How Full Is Your Crucible?

This afternoon I have had some time to myself, the first that could be counted in more than minutes in some time. I haven’t used it well which is no real surprise. I have been mostly reading about the ills of the world on the internet, and catching up on the details of the NFL weekend, really nothing important. One thing that I did do was cue up some music, which isn’t something I have done in a very long time. As I sifted through my long neglected iTunes library I was picking out the songs that resonated with me most, and recalled a trailer for a movie I saw while flipping channels with my wife last night. The movie was “War Horse”, a new Dream Works production that opens Christmas Day. Suffice to say this is going to be a sad movie, and I reacted to the trailer by telling my wife there was no way I would be watching that movie. It was an odd thing for me to say out loud as we have a two year old, and movie nights are few and far between. As I sat here pondering my reaction to the trailer the music started with a live version of “Life in a Northern Town” followed by Jeff Buckley’s rendition of “Hallelujah”, I’ll spare you the rest of the play but it is an odd collection of tunes, anyway; as the music played I felt something begin to change in my head… I just felt heavy. I recognized the feeling right away and it’s not new. Entertainment, music, movies, tv, can have an astonishingly potent impact on my mood, and at times the impact is not temporary.

War Horse (film)

My first memory of having been impacted by what amounts to pop culture was my sophomore year of college. I was still more than two years from having depression and anxiety take control of my life, but in that particular program the second year was really the make or break year. The academic pressure was high, but I was surviving. At some point along the way the movie “Titanic” was released. I had little interest, but my girlfriend wanted to go so we went. I don’t really remember the whys, but I remember feeling a deep sadness after that movie that lasted for two weeks. It didn’t have anything to do with the movie, but it was a feeling of despair that I would recall a couple years later when it returned in force. At the time I didn’t really think that much of it, and I have no idea what made it finally go away. I suspect it was nothing but time. I can say one thing for certain; I have never watched the movie again. I have seen parts of it, but I will not let myself get dragged into the story.

During the initial years of the fight with depression and anxiety I can’t recall specific instances of a piece of entertainment having that kind of specific long term impact. I do know that in the past I have reacted to the prospect of seeing sad movies the way I reacted last night, and have made an effort to avoid them when I can. In my head I always rationalized it by telling myself I had enough sadness in my life I didn’t need to pay money for a couple hours more. In truth I am sure I have been avoiding the chance for a repeat of the “Titanic” episode. Interestingly however, I have unwittingly found myself watching unbelievably sad movies since (read “The Notebook”), with no long term effect. Still, I don’t like sad movies.

In recent months I have had two encounters with pop culture that are worth mentioning. The first did lead, or at least contribute, to the funk I pulled myself out of just before I started this blog. Oddly enough it wasn’t a sad movie or song, but a violent and intense television program. One evening I was home alone with time to kill, and was surfing through Netflix when I came across the “Sons of Anarchy” a drama that plays on FX. I had heard good things so I pulled up the pilot and watched it. I was fucking hooked. Hard. I don’t know why, but I was drawn into the story, and with access to episodes on demand I tore through the first season, fitting in an episode whenever I could find the 48 minutes I needed. What I didn’t notice was my darkening mood. One afternoon I had several hours free and watched four episodes of season two back to back. While I watched, the sun set, and the house grew dark around me. When I finished and pulled myself away from screen I had fallen to a dreary place. I started snapping lights on around the house, but I was low and there was no changing it. That was about two months ago, shortly before I started this blog. With time my mood improved, and I pulled myself back from the brink of another major depressive episode. I wish I knew how for next time, but for now I am content to know I did. What surprised me is how this television show could have had this impact. I have given it a lot of thought and still am not really sure, but could probably write a couple thousand words on what I think happened. I will spare you the amateur psychoanalysis and just say that while the show isn’t particularly sad it is intense and emotional. It speaks to urges that are primal, and the conflict that arises in a thinking person brought up in such a basic world. Since that night I have watched one episode, last week, and am not sure if I will watch any more.

