Frozen and Anxiety: In Which My World Ended and then Somehow Began Again

Elsa

This has nothing to do with the Rapture.  But it’s something that’s deeply important to me and kind of hard to say, so I hope you’ll read it anyway, despite the conspicuous lack of dragons and flaming hail.

Two months ago today, Disney’s Frozen was released in theaters.  Since then it’s basically exploded. Critics are calling it the best film since the Lion King. The internet won’t shut up about it, which is something I’m perfectly ok with. I can’t shut up about it either.

But you can breathe a sigh of relief because this post is not just another excuse to geek out over Frozen. Instead, I want to share with you the reason why this movie has become so important to me. Why something that I didn’t know existed eight weeks ago has become something so meaningful.

***Spoiler alert! I talk about Frozen, obvs. Especially the ending.***

I can only speak from personal experience, because there are a lot of parts of this story that I don’t understand. Eight years ago, I was struck with a terrible anxiety disorder.  It was never diagnosed as more than “general anxiety,” but I suspect it was some form of agoraphobia—fear of leaving safe spaces. I say I was ‘struck with’ it because it came on with no warning. One day I was fine.  The next day I was afraid.  The fear just swelled up all of a sudden.  My heart started racing, palms started sweating, the room grew too small, and I felt this awful burning need to escape.

I remember it happened the day before I was set to perform in the Gene Kelly Awards (they’re kind of like Pittsburgh’s Tony’s but for high school kids) and I thought it was just stage fright.  I went onstage as planned. Then I went home and waited for the fear to subside.

It didn’t.

It just didn’t. Weeks passed.  Months passed.  Everyone around me wanted to keep going on like usual.  My friends wanted to hang out, my choir director wanted me to sing onstage, my parents wanted me to get ready to leave for college in the fall.  I just wanted the fear to go away.

On top of the general constant anxiousness, there were these panic attacks. The fear would just build on itself to the point that I’d break down crying.  It was a vicious cycle.  I’d start to panic, catch myself panicking, panic over the fact that I was panicking, panic even more over the fact that I was panicked over being panicked, and the panic would compound until I’d run from the room or burst into tears or both.

Don't feel

It hit the point where little things that I’d done every day—things I’d always taken for granted—became almost impossible.  Going to the mall with my friends was just terrifying.  I remember walking through aisles of clothes, moving down the rows and touching every single shirt because if I could just focus on the feel of the fabric then that was a split second that I wasn’t focusing on how scared I was.  My friends would carry on unawares, trying on clothes and talking about things that friends talk about when life is normal and not inexplicable frightening.

Car rides were the worst.  I couldn’t sit in a car for more than five minutes before my palms would start sweating and I’d start hyperventilating.  I had to know exactly where we were going and exactly what route we were taking to get there, or I would start to panic.  And since I didn’t know very many roads, this meant that I spent a lot of time panicking.

Really, the only time I felt safe was when I was sitting at home.

Why did that happen? I still don’t really know.  Something to do with the changes in my life on top of my usual perfectionism or some such thing.  Why does anything happen? In high school I was a normal, well-adjusted kid, if a bit of an overachiever.  I was into everything.  I had a lot of dreams, the way you do when you’re 17.  I dreamed of travelling. I dreamed of singing on Broadway. I loved Idina Menzel and was going to star in Wicked when I grew up.

The worst part of the anxiety wasn’t the anxiety itself.  It was watching all those dreams die.  How was I supposed sing on Broadway when I couldn’t stand to be around people?  How was I supposed to visit Paris when I couldn’t even drive down the street?  How was I supposed to keep friendships?  Go to school? Get a job? My life seemed over, and not in the over-dramatic teenager sense.  Everything I’d ever cared about, everything I thought I was going to be, was suddenly gone.  It’s a scary thing to face even when you’re not afraid of literally everything.  Suicide was something that occurred to me more than once.  (Obviously it never went beyond the occurring-to-me stage because I’m, y’know, alive.)

Early on, because I’d never heard of anxiety disorders before, I decided that the best thing to do was pretend it didn’t exist.  I had a bit of a martyr complex and considered it my duty not to inconvenience anyone.  So I told no one.  I didn’t even put it in my diary.  I thought if I just ignored the fear, it would go away eventually.

