I can’t stop thinking about her – the girl in Sia’s ‘Chandelier’ video, which I wrote about in my “Intensity” post. I have tried and tried to write about other things – important posts about topics I have been wanting to cover for a while – but I just can’t do it. The words simply won’t write themselves and the image of the eleven-year-old Maddie Ziegler just dances into the path of my best endeavours to think about something else.
It feels strange how a completely random occurrence – happening upon a song and a video that I could have come across at any time over the last few months – has turned into the most pivotal event in my therapy since Christmas. But I guess that’s life. The ordinary can have extraordinary significance, and a chance event can alter the course of a life.
I have been trying to understand what it is about the song and the video that is so powerful, and what it is that it is tapping into. The question that intrigues me most, is “why a child”? The song appears to have an adult theme – the pain and emptiness of substance abuse and losing oneself in a partying lifestyle – but that pain is depicted by a child whose age is only just in double digits. The blonde ‘Sia’ wig and Sia’s description of her video for ‘Elastic Heart’ – in which the same young girl appears alongside a male actor/dancer – as a depiction of her ‘self-states’, implies that it is her ‘inner child’ who is the centrepiece of Chandelier.
I think the power of the song and the video operates on two levels for me: it has resonances with one of the worst periods of my life, when I completely ‘lost myself’ as an adult, but when I suspect that the inner child was in control (or rather, she was uppermost, but out of control); and it also reminds me of childhood itself.
My therapist said that for her, Maddie’s dance was indicative of someone who just didn’t know what to do with themselves. Reviews that I have read, described her as depicting someone ‘barely in control’, almost literally ‘climbing the walls’. I know that feeling. In my early twenties I went through a period which I can only describe as ‘losing touch with reality’. It was a ‘party period’, and sometimes when I describe it, people simply see it as ‘experimentation’. But nothing can shake my conviction that that was not what it was. Looking back on that time, even a few months afterwards, I couldn’t recognise myself. I had no sense of myself, of my values, or of any boundaries. Things that would ordinarily have been important to me – for example, the opinion of those in positions of authority – were not so much unimportant, as not remotely in the picture.
I partied, I drank, I acted out – mostly with people I had little interest in or attraction to. For a while, the more I lost control, the more powerful I felt. Though never confident in my appearance, I developed bizarre delusions of grandeur in that I thought I could have anyone I wanted. But as time went on, the loss of control didn’t feel like power anymore. I was on auto-pilot – the acting out became habitual, not something I wanted to do, but something I just did. And although for a while ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ were simply immaterial, as time went on I was disturbed by vivid ‘religious experiences’ in which I felt as though God and the Devil were battling it out for my soul. I was in a lot of pain – and doing my very best not to feel it. Eventually it got to the point where I think I was dissociating a lot of the time. I remember occasions when I felt as though I was simply watching myself (or at least, someone who looked like me), from outside my body.
Whatever it was that my ‘inner child’ was searching for – affirmation, validation, love, acceptance, something to fill an emptiness – she wasn’t finding it. And throughout all that time I think that she was inwardly desperate for someone to put the brakes on; to challenge her and to set her some boundaries. I felt betrayed by the fact that no one did – neither my friends, nor my church family, even though they were all witnesses to what was going on. I saw the looks of disapproval and pity – but no one cared or dared enough to speak their mind. Until one day someone did – someone who I barely knew and who certainly didn’t care about me. But they did what needed to be done, and for that I’m grateful, as it was the starting point of a change.
For me, the song’s connection with that period of my life and with the ‘inner child’s’ needs that were driving the adult behaviour, was the first interpretation that came to mind. But the more I watched the video, the more conscious I became of the connection with my emotional experience growing up. The thing about Sia’s ‘child state’, is that she is performing a dance, but she is also, in quite a different sense, ‘putting on a performance’. One commentator described sections of the video as involving a party, with the dancer entertaining her ‘invisible guests’. For me, this is almost like looking at a negative. In one sense, it is the guests who are ‘real’ and the ‘performance’ that is a lie, the cover-up for something hidden – but what we see is the picture pulled inside out, revealing the emotions underneath. What this brings out for me, more than anything else, is how alone she is with her emotions. ‘Help me, I’m holding on for dear life’. A room full of party guests but each one as insubstantial, vacuous and transparent as thin air – there is no meaningful connection anywhere. She is barely holding on, but no one can see it, and all she can do is try and numb the pain, push it down where she can’t feel it, and carry on pretending and putting on a fake smile.
What affected me more than anything, I think, was her alone-ness. The fact that she was on her own with her intense emotions. Whether you see that as being literally alone, dancing in an empty flat, or alone amidst a room full of invisible guests – there was no one alongside her in her experience. It reminded me of myself: whether it was experiencing loss, massive upheaval, bereavement, rejection, fear or panic – I kept it all inside. I think the song and video were powerful triggers of that sense of feeling alone with my experience – with no one ‘safe’ enough to share it with. No one who could properly validate it or accept it and who wouldn’t belittle or dismiss it. No one who could contain it in such a way as to ensure that their own reactions didn’t overwhelm me even further. My life was full of people – parents, relatives, friends – but when it came to being present with me in my internal struggles, they were essentially invisible.
But I’ve also come to believe that my reaction to the video is not just about what the child in the video reminds me of. It’s what the child means to me. When your mind tells you something you know cannot be true, you have to question why. I love that little girl – which is clearly impossible, as I do not know her. I can only think that watching her on screen, relating to some of the emotions that she is portraying, allows me to project myself onto her in some way. In the last episode of Season 2 of ‘My Mad Fat Diary’ (a UK drama series from a couple of years ago), the female protagonist is asked by her therapist to imagine talking to her younger self. By revealing the compassion she has for the child she used to be, and by showing her that she is still the same person she was then, the therapist tries to encourage her to have love and compassion for herself in the present. I have tried this thought experiment myself – but instead of feeling compassion or love for the ‘younger me’, all I feel is dislike, resentment and anger. I think that I blame her – if she had been stronger, more resilient, if she had been different somehow, perhaps I wouldn’t be where I am now. Perhaps my life would have been different. She could have saved me; but she failed.
But when I see little Maddie Ziegler on screen and identify with her emotions, I want to let her know that she is loved. While she out there on a screen, two-dimensional though still incredibly full of life, I can have a sense of validating and caring for the parts of me that she is representing. But the moment I try and bring that image inside me; the moment I try and internalise it and really look at the ‘child within’, those feelings completely disappear. I’m back to viewing her through that other lens – the one that has picked up the dirt and discolourations of the attitudes I was surrounded by when growing up.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I have listened to the song and watched the video. The experience has shifted from the sheer power of emotion, to the power of analysis and interpretation. It’s a goldmine of therapeutic material. Interestingly, in a most appropriate ‘freudian slip’ of the written kind, I mistakenly wrote ‘minefield’ rather than ‘goldmine’, in the first iteration of that sentence. To be honest, either will do – both are equally true. I have a feeling I will be exploring that goldmine/minefield for some time to come – I just hope I can survive the experience.
Image attribution: “Sia – Chandelier (music video screenshot)” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sia_-_Chandelier_(music_video_screenshot).jpg#mediaviewer/File:Sia_-_Chandelier_(music_video_screenshot).jpg