Cinema therapy can help you escape reality, but reality is not always so easy to get back to.
Originally a guest post for rachelintheoc.com, this essay reveals my coping mechanism for dark times, side effects and all (follow Rachel on Twitter @RachelintheOC). This story explains why I can’t have a conversation about depression without pop culture references peppered in. It’s one of my best pieces, which is why I had to share it here.
Andrew: A Story About Cinema Therapy
From ages two to six, I spent my waking hours at a living room daycare center. My playmates were the caregiver’s three sons. Their principal forms of recreation were hurling rocks through windows, leaving milk jugs in the street, and beating the living snot out of me.
It was their home, their shield generator facility, and I was the rebel scum who’d broken into it. They had to make an example. Their mother turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to my side of the story. She had stories of her own to watch.
Her boys kept the den locked down, the only window of escape was through the TV. While they amputated action figures, I fled to a galaxy far far away. Watching Star Wars on an endless loop, something happened to me. Turning away from the screen, hyperdrive lines streaked through my vision. Out the window, I watched Tie Fighters chase robins. Looking at the night sky, I saw the moon was no moon.
I ceased to see Mark Hamill on screen. I saw myself. I had slipped into Luke Skywalker’s Velcro boots. I was mourning Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. I wanted to go back to save Obi Wan. When my caregiver switched the TV off, I saw the world differently.
These boys weren’t my peers, they were storm troopers marching across my finger paintings, clones programmed to sit on my face. Seduced by the dark side of the force, they dragged me through the backyard, and pushed me into the Sarlacc pit. When I limped inside, Nanny Vader yelled at me for tracking mud across her carpet. She dragged me to the detention block by my ear.
This wasn’t a day care, it was a Death Star. I wasn’t clogging a laundry shoot full of toys, I was launching proton torpedoes into a thermal exhaust port. I wasn’t waving a tampon at my captors, I was slicing bad guys with a light saber.
When Nanny Vader told me to eat my peas, the ghost of Obi Wan Kenobi appeared beside her.
He waved his robes, “Don’t touch them, they’re rife with the dark side. Fling them under the refrigerator for the swamp monster.”
Slouching in the stiff vinyl chair, I regarded my reflection in the heart rate monitor, a force ghost haloed in florescent light. My cheeks were inflamed. My eyes were red slits. Patients with real problems, moaned in 5.1 THX surround sound. Sitting in silence, the dark side wafted over me, looking for an opening. I pulled the curtain along the track, a forcefield to shield my dignity from prying eyes.
Pus seeped out of my fist.
The hooks creaked along the track. Someone pulled the curtain out of my reach. She wasn’t dressed for this end of the hospital. The nurses wore scrubs, she wore a shawl with a turtleneck sweater. Her clipboard was bursting with notes.
Sitting across from me, she tried to make eye contact. “Andrew?”
I wasn’t sure who she was talking to.
She raised her spectecles. “Oh, it says you prefer ‘Drew.’”
I met her gaze. “Andrew is my given name. Drew is a character I play in real life.”
She inhaled, “O-” she exhaled “-kay. I’m here to decide whether or not you need to be admitted. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”
I shake my head.
“Let’s start with, why are you here?”
I nodded to the stack of chicken scratch she’d inherited from her predecessors. “I was referred here by Robin Williams. He told me it wasn’t my fault.”
She tapped her notes. “Your therapist said you were in immediate danger.” She raised her chin to my shaking fist. “What happened to your hand?”
I opened it to reveal an ashtray where my palm had been. “Not what, who.”
The therapist scanned her clipboard. “Who, your girlfriend?”
“She wasn’t my girlfriend.” I searched for my line somewhere on the set, “She was everyone’s girlfriend. She was no one’s girlfriend.”
“Just tell me what happened?”
“It was last night, after the ball dropped. I was beached whale drunk by the time she found me. She stumbled into the bedroom with this maniacal grin, standing over the bed like Kathy Bates in Misery. We argued. She tried to convince me that I hadn’t seen what I thought I saw. She told a story about an abusive boyfriend, like it excused her actions. She asked me to hit her. She said, ‘if you loved me, you’d hit me.’”
I sighed for dramatic effect.
“I wouldn’t, so she locked herself in the bathroom, like Robin Wright in She’s So Lovely. I broke the lock to find her with a leg razor, and an arm full of shallow cuts. She presented them, like Audrey Hepburn modeling bracelets.
Her explanation was, ‘This is me feeling.’
I didn’t know what to say, but I wanted to be part of the conversation. So I put a cigarette out in my palm, like Winona Ryder in Heathers.”
The therapist scrawled my plot points down. “Can you tell me the rest of the story without all the movie references mixed in?”
Looking away, I saw sprocket holes out of the corner of my eye. Reality was coming off the film reel.
I shook my head. “I can’t.”
The therapist squint, trying to read a subtitle beneath my face. She deferred to the clipboard. “Can you think of something you might have to look forward to, something you have to live for?
