Last night, I went to see the film Repulsion at the BFI. It's the second time that I have seen the film. This time I stayed awake though all the way through, which is not a criticism of the film. If anything, it's more of an aside concerning how the environment in which you watch a film can either enhance your enjoyment of a film or send you to sleep if you are watching the film from a sofa at home.
Repulsion was released in 1965 and was directed by Roman Polanski. One of the few directors who can rightly be called an auteur, owing to his eclectic film output and also the general sense of unease that pervades all of his films. I could simply discuss the film here but I cannot give too much away, in case anyone wants to see it after reading this and besides as is the case with most good films, it should act as a springboard to exploring other connected issues, in this case mental illness and coping strategies.
Carol, the main protagonist in the film, suffers from mental illness. Unlike most modern films where the directors feel the need to spell out from the beginning that their characters are suffering from mental illness and that they are seeing a therapist five times a week, she suffers internally. As is the case with many sufferers, her personal internal struggles are manifested externally too. At times, she erratically brushes herself and rubs her eyes. The film also mainly uses naturalistic sound and very little music to create a more authentic experience for the viewer. Time passes very slowly indeed. It progresses but the pace of the film is deliberately very slow. By the end of the film, the viewer is aware that Carol is an Everywoman. We all have the propensity to suffer as Carol has suffered and indeed, we all probably know someone who has.
Carol's mental struggles are primarily focused around her issues concerning sexuality. She doesn't say much and that is the tragedy of the film and indeed, of so many people's lives. She cannot talk about her feelings. She just feels as though something is not quite right but she cannot put her finger on it. Her later actions are an indictment on a society that regularly fails to see the people who struggle with each day and become more scared and withdrawn. To give one pertinent detail of the film away, a photograph is periodically focused on in different ways throughout the film. It's a family photograph showing Carol and her family. Throughout the duration of the film, Carol lives with her sister and in this photograph, her sister is shown with her head on her father's lap. There are various other figures in the photograph. Carol is shown in the background looking into the distance. Later in the film, we get to see how troubled she seems in this photograph suggesting how sometimes the suffering is apparent from an early age, if only people are aware enough to notice. Clearly, in big families, this is not always the case.
I mentioned above how Carol lives with her sister during the film and it is awful how she asks her sister not to go away for a holiday (she is going on holiday with her married lover. The relationships in this film are tangled and complicated). Of course, her sister tells her not to be silly and that decision has unfortunate consequences. Being alone can be amazingly liberating when we are feeling happy and contented but when things are going wrong, it can lead to a state of withdrawal. Human beings can be like snails, we disappear into our shells and worry whether we will ever have the strength to come out again.
Mental illness plagues most people at some point in their lives. Sometimes, it takes the form of depression and on other occasions, more extreme manifestations of unease such as OCDs (Obsessive Compulsive Disorders) and other neuroses etc. Sufferers are as numerous as the symptoms they experience. Coping with mental illness involves a number of personal steps. Each step that is taken reveals more about the individual than the endless range of self-help books churned out to encourage people to aspire to ever more lofty goals.
Before I continue, yes, I have and do experience bouts of mental illness, primarily depression. I reveal this not to generate sympathy but to make it clear that I have some understanding of what people go through on a daily basis. I do not know everything and what I suggest as coping mechanisms may not be useful to everyone but they may help you to realise that when you feel as though things are out of control, you are not alone.
The first step is to understand yourself enough to know when things are not right. Sometimes, it's a feeling that everything is getting on top of you and that trying to provide a structure to everyday life is simply not working. At this point, you have a number of choices available to you. You can go to the doctor and they can refer you to see a therapist (unfortunately, waiting times can be long but there are other options, private counselling if you can afford it or even simply going back to see your doctor for awhile). Personally, I feel that the most important thing is to keep talking to people you trust but be aware that most people only have one or two people, they feel that they can be truly open with. I have never used them but The Samaritans are apparently quite useful. Also certain companies provide counselling services of types, so let your employers know if you are feeling stressed etc.
The second step is to identify that any personal improvements are going to take time. It's a cliche but oddly true, most truly life changing moments are generated by 'tiny steps'. Focus on the here and now, understand what gives you pleasure and also conversely, what is causing you pain. Importantly, understand what you can change and what you cannot hope to change. The things you can't change will continue to impact upon you but sometimes, either by becoming more involved and offering more input or simply viewing everything as though from a distant peak, you will not internalise all of the bad things going on around you.
Most Cognitive Behavioural techniques (to sum up briefly, essentially exploring how positive changes can occur when we identify the bad thought processes that hold us back i.e. 'I am a failure' and offer counter techniques) involve focusing on the here and now. How are you feeling at this moment in time? If you are feeling down, focus on the sunlight streaming through the window, the texture of the table, the simple repetitive tap tap tap of your fingers on the keyboard as random words scatter across the screen.
A short term coping device for mental illness is anti-depressants but long-term, I feel that they mask rather than help you to sort out the underlying problems. They may serve a purpose for the initial period of self-exploration following the realisation that you do not feel well but you don't want to be on them forever. They can have numerous side effects including messing with your sleeping patterns. Waking up at erratic periods throughout the night and not being able to sleep really doesn't help you feel better.
Personally and surprisingly, I simply find that doing things with other people helps you to feel more centred. In the past, when I felt down, I became more reclusive. Now, I find myself going out more. Learning what you enjoy doing and the people you truly care about is more conducive to good mental health than a dozen therapists, although if you feel the need to see a therapist go and try to see one. They do help, although as mentioned earlier waiting lists can be long.
Now that I have rambled on for ages, to sum up, Repulsion was and is a strikingly relevant film. Carol felt alone and many sufferers of mental health feel the same way. This blog entry is about being more observant about the state of the people around you. If someone seems down, by all means ask them if they are okay. They may not want to talk but you never know, your simple question could help them to realise that people do care. You can help to make someone's day even better, simply by acknowledging they exist.
Barry Watt - 27th January 2013