On Isolation, Suicide, and “Spencer”

I stand at the precipice and wait for the train to devour me.

I’m sitting at a table where not a single chair is empty and yet I feel completely and utterly lost. It’s as if I’m encased in a boat adrift in a violently frigid sea. 

That’s a particular kind of isolation. The kind where a hundred eyes or cameras are flashing at you as you stand with your family in a crowd. If someone snapped their fingers and you realized that you were standing alone, you would not be surprised one bit. This kind of isolation is where you smile and hope that someone, just someone, is able to see through the ghost and find the crumbling person beneath it.

There’s a craft to masking the isolation, from the clothes to the mannerisms, to the smiles and jokes, to the way you glide through a room where most, if not all, of the people are interested very much in the idea of you — but just the idea. As soon as you start to breach that idea just a little bit and hope that level of interest and adoration and support is still there for the real you, it starts to crumble. Maybe it won’t fall apart as quickly as your mind tells you in this situation that it will, but that fear is palpable and wildly difficult to overcome.

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Masking is a performance and it becomes essential to many people who find themselves at a complete or even relative loss as to how they can reconcile their mind and presence. In theory, your mind is a part of your presence, part of the same whole. But when you’re this isolated and struggling to make it from one day to the next, your mind and presence can often feel like they’re opposite ends of a magnet pulling you apart and you have to use every ounce of energy you possess from being torn cleanly in half.

In Spencer, Kristen Stewart’s Princess Diana glances around the dinner table, trying to find some sort of anchor that isn’t sunken in a sea of hostility or at best, indifference. She finds none and retreats into a shell as much as she can. Stewart doesn’t say a single word in this sequence, but through her physical performance I could feel her mind and presence snapping away from each other. I saw her retreat in spirit and felt an overwhelming sense that this artist who has no idea that I exist captured so beautifully something that I’ve felt so often but have struggled to express.

It is monumentally difficult to discuss mental illness even in the most supportive circumstances. These conversations rarely happen under such conditions, which only augments their difficulty. It becomes a herculean task to say “I’m not okay” and then receive the affirmation that you are, indeed, not okay and that it is okay to be that way. It is okay to feel lost. It is okay for you to not have the energy for literally anyone else but yourself. It is okay to admit that you just want someone to hold you while you rest your head on their shoulders and feel the love everyone deserves to feel, to have, and to give.

It took the longest time for me to admit that I wasn’t okay, and an even longer time to say it out loud. And then to say it publicly over and over and over again. When a specific persona of you becomes beloved, there is a bit of fear in your head that if you admit that you’re not alright, then that persona will forever be broken. You’re afraid of losing shallow friendships you’ve invested in. You’re afraid of losing deep relationships you’ve invested in. You’re afraid of losing any semblance of a relationship you have to yourself and if you lose that, then what?

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“How will they remember me?” Diana asks. A part of her immediately thinks of “insane.” A trembling hush falls into her voice with laughter to try and mask it, but there’s a profound sadness in her expression of what she feels as her future. Insane. I have asked myself the same question, but with an obviously much smaller scale. It is unlikely that I will ever be a major public figure, so my expression of this fear was about the people around me. If I have a breakdown, will there be someone to hold my hand?

When Diana snaps the pearls off of her neck and they go flying around the table and into her soup, no one notices. She begins to eat the pearls and in a particularly impressive bit of acting, Stewart contorts her face into a haunting image of physical pain. I felt my body contorting in its own right. The pearls cracked and another one followed. That it’s revealed to be a nightmarish sequence is irrelevant. What matters to her, to me, is that, in that particular moment, she believes that no one around the table would lift a finger to ask her how she was.

It is a most profoundly painful experience to live that feeling, that devilish little whisper that grows louder and louder and louder as it screams that even in your nightmare, you are all alone. That when you are actively harming yourself, your presence has such little worth and value that even in your own mind no one cares enough about you to even flinch. That perhaps you deserve to be so lonely and defeated that even your brain deems it alright to keep its distance from you.

