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Goddamn You, Harvey

Harvey (Henry Koster, 1950)

EssayPart of Issue #12: Young Critics Workshop 2021

On October 10, 2021, two days before I was to arrive at the Young Critic’s Workshop in Gent, Belgium, I was sitting inside of the Trylon Cinema in Minneapolis, MN. I was watching a 35mm print of the 1950 stage adapted Henry Koster film, Harvey. As I was watching a jovial James Stewart running around town, inviting everyone he met for a drink with his best friend, a six-foot tall imaginary rabbit, arguably the worst anxiety attack I’ve ever had in my life just fell into my lap. The idea of my own mortality, along with my relationship to my Muslim faith and Allah, concerning the afterlife, sent me deep into a panic. Looking back on that moment, I’m now struck by the ridiculous, but plausible, epiphany of Stewart and his stupid fucking rabbit serving as catalysts for my panic attack. The film is so saccharine that the idea of its levity triggering my attack never occurred but it is not lost on me how the (lack of) imagery of an imaginary creature being treated as “real” would subconsciously cause me to disassociate. Simultaneous pulls in opposite directions of wanting to die more than anything else and a failure to reconcile the reality, or lack thereof, of life after death rattled throughout me. An undulating echo chamber of negativity gripped both my mind and body and got busy like the rent was due. By design, what was currently taking place within me resolutely eschewed any context I had developed over the course of my life that allowed me to compartmentalize my fears, anxieties, and emotions—all logic, objectivity, and reason, did not apply to the tug-of-war between the two horrors stretching me to manic demoralization. The worst part? The two sides were on the same team: utilitarianism! Their sole purpose to firmly place me within the deepest recesses of Hell—regardless of their solipsistic façade having no connection to reality.

The goal here is to bridge the gap between objectively knowing you are not alone in your anxious isolation and emotionally affirming that objectivity as best as you can; fact is nearly irrelevant if you cannot feel it. That affirmation is only achieved through consistent repetition to a cumulative effect. This takes shape in the form of collaborative documentation, i.e., cinema. A personal, interior history allows one to acknowledge what they’ve been through and what they can handle. Hell with a buddy is preferable to heaven alone. It’s not important that memory is accurate, only that it is representative of disposition within a period of time. The particularities of events from the past can only be unearthed by beginning with how you felt at the time. Accuracy in regard to memory is a lost cause because we are not omniscient creatures. The second a moment passes is the moment it begins to become only a partial truth, but never a whole one. All we can do is provide our perspective. The collective act of filmmaking provides the ultimate comfort of shared perspective, even under the “auteur theory”. Even if a single person was responsible for every aspect of the filmmaking process, hundreds/thousands of people throughout that person’s life are still responsible for shaping that filmmaker—implicitly and explicitly. The most difficult aspect of this to stomach is accepting that lucidity is only achieved through the same frequency of conviction as that of a heartbeat, it can never stop.

It had been three days since I had last taken my antidepressants, the exact amount of time it takes for my withdrawal to set in. Six years on the same medication and the consequences of missing days still eluded me. The sloppiness is nearly intentional, very much rooted in my denial as an addict. Perhaps it is a preemptive measure to absolve the pharmaceutical industry of responsibility, but it must be noted that my use of labeling myself as an “addict” who suffers “withdrawals” is medically incorrect. The violently debilitating symptoms that occur in the absence of regularly taken antidepressants—anxiety, insomnia, headaches, dizziness, tiredness, irritability, flu-like symptoms, including achy muscles and chills, nausea and electric shock sensations—are not withdrawals, but something called Discontinuation syndrome. Despite the symptoms from SSRI discontinuation mirroring the same symptoms as withdrawal from other drugs, there is deliberate intention from the industry to separate the two, when the actual difference is merely their legality. As for the term “addict”, according to the number one ranked hospital in the U.S., the Mayo Clinic states: “Having antidepressant discontinuation symptoms doesn’t mean you’re addicted to an antidepressant. Addiction represents harmful, long-term chemical changes in the brain. It’s characterized by intense cravings, the inability to control your use of a substance and negative consequences from that substance use. Antidepressants don’t cause these issues.” I don’t know, I again find this disposition as a form of self-preservation and posturing. The word “addict” is simply bad for business. Positive connotations to being an addict, to anything, do not exist in the world despite said addiction being the only thing keeping me, and millions of other people alive. To be an addict places you in a group of people who are unable to function on their own and have therefore, failed. It’s a strange, fucked up catch-22 where without any medication, I will naturally deteriorate to the point of suicide but if I’m on it and run out or forget to take it for too long, I will chemically end up at the same precipice of death.

