Can’t you see they’re in so much pain?

NB this post refers to the films The Green Mile and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. This post is about BPD and experiences of others’ emotions however:

Slight movie “spoilers” alert if you haven’t seen the films and are planning to 🙂 ! Also, whilst both films were interesting and I definitely identified with characters, the first contains a few highly disturbing scenes and themes and part of the second was triggering to me at the time I watched it, though I think only through similarity with my personal experiences. Therefore to be on the safe side, I’d advise caution if you do decide to watch the films.


“Mostly I’m tired of people being ugly to each other. Tired of all the pain I feel and hear in the world every day. There’s too much of it. It’s like pieces of glass in my head all the time.” – John Coffey in Stephen King’s The Green Mile

Someone shared this quote with me today. It was years ago I saw the film “The Green Mile”. It is not the kind of film I normally go for;  it was watched as someone else’s choice. It was thought provoking and also deeply disturbing. I would not watch it again now as it’s too harrowing but it has a lot to say about our judgement of good and evil in ourselves and others and how this affects how we treat our peers, those we work for and those in our charge.

“The Green Mile” is set on death row in the USA. John Coffey is a black American prisoner who has been sentenced to death accused of the murder of the two children of the plantation owner for whom he worked. If i remember right he was sentenced because he was found at the scene. In fact he was not the killer; he was trying to save the children. Coffey has a super-normal (supernatural or spiritual?) power to heal people. He touches them and draws the illness out of them through his own body and then “breathes” it out and away. Coffey knew the children had been lured away and attacked and he was at the scene of the crime because he was trying to save them. During the film, Coffey seems unbelievably calmly accepting of the horror that he will be executed and shows astounding compassion to his guards and other prisoners.

In the horror of death row the introduction of this super healing power seems somewhat jarring. Perhaps that’s part of Stephen King’s intention. When we watched it my friend wondered wouldn’t it have been better if it were totally realistic without the introduction of the supernatural realm. I can see her point. Then again I think King integrates it powerfully into the story. In a place of utter despair and darkness on death row, good cannot be extinguished. Compassion and healing still exists through one poor man who continues to do good through being utterly judged, rejected, broken and condemned. No matter how weakened he is, he can still do good and he’s a channel for healing.

He is in the broken and condemned state he’s in precisely because of his desire to help, to heal, to do good even when people judge him wrongly, and because of how much he knows other people’s pain and hurt and needs. Had he not recognised the children were in danger, searched and tried so hard to save them, he would not have been found at the crime scene and would not have been accused…. through the film we see other examples of how Coffee’s compassion and feeling for others overrides his own needs or his own pain.

The quote I started this post with expresses some of the cost to Coffey of feeling so much other people’s pain and needs. I those of us with personality disorders and post traumatic stress disorders, or who have suffered abuse or traumatising relationships,  can struggle just the same.

We feel so very much what others feel. It goes beyond empathy. It goes beyond wanting to help. It is a mental and bodily sensation. We actually feel what the other person feels. Sometimes we feel it more suddenly, more clearly or more overwhelmingly than our own emotions and needs. It can be a shocking or crushing wave or grip. We can’t breathe or we tense and jump as though we’ve been hit. We feel something in us twist painfully and connect to the other person’s hurt and we feel more than a need to take it from them – perhaps a longing, draining need to take it, rather as if we could do as Coffey does in the film.

It can be too much to bear. Too much to be around anyone and so very tiring. After social situations we may need time to rest and recover and go away to some quieter, colder, more numb place in our mind. Or we need something desperately to distract us and this may be dangerous impulsivity, self harm, drink, drugs and so on, because we need anything at all to get away from the knowledge of such hurt and pain in the world that we can’t draw out.

For some reason it’s the feelings ofhurt and need or pain or anger that overwhelm us and fill us more powerfully than good feelings in others such as joy or excitement. I don’t entirely know why.

There’s another film that spoke to me about this too, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”. The main character has suffered childhood abuse and at the end of the film, he asks the doctor treating him, “can’t you see that they’re in so much pain? ” – can’t you see that everyone around is in so much pain, because he can see it and doesn’t know what to do. I can see it and feel it and take it all on and I don’t know what to do. It can be so impossible to carry on through that feeling and so tiring, that we withdraw totally to protect ourselves. Then we seem cold and that we aren’t making any effort to help anyone and thinking only of ourselves – when actually we ate feeling so very much and so much wishing we could heal others’ pain.

In “The Green Mile”, despite being judged and condemned, Coffey continues to feel everyone’s pain and continues to heal people. He is utterly misunderstood. His power for good is hidden to almost everyone. But even there in death row it can’t be stopped.

Even if we are utterly weakened and broken, even if nobody understands, even if we can’t tell anyone yet what is really happening,  the good we can do will still remain. Even if we feel we’ve totally failed, there is good in us, even if it’s hidden from us too just now. Not seeing it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Paradoxically, though our ability to feel so much has a great cost to us in pain, in being drained and spent and hurting, it may not be a bad thing. It may become something that enables us in the end to help and actually even connect to people.

I think learning to believe good in ourselves lasts even in weakness and apparent failure is a big part of getting there. So is finding a way to stand experiencing what we feel of others’ emotions and our own, so that we can use these feelings beyond empathy to be able to help people rather than having to withdraw because we cannot stand it. So far I really don’t know what the answer to this is, as yet.

Ginny xx

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