2019 Archives - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Depression Expression #9 – Picking the Time for Traumatic Art

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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.

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Depression Expression #8 – Guiding Lights

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Previous entry: Borderline Millennial Cautionary Tale

My questionable insurance made the transition to unreliable yesterday. I got a call at about 3 PM, approximately 16 hours before my next surgery, that my insurance was not going to cover the laser ureteroscopy I need to get rid of the stone in its current location. Under normal circumstances I think I'd be crushed or go into further despair.  Since I've already been at my limit recently it's become just another thing, and with the progress the stone's made I'll hopefully pass it within the next week or two.

This definitely qualifies as a low point. Like other low points, I'm almost pathetically grateful for the animals that have decided I'm worth putting up with. I don't think of them as pets. They've been my best friends, companions when I've been lonely, therapy talk partners, and sometimes chatty roommates. Our shared lack of mutual verbal comprehension has made communicating with them and receiving empathy easier than when I've tried talking to other humans throughout large chunks of my life.The first big support in my heart was Bo. He was a dalmatian with a lot of problems but the heart to match. Before he came into my life he was hit by a truck that left him with a permanent limp for the rest of his time here. Despite that, he always loved limping his side straight into the nearest human so he could get a big hug or some pets. I was a solitary kid who moved around a lot so the positive nonverbal requests for love resonated with the bits of me that didn't get much exercise.

It's hard to overstate just how much Bo helped me during the worst time of my life. For about a year I'd come home bleeding, bruised, and desperately trying to forget everything that happened over the course of the day. No matter how much I hurt, Bo was always there to give me some friendly licks and prop himself up next to me so I could hear and feel his heart beat. It was easier to forget the smells, pain, and taunts of the day when he flashed his big ham-stealing grin.

Time must move on, and eventually Bo went back to my grandparents' to lose weight and get healthy. In the spring of '98, when I was 13, we got to their house and I saw what Bo looked and acted like when he was in good shape. He was running around, barking, and so happy to see me. Then he made a quick noise and fell over. I ran over to start shaking him and was yelling at him to get up. By the time my dad and grandpa put him in the car to take him away I was hugging him and feeling the warmth leave. They tried taking him to the vet but it was too late. Bo had died instantly of a heart attack.

I blamed myself for it. No, that's not a rational or reasonable response, but the abuse I'd experienced hadn't left me with good emotional reasoning skills and it'd be almost 20 years until I went into therapy. There came a point I was so beaten down that I thought something was fundamentally wrong with me, like my love was poison and the only hope I'd have for sustained happiness was someday in Heaven. This turned out to be an instance where time and letting myself feel affection again were the two biggest sources of healing. I wasn't toxic, Bo was just an old dog with problems who loved me more than anything else and died at his absolute happiest seeing his favorite human again.About 12 years later I made the transition from dog person to cat person. My then-roommate (and website co-founder) was allergic to cats so my initial attempt at adoption from a friend didn't go so well. After he moved into his own place I had a moment of serendipity where I opened my door to go to the store and looked down to see a medium-sized black cat staring right at me. The cat wasn't afraid, had a growly meow, and we regarded each other with mutual interest. After remembering I still had leftover cat supplies from my earlier adoption attempt, I put down some food, water, and litter followed by my serendipitous guest utilizing each utility laid out.

I named him Mystery, the cat with no past. A vet appointment later confirmed he was sick and old, unlikely to last long. I endeavored to give Mystery the best life I could and, in turn, I got a curmudgeonly companion to join me during another tough time. What the vet anticipated as a few months turned into a few years as Mystery stayed with me through another tough time when I was at my loneliest. I had moved two states over, knowing no one, having plans with my then-girlfriend to come with me but she didn't.

Mystery was never the friendliest boy but he meowed his special growly meow on the toughest nights when I needed to hear that I wasn't alone. He'd live through another move, this time from my solo apartment to moving in with my eventual wife. I was sad when he died, but it was a different kind of sadness. It was tempered with the knowledge that my affection and love weren't tainted or poisonous. It was because of what I was able to give Mystery that he stuck around in a comfortable home and private bed as long as he did without suffering.Almost 20 years after Bo, during my second round of therapy, I was on a heavy dose of antidepressants that gave me headaches or put me out. The mornings were extremely rough as I didn't know what kind of state I'd be in. When I fumbled out of bed one day I made it two steps before noticing a small kitten laying down on one of our pillows that fell on the floor. The kitten bolted after I asked, "Who are you?" and once I was able to carefully corner the kitten I saw a message from my wife telling me not to be angry - but a kitten from the outside got inside.

I was just happy standard rules of biology and physics applied knowing my cats weren't spontaneously producing new cats.

