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Coping With Anxiety and Depression Through Fiction

or, “How Rocket Raccoon Fixed My Mental Illness” (haha, not really.)


Everyone experiences anxiety and depression differently.

I begin with this because it’s a component of mental illness too many think-pieces and testimonials overlook, and the last thing I want to do is write another article that promises a definitive, all-purpose account of what dealing with anxiety and depression is like.

I can only claim insight into my own experiences. Nonetheless, I feel I have something worthwhile to say on the topic. As a lifelong lover of fiction, particular in cinematic form, I’ve found turning to movies, soundtracks, behind-the-scenes documentaries and fandom to be an invaluable coping mechanism. Yet, for all I’ve read about the mental health merits of yoga and cutting caffeine, I’ve yet to hear someone else mention film as an agent against anxiety and depression. I intend this article, therefore, as a bat signal of sorts for anyone facing similar (but, of course, not identical) struggles, that they might have an “Oh, I feel that way too,” moment, or else discover a new and hopefully effective means of coping.

Anxiety, as I experience it, is a sense of overwhelming instability. It’s never been a wave of directionless panic, but a suffocating dread of very specific scenarios, all of which (as varied as they are) center around a fear of loss, isolation, or being a burden to others. In other words, of losing or hurting those on whom I depend emotionally, a prospect so terrifying that this paragraph is proving difficult to write. It’s like feeling the ground give way beneath me and scrambling in vain for a stable foundation. Any attempt to calm myself is compromised by the knowledge that my fears aren’t entirely irrational: everyone I love will die and the Earth will be destroyed when the sun collapses one day. Is anything safe? No, not really.

It’s here that fiction comes to my rescue because, by virtue of not being real, it can never be taken away. This was a fairly recent epiphany that I owe to Guardians of the Galaxy. Dan Gilroy, Bill Maher and Kathryn Bigelow might disapprove, but I leaned on James Gunn’s space opera and Tyler Bates’ score like a crutch for the better part of last year and don’t care to imagine how else I would have scraped into 2015 without it.

One bit that was especially helpful was Bates’ score piece, “Citizens Unite” and the corresponding scene in which Drax pets Rocket as he cries over Groot’s splintered remains. The music is soft, poignant and, most importantly, slow. I discovered that if I played the song before or after a panic attack and inhaled and exhaled in time to the music, I could steady my breathing and thus reduce the oxygen rushing to my brain, ease the light-headedness and slow my heart rate. Mind you, this was after years of being told to “breathe” during panic attacks. It’s not the tempo itself that helps (breathing to a metronome wouldn’t work, for example); it’s the emotional significance of the material.

The scene it plays over is sad, touching (James Gunn’s favorite)… and eternal. Even if every video file and gif set of that scene were destroyed, it could never truly cease to exist because, being fictional, it never technically existed in the first place. When the transience of everything around me becomes overwhelming, tapping into something undying as only fiction can be is enough to make the ground stop crumbling.

Depression is a different (though thematically similar) matter. It’s a crushing and enervating sense of isolation exacerbated by a certainty that it will never go away. Human interaction can help but only when I can muster the energy, and on most “dark days” I can’t bring myself to face anyone. Thus enters fiction.

With anxiety, as I’ve said, the catharsis is in the knowledge that the fictitious characters aren’t real. With depression, it’s quite the opposite. It’s in the realization that characters and stories can only move me because the men and women who create them care as much about them as I do (if not more so), that when I connect with a character, I am connecting with every single person behind that character.

There are maaaaany examples of this, but for the sake of specificity and continuity I’ll focus on Guardians of the Galaxy, namely Rocket Raccoon, a character who could have single-handedly sunk that movie but turned out to be one of its best additions and my favorite character, a sentiment I apparently also share with Gunn.

Much as it pains me, though, that talking raccoon is not real… but the people who made him are. James Gunn, Sean Gunn, Bradley Cooper, Stephane Ceretti, Kevin Spruce, Susan Pickett and the rest of the army of Framestore animators who brought him to “life” had to be invested in his pathos and humor in order for him to emotionally affect me

As a VFX character, nothing about Rocket made it to the screen by accident. Every facial expression, every line, every gesticulation and every vocal inflection was the product of hours of hard work. He was the day job for hundreds of people. One of my favorite scenes in Guardians of the Galaxy is Rocket’s drunken rant on Knowhere. There isn’t a single frame of that scene that wasn’t meticulously labored over. Rocket’s lip quiver after he says, “he called me vermin, she called me rodent,” is a miniscule detail I assumed no one but myself thought was significant until I heard Gunn refer to it in the audio commentary as a moment he “really love[s],” which makes sense. That lip quiver was the product of discussion and planning and layers of animation. A lot of people thought that moment was significant, or else it wouldn’t be there.

Fandom has also offered a wealth of comfort and validation. I didn’t discover the wonders of Tumblr until my freshman year of college. It was a revelation to come across slow motion gifs of characters’ facial expressions posted above hundred-word captions explaining what that two-second reaction means to the blogger. As the ever-quotable CS Lewis put it, “friendship is born at that moment when one [person] says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .’”

When all is said and done, anxiety and depression are chronic conditions. There is no “curing” or “fixing” them, only learning to cope with them, and, ideally, managing them in a way that enhances your life, not detracts from it. Fiction and the fandom communities built around it have proven to be an integral part of my experience. Yours may be completely difference, but find what works for you. Everyone experiences anxiety and depression differently, but that does mean that everyone has to deal with it alone.

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