Is what you’re watching making your depression worse?

I was listening to my new obsession, the Buffering the Vampire Slayer podcast, and the co-hosts were talking about what shows they had to stop watching because they were too intense. One of the hosts (I still can’t tell them apart when they’re speaking) said she had to stop watching The Walking Dead because it was too gory. Her co-host then said she had to stop watching Making a Murderer because, in her words, it was “affecting my soul.”

This got me thinking. I talk about the healing power of TV and film all the time, but it stands to reason that anything that can heal can also harm. I love mysteries, but can only take so much gore. Just this year I had to stop watching a BBC production called Penny Dreadful, and as much as I love, worship, and adore Bruce Campbell, I’m still a little afraid to try Ash vs. the Evil Dead.

Then, of course, there’s the legendary X-files episode Home. It was an entire season before I worked up the courage to go back out in the field with Mulder and Scully.

But there are darker, and ultimately more damaging, things than mindless violence. Things less obvious and more insidious — and harder to spot until you notice that your heart is heavier than it was an hour ago.

The question of whether these shows change the culture at large is a bigger issue — and one I’m not prepared to discuss — at least right now. But I strongly believe that people who suffer from anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders must consider the choice of what they watch to be part of their  self-care.

Some shows may nourish, other poison. Some shows bathe you in a nihilistic despair.

And no, I’m not being dramatic.

Twice in recent memory I’ve had to stop watching critically acclaimed shows because their nihilistic worldviews were sucking my essence out, leaving me feeling like a colorless Gelfing from Dark Crystal. I liked both of these shows. They were both mysteries (one of my favorite genres), intelligently written, and brilliantly acted, but they also shared one other characteristic. Neither show had a single character who served as the moral center. In fact, neither one of them even had a character I liked.

The first, Dexter, is about a psychopath who was taught to channel his violent urges into becoming a kind of serial killer with a code — one who only kills bad people. It didn’t bother me that Dexter’s psychopathy was painted as a condition he wasn’t responsible for; Criminal Minds makes me feel sympathy for unsubs all the time. I suffer from a kind of mental illness for goodness sake, so it’s hypocritical to consider mine an illness and his a choice.

Nor did it bother me that I was supposed to root for a serial killer. In his own twisted way, Dexter, who could feel no guilt or love or remorse, tried to live by a moral code the best he could. He didn’t have an internal moral compass, so he had to live by a set of rules written down by someone who did. And he really did try.

My problem was that the rest of the characters, who were supposedly “normal,” were all unlikable jerks. Call me uncool (it wouldn’t be the first time), but I assume that even in a police station, there are a few people who are kind and funny and don’t make me want to run as fast as I can just to get away from the stench.

I made it through two seasons of Dexter on Netflix (which is how I watch everything now), and was ready to start season three, but I couldn’t make myself turn on the television. It was as if my body knew the show was contaminating my soul before my conscious mind did. So I stopped. Just like that. And the iris that had been closing my worldview, making everything gradually darker, slowly reversed itself. I could see again.

The second show I had to stop watching was How to Get Away with Murder. If the characters on Dexter were just unlikable, the people who populated this Philadelphia law school transformed pragmatic self-interest from a character flaw into a religion. The only right and wrong in the tiny universe of these characters was what benefited or harmed them personally.

And the world they lived in loved them for it.

I got through one season of How to Get Away with Murder before my remote hand simply wouldn’t click through to it anymore. Another instance of my body knowing what was best for me before my conscious mind caught up.

I can’t tell you how I know these shows were poisoning me. I do know I felt a little dirtier every time the credits rolled, like I had watched a dog fight and enjoyed it.

Only I hadn’t enjoyed it really.

I felt like I’d been betrayed by art. Like I was living in some alternate universe where Samwise Gamgee’s dialogue had been changed. “There is no good in this world,” he says to Frodo. “And there’s nothing worth fighting for.”

If I truly believe that what we watch can change us for the better (see any episode of BTVS), then I must believe that it can have the opposite effect. And for someone struggling with mental illness, what we watch or read or listen to is an important aspect of self-care.

Trust your instincts and listen to your body. If you feel yourself losing the ability to empathize or wondering if your co-workers are planning a coup, change the channel. There are plenty of films, TV shows, and books that will open your heart instead of closing it.

And I talk about them right here.

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