CONTENT WARNING: Please be aware that the following contains material about mental illness, which may be a trigger for some.
For most of the past year, I was stuck in a depressive slump. An emotional ravine, a mood pothole. Luckily, it never reached bell jar severity requiring intervention (I’ve been hospitalised twice), but managed to hover perilously around the ‘can’t get out of bed’ plateau.
This onset of melancholy felt ominous because I’d been depression free for much of the past decade. Prior to that, I was taking a shitload of Prozac. It made me numb to the searing pain but not the panic and anxiety. In my pre-Prozac era, I toyed with the cleansing appeal of self inflicted pain. I sliced off the fleshy part of my hand by karate chopping a plate glass window. I also pondered cutting myself in the plump, hairless expanse of my inner thigh. But that just made me feel worthless because I couldn’t plunge deep enough to make the cutting really meaningful, really worthwhile.
In the harrowingly erudite, intimate memoir Darkness Visible, American author William Styron described his descent into depression as a feeling of ‘horror, like some poisonous fogbank, roll in upon my mind’.
I know that feeling too well, and know that once befallen, that black cloak of despair that invites escape into self destructive oblivion cannot be fought off, medicated away, therapied out of existence.
The fact is, depressive illness just happens to certain people for no apparent reason. Yes, genetics, yes, life circumstances, but as it was for Styron, depression can take hold even when life’s rolling along just splendidly.
What’s important is that the fog does lift eventually as Styron stressed, and the aim is to just hang in there until it does, to imagine a light flickers somewhere in the not too distant beyond. What’s hardest is that even if you reach the light, the illness can come knocking again, as it did for me.
For a while, the knocking was just occasionally, and rather meekly at the back door, a soft tapping like rain on grass. But eventually, the whole gang – anxiety, fear, panic, paralysis, sleeplessness – came charging in, belligerently taking over my living room, putting their stinky feet on the coffee table, drinking my good whiskey, scattering biscuit crumbs on my parquet floor.
I retreated to bed. Everyone experiences depressive illness differently, but sluggishness bordering on paralysis is very common. I dissolved into a human shaped lump, turned on Netflix and slid into binge-watching.
You’d think overindulging on Netflix would make depression worse. In fact, recent studies link Netflix bingeing to feelings of depression. But ‘feeling depressed’ is qualitatively different from the malaise that Styron and I experience.
In fact, that state of near paralysis brought on by an almost unbearable psychic pain feels to me like losing myself, losing my subjectivity. I suspect that it’s the same effect as that brought about by torture – being bombarded with overwhelming physical stimuli leading to a breakdown of the self.
This zoned out state is indeed scary, but not always destructive. In fact, mystics from nearly every religious tradition have used excessive physical pain caused by beds of nails, freezing water, fire and knives to voluntarily dismantle their own subjectivity. But the crucial point here is that the self inflicted bodily pain has religious meaning, so by praying or performing rituals while in this state, mystics found a way to become closer to the divine, the sacred.
Take Carmelites John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. Their self wounding was about sharing in the redemptive pain of Christ. Author of Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul Ariel Glucklich claims that the experience of pain is dependent on a complex interplay of biology and culture that gives pain its subjectivity or meaning. These meanings depend on the human ability to empathise with another’s pain. Without this ability to share pain, the passion of Christ would have little symbolic value.
So what does all this have to do with my depression and Netflix? If nothing else, Netflix is an ever growing repository of stories, of great narratives. And stories are how we create meaning, subjectivity, make sense of our world.
And at this point I step into the purely speculative world of pop psychology based only on my experience: I suspect that binge-watching Netflix had a similar function on me that religious ritual or prayer had on the mystics – I found myself empathising with and ultimately sharing the pain of the characters in the stories. And rather than becoming distressed by their suffering, I found that their pain brought me back from the brink, made me feel human again.
Because all good narratives, no matter how black in theme or tone, are essentially about illuminating the human condition. And the blacker the story, the more it illuminates.
Which is why I’m drawn to binge-watch dismally dark stories about death and violence – narratives that plumb the depths of human depravity.
No card carrying feminist could avoid commencing their Netflixation without first watching Jessica Jones, the series about the Marvel comic uber babe with seriously unresolved issues. Despite her superpowers, Jessica is a rape victim to whom justice is elusive because her perpetrator, played by a ferociously wild-eyed David Tennant, can control her mind. And he controls her because he harbours an overwhelming desire for Jessica, wants her to love him back. It’s a rape of a higher order. How deliciously complicated is misogyny in this series.
Two seasons of Jessica Jones was followed by sci-fi horror Stranger Things, then four seasons of Orange is the New Black, Homeland, then a job lot of murder/police thrillers like River, The Killing, Hinterland, The Fall, Luther, all with deeply flawed crime fighting protagonists, whose self destructive natures are as demonic as the evil criminals that they are up against.
I’m drawn to these beautifully scarred characters because in my state of utter despair, I can recognise the contours of their inner conflict, sense the force of their existential despair, and watching them live their complex lives made me want to live.
Let’s be clear though, I’m not describing some efficient, clinical version of narrative redemption. Unlike Teresa of Avila, I don’t believe suffering is redemptive. I don’t think pain can ever be redeemed, certainly not by a story, no matter how perfectly constructed, perfectly poignant.
Nor do I believe that these flawed characters help me understand myself. Even if they did, self-knowledge does little to reduce the acute suffering of depressive illness. And I don’t subscribe to the theory that we story ourselves, that we can rewrite our own narratives, but that’s another story…
What I do believe though is what one of the world’s favourite fictional characters once told his little friend…
‘I’m scared’ said Piglet ‘A story will help’ said Pooh ‘How?’ ‘Oh. Don’t you know? Stories make your heart grow.’
Here’s a related article about medicine, healing, and stories.