For the Love of Film: How Cinema Has Helped Me Cope With Mental Illness

There comes a point in time when you have to admit that your life isn’t actually a quirky coming-of-age drama. I have reached that point at the grand old age of twenty eight. It has been a gradual realisation. 

Perhaps you would have expected me to realize this far earlier in my life or maybe you’re baffled at the idea that anyone would consider their life to be like a movie of any sorts. How foolish of you. I’ve been thinking of my life as some kind of independent masterpiece since I was ten years old but my narrative just will not stick to script. 

I’m pretty sure we all spend time practicing our Oscars speech. Teary, mid-shower acceptances. The stage spotlight replaced by the hazy steam of water that’s definitely too hot for your skin. The golden Oscar statue replaced with your Tresemme shampoo bottle, which honestly is too big to hold, Herbal Essences is preferable. You emotionally thank your parents, your agent, maybe God and then you get back to shaving your armpits.

Or maybe your commute to work is a fantastic chance for you play out some badass scenes in your head. Headphones on, eyes closed, somebody’s arm pushing into your side as they inch further and further into your half of the train seat. What a perfect opportunity to play out your zombie movie escape plan or imagine the romantic climax between you and your ‘will-they-wont-they’ love interest. 

That’s pretty much where most people leave it, as fun time wasting day dreams that definitely don’t interrupt your real life. Not me, though. That would be far too normal. I’ve been obsessed with film since I can remember and I continue to fall in love with it even deeper every time I see a movie that drills into my imagination and makes me feel something both fantastical and grounding.

Seeing David Bowie’s outrageous crotch in The Labyrinth when I was pre-pubescent did something magical to me and, instead of dealing with the bubbling mental illness that was fogging my brain and sparking anxieties that I didn’t know could exist, I became my own version of the film’s protagonist. I escaped deep into my imagination and begged Jareth to take my little sister. Please take her and I’ll travel through the Labyrinth, beyond The Goblin City, just to get her back.

On second thought…fuck it, keep her and I’ll be your masquerade-mask wearing Queen. My feelings for Bowie were intense. 

That’s how it started, this complex and turbulent relationship with film and my own imagination, it was pure escapism. I knew I did not feel at home in my own mind when I was really young and my conscious always felt like something I was fighting. Seven year olds shouldn’t be unhealthily worried about being kidnapped or afraid of adults. They shouldn’t have to do certain things seven times to feel safe or insist on looking at their parents in the eyes the exact perfect way or else they wouldn’t wake up in the morning. My mind was always full to the brim of thoughts or feelings that I didn’t ask for. All the time, always. 

Film allowed me to escape even then. I’d watch The Road to El Dorado over and over again on a battered old VHS tape (I definitely fancied Chel) and rewind to scenes I really liked, acting them out in my head. Or I would imagine extra characters I could play in films like The Goonies, Flight of The Navigator or Hook and  I’d create entire subplots within the narrative just so I could live in that world for a while.

If I wasn’t imagining it while I was watching these visual delights, I’d be living them all over again as I’d try to sleep. It’s still my go-to method of drifting off when the negative whispers that float into my ears as soon as my head hits the pillow became too much and my head filled with the sound of a malicious, punishing orchestra. 

As I got older my mind continued to spill further into chaos. The voices telling me that I wasn’t enough, was a mistake, a burden and beyond repair became so loud that escapism just wasn’t working for me anymore. No longer could I burrow into my duvet and lose myself to a fictitious world where I just belonged. Film became a way of self exploration and I became bizarrely obsessed with watching films that were far beyond age appropriate.

I would stay up until my parents had gone to sleep and watch the likes of Silence of The Lambs with the volume down low. I can still recall the wave of nausea that washed over me when Buffalo Bill lowered the basked into the well, his victim and soon to be handbag trapped and weeping for her Mother. It was terrifying and utterly disturbing but I just couldn’t look away. My mind craved something equally as dark as my own thoughts and fears. I haven’t watched the film since but when my brain feels most punishing it will replay that scene over and over in my head.  

I began to watch movies that reflected the crushing depression that had blanketed my adolescence while fuelling the classic teenage angst that ran wild through my veins. I’d go to my local Blockbuster and buy their cheap second hand DVDs. Nobody bothered to ask for ID or wonder why a fifteen year old was buying London to Brighton.

I became obsessed by films like Thirteen and Donnie Darko, recognising myself in the hopelessness of the characters and the complexity of the narratives. I’d seek answers, searching for correlation between myself and these films. I’d find catharsis in violent, bloodthirsty narratives and I soon lost an important connection with reality.

Instead of dealing with the mess my adolescent mind had become, I’d let myself believe that each new panic attack, new obsessive compulsion or suicidal thought were a plot twist. I would believe that my life just wouldn’t stick to the script and my director had just decided to go in another direction.

If I could just battle through and survive the constant anxiety that bubbled under my skin and seeped out of my pores then finally I’d get my pay off. I was just waiting for that third act, the moment in my movie where I’d catch a break and the struggles I had faced, the pain I went through would be worth it. 

It has become painfully clear though that my life just does not fall into the coming-of-age genre. Nobody does, surely? My life has been a hybrid of genres ranging from romantic comedy, gross-out teen flick, drama and even horror. Living my life like a movie has allowed me to deal with mental illness in a way that has fuelled my creative imagination and protected me from the days where death felt like the only option.

I’m still waiting for my pay off, that blissful moment in the narrative where clarity is awarded to the down-and-out protagonist. I’m still falling in love with film and escaping through the religion of cinema. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that comedy can be found within any genre. Wit, sarcasm, slapstick, satire, farce and certainly black comedy can be found within my little movie and it is this cinematic element that keeps me going. 

ellyjones ellyjones

Updated: Mar 12, 2020

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