical settings.
(Elsa, left, with her sister Anna, right)
I do not have any magical powers (er…in a literal sense, though as a Pagan I do believe in magic more metaphorically). At the core though, Frozen is a story about the challenges and dangers of being different in a world that often reacts to differences with fear and cruelty. It is also a story about learning to be and love yourself anyway, with the help of the caring and brave people who go against the grain and love you for who you are.
The radical mental health group Icarus Project, of which I am a part and which played a crucial role in helping me develop the views that inform this blog, calls mental illness or madness a dangerous gift. The name Icarus comes from the Greek mythology of Icarus, whose wax wings allowed him to fly but flying too close to the sun melted the wings, causing his death. While some disagree, I don’t think calling madness a dangerous gift (or radical mental health views overall) minimizes or denies the very real pain and challenges of madness, and the risks that these challenges can bring. Icarus Project may call it a gift but acknowledges the inherent danger of not being able to effectively tend to that gift. The main difference between radical and mainstream Western mental health beliefs is not in whether or not suffering exists at all, but in how they recommend viewing and coping with suffering.
As a whole, mainstream Western mental health views madness as a health issue, an illness, so like other medical issues the goal is ultimately to find a cure, or ways to manage the symptoms if the illness is chronic and cannot be cured. Radical mental health on the other hand views cure not only as probably impossible, but undesirable and possibly even dangerous in itself. If mad and neurodivergent people are not inferior but are simply different, then suggesting we change the very core of who we are is on par with saying the world would be better off without people like us in it. Also a lot of people who attempt the cure approach end up with new symptoms or their symptoms become even more severe than before. Denying one’s true self at all times is not only frustrating and difficult, but especially for people who are emotionally sensitive already, can be very harmful even to the point of causing permanent damage. Even mainstream psychology recognizes this to an extent (Freud for instance famously theorized how repression is the root of many neuroses). Yet mainstream psychology still views madness almost as an external object, like a suit of armor, that one can and should learn to remove, rather than an integral aspect of self such as the heart that would cause death if removed. Radical mental health does see madness as integral in many cases (entirely situational depression or anxiety aside), and with that in mind the ultimate goal for healing is to learn to tend to and channel it effectively. This self-care and channeling is important and necessary. Radical mental health does not advocate unconditional self-acceptance to the point of doing nothing at all toward personal development, but rather believes in focusing growth and healing efforts on approaches that still fully acknowledge and avoid vilifying madness.
The choice of the word “vilify” is very purposeful. Elsa was originally intended as a villain. Disney ultimately decided to go in a different direction with the character, portraying her as flawed but talented and kind-hearted, and telling the story from her and Anna’s points of view (who in addition to being Elsa’s sister, is a devoted friend and advocate from the start). I am very happy they did take this route instead, as it is one of the only works of children’s media (particularly Disney) I can think of that realistically portrays the complex, confusing, nuanced ways “good” and “evil” actually work in the real world. Which is to say, the real “villains” of the world are often actually confused heroes, or people with good intentions but without the skills or resources to carry them out effectively, people who feel incredibly guilty about the harm they cause others, or perhaps people who are actually incredibly harmful but think they are being heroic. (The latter could describe terrorists, bigots, abusers, some politicians, and some religious extremists, but fortunately does not describe Elsa.)
In our world the people who the media and history call villains are not necessarily villains at all. Some are (to the extent that fairy tale concepts can be applied to reality at all), and this is not to be denied or ignored. Many of them though are simply people with dangerous gifts; gifts that perhaps the rest of the world has never seen before, or have only seen the curse but not the blessing. Humans have a natural inclination to react to what they don’t understand with fear. Fear, in some people, can lead to judgment and assumptions, which can ultimately lead to cruelty. Even the person with the dangerous gift themself may be afraid of it if they don’t fully understand it, or if they have internalized the fear and hatred of others.
So they might hide from the world, to ostensibly protect not only themselves but those they love from their worst.