I counted to one on my hand. “The next X-Files movie.”
She tilt her head. “That’s not much.”
I shrugged. “The series ended on a cliffhanger. I might want to stick around for closure.”
“And after that?”
“Depends if there’s anything good on.”
Watching the lights flicker, I expected the film to burn through, revealing the big white nothing behind it.
The therapist folded her spectacles. “I recommend we hold you for a 72 hour observation.”
This was how my 2004 began.
In the second grade, I got detention for fighting. I spent the hour staring daggers at the duo who’d landed me there. My arch enemies.
The boys in my class chased the girls around the playground. The game was called Kiss or Kill. When a boy cornered a girl, he’d proclaim the title, and the rules became self-explanatory. I didn’t play by these rules. I was too busy playing a game called Batman. I’d fashioned blue dorsal fin gauntlets, and ears out of construction paper.
I stood on top of the tire swing, waiting to tackle one of the killers. I stalked them in the shadows beneath the playground equipment, hanging on the underside of the log bridge, peering through the tic tac toe board.
I wasn’t much of a fighter, but I was a hell of an intervener, putting myself between the killers and their victims. Then two older boys put a stop to all that, pummeling me into the pavement.
That year my birthday party was attended exclusively by relatives. My peers weren’t my peers. Gonzo from the Muppet Babies was my peer. We both came from “The Weirdo Zone.”
My mother didn’t know what to do. I was a daydreamer refusing to be woken up by Ritalin. Media was my medication. Film was my pharmacy. Drama was my drugstore.
My father had a modest VHS library, but I clogged that VCR with tape. Re-watching became ritual. Memorizing became mandatory. If I was to become my heroes, I needed their words to be a part of me.
I came to school armed with catchphrases. Punchlines waiting for someone to set them up. I had a mad lib monologue for every situation. I had a collection of nicknames to brand people with. You weren’t matching wits with me, you were up against the whole of cinema history.
Michael J. Fox spoke through me, Harrison Ford spoke through me, Bill Murray spoke through me. Bill and Ted’s surfer accent took on Wayne and Garth’s one-liners. Terminator 2 armed me with an arsenal of swear words. John Connor had me calling everyone a “Dip shit.”
As far as my fourth grade teacher was concerned, I was Bart Simpson. I looked like him, and I could quote him on command.
If anyone stole material from me, they’d stolen twice (and in the case of that line, they’d stolen three times).
I’d paused movies to give my imagination time to walk around the scenes. Through the screen was a world where bullies never triumphed, where Marty McFly was always one step ahead of Biff Tannen, where John Cusack could win a downhill race with one ski on. Over the Technicolor rainbow, was a world where nerds became popular, where the vain were humbled, and the lonely found love.
The mental health facility was not what I expected. There were no men in white coats, no bars on the windows, and no padding on the walls. No one fit me for a straightjacket, a helmet, or the straps for a mattress. They did take my belt, my wallet chain, and my shoelaces.
The phones had locks. The staff sat outside the showers. The rooms were baby proofed. There were no sharp objects. The pens were felt tipped. The silverware was made of plastic.
Passing by the rooms, I expected to see Linda Hamilton doing pull-ups, Brad Pitt jumping on the bed with Bruce Willis raving about the future. There were no bathrobe ghosts, no big chiefs standing in silence. None of the patients bashed their heads against the radiators. No one had drool down their chins.
Some of the patients sat with their heads in their hands. Some stared out the windows at nothing in particular. Some grinned as I walked by, with smiles that didn’t sync up with their eyes.
I could have sought out a therapist. I could have asked for something to help me sleep, but when I saw the entertainment center, I knew where I was heading. The old tube television had a not so subtle hum. There was a tiny VHS library. The titles were frayed at the edges. The pickings were slim, but there was enough to get my fix.
I turned to address the patient holding the remote, “What’s next?”
He nodded to me. “Rain Man.”
I plopped down on the couch, “Alright, I’m in.”
High school was an education in humiliation. Bullies were even more brazen. My growth spurt was not a deterrent. It made me a bigger target. I was blindsided, pushed into lockers, and walled into fights by onlookers.
When I wasn’t ducking dick heads, I was putting my energy into getting girls to notice me. Dances came and went. I was passed over for guys in their twenties.
I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror, so I looked for myself in the TV.
I needed a protagonist cocktail to wash the taste of failure from my mouth. One part messiah complex, one part wish fulfillment, one part male power fantasy, shaken, not stirred. I needed a self image stand-in to carry me across the depression spectrum. A proxy for my pride, a surrogate for my self-confidence, a delegate for my dignity.
When life gave me kernels of harsh truth, I made popcorn. With my PJs on, I strapped myself in for a me-marathon, a refreshing festival, a revitalizing viewing session.
Being myself wasn’t working, I was a typecast loser. I wasn’t good at saving face, so I put a mask on. While others saw stars on screen, I saw avatars, shadows worth following, role models to mold myself after. I became a different person with each viewing.