Conceal

I mean, it worked about as well as it works for Queen Elsa.  Except for the part where she almost stabs a room full of diplomats with ice crystals.  I never did that.

What happened to me is that after a few months I got stuck in construction traffic while on a family vacation.  I started crying hysterically.  My family had no idea what was happening, and I was too hysterical to explain, so I just cried and hyperventilated until they were able to stop the car.

It wasn’t my finest moment.

But after they understood, they were super chill about it.  I started to realize that just having people around who knew about what I was going through made it slightly less scary. Concealing the problem, as it turned out, was the absolute worst thing I could have done. I started slowly admitting to my friends that something was wrong.  Turns out anxiety wasn’t the social stigma I thought it was.  It was just a thing that became part of my personality, and my friends accepted it.

I’m forever grateful for their support, but that’s not to say it made things completely easy for me.  I pushed myself so, so hard those first couple of years.  I started getting small things back.  Trips to the mall, trips to the bookstore.  A drive to a friend’s house twenty minutes away.  I went away to college, where the classes were 50 minutes long.

“Just sit for 25 minutes,” I’d tell myself each morning.  “After 25 minutes you can go back to your room if you need to.”

I never needed to. I slowly got stronger.

In that first year when my life was still reorienting itself, one thing I learned I could still do was go to the movies.  As long as I sat on the aisle seat so I could escape quickly, I’d be ok.  And my friends were usually engrossed in the movie, so it wouldn’t disrupt them if I left.

Every time I watched a movie, I would compile a mental checklist of all the things I wished I could do without freaking out.

  • Character goes on a drive with a friend.  Wish I could do that.
  • Character visits a new city. Wish I could do that.
  • Character gets a steady job.  Wish I could do that.
  • Character’s love interest takes her on a surprise date. Wow, I would be freaking out so hardcore it wouldn’t even be funny.

This list got pretty long, since I couldn’t do most things.

I quickly came to the realization that I wouldn’t fit in movies.  It wasn’t a self-pity thing; it wasn’t a big deal; it was just a fact of life that I accepted.  I watched fun, spunky girl protagonists who dreamed of adventure do their fun, spunky thing, and I just knew I would never be one of them.  People want to watch brave heroines rebel against social norms, hop on a plane, fight some bad guys, and save the day.  No one wants to cheer for a heroine whose triumph consists of her leaving the house without freaking out. I thought that for eight years.

Then I watched Frozen.

Going in I had no idea what the movie was about.  Some friends wanted to see it, so I just showed up. I didn’t even know it was a Disney movie until I walked in and saw the Disney logo on the screen.  And then I assumed it was going to be about Elsa morphing into the Hans Christian Andersen villain (which does appear to be the original plot) in some Wicked-esque storyline.

Elsa wasn’t evil though.  She was just scared of herself and couldn’t control her fear.  I don’t know if they intended to make her freak outs follow the trajectory of having a panic attack, but that’s exactly what was happening to her. She’d panic and make ice and then she’d see the ice and panic more and make more ice and I’m sitting there like YES THAT IS IT EXACTLY OH MY GOD DISNEY UNDERSTANDS MY LIFE!

And at the end—at the end—I found out she wasn’t the villain at all.  She was Disney’s thirteenth princess.

Disney made a princess like me.

Oh my god.

Pause to let that sink in.

Disney. Made a princess. Like me.

Wow. 

The thing is, I didn’t need Elsa to exist.  I was doing ok without her.  In the past eight years, I graduated college with high honors, made some amazing friends, dated, sang at open stage nights, traveled to London, got a real job that I love, and in August I’m graduating with a Master’s degree.  All of my graduate classes were 3 hours long, and I sat through all of them.  There are some days that I honestly forget anxiety has been a problem.  That is a really nice thing to forget.

The downside is that everyone else forgets too.  Once, a couple of years ago, my dad told me he was proud of the fact that I could drive myself around Pittsburgh, and that was good to hear.  But honestly it’s been mostly an invisible victory.  You don’t get much kudos for the proud accomplishment of being able to drive 30 minutes to work without crying.  Nobody’s going to pat you on the back for being able to sit through a movie.  You don’t get an award for being a functional human being. (Or at least nonfunctional in the normal, confused 20-something way.)

