Slow with Liquor

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

Nelsan Ellis, known to most as the character Lafayette Reynolds, a gay, V-dealing short-order cook, medium, cousin to Tara Thornton, and friend to Sookie Stackhouse on the series True Blood, died July 8th, 2017 of a heart attack. More specifically, Ellis died of complications following heart failure due to alcohol withdrawal syndrome.

Ellis, who, in real life, had a wife and two young children, was only 39 years old when his attempt to put down the bottle killed him.

I can’t claim to know the full extent of Ellis’ alcohol abuse, or whatever other factors might have contributed to his untimely death. But the thought that his efforts to end an addiction to alcohol was what ultimately killed him should give us all pause.

Lafayette with a drink

Ciao, bitches!  Ellis has left the building.

The good ol’ U.S. of A. still has a massive alcohol problem, in terms of use, perception of use, and understanding of impacts. Sure, we’ve gotten all M.A.D.D. and managed to sharply decrease drunk driving—or, rather, to at least make drunk driving illegal and unacceptable—for the most part. Still, almost a third of all deaths in automobile accidents involve alcohol.

President Trump’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis raised a big stink about declaring opioid addiction a national public health emergency, citing a 142-deaths-per-day figure for deaths by drug overdose (which includes all unintentional drug overdoses, not just OD by opioids, which sits at 91 per day for 2015).

And while opioid abuse has been climbing towards alarming, our nonchalance about alcohol abuse is still confounding.

If you look at deaths in the United States directly attributed to alcohol, they are at about the same level annually as deaths by gun (including both homicides and suicides), or annual deaths in automobile accidents–or right around 80 deaths per day.

But when you factor in all the deaths involving alcohol…those primarily attributed to alcohol (diseases, alcohol poisoning, and such), and those deaths where alcohol was a significant factor (car crashes, suicides, homicides, all other forms of accidents involving alcohol) then the total number of alcohol-related deaths rises to over 230 per day (albeit, intruding on other categories of death).

But how many of us, in our puritanical, cold-turkey, I-can-quit-anytime-I-want culture of addiction-denial and personal responsibility even realize that heart failure from alcohol withdrawal is a thing?

Sure, we’ve seen movies, TV shows, and even documentaries depicting the horrific sickness and potential death that comes from withdrawing from opiates–“kicking” heroin being a dramatic staple of drug addiction stories. But how often do we see any depictions of the danger of alcohol withdrawal, or any kind of realistic portrayal of the dangers of alcohol use and abuse?

As a culture we celebrate drunkenness and binge-drinking…until we don’t.

Think of a recent comedy you’ve seen, or at least a recent R-rated comedy. If it had scenes involving alcohol, what happened in those scenes, and what messages were conveyed? I’d venture a guess that the messages included the idea that binge drinking is, at its least problematic, an awesome escape from life stressors, just a way to cut loose and have fun; and that at increased levels, binge drinking is still pretty hilarious—leading to some wildly comedic pratfalls and other scenarios involving what would probably be fatal, or at least permanently-disabling, head injuries—all played for laughs.

Moving beyond such comedic depictions, chronic, excessive drinking might become marginally less comical over the course of a film. But, ultimately, movies tend to show us that people who chronically drink are able to get it together and turn their lives around in the space of a montage, or perhaps following a heart-felt speech from a loved one. Think Trainwreck, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, How to be Single, or maybe as far back as Knocked Up—I could go on and on, and back through decades of movies. But at least I now realize that I spend a ridiculous amount of time watching comedies on DirecTV.

Such messages of hilarity are typically upended in more ‘serious’ fare, like Flight, starring Denzel Washington, or Crazy Heart, starring Jeff Bridges. Or, at least they’re sort of upended.

In Flight, Denzel’s character, Whip Whitaker, saves (most of) an airplane full of people by flying while wasted, then tries to quit, but relapses, then corrects the alcohol relapse with cocaine, in order to become jury-pleasing honest and speak beautiful truths.

In Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges’ character, Bad Blake, realizes what a disappointment he’s become, and we flash forward from Blake staggering off stage to throw up massive quantities of Jack Daniels between alleyway dumpsters and nearly losing a friend’s child in a mall, to several months later when he is clean and sober, and everything is hunky dory—except that he doesn’t get the ‘girl’ who is about half his age.

Beyond just Hollywood portrayals, think of how you, and other people you know–friends, family, co-workers, online acquaintances–talk about alcohol. A stray comment about the urgency of a drink to take the edge off some negative experience. Expressing a desire to wash away the workday with a bottle. An impending vacation where one intends to aggressively day-drink, evening drink, and late-night drink.  Drinking memes suggesting alcohol is just a comically enjoyable part of life.

I don’t mean to get all holier-than-thou. I’m more-than-guilty myself…of the drinking, of the denial, of the comments and laughter about, at, and around drunkenness. I’ve got no end of irresponsible drinking stories to spin—going back decades. As a matter of fact, I’m currently nursing a vicious bacon-grease burn that was birthed into this world by the midwifery of a bottle of Kirkland brand vodka.

