“The Voices” and Other People’s Problems

This weird little film has been on my to-watch list for quite awhile, and tonight I finally crossed it off. I have mixed feelings about it, which I think is appropriate. It would concern me a bit if I watched a movie like this without any discomfort.

There’s a lot of violence. A lot. And while much of that violence is portrayed through sound and not actually shown, it’s really not much less disturbing that way. (Or at least, I was still plenty disturbed. But I can’t really compare it because anything more graphic than this I’ll turn off immediately.)

It was advertised as a dark comedy about a schizophrenic man whose delusions drive him to kill. Not exactly fun times, but I was expecting more comedy and less horror. Certainly I wasn’t expecting a sad film that raises serious concerns about mental health (and the ways we respond to mental illness) and makes me feel sympathy for a stalker and killer. But the latter is what I got, with small bits of comedy popping up just when it would otherwise get a little hopeless.

There’s a lot I could say about this film, many things that concern me and are worth critiquing. But one thing that really sticks out in my memory is the world he sees without his medication. Throughout the movie, protagonist Jerry says that he wants to be a good person and that he knows he’s doing wrong. He moves towards the realization that the voices telling him to do these things (or to fight the urges) come from himself and in one fairly early scene he takes medication to stop. That should be the end of it, right? If someone wants to be good and realizes they have a treatable illness that gets in the way of this (and the treatment works instantly in this case), why not just take the medication all the time?

Jerry tells his therapist that his condition isn’t all bad, that he has moments of beauty and he misses them when he takes the medication. But we see that it goes beyond that. From his perspective, he lives a fairly normal life most of the time. He goes to work, he socializes with his neighbors, he talks to his pets (ok, it’s weird that they talk back, but otherwise I think that’s a common experience), he has a nice brightly-lit little home. But the reality is that his home is a (literally) bloody mess, his pets are miserable and unresponsive to him (the dog that’s always happy to see him in his mind keeps trying to escape in reality), and everything seems dim and gray.

The pets were particularly heart-wrenching for me. When he wakes up on his medication and begs them to say something but they just lie there and ignore him, I could feel his loneliness and so also felt his relief when he tossed his pills in the sink. I’m very pro-medication. In the real world, I understand how important they are. Even here, I want Jerry to get better so of course I want him to keep taking them. Theoretically. But it hurts. The world he’s left in when the delusions fade hurts and there’s no real understanding of that from his therapist.

When confronting a problem we don’t actually face ourselves, we tend to think “ok well, this is the thing that seems most troubling to me, so if I fix it everything’s fine.” But often it’s not fine. And it may be that we’ve removed a coping mechanism without offering a healthy alternative. In Jerry’s case, the medication offers an end to the hallucinations that the world recognizes as aberrant, but there is no treatment for his invisible struggles. There’s no consideration for the possibility that his reality may be unbearable, that he may have no idea how to start taking care of himself. That even if he knows what he needs to do, he doesn’t on his own have the strength to do it.

I have extreme difficulty keeping my house clean. I never really learned how to clean, my executive functioning skills are very low, and I have severe anxiety about contamination that makes it hard for me to actually confront a cleaning task. Other people who see my home tend to want to help by cleaning for me. But that doesn’t help, it just highlights my failures in my mind. I still don’t understand the process, don’t know how to get myself to a point where I can do that on my own.

In my case, I think medication might be the key I’ve been missing. After an incident at Thanksgiving that left me unable to use my fridge thanks to juice from the raw turkey leaking onto the shelf, I realized I needed help as soon as possible. I talked to a doctor and started getting treatment for the anxiety that’s been gnawing away at me for most of my life. It’s only been a couple of weeks, but I feel better. It was a step forward and I have hope that if I can lower the anxiety I can actually face my life and take care of myself and my environment more effectively. I have strong supports in my life and that’s the one thing that I feel is at the root of most of my difficulties.

But that’s not the case for everyone. We can’t just throw a catch-all solution at any problem and assume that a lack of visible symptoms means everything’s fine. There’s a reason someone gets stuck in unhealthy habits in the first place, and it takes work both understanding the hidden struggles at the core and finding better ways of dealing with them. It’s probably not something most people can do on their own, or they’d have figured it out in the first place.

How can we more effectively help people face their invisible monsters? How do we ensure that we’re not leaving them alone in a worse situation than when we started? I’m sure it involves empathy and empowering people to choose their own steps forward, but those are not easy tasks either.

What I like most about this film is the way it lets us see most of the movie through Jerry’s eyes. We’re not just watching his life, we’re seeing his home and job the way he does. We don’t know how far from reality this perspective is until he takes the medication and sees it for himself. That level of empathy isn’t available to us in the real world, but maybe what we can take from this is to remember how little we know of someone else’s perception and experience. Without a handy POV camera, we’re left with the hard work of asking and listening, of offering our presence and help without assigning our own thoughts and needs to others. Anything else is just an illusion.

2 thoughts on ““The Voices” and Other People’s Problems

    1. Thanks! I think it has helped a lot. Like it doesn’t feel like there’s been some massive shift, but I don’t spend much time worrying over little things and the couple of times (what would have been) panic situations turn up, I can handle them better (after a mild freakout).

      Merry Christmas!


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