On Movies and TV Shows

Years ago, the Christmas after ECT, my parents bought me a DVD copy of Bill Cosby’s Himself. In those days Bill Cosby was one of the few people who could make me laugh. Immediately after ECT, I felt as though I’d lost everything and I just didn’t have the energy to start the daunting task of re-learning everything I’d forgotten, it was too intimidating to get back into-the-real-world to make friends and be a part of society again. I was isolated, alone, and very much depressed. So to sit down and listen to a Bill Cosby routine, knowing I would be laughing away my problems for the next forty-five minutes was a precious thing.

But movies were iffy for me, I’d had a history of very negative experiences with them, usually in the form of psychosis either during or immediately after the film was done. But we figured it wasn’t a “real” movie, it wasn’t an emotionally wrought drama, there were no special effects – it was a video of Bill Cosby telling jokes on a stage in front of an audience of people, much like a documentary which were generally pretty okay for me. What’s the worst that could happen?

Famous last words.

Just to be safe, I set a timer so that every fifteen minutes we would stop and I would take a cigarette break before resuming the movie again.

I made it through the first fifteen minutes just fine. We paused, went outside so I could smoke. But, when we came back inside it didn’t take but three or four minutes before none other than Bill Cosby himself decided to step out of the TV and stand in the middle of our living room. The look on my face betrayed some kind of fascination or perhaps fear. My dad asked me what was up, so I told him what Bill Cosby was up to. He turned the video off and, after a healthy dose of an antipsychotic kicked in, Bill Cosby disappeared too.

My psychiatrist had warned me that TV might start affecting me in strange ways, but it wasn’t until I started reflecting on my history with movies and television with my dad the other night that I realized 1. how much of a problem it’s been for me and 2. how long that problem has existed.

Dr. Carlson preaches the dangers of what he calls “high EE” environments, with the “EE” standing for Expressed Emotion. I’m like a sponge when it comes to other people’s emotions – if you’re incredibly upset (or even excited) and yelling about it or otherwise expressing it, chances are I’m also going to become upset. It’s especially true when I’m psychotic, when I’m at my most vulnerable – which is why it’s so crucial to remain calm around someone who’s experiencing a psychotic episode. In those moments, though I might be completely disconnected from reality, I’m feeding off of your emotional energy. And so, if the people around me are expressively upset, I’m only going to get worse.

Movies and TV shows are perhaps the ultimate High EE environments. The whole point of them is to manipulate your emotions; to transport you to another time and place, to make you forget about your boring office job and your problems at home, to experience the raw emotions of flying your X-Wing fighter through the superstructure of the Death Star in the hopes of landing a shot on its main reactor and getting out before the whole thing blows up à la Return of the Jedi. They bring together the best actors, the best special effects artists, and composers like John Williams who win Academy Awards for getting up in the morning for the expressed purpose of giving you a High EE environment. I haven’t had full blown hallucinations like my Bill Cosby experience very often but I’ve been caught in deep emotional swells and delusional thinking with almost every movie or TV show I’ve watched.

Ever since I was little, I’ve been deeply affected by what I’ve watched. My tears were near inconsolable the first and only time I watched The Land Before Time – I just couldn’t bear the thought of Littlefoot, who’d already lost his mom and dad, losing his grandparents too. When I was in eighth grade, my mom took me to see Alien Resurrection at the movie theatre. On the way home, we had to stop at the grocery store and I opted to stay in the car. When my mom left, I remember breaking down in tears, shaking all over because I wouldn’t live long enough to see a future where space travel like that was possible.

If they’d had an Army recruiting station outside the theatre when I saw Black Hawk Down, I would have signed up immediately; without giving a second thought to how I’ve been a hard core pacifist my entire life. Just watching the trailers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens I can feel the upsurge of emotion rise inside of me, to the point I think I might actually break down and cry for the first time in years – and those are just trailers, heaven forbid what might happen if I actually watch the dang movie.