Over the next few months, the kitten started approaching me whenever I was outside. When I sat down, they'd hop up on my lap and start kneading. My wife and I dubbed the kitten Grey Ghost in honor of the then recently deceased Adam West. But it wasn't long before Grey Ghost needed a slight name change as they developed a bit of a tummy and came around wanting to go inside our apartment. Grey Ghost was a girl, and about to become Queen Ghost because she was pregnant.

I was scared at her insistence. My mind kept wandering back to Bo, how happy he was to see me, and how cold he felt as his body gave out the rest of who he was. Even though I'd long gotten over the feeling that my love and affection was a burden or poison to other living things, my sense memory of his death remained strong. It's been impossible for me to shake myself completely free from that, even if my care of Mystery showed me that there's little reason to fear.

That didn't stop me from fretting every second when Queen Grey plopped herself down in our living room corner and began to groan. I did my best to set up some sheets and a comfortable wall around her so that she could have as much privacy as possible, plus placing some food and water nearby.I was borderline rapturous in my relief when I heard the first of those tiny meows. This living being trusted me enough to put both her life and the lives of her litter in my hands. That trust wasn't misplaced. This was just as real as Mystery giving me his growly meow greeting or Bo plopping his big frame next to me for pets.

The kittens are still together with their momma, some are rowdy and the others more subdued, and all of them are healthy. I don't know how much longer I'm going to be able to keep the family together. I don't even know how much longer my body's going to be in the condition it is (to say nothing of the potential grenade waiting in my right kidney). But I'm grateful to have been there for them, and happy that they're all loving bundles of fur 'n purrs guiding me to whatever light I can find during this scary period.

Next entry: Picking the Time for Traumatic Art

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Depression Expression #7 – Borderline Millennial Cautionary Tale

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Previous entry: Numb Day

For the brief spat of time I was in the lithotripsy pool, I at least attained some kind of calm. R, the anesthesiologist (using initials to maintain some anonymity for them), was extremely kind. Before the procedure started he visited me and knelt down to meet my line of vision while discussing what I'd be feeling and the drugs used. As I lay in the pool he was answering my questions about why he wanted to be in anesthesiology over other fields (paraphrased answer: fascinated by unconscious mind and to bring calm).

The nurses, M and Q, did not play a single round of cards while I was in their care. Instead, they used that time to check on my comfort and make sure that I was all set to go when the overseeing urologist - Dr. B - came in to explain her end. There was one point in particular that M helped me out a lot.

M: *while checking vitals* Do you feel safe at home?

Me: Yes.

M: Do you ever feel like hurting yourself?

Me: Yes.

M: *stops dividing attention, looks straight at me* When was the last time you thought of hurting yourself?

Me: Well. Um. Like when I had to go to the ER a couple of weeks ago. I wanted to feel something else than anything I was feeling.

M: *slowly* And how are you feeling now?

Me: Uh...complicated?

I start crying.

M: *walks over to tissue box, takes out two tissues* Tissues.

I take the tissues.

M: *gives my left foot a quick squeeze walking back* I'm sorry, I didn't mean to make you upset with my questions.

It was the little squeeze that put me back into a shaky if otherwise serviceable orbit. Later on we'd talk about different things I could drink to try and lessen my kidney stone formation (we have a shared love of lemonade). Things looked up.

Then came the moment I was in the lithotripsy pool and the x-ray machine kept pivoting, which I was able to see since I hadn't been administered the rest of the needed anesthetics. It pivoted. I waited. Started listening. "Is it behind the bone?" Unsure who said that. But as time kept drifting on and I didn't go to sleep the pit in my gut opened up as I heard, "Sorry bud, it's just not the day."

More time. More pain. More uncertainty. And none of these things worrying me were some abstract concept in the future my anxiety conjured up. They were present factors as I went to get another CT scan and things continued to shift in pain.

Between my general failure to generate revenue as a writer, the month-to-month financial situation, uncertain insurance future, pending bill avalanche, and stream of life-disrupting pain I'm at the point where it feels one bad day is going to cost me everything. Then the sum of my efforts these last few years will amount to a cautionary tale.

At least tomorrow is virtually guaranteed to be less disappointing than today.

Next entry: Guiding Lights

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Depression Expression #6 – Numb Day

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Previous entry: Codependent Creators

Note of caution before I proceed: if you're reading this and are on antidepressants, please talk to your doctor before reducing or discontinuing your treatment.

I note that because I made the decision to stop taking my antidepressants late last year. I knew well enough that stopping them entirely would be a disastrous decision, so I slowly tapered my dosage down over the course of a month. My psychiatrist and I had already successfully weaned me off of two other medications I needed to function and I thought I could regain some focus while tapping back into myself by removing the last one. Problem was I couldn't afford regular psychiatric appointments anymore, so the decision was made entirely by myself.

My judgment was poor as the slow then rapid decline of my mental health has shown this year. After going to the ER at the end of April, the doctor treating me suggested I go back on my antidepressants. Considering I had nearly lost all feeling in my hands and feet from a massive panic attack, to say nothing of the escalating bouts of sadness in between the pain, I agreed. So she wrote me a refill prescription for the Zoloft I was taking and, on top of the pain medications and appointments, I've been slowly getting back on track with the antidepressants.

