“See You in Valhalla”

Eclectic Media Outlet No. 2

It’s been awhile since I wrote one of these posts; but I hope to start incorporating them into the blog more often… because films (and other media) play such a large — and beautiful — role in my life.

“See You in Valhalla” (2015)

“See You in Valhalla” is a part of several of my film collections — addiction, dysfunctional families, indie films, and suicide.

The Draw and Decision to Own

My father has stated, on more than one occasion, that he would like to have a Viking funeral when he dies; so any title that refers to Valhalla — or Norse mythology — quite naturally intrigues me.

Going in, I had absolutely no idea what to expect from this film… but ultimately found it to be one of those quietly brilliant movies that very few ever saw. (I have yet to encounter another cinephile that has seen it.) After viewing it the first time, I went online and purchased a hard copy immediately… and it will stay in my permanent collection.

Synopsis and Personal Meaning

“See You in Valhalla” is about a family that has lost a son — and a sibling — to suicide (albeit by proxy… but intentional proxy).

Magnus — a character with a soul plagued by meth addiction — returns from a Viking rehabilitation colony with his girlfriend, only to find that she cannot stay sober. When she later dies from an overdose, Magnus charges over to the dealer’s home and kills him with a sword. He is shot in the process, leaving behind a suicide note for his family… who are left to deal with the fallout.

Families are Complicated

When his sister, Johana (“Joe”) sees the story on the evening news, she turns to her boyfriend — explaining that the “Viking Guy” is her brother — and says, “I need to go home. I need to go home, right? That’s what you do after someone dies. I can’t believe I have to deal with these people.”

“Who?” her boyfriend inquires.

“My family.”

“Do you not like them?”

“It’s very complicated.”

Now, originally, I saw this film before my own family lost my younger brother, Nicky, to suicide; but after that tragic event, this scene is one that I have a deeper understanding for.

Families are complicated — dysfunctional or not — and sometimes when you need them most, you’re not really sure that you want to “deal” with them.

One of my favorite scenes in the film is the first time that the family — reunited in grief, after years of not having seen one another — sits down to dinner. The conversation dissolves very quickly into old hurts and renewed resentments; but Brent and Jarret Tarnol (the writer and director) do a brilliant job of infusing humor into dark subject matter; and this scene is no exception.

After the fight at the dinner table, Joe later tries to explain to her father’s girlfriend why it’s so hard for her to return home, “It’s every scar, every bruise. You know. Every stupid f*cking memory is… it’s here.”

Oh, how true that is… but every wonderful, warm, sparkling memory is also imbued in our families; and we often so quickly forget about those, in the face of tragedy.

Ⓒ Tarnol Group Pictures and ARC Entertainment

The Blame Game

Another poignant moment in the film is when Don, the oldest sibling, has an emotional breakdown and screams at his father, “Magnus was f*cking self-destructing in front of your very eyes, where the f*ck were you?!”

When a family loses someone to suicide, there is — unfortunately — a lot of blame thrown around. It’s easier to be angry at the people that are still standing, than it is to be with the person you’ve lost.

There are so many unanswerable questions… and all you want are answers. You don’t just blame the people around you; you also blame yourself.

Michael Weston (“Garden State”), who plays Don, does such an excellent job in this scene that — even if you haven’t lost someone close to you to suicide — your heart feels as if it’s been ripped from your chest and thrown to the floor.

Strength in Weakness

Addiction is a tumultuous disease, because you never truly escape it. You can learn to cope with it, to live with it, to somewhat control it… but you’re never free of it. Sobriety is something that you fight for, or something that you lose. There is no inbetween.

There is a passage from Magnus’s journal that describes this beautifully:

“Our rehabilitation was over, and it was time to face the world ahead. These modern Vikings showed us their tools of sobriety. Our life is no longer controlled by substances. We’ve rid ourselves of bad habits and vices, but I reckon to see no difference between fantasy and reality. But a true Viking, no matter how trapped he may feel, must face dragons head-on no matter the consequence. This is the Viking way. Never give up. Never submit. Never surrender to any man or any thing.”

Magnus manages to not surrender; but cannot handle the pain when his girlfriend relapses (and later overdoses).

There is a saying in the rooms of the Anonymous, “You will step over bodies in your journey towards sobriety.” And unfortunately, most of us find this to be true. I have lost my brother, and a number of friends, to addiction… and it sometimes makes you question the why of it all.

Later in the film, as the siblings gather around their father, he shares his favorite passage from Magnus’s journal, “A wolf is always strongest when he’s with his pack. Every day a dire wolf dies, but the pack must stay together. And when they do, in the end, they will prevail. The tighter the pack, the stronger the wolf.”

