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How I Tried To Escape Reality

To stave off depression and anxiety, I began binge-watching TV. But I could only elude the pressures of the real world for so long.

April 21, 2017
How I Tried To Escape Reality Photo by Al Ibrahim / Courtesy Flickr / Creative Commons

“I’m fine” is the biggest lie I’ve ever told. This truth became evident when, time and again, I fell short of achieving unrealistic personal goals, which were erroneously interpreted as “failure.” When I eliminated my work-life balance as a result, burning the candle at both ends to live up to this ridiculous ideal. When I isolated myself from friends and family, convinced my energy was toxic. When my brain started feeling like a browser window with too many tabs open and life started feeling like a labyrinth of unfinished tasks.

In recent years I’ve had difficult discussions with friends that confirmed a common theme for people who battle depression and anxiety: that it feels like being held captive by your own mental state. This solitary confinement magnifies the difficulty of seemingly routine tasks. You create invisible barriers, spending more time avoiding things than it would take to actually address them. You go weeks without buying groceries because the thought of waiting in a checkout line is exhausting. You wait until the last minute to pay bills you have the money to cover for several months at a time. Getting out of bed at a reasonable hour on weekends is a struggle because you can’t decide how to maximize the precious days off. Sending an email suddenly warrants a SWOT analysis. The most damning truth about this mental space is that it’s of your design.

Couple this with the demands of the world, which asks so much of us now. For me, the Trump administration’s stranglehold over the news cycle has become a continuous loop of torture porn — and it can be a struggle to disengage completely. But I do try, despite the need to be accurately informed about the regular, Biblical plague-like attacks on our liberties. Still, it conflicts with a desire to detach from the information free-for-all erupting on every social media platform. I feel at odds with my necessity for self-care. The burden of facing everything with my chin up and toes down, despite unabating hurdles, only intensifies feelings of despair. Which is why, for me, when straining to be conscious of everything purees the psyche, sometimes the best way to manage constant unease is keeping a healthy distance.

To best keep the world at bay, and of all the ways to cope with my mind playing tricks on me, I chose an all-you-can-stream buffet of Peak TV.

During childhood, I searched for happiness in fiction, watching shows like Martin and X-Men: The Animated Series, and often dove into Ann Cameron’s book series, The Stories Julian Tells. But adulthood brings its own set of problems and so I’ve found diversional solace in the current smorgasbord of TV programming. Between streaming services, premium channels, and network television, there’s an overabundance of shows, limited-series dramas, films, comedy specials, and documentaries to get lost in. But where others see a bottomless abyss, I see an opportunity to immerse myself in the winding narratives of other people’s lives.

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Submerging myself in plot twists and the details of other people’s realities can’t be the way to elude my own.

Be it the sordid family ties of Bloodlines or the blaxploitation-tinged respectability politics of Luke Cage, consuming a full season of Netflix originals in a weekend is no task. Mad Men is every bit the “white upper-middle-class historical fantasy” critic Matt Zoller Seitz described, but remains an undeniably vivid archive of the glory days of my career in advertising for whenever I feel the urge to research. I’ve basked in a more relatable source of nostalgia by rewatching Debbie Allen’s Cosby Show spinoff, A Different World, which chronicles undergrad growing pains at a fictional historically black college inspired by institutions like my alma mater, Howard University. There are also an array of documentaries to dig into, like HBO’s Scientology polemic Going Clear.

I did anything to divert from this distorted perception of reality where returning a phone call felt like some great cross to bear. But for all of its therapeutic rewards, the fact remains: this isn’t merely an opportunity to immerse myself in the lives of other people; it’s a way to escape.

No matter how you style it, escapism pivots on the circumvention of reality. Some people seek refuge at the bottom of empty liquor bottles; some smoke and snort their pain away. Some shuttle between doomed relationships out of fear of being alone; others dodge commitment and potential heartbreak through casual sex. Bingeing indicates excess, and overindulgence — in carbs, Hennessy, cocaine, sex, or episodes of Breaking Bad — is simply flight from the world’s unpalatable truths. For me, streaming services and premium TV are an equivalent to designer drugs. And although I can’t shed responsibility for my actions, I’d be remiss not to acknowledge how the world pushed me to the edge of tolerance.

America’s turbulent racial dynamics and a lifetime of discrimination, ranging from microaggressions to unabashed bigotry, leaves black people with PTSD from nothing more than existing. And if we zoom in, the equally volatile political space only amplifies the stress. Bold, underlined white supremacy-as-policy is rearing its hideous face once again. This presents obstacles, mental and tangible, that threaten to further impede the upward mobility of the historically disenfranchised. And it all plays out while succeeding against the odds has emerged as yet another threat to black people’s well-being — something the world has never cared about.

Some weeks ago, after considering the potential domino effect of Trump’s Syrian airstrike, I pulled the plug. Instead of preoccupying myself with the second new Dave Chappelle stand-up special, Deep in the Heart of Texas: Dave Chappelle Live at Austin City Limits, I opted for a conversation with a friend. In our discussion, I was reminded that our one-to-one connection can’t be found in my Netflix queue — even when someone breaks the fourth wall. Even when it feels like a comic is speaking directly to me.

Binge-watching, on its surface, isn’t unhealthy. It does, however, become harmful when it treads toward complete evasion. Submerging myself in plot twists and the details of other people’s realities can’t be the way to elude my own. It’s a fleeting high, anyway. Netflix’s “Are you there?” prompt is a totem that never fails to bring me back to reality, where accomplishments don’t equate to happiness and the pressure to meet some unattainable level of excellence — to mirror a difficult TV genius in the mold of Don Draper, or Hank Moody, or Walter White — only leads to a dead end. Yes, I’ve become well-acquainted with 3 a.m.’s dead calm to meet deadlines. Yes, the world issues constant, aggressive reminders that the color of my skin could be the cause of my death, but blowing through series after series in exile solves nothing long-term. After all, life still continues at the end of every season.

How I Tried To Escape Reality