I spent my freshman year in black, dressed as Brandon Lee from The Crow (sans the makeup). My trench coat had a way of getting stuck under desks. Long white streaks ran down its tails.
One day, I mixed it up, showing up to school with a haircut and a suit and tie.
A Goth friend put his hand on my shoulder. “Dude, you’re not David Duchovny.”
There was no X-File here, no real mystery. I was a sad little Mulder just looking for a Scully.
My sophomore year, I shaved my head to look like Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting. One skinhead joke later, and it was hoodie season the rest of the year.
My junior year, I grew a goatee so I could be as smooth as Ethan Hawke, sitting in a diner, misdefining “irony.” I still have those Reality Bites Troy Dyer-isms, clunking around in my vocabulary. Every time a friend leaves the bar I fight the urge to say, “You know the punishment for premature evacuation?” I have no idea what it is, but I still feel compelled to pose the question.
My senior year, Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden, had me shopping for fake fur, floral shirts, and bug-eyed sunglasses.
Even now, I can’t bring myself to close a browser window with a cosplay copy of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes coat. It’s $180. I’m skeptical if it could handle a Minnesota winter, but to a person like me, it’s not a costume, it’s a security blanket.
The next morning in the mental health facility, they gave me a questionnaire. The first question: HOW ARE YOU FEELING?
I wrote, “Like Jack Nicholson.”
During breakfast, the orderlies came around with sippy-cup pill samplers. I traded mine for another helping of hash browns. Cinema was my Celexa. Motion pictures were my Paxil. The home theater was my Thorazine.
In group therapy, I expected to pass cigarettes to Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie. None of the characters stood out. There were no breakout stars. We kept our guard up. We didn’t know how to put our situations into words. We weren’t given good direction. We weren’t qualified to give advice, but they had us improvise anyway.
My memory didn’t record much. I was too busy daydreaming, imagining Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman bursting in to help me through an existential crisis. I saw the mob motivating Billy Crystal to analyze me. I saw Whoopi Goldberg throwing me into a bathtub, and telling me to get myself out.
There were no good roles among the staff, nothing for an audience to connect with. No touching heart to hearts, no tear jerking revelations, no show stealing performances. The story lacked a titular hero to teach my downtrodden underdog how to believe again. The therapists were underwritten. I can’t remember one of them.
Patients got up in the middle of conversations, something else had their attention. Every chair was a hot seat, under a gun, between a rock and a hard place. We couldn’t stay in one spot too long, lest our thoughts caught up with us. We were sharks, afraid to stop moving. Social butterflies, afraid to land. Pacing the room, we tried to wear our thoughts down.
The TV helped us zone out, but it couldn’t numb us completely. If we were going to achieve cinema therapy, we’d need a broader selection.
Wandering through the multiplex of memory, I popped into one theater, tried to followed the plot, and found myself stumbling into another. I had High Fidelity for romantic rejection, The Shawshank Redemption for severe depression, and Insomnia for, well, it’s in the name.
Given the circumstances, I couldn’t see myself in any of those narratives. I couldn’t find the right protagonist to get me through this. I was afraid I was it. This was the part I was born to play. I was trapped inside a coming of age picture.
Retirees brought their dogs for us to pet. With their wagging tails and big bright eyes, they had no idea what we were. The dogs circled our ankles, and lapped at our fingers. Research has shown, general audiences find heroes more likable when they pet a dog. Scratching a collie’s chin, I hoped some of that likability would rub off on me.
The staff tested our calm by having us play boardgames. They wanted to see which patients could make it to the end. The others adjusted their seats, and twisted their pieces. They didn’t roll the dice so much as drop them. Their eyes were anywhere but on the board. The more games of Clue I won, the more apparent it became that I didn’t belong.
When the door slammed, I sat at the head of an empty table.
I sighed. “Then there were two.”
The therapist looked me over. Checking my arms for telltale stitches, he ignored the bandaid in my hand. “How did you end up in here?”
Lacking a quote for the occasion, I shrugged, “This is me feeling.”
On the way back to the room, I saw trails of red, yellow, and blue. There were color bars in every reflection. Static ants marched across the walls, leaving noise in their wake. There were tracking lines in the air, zig zag patterns cutting through the orderlies. The patients’ hair tilted with the distortion. Their heads wobbled off their necks, until their faces multiplied.
I’d crossed over to the world behind the screen.
In my room, cigarette burns hung in the air, like Get Well Balloons. The lights flickered, as the frame rate dropped.
From my pillow, I watched film scratches streak down the ceiling tiles. There were no previews to pad my viewing experience, just a countdown. Tonight the classics would stay in their vault, there would be no double feature to lull me to sleep. This would be a premiere. Tonight my own thoughts were going up on screen.
With my feet dangling over the edge of the bed, I waited for the credits to roll. Closing my eyes, I watched for film grains, and cried in silver.