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.
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.
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.