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Remember Roller Coasters Repeat

July 18, 2018
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‘Hersheypark’ by robert burakiewicz via Flickr.com

This weekend I watched all five of the movies in the Twilight saga. Twice. I loved them. Yes, I understand their flaws. They’re like mental junk food that I don’t feel guilty for enjoying them.

But today at work, I’m still obsessing. I honestly want to go home and watch them again, or read the books again. Or find something else, another book or television show or movie equally emotionally intense.

This is not normal. This is interfering with my work. And I recognize it, though it’s a pattern I believed I’d outgrown with maturity and discipline. I’d also previously associated it with being stressed, depressed, and/or lonely. Now I’m not entirely sure what it is.

I started the month of June relatively content to walk the dog, write, and putter around the house. I confined my consumption of media to a few non-fiction books and television in the evenings. However, as the month progressed, I noticed a trend towards the memoir over the other books and more hours spent in front of the television.

This weekend, after Colin left to visit his father in California, I fell down the rabbit hole. I mainlined the final seasons of the show I’d started earlier in the week. When that was over, I ping-ponged between trying new series in which I was not yet emotionally invested and returning to reruns that I knew I enjoyed but now found a little stale.

That’s when Twilight popped up in my recommendations. I’d read the books years ago at the suggestion of my father, who has a broad taste in media that includes the perpetual 12-year-old girl, while also being a 67-year-old man who loves football and action movies. I even went to the first couple of movies with him in the theaters, before I moved away. I remember snort-laughing inappropriately when the main rival for the affections of the heroine unnecessarily removes his shirt in what I’m certain was intended to be a major new romantic plot twist that everyone saw coming from the start. I never had any interest into seeing how the others turned out until this weekend.

I took advantage of my newfound free time and empty house to indulge my whims. I still snorted and laughed at the most serious moments. The (perhaps accidental) psychological allegory about gender relations stood out loud and clear. My inner feminist could write several posts critiquing individual scenes. But I also smiled most of the way through them.

I thought, perhaps naively, that would be the end of this little binge. I’d get it out of my system, become bored of junk food, and welcome a run in the cemetery, errands, some writing, or chores. Nope.

Why am I so attached to this? Where is this craving for emotional intensity coming from? What is it really seeking? And how do I get back on track?

It’s all the more confounding because I’m not an emotionally intense person. I can get worked up, especially around someone I care about and trust, but the vast majority of the time I keep a fairly even keel. I avoided practically all forms of teen drama growing up. I can handle the most fraught professional meetings with reserve and aplomb. I can calmly hold space for stories of trauma and deep suffering.

But throughout my life I have often craved emotional intensity from other sources and usually turned to fiction to satisfy those cravings. And when I say craving, what I’m really talking about is addiction.

I get addicted. In college, I had to go sober from novels. I couldn’t start a novel and then put it down to go do other things. I’d skip homework, then class, then work, until the book (or stars forbid, the series) was finished. Better to go cold turkey while the semester was in session and limit my binging to breaks. After the advent of Netflix and streaming television shows, I had to put some pretty strong restrictions on that, even going so far as asking Colin to put a pass-code lock on the television for a while.

The last real struggle I had with this was in November and December of 2016, as I approached the deadlines for the qualifying exams for my doctorate. We traveled for Thanksgiving and I chose a novel to reread on Kindle during the flights. Rereading and reruns are often “safer” than new media, less addictive. No such luck this time. That novel was the first in an eighteen-book series (which I’d already completely read, for all the good that did me).

I suffered a major setback ahead of my February deadlines and Colin got to witness his first stress-induced meltdown, which I’d always managed to keep private before. I attributed that incident to an anxiety-fueled need to escape from the pressure of exams (which I was completing while working full-time and teaching part-time). With Colin’s support, I managed to pull it back together, pass my exams, and not repeat the incident during my dissertation.

