The last few days I have been thinking about this philosophical question: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
I first saw the short film, “Likeness,” directed by Rodrigo Prieto, a month ago, which is about a girl (Elle Fanning) with bulimia. **NOTE: If you’re thinking of watching it, and I will link to it here, I am telling/ warning you: it has disturbing images and shows purging. SO, be cautious before seeing it. If you’re worried about whether or not to watch it, maybe err on the side of not. That is my warning.**
Despite the disturbing content (I turned the volume down/ skipped through a few scenarios), this film spoke to something deep inside of me. Elle Fanning is at a party in the bathroom putting on mascara when all of a sudden her skin morphs into a peeling mask, and crying, she tries to rip off her own skin. It is haunting and raw, but it resonates.
It made me think of the tree falling question.
Does someone’s pain matter if nobody knows it is happening?
So often, with eating disorders, and mental health issues in general, the pain inside is not outwardly visible. I know the experience of walking around in a trance, knowing that people have no idea about what I’m going through. I can engage in normal activities and act like a regular human being, and yet, there is so much more inside.
Maybe one reason I relate to Elle Fanning’s character in “Likeness” so much is because the director externalized her self-loathing, dysmorphic inner state onto the outer, her skin. If I’m being honest, the outward is more tangible and seems more real to me.
The outward is also more comfortable for our culture. This series of images came out on imgur entitled, “If physical diseases were treated like mental illness.” My favorite image is a picture of a person who has blood spewing from his stomach, and someone is saying, “It’s like you’re not even trying.” Of course, no one would ever say that to someone who is internally bleeding, and yet, as the images suggest, isn’t that exactly how people with mental illness are often treated? Neurotransmitters are over/ under firing, and the brain is malfunctioning, and yet people are blamed for their issues because they can’t be seen. People receive rhetoric like, “You’re so frustrating. You’re not even trying. Just get out of bed. Eat dinner. It’s not a big deal.”
Stigma toward mental illness is so prevalent. It hinders a healthy person’s willingness to be empathetic towards those with mental health issues, and then sufferers can internalize self-stigma, or stigmatize themselves.
The tendency to hide is evident for Elle Fanning’s character in “Likeness,” who is in serious emotional discomfort and then proceeds to go back into the party and tell others she is fine. My professional/ recovery instinct is to tell her: Everything is not fine. You can confide in someone. You don’t have to go through this alone. … and yet, haven’t I historically reacted how this character does? It is so easy to hide if you can.
In a recent anorexia memoir I read, I saw the author’s tendency to invalidate her own experience of an eating disorder. Her book is peppered with times that she is screaming, Was this thing that I went through real? Can you see it? Does it count? Is it good enough? Am I good enough?
My own eating disorder has seemed similarly elusive. Some of my past relapses have been in response to the thought, “I want to see if I still can do it” (hindsight: not a fruitful thought). I can’t say, “I broke my bone on this date, and I got a cast, and I was in physical therapy until this month.” My healing has been in a jovial conversation, a good cry, the taste of quality food, and increasing amounts of life. Part of me longs for the certainty and tangibility that I don’t have.
Now back to the philosophical tree question… Okay, I took a (required) philosophy class in college. One. So I know pretty much nothing about philosophical dilemmas. And right now I’m more talking about people than trees, obviously. But, shouldn’t a tree that falls matter? Maybe no one can hear or see it right away, but doesn’t it ultimately impact the rest of the forest? And if nothing else, I would think that it would be known by and matter to God.
Just because the tears may be deep inside, don’t they still count as tears? If someone is imploding and no one recognizes it, isn’t that still imploding? Just because everything seems okay, and others recognize it as such, maybe everything is not okay. Shouldn’t that be okay? Suffering is hard to measure, but it still matters. It means something, even if it is silent. My therapist has tried to tell me this 800 times, calmly, and the last 100 times more forcefully. I believe her every time. The hard part is putting it into practice in my own life. It is so hard to validate something no one can see, even when I know it is real. Elle Fanning and I cannot be the only ones in life who have had the impulse to hide emotional pain.
I see how stigma about mental illness has affected individuals and our culture, so one of my professional goals is to fight this stigma that inhibits people from acknowledging their own struggles and friends and family from recognizing and responding to another’s pain. It is unacceptable that so many people have to suffer alone without an advocate.
What would a world look like where people are free to be open about the pain they face inside, where the lack of judgment and safety are normative responses? I believe that through education and outreach, more and more people will be able to come out of the closet and verbalize their own struggles, or they can support others.
Many times, when you are falling or hurting internally, you can’t just get yourself out of it, just like this poor little tree below can’t re-plant himself if no one heeds his cry. People need support and love during hard times. They need it from others, and they need it from themselves.