Today I felt numb, a sign specific to me that they're starting to work again. My mental and emotional cocktail of diagnoses means that when I'm in the grips of the worst parts of my depression I feel  wildly and despair at it all. It's like experiencing an uncontrollable urge to help while convincing myself that nothing I do is going to work and, despite that nagging voice, that I have to get started on this task I know is going to fail right away.

I know "numb" doesn't sound like a desired state and if it lasts longer than my recovery I do have cause to worry. But until 2015 my primary way of interacting with the world was through that self-destructive helper exhaustion. It's hard enough for me to be still and sleep, even after all the therapy and medications I've needed, so a state that puts my body and mind at rest for a day is healthy for the moment.

And that's also why I don't have much today, which is a-okay.

Image comes from L'Humanite, the 1999 French film about a police officer who becomes an open nerve after stumbling on a horrific crime scene.

Next entry: Borderline Millennial Cautionary Tale

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Depression Expression #5 – Codependent Creators

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Previous entry: "Better" Body

I've been writing criticism, in some form, for about fifteen years. Every critic's barometer for what makes a good piece is going to be different, but one of my biggest sticking points is that criticism is just as creative as the work it's criticizing. When I settle in to write a piece I'm putting myself on the line, trying to find some way of expressing what my experience with the critical subject is via style, knowledge, and empathy. Sometimes what I feel for a work of art is so overwhelming I have to take breaks solely to cool off or keep from getting upset (Swiss Army Man and Annihilation are two examples here).

Critics create art to discuss art, and the process of making that art is exhausting. I hope the exhaustion I feel getting something out there finds eyes willing and patient enough to take in my approach to understand what it is I'm trying to illuminate within both the critical object as well as myself. It's artistic labor, emotional and physical, and I want enough readers to support this endeavor so I can eat, pay rent, and live a modest life.

I also have depression, anxiety, and PTSD that manifests in extreme codependency. So any time I've been comfortable or on the razor's edge of success my emotions and intellect start working in tandem trying to find a way to sabotage the progress I earned.

I found a way to make it seem selfless when my writing was at its hit-count (not creative) peak in 2013. When I was pulling in a shade over four thousand hits a day I told myself that it would be wrong to monetize my work to try and make a living because I had access to education others don't. Whatever benefits my education gave me meant that whatever I could impart to others through my writing needed to be free otherwise I'd be just as bad as the university system I'd come to be suspicious of. There was a component of "authenticity" I was concerned with too - refusing to accept stream keys or seek out free tickets so that I'd be in the exact same position as the audience I wanted to write for.

There's little doubt in my mind that there's people out there who are artists for art's sake, but my reasoning in this instance was self-destructive. I was using language cloaked in good intention to convince myself out of working toward a healthier life. While this surprise success was going on I kept working in my emotional labor heavy job where I might be consoling someone on the loss of their family member one minute then helping another find a way to rebuild their home. The needs of people, some of which were purely hypothetical, took precedence over everything else.

This started creeping into my writing when I got into therapy as I had to start asking if I was writing for myself or for the hypothetical. The answer is complicated in that I'm writing for myself first and my audience second with the strong hope that I'd build up enough of an audience for a life. Yet I'd blow myself up anytime that possibility came close to becoming a reality. Even in the confines of an art form I believe so strongly in, I couldn't stop derailing myself for people that just didn't exist.

Social media's made this worse. I've gone from poorly maintained message boards to blog sites to our Facebook / Twitter era and my imaginary judging audience grew alongside social media. Now I can add potential employers to that mix as job searching might entail a request to link to yet another social media site where I need to further expose myself. It's in the silence of all those imaginary people and potential employers where my mind is free to make up the worst reasons why things aren't as they could be.

Sometimes it feels like every piece of modern communication is designed just to see how much of yourself can be exposed to a cold vacuum before breaking entirely, and I don't have easy answers for how to feel better about it. The only exception was in the case of my writing. When I announced my hiatus I felt a sort of weight come off me as I was wrote about how unhappy and in pain I'd been these last few months. But the overall effect wasn't too far off from the excuses I told myself whenever things were going well. Instead of allowing myself this outlet for communicating in the way that makes me feel best, I decided cutting myself off entirely was the thing to do.

I'm trying hard not to lie to myself like that anymore. It's just that when I'm in pain, things are strained bordering on breaking, I'm terrified for my family, and silence has been the default response for so long it's easy to slip back into old habits. I just have to remember, this is for me. I built this with friends but now it's a space where I can share what I want in the way that brings me the most clarity. That - for today - is enough.

Image is from Ingmar Bergman's Through A Glass Darkly, featuring a father who uses his daughter's illness for writing inspiration.

Next entry: Numb Day

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