The second instance came from a song just a few weeks ago. It was a short lived event, but I was overcome with sadness. I am a country music fan, and I was listening to the radio in the car when a song of no particular interest to me came on. The song was “Jesus Take The Wheel” by Carrie Underwood. It’s not a new song by any means, and I have probably heard it a hundred times. I remember it came out when I was college the second time because I guy I used to spend some time with hated the tune. I had really never paid that much attention. I was familiar with the story in the song, but for the first time I guess I really “heard” the lyrics or was in a place emotionally where they resonated. The idea of letting go of my life, of no longer being responsible for myself, of conceding control to a higher power was overwhelming. Several years ago I knew a man who was a recovering alcoholic. He was an old boat captain and he was a wise man. I didn’t have to tell him I was troubled he just seemed to know, and he would often reference the step in the AA recovery process where you admit you are powerless, and there are things in your life over which you have no control. Of course you have to believe it for it to work, and it is a notion I have always resisted. I am not an addict though I think I could easily have been one. I quit drinking during that sophomore year I mentioned above when I realized I was pouring a shot of unmixed rum into a glass and drinking it every night before bed. I don’t know if this is something that needs exploring on my part. I have very little interest in organized religion, and always feel like a fake when I am in church. There is likely an entire blog post coming at some point on religion, but there has got to be a take away from that experience. Or maybe there isn’t and I am just over analyzing, because I have never done that before ;)

So what’s the point here? I don’t know if my experience is common. I suspect it is in part, though no two people process anything the same. Why do I seem to be so sensitive to the impacts of pop culture? First when it comes to my aversion to sad movies I am not sure it is all rationalization. There is truth to somebody with a depressive personality saying they experience the feelings of sadness often enough that they don’t need to make those feeling more acute my subjecting themselves to somebody else’s emotional pain. I think that quite often depressive folks are very empathetic and they feel other people’s pain on a whole other level when compared to a dispassionate observer. I am reminded of reading a book called Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner when I was a child. The story is about a boy and his dog in a sled dog race, and at the end of the race just before the finish the dog’s heart explodes. Later for some reason I was required to watch a movie version of the story and as it got to the end I wanted to stop watching. I remember telling my mother in tears that I didn’t want to finish the movie. I had seen the dog die in my imagination when I read the book. I didn’t need to see it again in “real life”. Just writing these words now twenty five years later is painful. That is a powerful image.

Cover of "Stone Fox"

Back on track here… So after giving it some thought I have come to a conclusion that may be quite obvious to some, but maybe not so much to others. I think a person’s capacity to hold and process emotions is similar to a crucible. The level of emotion in an ordinary crucible varies over the course of a life as does the amount of heat applied, but it would be a rare occasion that the combination of emotion and heat would be enough to overflow. The depressive on the other hand goes through life with a crucible nearly full. Like anybody else’s the level varies with time and circumstance, but it is higher to start and easier to fill. The ingredients are more toxic and less stable than typical so add a little more emotional stress or heat and it would be quite common for their crucible to overflow. More simply stated when you feel more of your own life, and you feel more of the lives around you, it is easy to become overwhelmed.

When it comes to pop culture the intensity of the experience adds to the level of your crucible, and if it is already nearly full it can easily be caused to spill. Once the chemicals for depression in my brain get flowing it can be hard to turn them off. It takes time, patience, and sometimes drugs to get everything reigned back in. I am never comfortable letting these chemicals flow by choice. Life happens and sadness is part of life, but I do not want to voluntarily subject myself to a situation that will stimulate these feelings artificially.

A person who has never suffered from depression may read this and think I have severely overstated the potential impact of watching or listening to entertainment that evokes strong emotional response. On the other hand I have seen folks with no depressive history that I am aware of listen to too much political talk radio and be in a bad mood all day. It happens to me a lot, but if it happens to non depressive types wouldn’t it make sense that those more susceptible to emotional distress would have even stronger negative responses to emotional stimuli? I think so.

9 thoughts on “How Full Is Your Crucible?

  1. I have very similar experiences. I utterly *loathe* the film “Titanic”. I’ve seen it once, and I will NOT see it again. It was the suffering that I couldn’t bear. “Saving Private Ryan”? I’ve been told to see it. I refuse. I could list many, many films that affect me on a visceral level and leave me in a melancholy funk for quite some time after their viewing. I don’t know that I’m depressive, but I’m definitely melancholy. And, whatever I’m watching or listening to I enter into, if that makes sense, as if it’s happening to me. That is part of being an empath. One almost enters into the experience of the other and experiences it alongside the other. So, watching suffering on the screen or listening to the sadness in the voice of a singer, melancholy tunes, even minor keys (I’m depressed for hours if I listen to Rachmaninov though I love him)…they can all lend themselves to something that produces sadness. What’s more, if there are deep issues in me that I don’t want to address and a film or song touches upon it….look out! There will be a profound response. There are even novels I’ve read whereupon my finishing, I feel as if I’m trapped in the book. I feel as if I’m stuck in the landscape of the story, and the emotions of the story are washing over me repeatedly. That can be awful. I TOTALLY understand.