This image, of Elsa hiding in her room, ashamed that her powers are completely out of control, as her sister bangs on the door begging for company from the friend she once knew… This scene honestly made me cry and haunted me for days. (Source: http://disney-frozen-please.tumblr.com/post/77063728159/do-you-wanna-build-a-snowman, also this but major spoilers:
I have had so many people ask for or even demand my attention, to see me again when I am isolating in the midst of an episode. I have heard, over and over, that I am missed, or that they miss the cheerful person I used to be. This can make me feel loved but it is also heartbreaking, since I miss them and miss the productive, healthy, happy me just as much. I miss building snowmen. I miss spending time with the ones I love. But instincts are hard to break. When I was little, I was taught (by my parents, teachers, bullies, everyone really), that emotions cause nothing but problems and so are to be hidden, denied, destroyed at all costs. I was taught to carry bottled water and cotton balls everywhere I went, so I could wash my face in a dark corner if I cried, and nobody would ever know. I was taught to leave the comfort of home as little as possible. I was taught to be careful and hypervigilant, always alert, never taking unnecessary risks, never showing my vulnerability, perpetually being whoever and whatever others wanted me to be.
This is naturally a recipe for disaster. Eventually, the facade will break and the coping strategies will crumble.
Elsa and Anna do come to terms with Elsa’s powers, as Elsa learns to use them effectively and for good. (Ok, it’s a Disney children’s cartoon…I swear it’s not entirely depressing). But the catalyst for this is…kind of odd. Maybe not for reality, but for what you might expect from fantasy. She basically just throws her hands in the air and says “fuck that shit, I’m done. I have no more fucks to give.” Nothing particularly dramatic or action-packed happens to cause this change of heart, just…realizing the game is pointless and shitty and a lost cause anyway.
The hit song Let it Go could easily be renamed I Have No More Fucks to Give.
I can’t pass as “normal” anymore, not even if I tried. It’s just too exhausting, and my exhaustion and frustration and difficulty is palpable. I did for a long, long time (over twenty years), but I guess I burnt out. When this happened, I did need to mourn. I needed to mourn my “normal” life. I needed to mourn my passing privilege…having my basic humanity respected most of the time. Being your true self, openly and unapologetically, is not without its challenges and risks, and sometimes and for some people these are just too much. In middle school for instance, the mask was absolutely necessary, a key survival strategy. In adult life, I still need it at job interviews and formal functions (which can be a lot like middle school, with the gossip and the “cool kid” and “freak” tables). Also honestly, the hiding was never really about fear of the world or an actual desire to be alone. It was mostly about fear that others wouldn’t be able to handle all of me, that I would somehow hurt or offend or scare them if they knew who I really am. Sometimes, that does happen…I cannot predict how people will react to coming out and showing my true colors, flaws and all. Some react with judgment or even cruelty, some flee, but others become my Anna’s…. genuine supporters who stand by me no matter what, and could never do this so effectively without knowing who truly I am and what kind of support I need.
Besides, the freak table never bothered me anyway. It’s where the fun stuff happens. It’s where I’m at peace and free. With all I’ve lost (hope of normalcy, respectful treatment from strangers), I can honestly say it is worth it. I no longer have to devote so much of my energy to maintaining the facade that I have little energy left for anything else. I can now devote that energy more fully to such goals as honing my abilities, and loving and being loved. I have also realized over time (as Elsa does), that the place in my soul that is the source of my intensity and unpredictability, is also the source of many wonderful qualities and abilities, such as creativity and passion and compassion and wisdom. I cannot rid myself of the negative without losing the positive along with it, so rather than continue to try to no avail, I focus instead on finding outlets and support and getting to know myself anew whenever I evolve.
“Let it go, let it go,
And I’ll rise like the break of dawn
Let it go, let it go
That perfect girl is gone.
Here I stand, in the light of day!
Let the storm rage on…
The cold never bothered me anyway”