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Out of Gas on Metaphor Highway

Myth 150Imagine your willpower as a car that you drive to get from place to place, and that your destinations are anything that you might want to do with your life. Something simple, like making a sandwich or getting dressed, is a quick jaunt to the corner store. Something a bit more involved, like training for a marathon or writing a novel, is a cross-country trip. If you need to do anything, no matter how trivial, it’s going to involve getting into your car and going for a drive. Why? Because for the purposes of this metaphor, life is one big Los Angeles freeway.

Some people have souped-up roadsters that are just a pleasure to drive. These are your go-getters, your Type A personalities. They have no problem with getting things done; they just get into their cars, listen to it purr and suddenly they’re at their destination. These folks are rare, and most of us have no idea how they do what they do because their cars are so awesome it just doesn’t register. Most of us are in Fords and Toyotas. These guys are in Ferraris.

But even for those of us in econo-boxes, it’s not so bad. As long as we give our cars enough fuel and take care of them, we can get most of the places we need to go. A particularly arduous trip might tax our reserves if we hadn’t prepared well, or it turns out to be more difficult than we anticipated. But running out of gas almost never happens. When it does…you know how much of a hassle it can be.

Suddenly the car that you use to get everywhere has become this two-ton burden that you have to look after. You can’t leave it on the side of the road, unlocked and vulnerable. So you have to push it to the nearest gas station and that’s no picnic. It takes all of your energy just to move it, and the moment there’s even a small obstacle, like a bend in the road or an upward incline, well that’s it — it’s just impossible.

This is what happens when you’re depressed. Your brain, the thing you rely on to get things done, suddenly runs out of fuel and forces you to drag it along with you to accomplish anything. When it’s really bad — when your mood is completely depleted — just getting out of bed and making yourself presentable enough to go outside is a massive undertaking.

For most of us this only ever happens once or twice, and usually after a traumatic event that saps us. You’re already running dangerously low, and it’s easy to get caught on the road when your fuel just runs out. For those of us with chronic depression, though, this is a constant worry. Let’s look at it this way: there’s something wrong with the fuel lines in our cars, so a full tank of gas doesn’t get us nearly as far as it does most people. Our gauges are faulty, so we’re never quite sure how full our gas tank is. And as a result, we get caught on the road on the way to somewhere, suddenly empty.

There are ways to manage the issue. We patch up the holes with duct tape and sealant, but it’s not a perfect solution. We need to re-apply it every day, and watch for times when the solution we’ve found is not working as well as it once did. If we think we can go a few days without re-applying the fix, the chances that we find ourselves stranded dramatically increase.

Just in case you’re wondering, I’m talking about drugs here. If you’re anti-depressants, take them. If you think you’d be fine without them, talk to your doctor before doing so. You might think you’re fine, but remember that your gauge is faulty; it helps to have a mechanic come in to verify that the ‘trouble’ light really should be off.

This is what happened to me, and why I’ve been suddenly incommunicado for the past several weeks. I thought I was all right, even with a number of stresses piling up on me, and stopped taking my anti-depressants for a while. And before I knew it, all of those destructive loops, anxieties and mood crashes hit me again. I wasn’t prepared for it, and just like that it was all that I could do to deal with work and other obligations. Things like blogging and writing were completely out of the question. Fuel was gone as soon as I got it.

So the car’s been in the garage for a while; I’ve been steadily bringing it back to health, and taking it out on short runs to work or to a role-playing game I run a few times a month, but that’s it. Gradually, as I grow more confident that I can take it places without it leaving me stranded, I’ll be trying to do more again. But I’ll have to be careful. I don’t want to push myself too much and get myself into trouble.

So if I’m a little irregular around these parts, or I drop an entry or two, that’s likely why — I’m saving my precious willpower for something that’s a bit higher on the necessity scale. But I’ll definitely be trying to update as regularly as I can, to fill this space with my thoughts on movies and storytelling, with bits of fiction here and there.

