Sunday, September 20, 2009

Amnesia and Anhedonia

I once wrote movie reviews for a very small, corporate newsletter. I was keen on the job partially because I loved movies. My mom had thousands of them in her video library as I was growing up and I honored her tradition by catching almost every new release that came out.

I feel the need to mention that I am a visual learner. More than that, I am a visual person, something I usually hear as a descriptor for men. I love that which is visually aesthetically pleasing and I have an archive of visual references in my head pertaining to just about every thing I've ever seen and been drawn to. I have no idea why that might be important, but there it is.

Needless to say, as much as I was a fan of movies and the visual arts, it was rather disconcerting when I started to notice something strange in the course of my movie-going. Honestly, I think it had been present and building for some time, but I first became cognizant of it while exiting a little theater in my home town one evening. I embarked upon the short trip home in the dark and I can still remember the blur of passing headlights as I absently made the left-hand turn onto my street. It was that moment that I found myself thinking that there was something I was supposed to remember.

It wasn't that I'd left my purse at the theater, or that I'd left the coffee pot on at home. It wasn't that I had forgotten an appointment or was supposed to be somewhere else. It was just a strange sense that I had been doing something, something important, but I couldn't remember what it was, and it seemed kind of vital that I remember it.

Soon it became a regular occurrence upon leaving a movie - and then even upon finishing a movie at home. It was like suddenly waking up to the fact that I had been asleep but not known it, and it left me with a sneaking suspicion that something significant was happening, something I once knew about but that I couldn't for the life of me remember anymore.

That is when I remembered - of all things - a movie. It was that scene in Labyrinth that I describe in the first blog on this series, the one in which the enemy attempts to thwart the heroine not by challenging her directly, but by distracting her in an effort to make her forget. That was the feeling I hadI was distractedly admiring each lovely image while slowly being buried in things that were completely unimportant, feeling strangely discontent, vainly looking for something - but not remembering what it was I was looking for.

Now, before I continue, I will say again: I still love movies. They can be a lovely way to relax, to set aside time to recuperate from the almost constant pressing demands of life. They are fun and they can be a way to make meanings and connections one might not otherwise make (as I have just demonstrated and will continue to rely upon). Furthermore, they can be a way to fellowship and connect with others. This is not a blog disparaging movies.

However, I started to realize at about the age of 24 some very interesting things. First, I started to notice that all the things I loved in movies (and books) were almost completely absent from my life. I went to movies because of the epic adventures, love stories, and depictions of causes and themes greater than self. But adventure, love, and greater purpose were a bit sparse in my real life. Oh, sure, I went to church every day and was a Bible-thumping fundamentalist when it came to political debates, but let's get real: I wasn't changing anyone or anything, let alone the world - or even myself, for that matter. I started to wonder if I wasn't just living vicariously through some of these movies. What I really wanted, however, wasn't to watch others live life, but to live a life worth watching!

But movies weren't helping me do that. In fact, they seemed to be luring me away from real life: They weren't just occupying my time, they actually seemed to be lying to me. 

I noticed that real-life love and adventure didn't *feel* the same as it did when I watched it on the "big screen."

This is actually an important factor in understanding pornography addiction and anhedonia. The sex and romance in movies elicit a different psychological and physiological response than real relationship or real life does. Of course, it makes sense that this would be the case; in movies, you are an observer as opposed to a participant in the action. You can drink in all of the highs and lows without actually experiencing the physical sensory data that would then lead to specific hormonal and chemical changes in the body. In other words, it stimulates your brain through the eyes and the imagination as opposed to through a more concrete, physical, or "holistic" experience. In movies, you can experience sex without all the trappings of a physical body or the tricky and risky interference of another person. It's like a kind of emotional masturbation. And what is particularly unnerving is what this kind of stimulation ends up doing to our brains.

Of course, this isn't just movies. It is the nature of pornography and romance novels - even Christian romance novels.

Before I knew about the studies being done on this sort of thing, though, I decided that, while I enjoyed the highs of fiction, my real life was being robbed of imagination; while I looked forward to the dreamy reassurance of Christian romance novels or films, I experienced a growing discontent because my life didn't match or make me feel the same way; and while I loved a good movie, it was programming me to process life as being a particular kind of visual/emotional experience that doesn't exactly exist anywhere else but while watching a movie - and that, tragically, can not only addict us to the highs of the surreal, but it can make real experience much less of a high, less enjoyable or less stimulating - or the wrong kind of stimulation - a kind that comes with discomfort or annoyances or frustrations and limitations.