    Although I’ll confess, when I’m feeling weird, I watch crime procedurals like CSI and Law & Order. I’m particularly fond of Sherlock Holmes as interpreted by Jeremy Brett. There’s suffering there, but it’s black and white. Usually, the bad guy is caught, and there’s justice. Because my perp was never caught, sometimes my brain seems to want to go on a binge. My husband is a lot like you (and me) although he watched “Saving Private Ryan”–he can’t watch anything sad, and he’s often made not so very nice comments about my TV watching–“How can you watch that shit?” Well, I need to see a bad guy caught. I need to see some redemptive violence. I admit it. There are things that hook us for whatever reason, and I believe it’s because we are processing something. I can’t handle a steady diet of it. But sometimes…I just need to know that justice is possible. Even if it’s all made up.

    Because you are an empath, I believe that you may struggle because you are wired to enter in to the suffering of others (although I am willing to be told to stick it where the sun don’t shine…). It’s a strange gift, but, in reality, we are supposed to feel that deep level of compassion which spurs us on to some sort of action–a sharing of the emotional burden. An act of kindness or something. It’s the action that comes after the empathy that helps us process the visceral pain we feel–that’s where we find our release from the shared pain at which point we move on. But, when we enter into the suffering of a fictional character on a movie screen or in a novel, or feel the tremendous weight of the injustice of immense suffering going on in our world, we realize our own powerlessness. What action can you take? There is nothing I can do to move in compassion which will lift this burden of suffering, henceforth, help to process my own pain, too. It’s akin to some kind of emotional constipation. It’s fucking awful. And, just like in the body when there’s severe constipation, it can take weeks to pass. I liken it to that. Add that to a depressive disposition, and…well, I….*empathize*. Although this is only based upon my own limited experiences. I say all this with humility. Perhaps I’m just full of shit…

    (Please forgive my lengthy response.)

    • I am sorry it took so long to get back to this comment. I am finding as I write more that I simply cannot write in a thoughtful way if I am not alone in the house, something that happens a few mornings a week only. To your points I don’t think I could call myself a true empath. I certainly feel more empathy than the average person. I have been told this by others, and my own experience with people confirms it. It seems an empath is overwhelmed by the emotion around them good and bad. First and foremost I have a depressive personality, and I have never channeled anyone’s joy. You know how some people get so overwhelmed by positive emotion they can cry? I don’t do that. I can be overwhelmed by an emotional situation to the point of tears, and even if the people I am observing are having positive reactions my body processes the intensity of the emotion differently. Not necessarily negative, but not joyous either. It’s hard to explain, but it is as if my body is somehow trained to respond to intense feelings a certain way. I have found since I have had these anxiety problems physical stimuli that have nothing to do with anxiety will trigger an anxious response in my brain. I had planned at some point to blog about this, but for example in a movie theater the deep bass sounds that you can feel in your body mimic the sensations of an anxiety attack and my body will take those cues and make me feel anxious. There are other odd triggers as well.

