I was 16 years old when Sadness and Joy first went AWOL in my brain for a protracted period. I was an angry, scared, self-loathing teenager. Typical, many might say, but the anger and fear ran deeper and longer than my teenaged psyche could endure. I started taking anti-depressants when I was in university, and I have alternated between diagnoses of anxiety and depression for much of my adult life. I am fighting hard to keep the black dogs at bay. Finally, at the age of 36, I feel like I am making some head way.
Inside Out brings to life five of the small voices in our heads, each of which represents a universal emotion: Happiness, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger. (Surprise is absent.) We learn how these five emotions interact with each other in 11-year-old Riley’s head to keep her safe, drive her passions, connect with others and form her personality. Joy (happiness as voiced by Amy Poehler in anthropomorphism at its most sublime) appears to be the most influential of Riley’s emotions and informs many of her earliest memories — Joy is the first to appear after Riley’s birth, as her fuzzy baby gaze settles on her mother’s face for the first time. However, when the young girl’s world is turned upside by a move halfway across the country, Joy has a harder time maintaining control. Much to Joy’s chagrin, Sadness begins to taint Riley’s memories (a nod to nostalgia?) and quickly starts to influence her present.
Psychologists may be of two minds about the accuracy and effectiveness of Pixar’s portrayal of the universal emotions. They do seem to agree, however, that the film gets a lot of things right in terms of emphasizing the importance of recognizing and acknowledging the value of our full range of emotions. This, I believe, was an insight I was lacking in my earlier years of battling what I now know was major depressive disorder. I felt like a failure if I couldn’t put on a smile and “get over it.” I felt as though I had no tangible reason to be sad, and so my sadness was unearned. It has only been recently that I have come to terms with the difference between sadness and depression — the latter, in my case, being something I can’t simply think my way out of.
As I sat in the theatre watching Inside Out, tears streamed down my face. But they were not tears of Sadness caused by any specific plot point (although the self-sacrifice of one character in the name of re-establishing Riley’s emotional stability was particularly effecting); they were tears of Joy because someone got it. Perhaps, by providing a medium through which children can openly discuss and engage with their emotions, this movie can help us spare some of them the pain of battling mental illness alone.