This is a beautiful synopsis of how a family survives the tortuous pain of losing a loved one before their time.

My own family has stuck together in our grief. They are my source of solace and refuge… because only they can understand the dark cloud that has followed me tirelessly around, since losing Nicky.

The Moral of the Story

What Brent and Jarret Tarnol convey through the subtle beauty of this film is that home is one of the most painful — and most healing — places we have to go.

I hope, Dear Reader, that you are fortunate enough to find this to be true in your own life.

The Different Shades of Memory

Part II

When someone you love commits suicide, it leaves you with a host of painful and wholly unanswerable questions: Could I have done more? What was my part in their misery? Why was the love we all had for them not enough to make them stay?

Having tried to commit suicide myself (on multiple occasions), I know these questions have no place in it; and yet, being on the other side of it now, I still ask them.

Suicidal ideations spring from a place of darkness within the individual having them. It is a black gloom so all-encompassing that you can no longer see anything beyond its veil — not the people that love you, not the consequences of your actions, and certainly not the pain it will cause others. You don’t necessarily want to die; you just want to escape from that blindingly dark, cold place… and the demons that reside therein.

A Terrible Secret

Nicky definitely had his demons. Even at a very young age, he had a tongue so quick and barbed that it could infuriate the most patient of people. (Something, I have to admit, I always admired about him.) He was full of rage, had violent outbursts, and recurring nightmares that left him screaming so loudly it would wake my entire household (and sadly, these nightmares may have been a result of my terrible secret, but I have trouble remembering the timeline since so many years have passed)… which brings me back to my own night terror from yesterday’s post, and one of the reasons that I feel responsible for his death.

As I mentioned before, there is always another victim in the cycle of abuse; and Nicky was one of Don’s — a horrible secret that I have held in confidence (until now), sharing it with only one other person: my husband, Mitchell. But when I woke yesterday, with the memory having plagued my dreams, I just knew I had to write about it to be set free.

My grandmother and Don lived in a ranch house on a large plot of land on the outskirts of Great Falls, Montana. There was a greenhouse (of sorts) and a barn, in addition to the residence; and these two places were where most of my sexual abuse was endured.

We loved to play in the barn. It was fun to climb and jump among the hay bails, and it was far enough away from the house that we could make all the noise we wanted without irritating the adults. But on one particular, fateful afternoon, Nicky made the mistake of entering the barn when he shouldn’t have.

In his defense, he was looking for me — his older sister, and partner in all things adventure; but he found me in a compromising position with Don and all hell broke loose.

Don flew at my younger brother in a rage, picked him up off the ground and shook him so hard, I thought for sure he’d scrambled Nicky’s brains. He growled at him for being “a nosy, trespassing, lil’ son-of-a-bitch” and threw him to the ground. Don then straddled the 60-or-so-pound frame of my seven-year-old brother, angry finger poking at Nicky’s chest, and threatened to kill me should he ever breathe a word of what he’d witnessed; and then promptly threw him from the barn, slamming the door behind him.

After that, Don seized every opportunity to torture and humiliate Nicky. Whenever my younger brother mouthed off (and he mouthed off a lot), Don would pick him up by his shirt collar and put him to work on the farm — mending fences, digging holes, etc.

As an adult, I have heard my mother express regret over never having intervened on those occasions — but my folks were so frustrated with Nicky’s obstinate behavior that I imagine they thought the work might be good for him. Regardless, Nicky and I never spoke about that day… not until almost thirty years later.

An Irrational Fear (And Yet Another Secret)

This part of my story I have only shared with my friend, April (again, until now).

Several months before Nicky took his own life, he called me (which was rare in the last years of his life, as he had isolated due to his crippling, chronic pain). His voice was low and raspy, and I could tell that he had been crying.

“What’s up, Nicky? You don’t sound too good. Is it the pain?”

“The pain, yes, it’s always there; but that’s not why I called.” There was silence on the other end of the line that seemed to extend into hours. When next he spoke, he was so quiet that I could barely hear him, “I should have protected you, you know? I should have tried to save you.”

“Protect me? You’ve always protected me, ya’ nut…” He cut me off. And this time, he sounded angry.

“No, no I haven’t. When you swallowed those pills in high school, each and every time you’ve swallowed those pills… it’s my fault. I understand why you tried to die, and I feel responsible.”

“What?! How on earth could you be responsible, Nicky? You’re not responsible for that. You could never be responsible for that. No one is. Just me.”

Again, a never-ending silence. “I should have protected you from Grandpa Don. I should have run to Mom and told her everything. I fucking let you down, Cass.” This last statement was a serious one for Nicky, who never swore after becoming a father.