      The second point about being an empath starts to tread in a place I am not sure I want to go in, but wasn’t it your blog that recently had a line about when you see a conversation about an issue you feel strongly about you don’t chime in? That is me mostly because I have learned in the current political climate it is easier to keep your mouth shut than bear the consequences of offering a contrary position. Maybe I am misunderstanding, but it seems an empath is ruled by the emotion first regardless of the other circumstances. I don’t feel empathy for everybody. I was raised in a strict environment that had both very black and white definitions of right and wrong, as well as very clear and defined consequences for actions. I never really had to wonder what the consequences of screwing up were going to be when I was a kid, the punishments were clear and consistent. As an adult I see more shades of grey than I was raised with, but I still carry a strong sense of right vs. wrong. These principles are based more in a family value system than the bible or what is considered legal or illegal. They would generally be considered pretty conservative positions, but they are thought out and defensible. There are those that have made their own beds and now must lay in them, and I feel little in the way of sympathy for them. When there are children being hurt by the decisions of the adults that are supposed to be responsible for them I feel the helplessness of the kids, and I am constantly frustrated by a system that continues to enable these adults to the long term detriment of the children. I made the call to DHHS that got my cousin removed from my aunt’s home, because the “system” and the rest of the family refused to make the hard decision. I have been completely shut out by portion of my family, but I sleep well at night knowing I did the right thing. You mentioned watching television programs such as Law & Order and CSI for a fix a redemptive violence and justice. My wife and I actually watch very little tv, but when we do it is almost always reruns of these types of shows. I would add NCIS, and Bones to your list. When I read your comment about your reasons for watching those shows I immediately thought of Detective Stabler on the SVU series. I can very much relate to the emotion portrayed, by that character.

      This is getting long, but I wanted to say one more thing about your comment. You said when there is a deep issue you don’t want to address and something touches on it the response can be powerful. I have experienced the same thing. In the back of my mind in a place I don’t really want to go I think that is what happened with Titanic. For what is worth Saving Private Ryan is astonishingly violent, but historically significant in the same way as Schindler’s List and Gettysburg. I have always been fascinated by 20th century history, and I have sought out books and stories that will tell the human experience of those that participated in the great conflicts of the period. Private Ryan does this powerfully, but based on our interactions I think you are probably wise to stay away from it.

      • This would be easier in a conversation. Alas, I’ll be brief. I believe, at this point, in my life that empathy works within the boundaries that our personality provides. How could you channel someone else’s joy if you yourself may not have a great capacity for it? You do, however, have a great capacity for anxiety, sadness, melancholy, and, most likely, pain. There are actually a lot of people in this world that do not. While that may sound appealing–oh, doesn’t the shallow end look nice though–the fact is, there is enormous suffering in the world, and when it comes time to offer comfort, the world needs people like you.

        And no, I am not ruled by my emotions. If I walked around “open” all the time, I’d be a puddle on the floor. Entering into the suffering, joy, whatever of someone else is an actual act of my will unless I’m blindsided by the intensity of a situation. I can choose to disengage my heart and use only my intellect to engage a situation/person. Sometimes, I have to do that to survive a circumstance. There are people who know me and try to manipulate my feelings–knowing how I’m wired. I have to deliberately shut down my heart to deal with them. Almost become like Commander Data in my dealings with them, or they’ll decimate me. And, yes, I’m criticized by people for looking like a stone cold bitch, but, sometimes it must be done.

        I hear what you say about your conservative position. I was raised the same way. I do tend to live in the gray where it’s all murky, and I was raised with the “You made your bed…” paradigm. My question is always: “Who taught you to make your bed like that?” But, there are cases where I, too, disengage from the gray and find the black and white–when children are hurt. I do know that the perps were probably hurt as children. I also know that we don’t “make our beds” in a vacuum. How often have we ever made a “free choice” completely unaffected by anything else? This view would be better defined as “compassion”, not “empathy”. Those two are not the same thing. Alas, I have no time for sexual predators. I’m sorry, but the success rate for rehabbing a pedophile? Not so great. I have compassion for a lot of people, but, at some point, everyone has to own their own stuff and grow up. This may have brief…for me.

      • The shallow end of the pool does look nice. I commented a someone else’s blog a week or so back, that I have often found myself jealous of those that seem to be simpler. It is horribly non pc to say it, but hell it’s my blog so here goes, you know they guy down at the gas station that pumps the gas and checks the oil and always has a smile on his face humming a happy tune? Fuck sometimes I wish I could be him. Happy with your circumstance, not worrying about what could have been or what might be, just making the most of a work day and looking forward to getting home to play with kids, watch some tv, and fall asleep in my chair. I know it’s all fiction. That guy has problems too, and for all I know he might hate his life. I know I don’t want to trade places with him, but the fantasy is briefly appealing. I actually once told my mother at the height of the depression back in the beginning that I wished I was dumb, if only I didn’t think so damn much all this pain would go away.
        To your other point isn’t it funny that those of us that feel the most can be accused of being the coldest. I read and comment on another blog, fractured angel, who just made the same observation. She feels everything, but people around her act as if she cares about nothing. I have always been seen as cold and unapproachable, when the truth is if you want to be open and real with me you’re not likely to find a more understanding soul. I like your analogy about not allowing yourself to be open all the time or you would be a “puddle on the floor”. It made me chuckle because I know exactly what you mean. I wonder can everybody turn their hearts off in this way?