And I don’t want to suggest we all drop our sense of humor.  Just maybe stop and think about it awhile.  When drinking is played for laughs, or treated as just something we all do, how much longer does it take anybody to get serious about problem drinking? How much easier is it to stave off the idea that maybe we should tone down the booze intake?

I also don’t want to imply that Hollywood is responsible for anybody’s personal decisions and habits. However, we as a culture endorse a lot of pro-booze, and pro-binge-drinking messages, while slapping a little “drink responsibly” disclaimer in tiny letters and hushed tones, after our big, bold cries of, “Hold my drink! Woooooooo!”

On the other hand, we portray opioid abuse as a disturbing descent into hell, and a national emergency.

Perhaps that’s because, except when alcohol abuse results in a sudden, accidental death, or the relatively rare withdrawal-based-heart attack like that suffered by Ellis, death by alcohol is often a long, slow process, while opioid OD seems much more shocking, short-term, and immediate. We’re allowed to see alcohol abuse as amusing…something people might grow out of after a few (or a few years of) wild exploits, whereas opioid abuse seems like a wholly disturbing, sudden collapse into hopelessness.

But we need to look at whether those perceived differences are real, or just a matter of cultural acceptance versus cultural rejection, normalization versus novelty, and indifference versus shock. We, as good ol’ Americans, enjoy our drugs, and, like all things American, X-treme is where it’s at!  Be that a quick-and-painless death by extreme, or a decades-to-death extreme.

So, I’ll just bring this all to a close with a quote from Ellis’ character, Lafeyette…

“All the shit I done in my life – the drugs… the sex… the web site. I did it so my life wouldn’t be a dead-end, and this is where I end up. Now what kind of punchline is that?”

Or perhaps just…

“Ciao, bitches.”

(Drink responsibly, and all that…there are plenty of ways to find help, like via your insurance company, or https://www.aa.org , where you can find local meetings…not that I’m endorsing any particular source of help or another…call 211 or a local crisis line if you want to look for some other options…crisis line locator at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/our-network/ or perhaps https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help –the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, where “find help” is even in the name of the link).

 

Escaping the Groundhog Trap

by

J.C. Schildbach, LMHC

I’m not a big fan of Groundhog Day—the holiday or the movie.

As a kid, the holiday just confused me. Why a groundhog? Can’t you just see if you cast a shadow yourself? Or if a bush, a stone, a dog…anything casts a shadow? I wondered at the particular properties of groundhogs, and why their shadows might be somehow different than those of any other thing on the planet. I suppose I never quite felt like anybody adequately explained the magical properties of particular varieties of burrowing rodents for me to really get behind the holiday or its alleged meaning.

The lack of a real explanation is one of the things that keeps me from enjoying the movie, Groundhog Day as well. What caused this to happen? And why is the resolution what it is? What would make any magical powers of time control so interested in getting Bill Murray’s character, Phil, together with Andie MacDowell’s character, Rita? Perhaps a resident of Punxsutawney is one of the aliens from Edge of Tomorrow who accidentally infected Phil with the time control powers. But that can’t be it, because then Phil would’ve had to die every day, and he only died on some of those days.

Beyond that, the movie just follows the theme of so many movies from the 1980s about how great small-town America is, and how some cynical guy from the big city needs to learn to appreciate that. As for Murray’s arc in the movie, it’s rather similar to Scrooged.

The audience is also expected to root for Phil to ‘get the girl,’ even after he uses his powers of time repetition to manipulate one of the local women into sleeping with him, and then trying to manipulate Rita into falling for him by pretending to like everything she likes—information he gathers from her in conversations she will never remember.

Ultimately, Phil has to get through one day being kind and helpful, rather than acting like his usual, egocentric self (but, again, why is this the resolution—and would it really matter whether Rita decided she liked him or not?). But that last, single day of generous Phil doesn’t feel much different from the videogame-style resets that go on through the rest of the movie, or in Edge of Tomorrow, and hardly seems like a long-term change to his character as much as it feels like him resigning himself to being a decent human being for one day if he ever wants to get out of Punxsutawney. How is his decency not just more manipulation—another possible route out of the repetition he is trapped in?

Many people have labeled Phil’s situation in Groundhog Day an “existential dilemma” or otherwise termed the movie as existentialist. Properly speaking, though, if Phil’s was an existential problem, he wouldn’t have a long period of being able to make whatever decisions he wanted with no thought, responsibility, or consequences at all, only to be pushed into making the “right” decisions–as judged by whatever power kept him perpetually trapped in Punxsutawney on a particular day–until he did what was deemed correct by that power and the “spell” was broken. He would be responsible for whatever he did, and nothing would compel him to do anything.

groundhog drive

The most important lesson of all–Don’t drive angry.

Still, it’s something of a tribute to Groundhog Day, the movie, that it has become synonymous in our culture with repetitive behavior or situations. And it is perhaps the fantasy that we could relive a particular day until we did it right, managing to impress everyone around us, and connect with our one true love in the process (as well as the opportunity to indulge in a great deal of irresponsible behavior along the way), that has led it to this level of popular recognition. Or perhaps it’s the underlying idea that we are trapped by our own behaviors in repetitive cycles, and that we can change ourselves in order to achieve a better life—along with the wishful notion that we need to be good people if we really want to get what we want.

