I’m inching closer to outwardly, rather than secretly, pursuing a long-held interest: the mental health field. I cringe to use the phrase because I think we need a better linguistic system to discuss these lived realities but for now, I’ve got to use the common vocab so everyone else will know what I’m talking about. Until very recently, I haven’t admitted to myself or anyone else that this is and has been a consistent draw for me throughout my life because, well, I didn’t trust myself. I have assumed my thoughts, ideas and desires needed constant scrutiny, refining and shaping – all from the outside, of course – since I was a child and it’s caused me to do so much out of fear.
Which is why The Perks of Being a Wallflower hit me so hard and resounded within me for so long. My husband and I watched it a month or so ago and I’ve been listening to one song in it – Come On Eileen – basically on repeat ever since, though the sound track as a whole is superbly constructed. The group of friends that mother-hen Charlie think so, too, which is one of about 100 things that make them so lovable. They’re also real people – high schoolers, who are complicated because they transcend the moody-little-sack-of-hormones mold and live their normal, dramatic lives replete with contradictions. After watching this film, I wondered why we don’t seem to tolerate simultaneous pain and elation as much in adults, why big emotions are seen as immature and one of the many things you need to grow out of, why the depth of pain in grown-ups is generally directly correlated to the risk of receiving a diagnosis.
That’s another thing. There are not, as far as I’m aware, “official” (as ‘official’ as the field of psychiatry can be, to show my cards a little bit here) diagnoses in the movie. I’m not saying that there is no suffering, as is sometimes mistaken when diagnosticism is absent. But the suffering is complex, beautifully complex – beautiful because it refuses to collapse pain or paradox into a comforting platitude it hasn’t yet earned – which is probably why the language of diagnosis is not invoked. It’s the only respectable thing to do. You’re concerned for Charlie, the soft-spoken protagonist who’s iceberg is only about 5% showing, which you know mostly from the beginning. But you don’t, at least I didn’t, feel compelled at all to ask “what’s wrong with him?” I wanted to hear his story, which slowly gets unveiled, and then unravels, during our two hours with him.
The ending toppled me. My story is not the same as dear Charlie’s, but my responses to mine have been similar so the conclusion – and by that I mean the last half hour or so – walloped my coping mechanisms. They were down for the count, which lasted a few hours after the end of the movie. I was startled by the conclusion, but not in a gimmicky, “gotcha” way. Once I recovered, I found an expansive appreciation for the ending: hardly anything was tied off with a neat, little bow, Charlie’s still got a lot of hard stuff to face and so do his friends. It’s not cliffhanger-y, though; it’s satisfying because it doesn’t fake its way to the ‘resolution’ it provides, like you know how some movies do (“it was all a dream” type sludge). It rewards the work you do investing in these characters by telling you the truth without diagnostic reductionism (to show my hand yet again) or overweening triumphalism. For those whose are drawn to the mental health aspect that exists in all of life (and who don’t wish to, ahem, quarantine it as a separate “field”), this film is a good one (and the book, published in February of 1999, is on my list).