The exhausting thing about performing a certain version of yourself is that people tend to become used to that version. If you smile all the time, people expect you to do just that – and there is of course a gendered aspect to that particular expectation that I have not experienced. If you’re constantly dashing from one commitment to another without breaking a visible sweat, people will inevitably train themselves to believe that you can just do anything, that you are this powerhouse with superhuman strength. If you can light up a room with your smile and wit and charm, people will simply assume that that’s just how you are – a shimmering beacon lighting the way for sailors to find a safe shore. The thing is, lighthouses are often pretty lonely. 

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Claire Mathon’s cinematography often lights Diana as a lighthouse shimmering and glowing in the darkness. But that glow always highlights how isolated and alone she is. She is always desperately trying to find something to hold on to. And in certain shots where Mathon gorgeously contrasts Diana’s illumination against the bleakness about her, Diana almost feels like a ghost. A ghost of who she really is. A ghost in how others want her to be. A ghost because a part of her doesn’t know if she can maintain that energy to go from one day to the next. 

Kristen Stewart in Spencer | Photo by Pablo Larraín

And then there is the shot of her standing atop a staircase in a home where she felt some warmth and comfort and love. She had raced through its crumbling walls and dusted edifices to recover some of that warmth and comfort and love. But she didn’t find it. She found a place to cry and lord knows we all need that sometime, but in Stewart’s performance, you feel that sort of agony and defeat that maybe, none of those memories would ever morph back into the present. And that is heartbreaking.

As I type this paragraph and tears threaten to pool from my eyes, I am drawn constantly to the moment where Stewart’s Diana raises her feet and leans forward from the top of the staircase. It’s like me staring at a bottle of medication, wondering if I would feel better if I took a few more than I should and then terrified that if it didn’t work, then I would face a financial catastrophe through a hospital bill I couldn’t afford. If some accident or something outside of my control just took the choice out of my hands. Standing at the edge of the Powell Street BART Station platform, waiting for the train to Antioch but wondering more times than I feel entirely comfortable admitting, of what would happen if I just raised my foot and leaned forward a little.

She doesn’t. I haven’t. In a moment, she finds a lifeline and she is able to move on. But it’s so easy for that lifeline to not appear at just the moment you need it. And that’s something that people who dismiss suicide as cowardice and cast with such disdain judgment on those who have attempted to and or successfully taken their life don’t want to understand. It takes a lot of courage to take that step or lean forward. It takes a lot of courage not to do that. But sometimes something is able to help you hold on. And sometimes you’re reaching really hard for such a thing or person to do so and it and or they don’t arrive in time.

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The incorporation of Anne Boleyn into this moment is inelegant and part of me wishes that it wasn’t there. However, for a lot of my life, I have found comfort and connection in fictional characters or people who are so much larger than life that the persona I know of them is probably fictional to a high degree, too. When I say “Kristen Stewart’s performance as Princess Diana in Spencer helped me process my own suicidal tendencies,” it can almost sound farcical. But it did and continues to do so. So, if for this version of Princess Diana, Anne Boleyn was someone she could relate to and process her suffering, then why not? Mental illness isn’t always subtle, so if a piece of art wants to reflect that inelegant lack of subtlety, then it should.

In the moment she steps back and wrenches the pearls off of her neck, euphoria. That desire to break, to be you, to embrace the things that you love. That concrete step you’ve just taken to be closer to the person you know you truly are and to form bonds from a more genuine place. When I took that concrete step, I felt euphoric and while the present isn’t certain and the future is a maelstrom of confusion at best, I’m proud to have taken that step and grateful for everyone who supported me in taking that step, real or fictional.

I wish that I could say that after that step, the sailing has been smooth but it hasn’t – far from it. The final shot of Spencer is Pablo Larraín and Mathon providing Diana the happy ending she didn’t get in real life. But it’s a happy ending that is seeped with hope and not a shallow, triumphant bravado. It’s more significant than her just dancing out into the world as happy music blares through the screen. 