My chest seized up, and my voice disappeared.

“No. No, Nicky. I didn’t run to Mom, either; and I know now, from all my years in therapy that we did all that we could. We didn’t want anyone to die. We kept our secrets to protect the family.”

Nicky began to sob uncontrollably. “Cass? Promise me that we’ll never let anyone hurt Bug or Johnny. Never.

(A side effect of having endured our own versions of abuse throughout our childhoods, was that Nicky and I are/were both fiercely protective parents — in my case, sometimes to the embarrassment of my son.)

“Never, Nicky. I promise.” At this, my younger brother heaved a deep sigh.

“Good.”

And that was it… that was the one and only time we ever talked about it. It was also the last conversation I would ever have with Nicky (aside from a few text messages here and there).

I wasn’t worried about it then. It seemed to me that we both just needed to close the book on that part of our lives; but now, I can’t help but wonder if I should have said something to maybe Rigel (my baby brother) or my folks. Should I have tried to explain what had happened, and emphasized that Nicky was breaching subjects I never thought we’d try to revisit?

I fear that this last telephone call may have been a warning of darker things to come — even though it didn’t feel that way at the time. It’s an irrational fear, I know. I know that, but I don’t feel it.

I feel like I should have tried to protect Nicky, that I should have tried harder to save him. And because I didn’t, I lost him. I lost my lion, and I mourn for him each and every day of my life. Even now, just typing his name sends rivulets of hot, angry tears down my cheeks.

All I can do now is to keep the vow I made when he died, the words that I whispered into his cold, lifeless ear the last time I beheld the beauty of him (because I knew that his spirit would hear me, even if his body couldn’t).

“I don’t know where you’re going, Nicky; but I’ll meet you there. I can’t blame you for leaving, but it’s still not fair. I will walk like the lion you always were, and I will protect your son. I love you, Kiddo. Now, forever, always.”

Fuck. I really, really miss him.

Soundtrack: “Lions” by Skillet

The Different Shades of Memory

Part I

There are some memories so terrible that they wreak havoc on the mind (and body) when recalled, consciously or otherwise.

Memories of the childhood sexual abuse I endured used to fill me with an awful, powerful fear. A fear that hitched my breathing, and caused a kind of mental and physical paralysis. In addition, they brought about night terrors so great that I’d wake in an unbridled rage; one that was powerful enough that I could knock my considerably large husband clean off the bed with one good shove (and sometimes a punch to the jaw).

Now — after decades upon decades of therapy, and a host of medications to control my anger and night terrors — they fill me with different emotions: fury, regret, sorrow, and mourning.

Mourning for the person I might have been without having endured so much trauma; but the flip side of that is what my husband calls an “unbelievable strength”. He often describes me as “the strongest person [he] knows”, though I have trouble seeing it. And in all honesty, I would trade that strength for a history free of sexual assault and abuse.

As I mentioned, I am on medication — mirtazapine — to control my night terrors. “Control” does not mean that they have been eradicated; it simply means that they have been mitigated to prevent the worst of my reactions to them. I no longer wake up swinging, but I still have recollection nightmares. Dreams that I wake from shaking, with tears streaming from my eyes. And last night, I had one that could only be described as a doozy. (In fact, even now my hands are still shaking uncontrollably.)

There is Always Another Victim

The first experience I had with sexual abuse happened when I was ten-years-old. My grandmother married a man that I would later find out (as an adult) everyone suspected of having abused (sexual, and otherwise) his own children, especially his daughter. And yet, no one seemed to anticipate that it could happen again.

Perhaps they disbelieved that anyone would abuse another’s man’s child — as a grown woman, I still don’t know how to feel about the apathy my family took towards their suspicions, suspicions that would irrevocably change the lives of this man’s step-grandchildren.

I would later find out, through letters written between my cousin and myself, that she too experienced sexual abuse at the hands of my step-grandfather. It was a revelation that broke my heart, and added a tremendous amount of guilt to the emotions I experienced when these terrible memories pounced from the dark corners of my subconscious. Had I said something to my parents — to any of the adults in my large, Italian-Irish family — could I have prevented the abuse that she suffered at his hands?

Why didn’t I say anything? My mother raised us with warnings of strangers and familiars — she constantly reminded us that no secret was too great to share with her, and that there would be no judgement regarding what we disclosed. So what went wrong?

Don Enquist — my step-grandfather (and I feel no obligation to protect the name of this son-of-a-bitch) — threatened to kill my grandmother and my younger brothers, should I ever be bold and/or brave enough to share our terrible secret with anyone. He pulled a hunting knife from the drawer in his den, and told me that they would not die easy deaths, but would leave this world screaming in terror and agony.

