Night of the Iguana: A Movie for Crazy People
I was 18 when I was in a car crash that left me a quadriplegic (permanently paralyzed from the chest down). It was the summer between my freshman and sophomore year in college. The world was my oyster. All things were possible and I knew it.
One night in late July I went to a drive-in movie and fell asleep. When I woke up, the entire universe - down to its last molecule - had irrevocably and everlastingly changed. After the traction, the chest tubes, the surgery, the halo brace, the respirator, and the tracheotomy I found myself in a rehabilitation hospital in Kentucky beginning to confront the reality of a new life.
I didn't talk to anyone but the immediate members of my family for about a month. I felt surrounded by strangers. I understood why I was in hospital but I had nothing to say to these people. I had been so ill physically that psychologically I hadn't really had time to deal with the paralysis. As I started to stabilize, the true nature of my new situation began to sink in. I became extremely depressed and stop talking.
The tracheotomy didn't help matters. I was off the respirator and breathing on my own but not well enough to force air past the trach (the metal and plastic device sitting in my throat to keep my airway open) to make a sound. Everyone had to read my lips to understand what I was saying.
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The hospital surrounded me with a very competent and well-trained staff; a chaplain, a psychologist, and a psychiatrist. Slowly, I began to attempt to connect with the people around me. Almost as soon as I began communicating again, the anxiety attacks started. I had no idea what was happening to me. It felt as if the world was ending and I had no idea what to do about it. I had had two or three in high school and college but I dismissed them as stress and a tendency towards drama.
They weren't of course. Those anxiety attacks were signposts that I ignored completely. Even before the car accident I was giving myself warnings that I wasn't quite as in-control as I thought.
My circle of protectors got me through them. I cried and raged. I'm sure they talked to me but I couldn't seem to hear them or rather I couldn't seem to understand them. I had no words to explain what I was feeling other than terror and panic. The world had lost its color and sharp edges. Everything to me was gray and just a bit fuzzy. Even I knew I was nuts. Depressed wasn't a word I could hear yet. Looking back, I am astounded at my own capacity for denial.
Then late one night, I happened on the movie Night of the Iguana. Made in 1964 with Richard Burton and Deborah Kerr and directed by John Houston. The play the movie was based on was written by Tennessee Williams. Now, there's a man with issues.
I won't go deeply into the plot. It's fairly involved but basically deals with a group of lost people. They know where they are and when they are but a few of them are starting to see that their lives have gone off track.
The main character played by Richard Burton is deep into a breakdown. Deborah Kerr is recovering from one. Everyone else in the film is at different stages.
I was so young then and so inexperienced about the realities of living. I had no idea how difficult just getting through a moment could be.
By watching these characters go through what I was going through and coming out the other end of what seemed to be a "long dark tunnel" I acquired some language to describe what I was feeling. Up to that point, I didn't know how to talk about or really think about my fear of the life I was heading into.
The Night of the Iguana talked about the terror and anguish that just getting through a day could engender. It discussed ways of coming to terms with the panic of the unknown. I make it sound quite dry and academic. Far from it. Lots of arm waving and teeth gnashing drama but also much truth in between the lines. Especially for someone like me who was looking so desperately for a way to name - and by naming - begin to understand my own inner demons.
Tennessee Williams wrote several endings to his play. He couldn't quite light on a definite way to wrap things up. I think that's because these characters weren't going to have a neat ending. I feel one of the lessons of the movie was that the struggles of the characters would never stop. They developed ways of dealing with being crazy but it would be a continuing battle. Mine certainly has been.
Note: Night of the Iguana turns up on Turner Classic Movies from time to time. Be sure to add about 15 minutes to the timer on your DVR as the movie runs longer than it is listed.