It’s Kristen Stewart’s Princess Diana looking out towards the famous London cityscape, a flicker of a smile crossing her lips, a true smile of someone who has just tasted something of peace, contentment, and hope. It lasts for a second but Stewart maintains the shadow of that flickering smile and it transforms into an expression much more haunting and complex. When I saw the euphoric smile transform into an elixir of emotions that conveys fear, exhaustion, grief, anxiety, depression, peace, contentment, and more, I saw my own journey where after I broke through a cycle of harm, I still found myself ensnared by an overwhelming sense of an unknown future and questions to which I still haven’t found all the answers. 

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There is a joy in breaking through that cycle. Spencer conveys that beautifully, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is going to be easy and effortless after that singular break. In that ending, in Stewart’s singular elixir of expressions, I found an assurance, a relief that my journey of recovery will take time but that doesn’t mean the journey itself is incapable of bringing me moments of joy and love. The audience can then walk away with some relief in their heart, made all the more significant by a prior expectation that the film’s final frames will be deluged in known and expected tragedy. It’s one of the most haunting endings to a film I can recall in quite some time, an ending that pierced my mind and soul and impacts me with greater ferocity every time I see it.

Courtesy of NEON

As I write this piece, I vacillate between stability and the feeling that I’m going to imminently collapse. I vacillate between smiling and just wanting to place my face down in a dimly lit corner and cry until there is no water left in me. I vacillate between power walking in confidence and dancing through corridors in a way that people watching me would whisper: “they’ve lost their mind.” 

So, I’m far from recovery. And the journey to recovery from a place of suicidal and self-harm behaviour can take a really long time. It can look like two steps forward, one step back; three steps forward, four steps back one step forward. Spencer knows this and Stewart knows this. As she delves in and out of Diana’s mental turmoil to create moments of genuine love and warmth with the few people who truly care about her, there’s an emotional movement in her body language conveying the disparate pace of that recovery. 

I’m far from the moment where I can look upon Stewart waltzing to Jonny Greenwood’s “Crucifix” and think of it as a moment in my past and not an imminent desire bursting from my chest. So for anyone who reads this and finds it relatable in any way, recovery can be agonizing and long, so please give yourself some grace however and wherever you’re able. If you’re not recovering as fast as you would like, it doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you. If you have a breakdown when you just before felt alright, it doesn’t mean you’re relapsing into failure. It just means you’re human and that’s a pretty difficult being to be at the best of times.

I knew a lot of what I have written here intellectually but when you’re in the thralls of mental illness, feeling those realizations on a deep and emotional level is crucial for it to register and for you to fully realize it. That’s the power of what art and storytelling can achieve. It’s what I feel every time I return to Spencer and tap into that courage to live again through a performance that captures so much of what I have felt internally but unable to say or express out loud.

Stewart’s Diana smiles that faint smile and in that brief moment of peace after a tumultuous journey of self-harm and loneliness, she feels that maybe, just maybe, this isn’t the end for her. In that smile I found myself believing that maybe, just maybe, I don’t deserve to die alone and be burdened by bonds of toxicity. That I don’t need to only be improving and stabilizing in order for me to receive that peace and love and stability. That others have felt that specific kind of loneliness and despair – where people don’t take you seriously, ignore your pain, or tell you to just “not be that way” – and could make their way through it. That I, too, can recognize my own pain as valid. 

In that faint smile, I recognized the me of now. I recognized a person who has slowly started to fall in love with living again, who doesn’t want to actively die, and yet isn’t entirely sure if they can always carry within themselves the capacity to live.

***

Note: Some folks have referred to Spencer’s depiction of Princess Diana as “crazy.” While it is obviously okay for anyone to dislike Kristen Stewart’s performance and or this film – I would like to ask, as someone who is mentally ill, that you not use that term and thereby diminish the humanity of people like me or Stewart’s Diana. Be better than that.

Note Two: This article is written specifically about my relationship to mental illness and is not meant to in any way speak for everyone.

Spencer is available on various Video on Demand and streaming platforms.



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