I’m just as passionate about watching movies as I am about reading books, and one of my favorite movies is Phoebe in Wonderland. If you’ve seen the movie and you know my struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), it shouldn’t surprise you that I’m slightly obsessed with this movie. Phoebe is a nine year-old girl who has OCD tendencies and, by the end of the movie, is diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome (TS) – or as Phoebe says, “Gilles de la Tourette syndrome. It’s a beautiful name, I think.”
I’ve watched this movie countless times, watching Phoebe, relating most to her character as I remember my own childhood; but seeing pieces of myself in her mother and sister as well. If you have a moment, I’d like to introduce you to this family.
Within minutes of this movie you learn that both Phoebe’s parents are writers and that her father has just received word he’s being published. It’s not long before we find Phoebe’s parents hosting a dinner party where her mother, Hillary, is asked by a friend, “How’s your book coming along?” She answers with a weak smile, “Well, sometimes I actually have time to write a whole sentence.” At first glance, Hillary sounds like most busy moms, but once you get to know Phoebe, your mind will retrace it’s steps back to this conversation and you will hear the desperation in Hillary’s voice; see the anguish and exhaustion in her eyes. You will see, in the slump of her shoulders, that she carries a heavy load named, Phoebe.
We learn right off the bat that Phoebe is obsessed with Alice in Wonderland; her mother is writing a dissertation on the same book and Ms. Dodger, the theater arts teacher, has chosen Alice in Wonderland for the next school play. It’s no surprise when Phoebe auditions and is cast as Alice, and if you’re familiar with OCD it should be no surprise that Phoebe, in an effort to get in the play and then not “get fired,” falls victim to her OCD rituals such as washing her hands a set number of times; which leaves her with bloody knuckles. Phoebe is compelled by her TS to step, jump and twirl in a precise sequence; which leaves her with scraped up knees from losing her balance and falling. Then there are the more socially unacceptable TS tendencies she displays, like spitting, mocking and speaking unkind words; all of which is out of her control, but nonetheless lands her in the principal’s office and eventually in session with a counselor.
Like so many mothers, Hillary blames herself for Phoebe’s behavior – for Phoebe’s “problems”. Hillary has herself in a familiar mommy predicament; she’s distracted by her writing, therefore she blames herself for her daughter’s issues…yet, she’s distracted by her daughter’s issues so she’s angry for not being able to write.
I remember someone telling me when I got pregnant the first time that “you die to yourself in motherhood.” This may sound like a strange, discouraging thing to say to a first-time mother, but these words were spoken with a sweet, calm smile as if to say, “This death is worth looking forward to.” I know now she was right. I did die to myself in motherhood, and I have become a different, much better person. I too am a writer. I am a great many things…but I am a mother first. Although there are times in my life when my sinful, selfish nature takes over and I believe the lies that my children can wait…their needs can wait…my other dreams can come first…I always find my way back to the truth; the truth that my children were my first dream, and if anything is going to distract me from the rest of it, let it be my children. In that moment, in that realization, dying to myself in motherhood seems like a privilege. I believe Hillary has this moment too; this realization that the rest of it will always be there…but her daughter needs her now.
Then there is Phoebe’s six year-old sister, Olivia. Throughout the movie, Phoebe and Olivia interact as most sisters do; they play, giggle and run about together. There’s one scene in particular where Phoebe is outside, stepping in a sequence, jumping, twirling and clapping her hands in a certain rhythm. Hillary is sitting out on the porch step watching Phoebe, ignoring Olivia who is calling her from inside the house. Finally Olivia comes outside and joins Phoebe. Olivia watches her sister’s movements for just a moment and then clumsily tries to mimic her every move.
I’ve watched this movie so many times and so many times I’ve smiled at this scene – at how Olivia wants to be like her big sister. But the last time I watched this, I saw something different. Olivia wasn’t trying to be like her big sister out of admiration – she was trying to be like Phoebe in hopes of getting some of her mother’s attention.
You see, shortly after this scene we find Phoebe jumping on the stairs, again caught up in an obsessive ritual. Hillary is trying to get the girls off to school when she finds Olivia hiding under the dining room table. The following conversation between Hillary and her daughter breaks my heart.
“Can I have a new sister?”
“Not instead of, another. Or, a brother, one I don’t have to take care of, who hasn’t got what she’s got.”
“What do you mean, ‘got’?”
“You don’t even know anything that’s going on.”
“What do you mean I don’t know anything that’s going on?”
“She gets everything she wants.”
“What does she get that you don’t?”
There it is. My heart just broke. I know this happens. Whether or not you have a child with special needs, if you have more than one child there will come a time when one child requires more attention than the other, for one reason or another. And having a child that requires special attention day in and day out can leave the other siblings feeling invisible.
This obviously adds to Hillary’s heartache. She thought she had only failed her one daughter, but now she feels she has failed them both. What do you say to this mother? What do you say to this sister? What do you say to Phoebe when her world crumbles, when her OCD and TS fill her to the brim and all she can ask her parents is, “Are you always supposed to feel hope?”
“She asked if she’s always supposed to feel hope.” Hillary repeats; choking back tears, “She’s 9.”
As a mother, as a sibling, as a person with OCD, I can relate to each of these characters in different ways. I want to hug Hillary and tell her to extend herself a little grace, to snuggle up somewhere and have a good cry, to start fresh tomorrow. I want to wrap my arms around Olivia and tell her she is loved, she is special and most importantly, that she is noticed. I want to sit next to Phoebe and tell her something wise, something that will make it all okay. But, I don’t have those words… because I need someone to say those words to me. Like Phoebe, when the darkness of OCD takes over, I’ve asked the same question Phoebe asked: “Am I always supposed to feel hope?”
As a Christ-follower, I find my hope in Him. I find hope in the knowledge that once I’m in the presence of my Heavenly Father, I will no longer fight against this monster that lives in my head. But when I ask, “Should I always feel hope?” what I’m really wanting to know is, “If this never goes away, if this never gets better, can I find a way to not hate this part of who I am?”
I was asking this very question when I stumbled upon Phoebe in Wonderland. I cried as I watched this movie, wishing someone would tell Phoebe – tell me – that it is possible to love yourself, even when everything about you seems wrong and out of control, when everything seems dark and hopeless. And then it happened. Remember Ms. Dodger, the Theater Arts teacher? She saves the day by inviting Phoebe (and me) into her theater and telling us both exactly what we needed to hear.
In her soft, elegant, theatrical way, she explains, “At a certain point in your life, probably when too much of it has gone by, you will open your eyes and see yourself for who you are. Especially for everything that made you so different from all the awful normals, and you will say to yourself, “but I am this person”. And in that statement, that correction, there will be a kind of love.”