If you have a faulty fuel line like me, please make sure you stay on top of its maintenance. It’s so easy to get yourself in trouble, especially when you feel like you’re fine. And if you know someone with a faulty fuel line, please be patient with them. Not only is there an issue with their brain, there’s an issue with their brain monitoring; things can look awfully distorted in the middle of a problem, and it’s not always easy to navigate. Just point us in the right direction, support us where you can, trust us to eventually figure out that our gauge is steering us awry.

I’ve been dealing with chronic depression for my entire life, but I’ve only actually been managing it for about five years. My recent adventures in self-medicating tells me that I’ll need to manage it for the rest of my life. Some days, this bums me out. I mean, who wouldn’t want a Ferrari that purrs like a kitten and leaps when you tap the pedal? But the fact is, I have an econo-box with a busted fuel line, and it will require vigilance to make sure it performs as well as it can. The act of maintaining it teaches me patience, acceptance and to look for joy in the unlikeliest of places. With the right attitude, my broken-down little car can be the very thing that forces me to find new ways to get where I want to go.

 

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Movie Review: Melancholia

Entertainment 150Melancholia (2011)
Starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsborough and Kiefer Sutherland
Written and Directed by Lars von Trier

Lars von Trier is one of those directors with a distinct, uncompromising vision. You get the feeling when you see one of his movies that every shot is exactly the way he wanted it to look, and every word is what he wanted you to hear. He is a director with an intimate knowledge of storytelling through movies, and every film he makes is essentially a direct communication from the artist to his audience. He aims to be obtuse, as clearly as possible.

This makes a lot of his movies simultaneously fascinating and impossible. I think critics love him because he uses movies to push people, to confront them with ideas about the world that make them uncomfortable. It’s rare that someone can pull a fast one on audience these days; we love to pick things apart, and love or hate it we typically know exactly what a director is trying to do. With von Trier, even though you can guess the through-line of any movie he leaves big enough gaps that make you question what he means by certain things.

With Melancholia, the entire opening sequence presents itself as a puzzle of surrealist images that you’re not quite sure about even after the movie is over. What’s the deal with the 19th hole? Why do we see the same characters in vastly different places, doing wildly different things? How far does the metaphor go — all the way to the immense blue planet that’s causing birds to drop from the sky, two shadows to fall on the ground, electricity to rise into the air? How much of this stuff matters to understanding the rest of the movie? Even after stewing on it a few days, it’s hard to tell.

As near as I can figure, though, Melancholia is a movie about two different sisters dealing with two different disasters. In the first part, Justine (Dunst) looks to be a happy newlywed with an incredibly blessed life. She just married Eric Northman from True Blood, she was promoted to Art Director at the advertising firm she works in, and her wedding reception is an incredibly high-end affair at her brother-in-law’s (Sutherland) golf course and resort.

As the night goes on, however, things are systematically deconstructed to reveal the horrible truth underneath. Justine suffers from crippling depression that makes her unable to function with those closest to her on what should be her happiest day. Her boss is a controlling tyrant who hires his nephew on the condition that he hounds Justine for the tagline of a new campaign throughout the night. If he doesn’t get it, he’s fired. Her brother-in-law doesn’t think much of Justine or her squabbling, eccentric parents — he’s only interested in making sure she knows how much money he’s spent on this affair and how ridiculous she’s being.

And to be fair, Justine is fairly ridiculous. She frequently slips away from the reception at inopportune moments to be alone, making the tightly-scheduled affair run off track. Her harried sister and doting husband do everything they can think of to make her happy, and she gives them only the mask of gratitude in return. She pisses on her brother-in-law’s golf course and cheats on her husband with the assistant hired specifically to harass her. By the time the sun rises on the uncomfortably dark night, she’s ruined everything that’s been given to her — her job, her fledgling marriage, her relationship with her family. Justine is one of the most unlikable main characters I’ve seen in a long time, but I can’t help but feel a deep sympathy for her.

