This weekend, I spent some meaningful time with three close friends from grad school. Reunion weekends are a nice break from normal life, which has been pretty chaotic with friends moving, family visiting and all the beginning of summer transitions. Our lives have changed significantly since grad school. We have attended each others’ weddings and celebrated the arrival of our children. For two of us, the journey to motherhood was more complicated and painful, making it even more precious to celebrate with each other.
I love having close friends that are in the counseling field. It enriches me and challenges me to keep growing as a counselor. Since our lives have changed so dramatically, our reunion weekends have also. Instead of beach days and late dinners followed by nights out on the town, we spent this reunion weekend at my friend’s house, swimming in her pool with our children,ordering pizza and watching a movie while our children slept. We decided to pick up a movie at Red Box, and, after much deliberation and teasing about our limited exposure to good entertainment now that we have children, we chose The Perks of Being a Wallflower. There were a few reasons for this choice. My friend Eileen and I both read this book while in grad school, so we felt nostalgic about it. Also, since it has a mental health bent, we thought it was appropriate for a bunch of counselors.
As soon as the movie began, I was captivated by the characters, the innocence and passion that accompanies adolescence, and the realistic depiction of the impact of abuse and mental illness on individuals, families and communities. The main character, a high school freshman who spent time in a mental hospital after his best friend shot himself, delivers a heartbreaking portrayal of the struggle to belong and be happy while living in fear of the next time he “gets bad again”, as he calls it. The audience also learns by the end of the movie that the main character had been repressing memories of sexual abuse by a trusted family member.
As my friends and I were processing the movie afterwards, we tried to determine his mental health diagnosis. (A twisted game that counselors play. I love it when people ask me if I am psychoanalyzing them. Of course I am.) As I thought back to his character and the layers of pain and hurt he had experienced, the first word that came to me was broken. There are different connotations for this word, and the mental health community at large may not support my calling someone with mental illness broken, but to me, being broken is a natural part of being human. In fact, sometimes we have to recognize our brokenness in order to truly heal. It’s like breaking a bone. It is painful and damaging, and the bone needs to be re-set in order for it to heal. If the bone is never re-set, then the person will go through life with a broken bone and probably some intense side effects, like excruciating pain and limited use of that part of the body. (Or worse, total numbness.) As mental health professionals, sometimes the goal is to help our clients re-set their broken parts. As a Christian, we are told that their is beauty in the brokenness because it forces us to rely on God instead of ourselves.
When I was driving home from my friend’s house that night, intense grief came over me. Almost two years ago, after walking through intense brokenness and pain with one of my clients for a long time, she made a decision to stop fighting her daily pain and constant torment by ending her own life. She reached out to me before she did it, not so that I could stop her, but to have someone to connect with. I knew when I heard her voice that it was over. That was the worst day of my life. I was filled with my own grief and regret and confusion, but more than anything else, I felt angry. I was angry that God would have allowed the abuse and pain to happen to this woman, and I was angry at all of her abusers for contributing to her pain. After a lot of grieving and processing with God, my husband and a select group of friends, I realized that, although I could not save her, as hard as I tried on several occasions, I gave her something that few others had given her. I provided her with a safe place to feel and think and say anything. Also, I loved her. I mean, I really loved her. And she knew it.
I can’t begin to understand why things happen the way they do. A part of me was broken that day when this dear person took her own life. There are so many people around us that have experienced deep, disturbing, life-altering pain. Many of them are wallflowers, unsure how to reach out or take the first step toward genuine connection. There is a quote from the movie that really impacted me. In this scene, the main character is at a party with some of his new friends, and maybe for the first time, feels accepted. One of the other characters raises a cup to him and says, “To Charlie!” The shy, awkward main character responds, “I didn’t think anyone even noticed me.” And his new friend replies, “We just didn’t know there was anyone cool left to meet.”
Reach out to wallflowers. They might need a friend. And they may be the friend you didn’t know you were missing.