And that’s a thing I accepted as I went about my life as a proudly semi-functional human being.  I would have been ok like that.

But then Disney made this … this princess.  Hell, this queen. And she wasn’t spunky, she didn’t dream of seeing the world, didn’t rebel against society, didn’t rush off on an adventure, didn’t fall in love.  All she did was overcome the fear that was destroying her and learn to live a normal, happy life.  Literally, that was Elsa’s role in this story—to stop having panic attacks.  And she did it.

And everyone just thinks she’s amazing. She is amazing. What she did was really hard.  People all over the world are celebrating her right now, and even though most of these people have never met me and never will meet me, what I’m getting is this big fat acknowledgment from society that says: Good job.  You did something really hard, and we’re proud.  You deserve to be celebrated!

Anna

It was like a kudos, and a pat on the back, and an award.  Like pop culture swooped in and gave me a warm hug. I could write for pages and pages and never convey how much that acknowledgement means to me.  Thanks, Disney.

As much as I hate to interrupt the warm fuzzies, though, I’d be remiss if I didn’t chide Disney for the part where it wimped out.  Despite this whole beautiful heart-warming thing that they’ve done, the ending was such a quick-fix that it almost screwed up everything.  Almost.

Ahem. Here’s how the movie ends:

Olaf the talking snow man says, “Love will thaw the frozen heart!”

Elsa looks up and says, “Of course!  Love!”  Suddenly she’s able to perfectly control her magic, and it’s never an issue again.

What?

Oh goodness, why didn’t I think of that?!  If only I’d realized that I could have overcome my crippling panic attacks and saved myself years of anxiety and depression by EMBRACING THE POWER OF LOVE!

ARE YOU SERIOUS?

I still love Frozen to death, but that was just insulting.  For Disney’s most psychologically complex protagonist, I expected a much better resolution.  Love is a big part of overcoming anxiety, but love takes the form of therapy and introspection and medication and heart to heart talks with supportive family and friends.  The act of loving is not a fix-all.  Love is where you start. It’s part of the process, you need it to succeed, but you do NOT just stand up one day and go, “Oh, I love myself, I’m cured now.”

What’s frustrating about this ending is that, in between the incredible support, I’ve had people who think it is just that easy.  Three years after the attacks started, I had a friend offer a genius solution to my problem: “Maybe you should try pushing yourself a little.”

Ok? As if the fact that I was standing in that room having that conversation at a school I attended 2 hours from home wasn’t a testament to how hard I had pushed myself? What did he think I had been doing for three years? Ugh.

Naturally, I have head cannon for the end of Frozen that makes sense of Elsa’s miraculous love-induced cure.  It goes like this:  Elsa’s crippling fear was always that she’d hurt Anna. Now she’s just learned that she’s killed Anna; the thing that she spent 15 years being terrified of has just happened.  And it’s horrible and gut-wrenching, but it’s also stopped being an unknown possibility.  Suddenly she knows exactly how that situation would feel and exactly how she would respond.  When you’re dealing with anxiety (at least for me and people I’ve talked to), an awful but familiar possibility is often much less frightening than a completely unfamiliar possibility.

Plus, 30 seconds ago, her love for Anna and her sadness over her death made the storm stop. Experientially she’s just realized that her love for her sister can thaw things.  So Disney had the pieces to heal Elsa.  They just freaking dropped them instead of putting them together.  I like to imagine that Elsa’s epiphany was just the beginning of her healing process. That in between the balls and the ice skating and the happily-ever-after there were moments when Elsa actually sat down and had candid conversations with Anna about how she was feeling and how she was still scared sometimes, and Anna listened and they worked it out together.

Because that’s what the movie is about, isn’t it?  And that’s a lesson I learned the hard way.  You can’t just conceal your feelings and hope they go away.  That’s the absolute worst thing you can do. You have to open up to supportive people.  It’s scary, but I really believe it’s necessary.

That goes for everyone, but it’s especially rough on people who already suffer from anxiety (or any mental issues really).  A lot of us are scared to talk about it.  We think acknowledging it will make it worse, or we think it’s shameful, it’s stigmatizing, it’s our fault, it’s encroaching on others, and/or we’ll be looked down on for being weak or weird.

