Picking the Time for Traumatic Art - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Picking the Time for Traumatic Art

Depression Expression #9

Last entry: Guiding Lights

When I was in the ER, the doctor on duty wanted me to wait for the hospital psychologist to stop by before they'd discharge me. It took a long time for the psychologist to arrive and my anxiety steadily grew as each minute ticked by. She finally came to my room and I slowly broke down talking about how I was feeling physically and emotionally. Her presence didn't amount to much conversation so much as an outlet, or tacit permission, for me to let go of my last few walls and speak freely.

What came out was a lot of how I felt like I was drowning and sending so many signs with no one coming to help me. A couple of looks made me feel like I wasn't making my point well just talking about my own feelings directly so I started using a pop culture comparison. Not a well-known one, mind you, but one that meant a lot to me from the final episode of HBO's The Leftovers. It involves a goat, a well-meaning wedding party, beads, and a fence the goat gets tangled in. The goat screams for help and the arguably most flawed character in the show is the one to make a dangerous trek up the muddy hill to help it. I was feeling like both the goat and the character.

I'm weary of our collective over-reliance on pop culture as a way to navigate personal troubles and political strife but, in this instance, the reference helped me communicate. Question is, would I have found a way to dig further into myself so I could have been seen more clearly if I didn't watch a show as steeped in trauma as The Leftovers?  It's not widely watched partly because of how overwhelming the grief is throughout its run. I've gone through the first two seasons twice and even the "brighter" second season had my anxiety attaching itself to my chest like a tumor on rewatch.

The Leftovers is a one-of-a-kind show that has adverse effects on my health. It sounds strange, or like an exaggeration, but bear with me a moment. When my emotional state is strained or I'm slipping into depression my body starts to tense up, causing me to retain more waste. Since I've already got kidney issues to begin with, any additional waste retention increases the likelihood of stone formation. Experiencing traumatic or depressing stories like The Leftovers is not an underlying cause for physical problems, but in the right conditions they don't help either.

There's also the mental and emotional aspects to consider. The catharsis traumatic or depressing art is capable of providing can be a sweet release, especially if you're in need of a good cry. Watch enough of these challenging narratives in a row, or even spread out decently, and it's possible to become sort of "addicted" to the cycle of despair then catharsis. For otherwise healthy people this might just seem like a unique personality trait. For me, who runs the risk of disassociating from myself and identifying too strongly with the pain of anyone (or anything), it means further shattering of my already tenuous grasp of stability. Even educational reading, like researching PTSD or codependence, causes me to lose a bit of myself in the stories of someone else's pain, meaning I want to go back into art that'll provide catharsis, meaning I'll tense back up again...and on the cycle continues.

Again, my mental and emotional problems - like my physical - are not caused by traumatic art. But when that kind of art becomes your primary way of experiencing emotion outside yourself then you run the risk of reframing your general outlook to an unhealthy starting point. That doesn't mean stop challenging yourself to new art or finding experiences that'll put you into an uncomfortable place. What that means is carefully exploring what you feel and why, learning to communicate that without the crutch of pop culture references, and knowing when to back off.

It's a balance I'm not good at, but will achieve one day.

Photo is from the last episode of The Leftovers.

Next entry: An unsent letter to my therapist (who is irrevocably human)

Please help me if you can:

Posted by Andrew

Filed under: 2019 Leave a comment
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