Encanto’s Ode to Mental Health
Encanto, which means “charm” in Spanish, is Disney’s 60th animated feature film, with songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton, In the Heights, Moana). Encanto centers on the magical Madrigal family, whose members are gifted with powers to help their community in the mountains of Colombia. But as the third generation comes of age, cracks begin to appear in their magical sentient home, Casita, signaling a fading of their long-held magic.
Luisa Madrigal (voiced by Jessica Darrow) has the magical gift of strength. Yet when younger sister Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) notices Luisa’s eye twitching uncontrollably, Mirabel’s simple question of "What's wrong?" pushes her big sister into a meltdown musical number, in which Luisa admits her fears and vulnerability over a catchy, contemporary, reggaeton beat. “Surface Pressure” has resonated with many, even making the Billboard Top 10. It has meant a lot to me, as it mirrors my mental-health journey during the trying times of the COVID-19 pandemic. Its moving lyrics reflect the themes of taking on too much, learning the importance of self-care, and realizing the need to let go and relax.
"I'm the strong one / I'm not nervous / I'm as tough as the crust of the earth is," Luisa sings. She seems to be justifying why she’s totally fine, almost as if she needs to convince herself. Luisa goes on to sing, deceptively coolly, of the “pressure like a drip, drip, drip that’ll never stop” that comes with the territory of being the strong one in the family.
I can relate. It was June 2020, four months into the stay-at-home order in my hometown in Queens, New York. The amount of pressure I unknowingly carried was unsurpassed. I was stuck in our 1,000-square-foot apartment with five kids under nine, including my nursing infant. My husband did the grocery shopping, so I couldn’t remember the last time I’d left our apartment.
I was also worried about my dad’s health. His bone-marrow condition made his immune system weak, leaving him defenseless against COVID-19. When my parents arrived from the Philippines for the summer—out of an abundance of caution—my family and I only waved out the window as they drove by the apartment. This was the most contact we’d had with them in months.
“Under the surface, I'm pretty sure I'm worthless / If I can't be of service,” Luisa sings, mirroring my savior complex as a mother, and also as a full-time minister. I cared for others during an unprecedented time of communal grief and loss. Endless Zoom meetings were my norm. I said “yes” to everyone who asked for help, and it seemed everyone I interacted with was in crisis mode. “Who am I if I don’t have what it takes?” Luisa asks, which might as well have been my mantra at the time.
In hindsight, I see how I tried to care for everyone around me at the expense of my own rest and health. My world was falling apart and everyone needed me. But the pressure was becoming too much and I was losing sight of what I needed. I needed to stop. And I needed Jesus.
Soon, the insomnia set in. I lasted for a full week on two hours of sleep per night. But instead of feeling groggy, I felt energetic—euphoric even. My sister noticed how quickly I spoke, rambling incessantly. It was a far cry from my usual mellow, reserved personality. By day seven of insomnia, I had moments of unexplainable paranoia, eventually becoming so aggressive that, when the paramedics came, they restrained me on a gurney so I wouldn’t hurt myself or others.
I was hospitalized for a total of 10 days, released with the diagnosis of Bipolar 1 Disorder. What I’d experienced that sleepless week was called a manic episode with psychosis.
“I'm pretty sure I'm worthless / If I can't be of service,” Luisa sings, mirroring my savior complex as a full-time minister.
In the poignant bridge of “Surface Pressure,” Luisa fantasizes about "shak[ing] the crushing weight of expectations" and being able to relax and experience joy. Becoming hospitalized was the wake-up call I needed. Like Luisa, I needed to learn to be able to slow down and live life on my own terms, instead of carrying others’ burdens all the time. God calls me to love my neighbor as myself. In other words, I am not to neglect myself for the sake of always serving others.
It took being hospitalized for God to finally get my attention, allowing me to embrace my limits. I realized I’m not superhuman. I’m not invincible. As a mom and a minister, those are hard pills to swallow. As my therapist puts it, self-care is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. There’s that old illustration of putting on your own oxygen mask on the airplane before helping others. My ministry had become a distraction from the realization that even as I work toward God's kingdom, it is Jesus who carries all things for me.
Still, (false) martyrdom is tempting. “Look at me God!,” we like to exclaim. “I’m suffering on behalf of others.” I’ve learned to reject the lie that it is “selfish” to take care of myself—especially to take care of my spiritual walk. Whether it is cleaning up the third spilled cup of milk of the day or tackling the pile of laundry that is silently judging me or answering the phone to tackle another ministry crisis. All that can wait so I can spend time with my Savior via his word.
The cast of Encanto appeared in an official featurette titled “A Journey Through Music.” In the video, Miranda elaborated on his musical choices. “When you hear from Mirabel’s sister Luisa, it’s a very contemporary, Colombian, reggaeton sound,” Miranda said. “Because she’s got this very cool, very tough exterior, and then I wanted to sort of peel away and deconstruct that over the course of the song.”
I’m on my own journey of deconstruction. My hospitalization made me realize that my tough exterior can’t hold forever. At some point, like Luisa, I was bound to come to my breaking point. But at rock bottom, one can only rise.
Luisa comes to the end of the song with the conclusion that she can let go after all. “No pressure,” she sings. By the end of the film, Luisa realizes it’s OK to accept help and support from others and to take the time to relax. She realizes she is more than her gift and what she can do for others.
Like Luisa, I’ve learned I am more than what I can do for others. Now, I treat my mental illness with medication (as I would a physical illness) and therapy. I’ve learned the importance of self-care, investing in my friendships and recuperating from ministry via solitude. Thanks partly to Encanto and “Surface Pressure,” I am more resilient at guarding myself from overworking. I've realized that even as a wife, mother, and minister, it’s OK to let go.