I was a big fan of the TV series Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, until I realized how delusional they made me. In both series, having a weapon on you at all times is a really good idea. You never know when a Lannister will show up or when the next walker herd will roll through your camp. In the real world, a weapon is oftentimes more of a liability than a useful thing to carry around. But regardless, while I was watching those shows I found myself with a Marine-issue Ka-Bar knife strapped to my belt. I certainly wasn’t going to use it – I wasn’t delusional to the point of thinking there was an active threat out to get me. It was just that my experience with those TV shows, whose worlds had become my world, in a way, had demonstrated that it was best to be prepared.

I found myself researching if it was legal for someone with schizoaffective disorder to own a gun, I found myself on forums deep into the night researching self defense techniques and survival techniques, researching what to put in a “bug out” bag and formulating an emergency plan for when society eventually fell apart. Not so much a “what if” scenario in my mind as a “when”, as though it were just a matter of time. I spent hours seeing if there was anyone who would teach me how to fight with a sword – things I’ve never been naturally inclined to want to know, things I’ve never shown the least bit of interest in when healthy, but things the paranoia factory in my head put at the top of my list of things to make sure were taken care of. I obsessed over these things, reality became screwed, I thought I would only feel safe when I had a great sword secured to my back and the knowledge and skill to effectively wield it.

While it may be a good idea to have something like a bug out bag in case of an emergency – it was wholly uncharacteristic of me to carry around a military issue knife and I know it frightened some of the people around me.

There was never any conscious connection between these irrational behaviors and watching the shows, at least not until I stopped watching them altogether. The knife just seemed like a good idea because I needed to be prepared. It wasn’t a matter of using the knife, it wasn’t a matter of actively seeing these threats, it was just being prepared against the threats, of being able to defend myself. – the worlds of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, which are ruthless and full of danger had become real to me. I was existing in them in a delusional sort-of-way.

It’s been about a year since I last watched anything besides a nature documentary. The results have only been positive, though sometimes, I feel a little lost as to what to do with myself. Mostly I entertain myself with discussion, music, books, magazines, and prowling around book stores, coffee shops, and record stores. I go for a lot of walks with Kerrin. I play video games on the weekends. I’ve thought about eliminating video games altogether, but a person has to have something mindless to do and so I have my video games and the mindless chopping-off-of-heads or blowing-up-of-stuff. Video games seem okay in small doses because, while they’re certainly intense I’m more involved in them – they take skill and participation. Instead of just sitting back and passively receiving, I’m also participating in them – making decisions and effecting the outcome. They’re also less story driven and more play-oriented.

I don’t get psychotic nearly as often as I used to. Psychosis is the great destabilizer, psychosis begets more psychosis and so my overall stability is much improved. I get psychotic less therefore I sleep better, therefore I get up earlier, therefore I get more work done, therefore I feel better about myself: the benefits from being psychotic less often feel nearly limitless.

My mood is better too: not being paranoid or delusional, however subconsciously about having to defend yourself whenever you leave your house improves mood tremendously. Not being delusional or paranoid in and of itself is a blessing. I suspect it makes me more tolerable to be around too.

I’ve not trying to say movies and TV shows are an altogether evil or unwholesome thing. It’s just that they’re really bad for me. People with illnesses like mine, are veritable emotional sponges and the filmed media is wrought with emotional manipulation. They’re designed to be like that because, if they weren’t no one would watch them. Movies and TV shows depend on manipulating the heart strings of their viewers to keep them watching what’s on the screen. We attach ourselves emotionally to certain characters and have to make sure they’re okay from episode to episode. Our innate curiosity and empathy gets the best of us. It’s a novel distraction when you’re not a sponge but can quickly leave you super-saturated and exhausted if you do happen to be a sponge.

With TV and movies being such an embedded fixture in our culture, it can seem like a daunting task to eliminate them, especially when mental illness has made other things so tremendously difficult. But you might find your life substantially improved like mine has – less gripped by paranoia and delusional thinking, less tortured by psychosis, and I believe that to be well worth the effort.

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