        Dont worry about being brief length is fine when its thoughtful, it may just take me awhile to respond. Today I am stuck waiting for the cable guy.

      • LOL..I have been accused of being a “superior bitch” more times than I can count, and it’s just because I’m being quiet and watching. I can be shy in large groups, too. I tend to always feel like an outsider, and, yes, sometimes I wish I were “simple”, too. Would it be easier? Maybe. Yes. I think so. But, I’m not. You’re not. The world needs people like you. You’re the way you are for a reason. If I were living in your neighborhood, suffering deeply, and I needed someone to understand? I’d go to you.

        A man once knocked on my door…he was crying. He was carrying flyers with mugshots. He lived one block over from me although I’d never seen him before. His son had been molested by the man on the flyer (his soccer coach), and he felt helpless. So, he was going door to door, giving out these flyers, telling people what happened to his son, and revealing the name of this perp (he lived near to us). I was so deeply affected by the profound grief and anger of this man. I asked how his son was doing. The man told me that his son was not well, and, of course, he was worried that his son would never be the same. I took a risk. I told him that I, too, was a victim of childhood sexual abuse, and I told him that I was okay today. I was married. I had children. And, I told him some good next steps to take with his boy, what his boy might need from him so that he could heal. The man hugged me and thanked me. No one had been willing to speak to him. No one had been willing to reach out. And, he had hope. He didn’t feel so alone then. I never saw him again.

        Because of my own experiences, I was able to help him out. For what it’s worth, the world needs people like us. I hope the Cable Guy shows up closer to now rather than closer to 5.

  2. I am not a fan of organized religion, either. I could probably write a lot on that subject, too . . . but I do have spiritual (I guess that’s the best word?) beliefs. I just refuse to identify myself with any organized religion. So if you have spiritual impulses, I think it’s definitely possible to fulfill them without joining a religion.

    As for entertainment, I’m also emotionally affected by it. However, things that commonly will evoke emotion in others many times don’t do so in me. I guess it’s because I’m more sensitive to the emotional impact when it’s unexpected. When I watch something like “Titanic,” I already know what I’m in for. When I watch something like “Ace in the Hole” or “Boy A,” on the other hand, movies that I pick up because they sound interesting but I have little knowledge about, they can make my heart hurt. Unlike you, though, I welcome this feeling. I think I like being able to identify with others and put myself in their shoes. See how they think. Because I’m fascinated with different perspectives. In some ways, it’s an intellectual and emotional exercise. That’s what I like best, and I could probably write a good bit about that so I won’t go into it here.

    I think what BH says about empaths is accurate. I’ve been told that I have way more empathy than a “normal” person, so that’s definitely a factor.

    • There are times when putting yourself in another’s shoes can be very valuable, and the world would be a better place if more people would/could do it. I get into trouble whenever I get the “sad chemicals” are flowing hard in my brain. The fact that I can be put in a funk by entertainment media shows how sensitive my brain can be to those chemicals, and i am often surprised that at what sets it off. For instance over exposure to a show like Sons of Anarchy, other than the gritty intensity of the program I find it odd and troublesome that it would effect me so.

  3. You are certainly not alone in this one. ColonialPunk who writes Bi[polar] Curious just wrote Censoring Media For Self Preservation. In this post, she explored the emotional shift media can create. It was a general concensus that this is a particularly common phenomenon in people who experience mood disorder.

    For me, the effect doesn’t really last too long, unless it has something to do with a particularly traumatizing event. Except, when it pertains to children. I will carry the sadness of watching a parent lose a child and vice versa for a long time. But, is that a BP depression thing, or a mother thing?

    When I’m in a mood, I seek music that resonates with it. For some reason, the right combination can defuse an oncoming mood shift. Radiohead seems to be the cure-all for me. *Shrug*

    And Titanic made me cry as a teen. It makes me cringe as an adult. But Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind and 500 days of Summer and me cry as an adult.

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