“What makes her so special?”
I added a new film to Movies & Madness this fall after a student who had complete the class suggested it. Helen (2009) stars Ashley Judd, Goran Visnjic and Lauren Lee Smith and is a powerfully accurate depiction of major depression and suicidality as it impacts individuals, family and friends. There is intense conflict in the story among Helen (who is suicidal and depressed), David (Helen’s husband), and Mathilda (Helen’s friend who also lives with a mental illness). One of many memorable scenes in the film involves David (Visnjic) frantic with fear and anger, trying to force Helen (Judd) to leave her friend Mathilda’s (Smith) apartment and return home with him. When Helen and David are arguing, she attempts to explain why she doesn’t want to come home with him by saying, “You remind me of who I used to be.” He pleads his case but fails to move her. He becomes enraged when she refuses to go with him and physically assaults Mathilda who has intervened on Helen’s behalf.
David then asks Helen, “What makes her so special?” Helen replies, “She doesn’t ask me how I feel. She knows.”
David eventually admits that he doesn’t understand but states honestly that she is his whole life and that will not change. Nevertheless, Helen chooses to remain with Mathilda.
It can be extraordinarily difficult for people who have not had the experience of depression, mania, obsessions and compulsions, panic episodes, delusions, hallucinations, suicidality and the like to imagine how such experiences actually feel. While the bonds with one’s partner or family member may be strong, when that person is in the throes of an episode of intense depression, for example, empathizing in a truly authentic way may be made impossible by the relationship itself. Loved ones often feel driven to protect, fix, correct, and intervene. They may question, check in, and hover. When I am down, the last thing I want is to feel interrogated, watched, and controlled by someone I love. I don’t want to be abandoned; but I don’t want to be managed either. Despite her incapacitated state, Helen remains fiercely independent somehow knowing that she has to find her own way forward. David remains doggedly committed to Helen and (unwillingly) backs away while she finds it. Only people with family members/loved ones who have been in similar places understand just how hard that is to do. They know what the stakes are. In the film, it was equally likely that Helen would take her own life in David’s absence as opposed to choosing returning to the hospital for intensive treatment.
Spending time with Mathilda, who has challenges of her own, is where Helen finds herself moving toward choosing treatment. The part of the film that students talk about the most is the scene in which Helen and Mathilda are on a rooftop drinking and talking. Mathilda throws out the topic, “Top 5 worst pieces of advice from people who don’t know what they are talking about” (take a vacation, read a book, get a haircut, redecorate, try yoga). Helen then changes the topic to “Top five ways of killing yourself.” Mathilda refuses to engage and says, “Top 5 reasons to live anyway.” Helen then shares with Mathilda her conflicted feelings about returning home. Why can she be this open with Mathilda? Mathilda accepts her feelings and understands precisely where they come from. Helen says, ” I can’t go back and I am really sick of apologizing for it.” “Then don’t” is Mathilda’s response.
I understand Helen’s need to have Mathilda as a friend and sounding board despite how hurt and angry it makes David. A critical part of the recovery process is the love and support of family. An equally critical piece is connections to others who have been where you are. These are the people who answer your call no matter what. They will drop everything to listen to you. They accept you when you’re sick and when you’re well. These are the people who notice from a thousand miles away that you are online in the middle of the night unable to sleep (again) and reach out without judgement or advice. This acknowledgement of shared experience provides the comfort of a journey shared.
It’s not that partners/family members can’t perform this role. They frequently do and with great strength and empathy. Many acquire the insight needed to walk with their loved ones rather than demanding to lead them in one direction or another. It requires trust and faith and risk. Mathilda tells David after Helen’s suicide attempt, “She can’t hold on to you. It doesn’t work like that.” David then asks her, “Can she hold on to you.” Mathilda says “No.” Helen has to find her own way through. This is why organizations such as NAMI sponsor classes and support groups for family members. When moms, dads, siblings, spouses, and children walk into those groups, they don’t have to explain how much it hurts to have no one send a card when your child is hospitalized. These people just know. For people like Helen who live with serious mental illness, relationships with family can be fraught with shame, guilt, anger and defensiveness. Healing those relationships as recovery progresses takes acknowledgement and openness to everyone’s various points of view. If the relationship is truly worth saving (some clearly aren’t), all of the people involved need to learn to see the world with far greater compassion for others. I believe this to be the central message of the film.
P.S. While I was initially disappointed in the filmmakers’ choice to have Mathilda take her own life with Helen as a witness, I see it as an attempt, albeit a heavy-handed one, to remind the audience of the lethal potential of mental illnesses such depression and bipolar.