Ever since I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with fictional characters.
When I was eight, my dad took me to see Titanic and I fell in love with Rose and Jack. I sobbed when they said to goodbye to one another and when they were reunited in Rose’s dreams. I wished I could find someone to love me that way.
When I was 13, I discovered Star Trek. I met Vulcans, who could teach themselves to crush down and bury every emotion, and I wished I could do the same when things got too tough to handle.
In college, I opened the dusty pages of Richard III in my English textbook. I saw how anger and bitterness could twist a person and drive them to the edge, and I thought I could understand how pain could make someone want to lash out, even though I couldn’t condone it.
When I was 24, I took my sister to see The World’s End and followed Gary King, a man who had never seemed to grow out of his wild teenage years. He was an alcoholic, a drug addict, and seemingly a complete and utter screw-up. While his friends were able to grow up, move on past their teenage whims, and join society, Gary rejected all these notions and lived his life in desperate search of a way to capture the happiness of his youth. He puffed himself up, playing off his wild and crazy life style as ideal and free, only to have alcohol and his old childhood friend slowly strip away his armor to expose the pain, depression, and utter loneliness he was actually fighting. In Gary, I saw something that captivated me even more than the majesty of the Titanic or an emotionally repressed Vulcan.
I saw myself.
Anxiety and depression have always been a part of my life. There were days, and still are days, when they drag me down to the point that I feel I’m being pressed under some enormous weight I can’t remove. Some days, the anxiety preys on every weakness and self-doubt and makes it impossible to calm down. Distractions like alcohol or self-harm may work for a moment, but they only leave me feeling even more broken and hurt once that moment passes. Last year, for the first time, I started to believe there would never be anything better on the horizon and started trying, desperately, to look for an escape.
My friends, my family, my teammates on my hockey and softball teams—they cared about me and I knew it. But it was hard to really make myself care when I knew that I didn’t care about me. It took a lot for me to start trying to believe I was worth saving—and honestly, a lot of motivation came from that messed up, damaged, and fictional soul named Gary King.
In Gary, I saw someone who had traveled the same path I was on. He puts on his goofball, cocky armor, and it fools a lot of people, but underneath he is a broken man who can’t cope with his issues. As the movie progresses, he is forced to face these issues and find a way to move in another direction to keep himself alive. It isn’t the direction people expect, nor one society wants him to take, but once he starts on his way, you can see the change in him. He genuinely appears happy—not distracted, not drunk, not repressed—happy. He was a fictional character in a fictional world, but his struggle and his redemption felt incredibly and painfully real to me.
The fictional worlds we create for ourselves and for others do a lot more than simply entertain us. On the Titanic I discovered a desire for love, and on the Enterprise I realized that trying to turn off or bottle up negative emotions I couldn’t handle wasn’t working and would never work. Richard made me fear for what my anger and my bitterness could make me do, and Gary King held up a mirror to the pain I was trying to hide. I couldn’t go on living like my anxiety and depression didn’t exist, but I couldn’t let it rule my life either. It wasn’t enough to try to fight back for others; I had to fight back for me and find my own happiness. Maybe it took hearing that advice from the mouth of a fictional character for me to see its rationale, but what matters is that I finally believed it.
I am fortunate enough to be surrounded by a lot of caring and loving people who want to help me. Community is a vital part of anybody’s recovery process. But sometimes, no matter how sincere people are, I worry that I will rely on them too much or cease to be my own person, or that once they see who I really am under my class clown exterior, they will decide that a friendship with me is too tough to handle. These are issues I am working through, slowly but surely, but right now I still need a little bit of help. Sometimes, a fictional character going through the same things can provide more comfort than a real person who hasn’t been there. Movies, TV shows, and books don’t just provide a fun escape from the real world; they help me survive it.
For me (and for many others), fictional worlds often provide clues to who I am and what I can do. I’ve found that I can’t hide from myself, no matter how much I might want to. I’ve found connections to people I can never meet outside of the movie screen or the pages of a book, but somehow they can play a real role in my everyday life.
Counseling, mental health resources, medication, community—these are all brave and important approaches to recovery. But if you’re looking for more reasons to keep going, it might help to keep watching and keep reading along the way.