Depression wasn’t an issue I had as a child but during my first year of high school I woke up one day and knew something was wrong. I just wanted to be dead. Bad thoughts abound, only leaving for worse ones to replace them. The vilest of ideas appeared out of nowhere and I felt guilty for even thinking them, despite not knowing their source. The volume of filth became so adamant that I was forced to accept it as a part of myself, which only made my guilt metastasize. For several years I was in and out of therapy while workshopping various SSRI’s, a miserable process on its own with a rotating smorgasbord of hellish side effects, until I eventually landed on something that somewhat worked for me. It didn’t make me “happy”, a common misconception of how antidepressants work, but did provide a baseline level of stability to where my brain wasn’t constantly trying to convince me I should be dead. For reasons beyond me, my mind is not concerned with acknowledging the things that I know to be true of myself. I know to be true that I want to live. I know that suicide is not the right choice for myself. I know these things to be true and yet, 72 hours go by without my meds and all I think about is how I should not be alive.

With the residual fallout of my anxiety attack still hanging around my psyche a week later, I watched Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria at the Gent Film Festival. The film finds Tilda Swinton, an orchid farmer, in Colombia, in pursuit of refrigerating technology that stores her flowers in a state of absolute preservation, untouched by time. She becomes plagued by repeated interruptions in her head in the form of sharp, sonic BOOMING sounds that end with a dull thud, much like the sensation of a bomb going off just close enough that your eardrums rupture and everything sounds like you’re underwater. When Swinton realizes her mental punctures aren’t abating, she visits a sound engineer in an attempt to reproduce what she hears in her head, into reality. The sound engineer patiently plays various octaves and registers of thunderous audio blasts for Swinton in trial-and-error fashion until they arrive at a match. On paper, the scene should not work, which makes it all the more devastating. The cinematic application is so simplistic that it disarms you as a viewer, opening you up to a transcendental empathy that you can hardly believe is being achieved through simply two people in a room bouncing sounds back and forth off each other. The cathartic liberation Swinton can experience by being able to share her mental anguish through proper transcription with another human being borders on revelatory to a person, such as me, that is constantly, constantly fighting with themselves on which thoughts are genuinely theirs and which thoughts only exist to sabotage. Swinton has the good fortune of her mental ailment existing as finite, static and unmalleable; it’s somewhat of a neat affair, as far as the parameters go. Depression’s elasticity could not be more juxtaposed to Swinton’s sonic boom, so relative and temperamental that a session with a sound engineer would likely result in something resembling deconstructed house music. It is perhaps this stark contrast that makes the scene so poignant for me, if only it were so simple!

Twelve years later I’ve somewhat picked up on how my severe depression operates. It is never idle, never static, always in a state of evolution. White noise in the form of a Russian nesting doll in which the first doll is bad thoughts, the second doll is guilt, the third doll is fighting off the bad thoughts, the fourth doll is exhaustion from fighting off the bad thoughts, the fifth doll is giving up and the sixth and final doll is distraction. For a long time I didn’t realize that the awful thoughts I was having weren’t real, only there to distract me through guilt. I’ve come to find that the severest form of depression is a game of red herrings in a house of mirrors, where misery is not the end, but a vehicle to nihilism. Because as bad as misery may be, it still constitutes an active participation in human emotion. Depression doesn’t want you active in anything, it wants you to give up.