After all, the idea of breaking out of repetitive cycles and habits, or perhaps of creating better habits and repetitive cycles, along with being better people…good people…our best selves, is what underlies much religion, philosophy, and, yes, therapy.

We all struggle through our own behavioral patterns, habits, and the potential sameness of our days, the rut of weeks, months, seasons, and years. But no bizarre fluke of time is going to trap us in a loop and push us to do things differently and become better people, or pursue what we want. That’s on us.

Whatever I might think of him, Phil found out that it wasn’t a groundhog, or the celebration that surrounded a groundhog’s shadow, that was at the core of his problem. Rather it was his own shadows, the darkness he threw out into the world.

So maybe Groundhog Day is the perfect time to look around at our own shadows and what they say about our forecasts—how much more winter we may have in store—and then think about what, if anything, we want to do to change that.

Happy Groundhog Day.

 

Three Frightening Movies that Aren’t Traditional Horror, or Suspense, or…

Well, Halloween is over, but who cares? You can still keep on scaring yourself, right? Only, rather than the usual gore and mayhem, how about some unsettling horror, the kind that makes you question the reality of the movie, it’s characters, and your own thought processes?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of the traditional monsters-and-bogeymen (bogeypeople?) style of horror. But sometimes it’s good to be scared by things that aren’t quite so over-the-top. And speaking of over-the-top, you’re probably already irritated with all the ‘Early Black Friday’ specials and the ‘Holiday’ ads anyway.

The movies listed here also get at some small bit of what it is/might be to cope with various forms of mental illness, or to deal with others who are struggling with it. They spotlight what it is like to be unsure about what is happening, and to have a difficult time understanding what constitutes legitimate forms of support. These are movies that cause a tightness in your chest, and not the kind that is alleviated by the next hissing cat springing out of a cabinet, or garden tool splitting open some body part or other.  They carry with them the kind of dread that has a real impact.

And I’m going to say there’s probably a good chance that these movies should come with some trigger warnings, in case that’s not obvious from the descriptions.

Safe (1995): From Todd Haynes, writer/director of Velvet Goldmine, I’m Not There, and Far From Heaven, Safe sees Julianne Moore as Carol White, a woman who, after much confusion from a wide range of medical, mental health, and ‘other’ providers, is diagnosed with Environmental Illness, a disease that makes her hypersensitive to various chemical agents that are common in everyday life in modern American.

But is she really suffering from anything, or is the disease a physical manifestation of the sheltered nothingness her life has become? The only people who claim to understand her and her disease have clear motivations for convincing her she’s sick, while those who tell her she’s fine seem to lack any concern for her whatsoever.

As much an indictment of the “American Dream” of being completely carefree (there’s no such thing as “safe”), as it is of various forms of mental and physical healthcare, and the lack of clear, irrefutable knowledge to address all maladies (despite ‘professional’ claims to the contrary) Safe will have you clearing your throat, checking your temperature, wondering just what that smell is, and…wait, that’s probably not the best way to encourage anybody to watch a movie.

Safe is a bit difficult to track down. They don’t have it available on Netflix in any format, and Amazon only has it for sale as a DVD or Blu-Ray. Here’s a trailer (that kinda sucks)…

Affliction (1997): Written and directed by Paul Schrader (writer of Taxi Driver, and writer and/or director of numerous other impressive works), based on a novel by Russell Banks, Affliction sees Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte) descending into unreality, or perhaps hyper-reality, during what should be the routine investigation of a hunting accident. Having grown up in the shadow of an abusive father, played in frightening fashion by James Coburn, Wade never quite makes it out into the light that might help him establish some reliable sense of self.

An occasionally brutal meditation on familial abuse, PTSD, and other forms of trauma, this one is a slow crawl over gravel, peppered with the occasional hot coal. It’s available right now streaming or by disc on Netflix, as well as on Amazon Prime.

Here’s a trailer (that isn’t all that bad…)

Take Shelter (2011): From Jeff Nichols, also writer/director of Mud, Take Shelter stars Michael Shannon, aka General Zod and numerous other amazing roles, as Curtis, a man convinced that tornado season is bringing something much more sinister than twisters. Curtis jeopardizes his job, his financial security (including money saved for a cochlear implant for his daughter), his friendships, and his marriage to Samantha, played by Jessica Chastain, to build a storm shelter that can keep his family safe from not only storms, but perhaps the end of the world.

Nichols keeps the audience off balance by providing plenty of information that is clearly accurate, or at least witnessed by people other than Curtis, and also including a number of elements we can’t be so sure of. Is Curtis the only one alert to the signs of danger all around? Or is he suffering a breakdown of some kind?

Take Shelter is currently available via disc on Netflix, via Amazon or AmazonPrime in multiple formats, and on Starz—both on-demand and in the regular schedule.

Here’s a trailer (which is pretty darn good)…

So, happy no-longer-Halloween season. And remember, Thanksgiving and Christmas are still a good, long way off…as well as being great times to share disturbing films with family and friends.