Why? Because I identify with that level of depression. When you’re in a hole that deep, you go a little crazy — even if you realize what you’re doing you feel unable to stop yourself. Your sense of perspective breaks down, and you stop thinking about long-term consequences, or how other people might feel. The only thing that matters is easing the pain as much as possible so you can make it to the next moment. It doesn’t matter how destructive an act you’re perpetrating; if it eases your suffering, then it’s fair game. In some ways, it’s better if what you do makes a mess of things. Crazy, broken people don’t deserve nice things and the pressures that come with them. In some ways, having nothing means being burdened by nothing, and laying down your burdens is the only thing worth doing in a deep depression.

In the second part, Claire is preparing for the arrival of Justine at the bottom of her spiral and the rogue planet Melancholia, also reaching the end of its journey. According to the scientists, the planet should fly by Earth in a few days, stealing some of its atmosphere but doing no lasting harm. Claire’s husband John is annoyed by her fears about Melancholia and Justine’s melancholy, and he spends most of the time being curt with both of them. Of course, it turns out that the planet is going to hit Earth after all, and Justine, Claire and John must deal with the reality that the world will end.

Here is the tragedy of the movie. John responds in the most despicable and cowardly way possible, and his reaction is hardly worth mentioning here. I can definitely sympathize with his impulse — his actions inspired a fairly long conversation between Ryan and I — but the way he does it makes it one of the most selfish things I’ve ever seen. It leaves Claire completely alone to face the horror of what’s coming, along with her young son.

Justine responds to the news with a calm, fatalistic detachment. Claire must deal with what’s happening completely alone, while struggling with how to handle the news with her son. Justine is of no help; when Claire asks that they do something “nice” for the end to distract themselves away from it, her sister mocks her and calls her plan a “piece of shit”.

With the end coming, we see Justine and Claire grow increasingly isolated. Justine has retreated away from the world and into her depression a long time ago; the absolute end of everything just represents the ultimate laying down of her burdens. Claire can’t reach out to anyone, and with no outlet for her pain and bewilderment she simply falls apart. It’s an awful thing to watch, but it also illustrates the true price of depression.

I don’t mean to say that depressed people suck and inconvenience the lives of the people around them. That would be a horrible thing to say and simply add to the feeling of unbearable burden that depressed people must carry with them. But I do think that depression is a condition that takes you away from the world and puts you in a hell of your own making. At its worst, it forces you to withdraw inward so deeply that your view of the world is incredibly warped. Everything loops back to the pain you feel, and you begin to grow so sensitive to it that you shut down to avoid it.

It’s an awful feeling. During a scene where Claire has to physically drag Justine into the bathroom to wash her, my heart broke for both of them. I can empathize with what Justine is going through in that moment; just the motion of taking a step or lifting your leg might cause something to break within you that you just can’t handle. But I also feel terrible for Claire; she’s devoting so much time and energy to a person who is incapable of appreciating it, or of helping herself. It’s a thankless and difficult job, and no one recognizes the work she’s doing or the sacrifices she’s made.

By the end of the movie, Justine, Claire and her son on a hill as the planet approaches. They hold hands as the sky is filled with intense blue light and the wind begins to roar around them. But the final image is something that I’ll never forget — Justine, serene in her withdrawal, closes her eyes and accepts her fate. She’s completely oblivious to her sister’s suffering; Claire is rocking back and forth, her eyes squeezed shut and her hands over her ears when the blast wave hits. She had to bear the terror of her last moments alone, even though she was surrounded by family.

Even though Justine is presumably the main character, I feel like the movie is really Claire’s. And my reaction to the movie is entirely personal, drawn by my own experiences. I think back to all of the people who’ve tried to drag me from my worst depressions, the people who sacrificed time and effort to bring me up. I think about all of the people that I’ve disappointed, hurt and abandoned because my depression had made me too self-focused to see what I was doing. All of them become Claire, wild with need and suffering, closing their eyes in pure terror. It’s a terrible thing to know that there are so many people who love so freely and are ignored and unappreciated.

I know I’m not Justine, but I’ve been Justine. And Melancholia paints an uncompromising portrait of what depression looks like to other people, what it does to the people who suffer it and the people around them. It makes me feel a deep sympathy for everyone stuck in that situation. And it makes me glad that it’s over.

Rating: 8/10.

 

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