Prior to the incident during exams, I hadn’t had one like that since shortly after moving to California (2010/11) and never with so much on the line or so much on my plate at the same time. However, I recognized the pattern from my years in the college of architecture, where it had often disrupted my design projects and even interfered with my ability to complete graduate school (before I changed my life path to become a chaplain). I likewise attributed those incidents to stress, isolation, and the final one to burnout.

There may be a link to stress in the chain of causation. As I’ve gotten better at managing my own stress, incidents have certainly decreased and also become less intense and easier to recover from. I attribute much of this to my Buddhist practice. Which leaves me all the more perplexed today.

Is this something hormonal? Something to do with chemical balances of neurotransmitters? Is it some kind of cyclical brain disorder? Is there an unacknowledged source of stress or dissatisfaction in my life I need to address?

And, perhaps most importantly, regardless of cause, what do I do about it? Is this just something I have to ride out? Are their better mental techniques to cope with this? Should I seek a professional? Maybe I just need to spend more time around real people?

Most of the diagnostic guidelines in the DSM for mental disorders include the criteria “interferes with everyday functioning” (or something similar) for a specified period of time, usually for longer than a couple of weeks. When does my little addiction to emotional intensity rise to that level?

I’m still going to work. I’m not staying up all night. I’m eating and showering and I went grocery shopping yesterday. But it’s clearly at a reduced level of functioning. It’s harder to focus and I’m missing steps here and there.

Another thing my Buddhist practice improves is awareness of my own mental/emotional state, so when I’m obsessing over something I can see it quite clearly. Often I can intervene, especially when it’s my own life circumstances that get me upset, but this is different somehow. It feels more like being under the influence of a drug or a hormone induced mood swing (ladies who’ve had trouble with birth control will get me on this one). It feels like an external force acting on me and less within my realm of control than my own emotional reactions to events generally are.

Nor does this feel like just another attachment I can put down. I’ve successfully let go of all sorts of things using Buddhist training. I’ve opened my fingers, but the damn thing’s glued to my hand.

Writing about what is going on can often bring new clarity or create new directions. It’s how I let go of or see through what’s troubling me. Writing about this just seems more documentary than anything. Twelve-hundred words in and I’m no closer to a solution than when I started, though there is catharsis in laying it out so plainly.

I would guess that this incident has been gaining ground since late June and is now reaching a new level in mid-July. I’m not entirely sure how long it will continue, but based on previous patterns, I expect it to lessen by early August.

Meantime, I’ve thankfully little on my plate aside from work. If I wanted to queue up Edward and Bella and Jacob for a third run at this supernatural love triangle tonight, there’s no reason I couldn’t or even shouldn’t really. (Except that Colin is home now and it would probably drive him nuts. Our taste in entertainment has never been a perfect match, but this is a whole new level.)

For now, my entire strategy boils down to repeating “Keep it together, Monica” in my head as I try, again, to focus on work. In that way, it’s just like returning to the breath over and over again during meditation. “Keep it together, Monica. Read that email thoroughly before replying. Double check the meetings on your calendar. Prepare your agendas. Go to the gym. Just keep it together during the day.”

In the addiction world they refer to this strategy as “harm reduction.” If you can’t stop drinking, just drink less. If you can’t stop using, just use on weekends or under supervision. (It’s a controversial strategy, so don’t try this at home without professional advice if you have a substance addiction.)

I don’t think the magnitude of my craving for emotional intensity is comparable to what it’s like to be an alcoholic or drug addict. But there are many psychological parallels. In a way, I guess you could say I’m having a relapse.

Mindfulness and various tricks from the panoply of psychological intervention acronyms (CBT, DBT, ACT, or BSFT) help me keep it together. I’m actually not that worried about it yet. The stakes are so much lower this time around, so I’m just watching the situation with curiosity more than anything else. If I kept it together through my doctorate, I suspect I can manage this. (Maybe with help from Stephanie Meyer.)

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