I now understand that a ten-year-old child does not posses the mental capability to understand that such threats are usually empty, made only to invoke the inherent fear children have of losing their families — and that their loyalty to their loved ones, and a fierce desire to protect them, will ensure their silence… and fuel the cycle of recurring abuse.

And thus, I would never breathe a word of the terrible things that happened to me to my mother, or anyone else. Not until Don was dead and burned into ash.

Ironically, when I did share what had happened to me — with my mother and my aunt — I would be met with disbelief. To this day, I still know not whether they truly believe me. I know that they have their deep suspicions that it may be true, but suspicion and belief are two very different animals.

There are three people in this world that I know believe me — my cousin Kristi, my husband, and my brother Nicky. But sadly, two of those people have passed through the veil to what I hope is heaven. Kristi was killed in a car accident, and my brother Nicky died at his own hand. And in this last, I fear to this day that I may have played my own horribly, regretable part.

To Be Continued…

And this will lead to my next post, Dear Reader, as I fear I have taken up too much of your valuable time with too much sadness. My hands are no longer shaking, and I am mentally and physically exhausted — a consequence of dark reminiscence and healing.

I hope that you will find the strength to stay tuned. Until next time, may you all experience peace and a semblance of joy today.

“It’s Kind of a Funny Story”

Eclectic Media Outlet No. 1

In this series of posts I will be exploring the hundreds — literally hundreds — of DVDs and Blu-rays that my husband, Mitchell, and I own. Why that many, you might ask. Well… the younger generation may not remember the era that pre-dated the gaggle of streaming services now available; but I assure you that once upon a time, if you wanted to watch a movie (or a television series) more than once, you were obligated to buy a hard copy of such. And as I stated on my author page, I am a media junkie.

I don’t plan to bore my readers with synopsis information that can be gleaned by visiting IMDB (beyond some of the basic facts, just in case someone has an interest in watching the materials mentioned here), but more to share my personal connection to these films. And perhaps along the way, I will find a few that need to be weeded out and turned over to our local media exchange.

So let’s get started, shall we?!

“It’s Kind of a Funny Story” (2010)

© Misher Films Wayfare Entertainment

“It Kind of a Funny Story” is part of what I like to call my “loony bin” collection. After taking a few “vacations” to local mental institutions myself, I became obsessed with films about them; and this one is one of the lighter-hearted among them, while also demonstrating some terrible truths about the broken mental healthcare system. (For those of you who enjoy reading the books that precede films, this one is based on the titular young adult novel by Ned Vizzini.)

One of my favorite moments in the film (because sadly, there is truth in it) happens in one of the opening scenes. Craig, a sixteen-year-old who is struggling with suicidal ideations, rides his bike to a local hospital in New York City. He approaches the counter and says to the charge nurse, “I, um… I want to kill myself.” Annoyed with the fact that he has interrupted a personal phone call, the nurse hands him a clipboard and says, “Fill this out,” immediately returning to her call without further instruction and/or interaction with Craig.

At five a.m. he sits in an empty waiting room, and then has to plead with the Emergency Room’s attending physician to admit him, who at one point says to the boy that the patients he admits are “really sick”, and not just dealing with minor depression. But Craig persists, and the doctor does eventually commit him to the mental health ward.

Ten minutes into a tour of the facility, Craig decides that he’s all better — not nearly as crazy as the other patients — and asks to be released; but, as those of us who have had the unfortunate experience of being admitted under a “suicide hold” know, he’s now in it for the duration (which in this case is five days, compared to the shorter 72-hour holds that I was subjected to).

What I like about this film is that the facility itself is well presented. It actually looks like the institutions that I have spent time in. Shoelaces and belts are taken (in my case, drawstrings were also removed from my pajama pants), and most of the time, the patients on the ward are left to their own devices until it’s time to take their medications. However, Craig receives much better care from the ward’s psychiatrist than I ever did.

The cast of the film is — in my humble opinion — stellar. Zach Galifianakis (“The Hangover”) is stunning as Bobby (the ward’s most beloved patient). Emma Roberts (“American Horror Story”), Lauren Graham (“The Gilmore Girls”), Thomas Mann (“Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl”), and Viola Davis (“The Help”) play supporting characters with dignified gravitas; and Kier Gilchrist gives an amazing performance in the lead role of Craig.

And thus, this film will remain in my collection — streaming or not — and holds a special place in my heart due to the sober, true-to-life (if not somewhat optimistic) portrayal of the institutions some of us have found ourselves in, voluntary or not.

In later posts, inspired by memories recalled while watching “It’s Kind of a Funny Story”, I will share my own experience with “suicidal hold” commitment.