Movies are easier than real life. Being a consumer of fiction is easier than living.

So, I set aside my Christian romance novels and I sought to learn about relationship from my marriage.Then, one day, I stopped picking up sci-fi novels and eventually, I actually stopped going to movies for a while. I gave up my tv, too, and was without any kind of artificial visual stimulation for some time. In fact, I still do not own a tv and do not have cable. I live without the inundation of sights and sounds being channeled into my home, my mind, my daily personal life (and it is GLORIOUS). I started to pay attention to how things felt in real life and I started to develop a new appreciation for the messiness of being alive - and from deriving pleasure from reality, from good things that I was always meant to enjoy.

It's like drinking water again after only ever drinking soda. It's not sweet. It doesn't give you that lovely bubbly feeling as it hits the roof of your mouth and travels down your throat. But it is so much better. And when you're sick and dehydrated, you recognize that it is better - unless you're really addicted to pop, in which case you crave it even when it'll kill you. But why does it take us getting sick and dehydrated on Pepsi or Coke or whatever to appreciate water? And then, why do we go back to the fake, dehydrating substances again?

In Recovery Ministry, we talk about how the freedom to do what we want is not true freedom. It is the freedom to not do things - the freedom to not take another drink, to not visit particular websites, to not think about sex, to not eat more, or to not get sucked into someone else's insanity - this is true freedom. This is the freedom I have found - freedom from distractions like the emotional stimulation of movies and tv, freedom from feeling what isn't real so that I have the capacity to feel what is - what is good and beneficial. 

awakened after a movie one night to the fact that I had been lulled into a strange forgetfulness, a place of feeling but not feeling, a place where I was living but not living. And so I pushed aside the pretty pictures, the trinkets and the books, I pushed aside the colorful distractions that the "Goblin King" and "Garbage Lady" had buried me in, so to speak, and I discovered that I was a girl on an adventure, called to vital work.  I am a part of an epic story unfolding in real life. And, like Morpheus, I seek to awaken others to the "world pulled over their eyes;" I want to expose the labyrinth so that it can be smashed to pieces with one simple phrase, "you have no power over me." If there are others out there who are slowly being lulled into a forgetful state of amnesia or anhedonia - or worse, addiction - I want to awaken them to the real story, to the battle being waged for our imaginations, our emotions, our energy, our lives.

After a long journey of more than six years, this is what I have discovered: Movies, romance novels, fiction, pornography - they all provide things we don't need, things that aren't real, all the while trying to convince us that they were what we really wanted all along, that they are somehow satisfying or fulfilling - perhaps even more so than real life, real love, real experience, real relationship. And the more we listen, the more we give them our time, energy, and emotional investment, the more it seems true, and the more we slip into anhedonia, an emotional amnesia that makes us forget who we are and what is really good. We don't know how to be in the real world anymore - and worse - we don't find the real world to be beautiful or fulfilling - or worse and worse - we become forces of destruction on those beautiful and fulfilling things, and we end up sick and dehydrated. Hopefully at that point we start to crave living water. But sometimes we stop feeling even that vital stirring for something more.

Now, if you are just someone who enjoys pop culture, movies, and books; if you don't think you pay a price for your movie-going, your tv watching, your pornography use, your over-stimulation, your emotional - or literal - masturbation; if you don't have a lack of emotional resources, investment, or energy; if you don't have to deal with anxiety, disconnection, depression, broken relationships, doing things you don't want to do, or a life that isn't all that you hoped it could be; if you aren't missing something or haven't forgotten something, or are simply happy right now where you are, then, honestly, praise God! This message isn't for you. It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick!

If, however, you are poor, blind, enslaved, broken, empty, inadequate, lame, or just left with a nagging sense that you were made for so much more; if you think you might suffer from a strange amnesia or a subtle anhedonia, then my message to you is this...

Remember! Remember who you are and what the story is really about. Set aside the video games, the novels, the movies, the tv shows and come play outside, come sip of life, come and participate in the story God is telling and find real freedom, come find that which truly satisfies. Embark on a process of UNdoing what has been done, a process of RElearning what feels good, what is enjoyable and pleasing and beneficial.  Come, feel again, but not the emotional highs and lows of over-stimulation; come and feel the subtle beauties of just being alive. Come and learn how to love, connect, and tolerate unhappy feelings!

"Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.

Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and your soul will delight in the richest of fare."

Isaiah 55:1-2


  1. Thank you this is such a great post! The bible verse at the end says it all - wow. Found this via your comment on Relevant! :)

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Thank you for your thoughts!