Join Me In Hell

Everyone has those movies that, no matter what time they come on TV or what you’re doing when they come on, you’ll stop everything to watch them.  One of mine, What Dreams May Come, was on cable today.

I won’t bore you with a lengthy synopsis, but it’s about Chris and Annie, a pediatrician and an artist who meet and are instantly attracted to each other. They fall in love, marry, and have two children.  Life seems perfect when both their middle school-aged children die in a car accident.  Annie cannot bear the grief and has a mental health crisis, followed by a long hospitalization.  She threatens divorce, but Chris and Annie reconcile and Chris works hard to keep her depression at bay. On the anniversary of their deciding not to divorce, Chris, on his way home to the celebration, dies in a car accident of his own.  He ends up crossing to “heaven” which is highly personal, created by his own mind. Chris’ heaven looks like a painting Annie had done that captures their courtship and dreams for each other. He is re-introduced to his children, who have created worlds of their own. Annie, who is reeling from the loss of now her entire family, continues to paint their picture, and Chris can see it in his heaven.  This is a sign they are true soul mates, according to their son.
Annie, unable to bear the grief of her tremendous loss, takes her life. When Chris learns of this he is at first glad, assuming this is an end to her pain.  But he is distraught when he learns that persons who die by suicide end up in “hell” – technically, a hell of their own making, since the afterlife they create for themselves carries the pain of their lives. Chris cannot bear Annie living forever in her pain, and sets out through hell to find her and bring her to his heaven.  His mentor in life, acting as his guide, leads him through a maze of destruction and tortured souls that would make Dante proud. Chris finds Annie and attempts to break her free from her own mind. He talks to her about her sorrow in life and how he kept trying to pull her free from it.  He begins to feel the pain she feels and starts to lose his own mind, closing his eyes in confusion.  When he opens them, he is back in his heaven, with Annie who is free and can stay with him and their children until they are reincarnated to find each other again on earth.

I’m drawn to this movie for three reasons.  First, it is visually stunning.  Annie’s paintings come to life in Chris’ heaven first in actual paint, then in one of the richest, most detailed sets I’ve ever seen in any film.  The trip through hell begins literally with a sea of pale, naked, tortured souls, capsizing ships that attempt to cross it, followed by an endless desolate field of persons buried up to their necks. It ends, finally, in what appears to be Chris and Annie’s house in life, charred, broken, and flooded. The emotions are palpable in each and every scene.  Second, the acting is compelling.  Robin Williams and Annabella Sciorra’s performances are gut wrenching and emotionally raw.  In my mind, this is easily Sciorra’s best performance.  As a woman tortured with guilt over the deaths of her children, then desperately trying to hold on to a reason to live after losing her husband, she manages to show the agonizing, expressionless existence of someone in a serious and dangerous Depression without becoming pathetic and stereotypical.  Finally, the way Chris brought Annie out of hell resonates with me.  After the death of their children, and again when he finds her in hell, Chris tries desperately to pull Annie out of her seemingly bottomless well of pain.  Finally, sitting at her feet in the ruins of the chaos she’s created, Chris decides that if he can’t get her to heaven, he’d join her for eternity in hell, even if it means surrendering his own mind to her pain. When he opens his eyes and he is back in his heaven, Annie at his side, he asks her how it happened, particularly since he tried so hard during their lives and in her hell to pull her out. She states, very simply, that she was unable to break free until he stopped trying to free her and tried joining her.

I often think of Annie’s simple response when trying to explain to others when and how Tim finally achieved stability, and how we have learned to separate the illness from the person.  We spent so many years of Tim’s childhood trying to name the pain, and medicate the pain, and psychoanalyze the pain, that we didn’t take time to empathize with it.  When we stopped fighting against the storm of rage and emotion and depression and psychosis and really stepped back and tried to understand what it was like inside of Tim’s head, we finally realized that the broken doors and pacing and beating of heads against walls were the attempt to dull the screaming, frantic whirlwind of fear and confusion and anguish.  I also think that my own struggle with depression and anxiety, inflamed by the constant vigilance of the fight against Tim’s symptoms, helped me realize that the outward expressions that seemed to have no purpose served, in a very tangible way, to externalize the hurt.  Every broken door was an outward expression of anxiety.  Every mile spent pacing matched the speed and intensity of racing thoughts.  The inability to get out of bed mirrored the weight of depression.  When I gave up the fight against his schizophrenia, I felt better, and he felt better.  By joining him in expressing my own fear and anguish, instead of trying to end his, I think I freed us both.


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