Conceal 02

I suppose the stigmatization is out there, but I haven’t encountered too much of it.  Most people seem to like to help other people.  I don’t want to say everyone has to share their problems, because I’m sure there are legitimately unsafe situations, but I think everyone should be able to feel safe talking out their problems with someone, somewhere. No one should have to feel like they have to conceal themselves from the world.

The best way we can encourage others’ to share their stories is by sharing our own.  So that’s what I’m doing here, I guess.  That’s the point of this whole long, frankly scary, post.  I’m sure what I’m saying is nothing new to a lot of people, but what’s new is that it’s my story.  And I need to let it go just as much as anyone else.  Disney’s given me—Disney’s given us—an avenue where we can do just that.

PS – Oh! And! One other thing I want to add that Disney got totally right: They put the scene where Elsa freaks out and freezes Anna after the beautiful liberating ballad “Let it Go.” Which was a little sad, to see Elsa backslide.  But it was absolutely accurate.  Eight years and a lot of emotional recovery later, I have my “The cold never bothered me anyway,” moments, but I still have my “I’m such a fool, I can’t be free” moments too. And having both of those moments is ok.

End tangent.

Elsa and Anna

Here are some links to other people with similar thoughts:

http://www.blogher.com/let-it-go-conceal-don-t-feel-controlling-my-anxiety-disneys-frozen

http://www.rotoscopers.com/2013/11/30/princess-profiles-elsa/

http://expelled-from-heaven.tumblr.com/post/68162482710/waltdisneyconfessions-sometimes-when-my-ocd

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/comfort-cravings/201312/let-it-go-4-tips

Other PS – I know this movie has other interpretations for what Elsa’s power stands for (sexuality, etc.).  Well, ok, but the girl is still having panic attacks over her sexuality.  Don’t be a bubble burster. Just let me have my warm, fuzzy moment.

Other Other PS – And here’s a link to the movie’s feature song, “Let It Go.” Because it’s amazing, and whoever had the idea to bring Robert Lopez and Idina Menzel together on this project should get an award for being born.

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4 thoughts on “Frozen and Anxiety: In Which My World Ended and then Somehow Began Again

  1. Yay you!

    This is not my snarky voice. I’ve been in the position of having an invisible problem and finally getting back to somewhere acceptable.

  2. I also felt Elsa’s sudden recovery seemed farcical, and rather tacky on Disney’s part–but I also concluded that the skating event could have been weeks or months later, and might even have been Elsa’s debut after some serious milestones in recovery. Something I keep noticing is the way her voice cracks when she asks the crowd, “Are you ready?!” I tell myself this is just the way the actor’s voice behaves, but it sounds so much to me as though Elsa is kinda screaming internally, but staying strong for the sake of healing. It is such a familiar feeling.

    I basically sob every time I watch the “Let it Go” sequence. For a song that is, indeed, so simple musically, it is complex emotionally and packs a helluva punch. It reminds me of the countless times, throughout my life, I have decided with thundering finality to isolate myself. Such a deeply empowering decision at first (and I have had my share of smug ‘The cold never bothered me anyway’ moments), but it is such a self-deprecating act; part of your soul quivers in protest. Being alone too long makes you feel like you’re fading away. I think if she’d been left to it, Elsa might have become villainous the way some people do when they’re alone and hurting and they feel like the world is against them. It can happen to the warmest, gentlest person.

    Anna was right, you know, when she said no one wants to be alone. I wish I’d had this movie when I was six.

    Overall, I feel like the character offers viewers a good message, and I can’t help feeling a bit vindicated, as you did, about a Disney princess being so emotionally burdened but portrayed positively.

    Sorry; I know this is awfully incoherent and rambly and that my perceptions might seem a bit off–but isn’t it fascinating how differently people can perceive a song? PFFFTT. Anyway, thanks so much for sharing your story. You’re right–anxiety and panic are JUST LIKE Elsa’s breakdowns. I have felt myself sympathizing so passionately with her whenever I’ve watched one of those scenes….

    Wowww, I can’t stop! Thoughts are disorganized! Have not slept in years! Have a glorious day, Phoenix Feather!

    • I never responded to say that your comment was not rambly at all and that I appreciated you sharing it–because I really did appreciate you sharing it! I hope you are doing well! Sorry, I’m terrible at responding to people, but I’m trying to get better at it.

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