When I was a kid, Cinderella would never have made my list of top five Princesses. I loved Jasmine and Belle and Nala, because they were independent and fierce and they wanted things. Cinderella had a nice singing voice and I liked the mice, but she was never a fave.
It took me a long time to appreciate Cinderella.
And honestly, it hit me out of nowhere, on a trip to Disney World in 2014, when the Cinderella at the Princess Fairytale Hall in the Magic Kingdom brought me to tears. I was 10000% unprepared for the experience.
She started off my complimenting my hair (the princesses all loved my hair) and asked if my mice friends had helped me braid it. I told her no, I don’t have mice friends, but I do have a cat friend — but a nice cat friend, not an evil one like Lucifer. And we chatted about how she’s let Elsa redecorate her castle for the winter, though it does mean some mopping up when the ice melts, and how Prince Charming is helpful around the house (moreso, I got the impression, than some of the other Princes). We had a lot of time to talk, because the non-Frozen side of Fairytale Hall was practically deserted first thing in the morning.
And then, for some reason, I told her how much I’ve always liked her song, and how much it’s meant to me, because I’d been through some rough times, but “no matter how your heart is grieving” – and for no readily identifiable reason I started to get a little choked up. So she finished for me, “If you keep on believing, the dreams that you wish will come true.”
Then she gave me a big hug, pulled back, squeezed my hands and looked me right in the eyes and said, quietly and just for me, “I’ve always said that if your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough. But you can do it. I know you can.”
And then I somehow managed to get through the posed pictures and around the corner before dissolving into tears entirely, because Cinderella believes in me and my dreams.
When you’re broken — when your brain tells lies, when depression says you’ll never be good enough or brave enough or strong enough, when anxiety has you certain that no one actually likes you and even your friends are just pretending, when let-downs and betrayals occasionally hammer that message home, when toxic influences have magnified everything bad you think about yourself — just hearing words like those is… well, magic. I will forever be grateful to that actress, who somehow looked in my eyes and intuited that I needed a message of hope.
I went to see the live action Cinderella the next year with way more enthusiasm than I would’ve had without that experience in the Magic Kingdom, I think, and if you’ve seen it, you know it’s a more emotionally nuanced version of the story. I wasn’t the only woman who took away a different message than “marry up if at all possible”. Cinderella had become a story about surviving abuse and managing not to let it destroy the core of who you are.
A lot of what I’ve had to learn in dealing with my anxiety and depression is remembering things like I am not my pain; I am not the fear and anger that pain causes me. I am more than the bad things that have happened to me. I am worthy of being treated well. I deserve to trust and be trusted. I deserve to feel safe. I deserve to be loved.
I haven’t dealt with it all as gracefully as Cinderella, I know. But I try to remember to Have courage, and be kind.
And there are worse things to think about on World Mental Health Day.