Monday, May 03, 2021

Distorted reflection

It’s not unusual to see ourselves or aspects of our lives reflected in pop culture—movies, songs, and, maybe especially, TV. It’s never a perfect mirror, but it can still help us see things we might otherwise miss, just as a dirty shop window might let us see that our collar is sticking up.

All of which is a way to acknowledge that we shouldn’t take something we see on TV as being truly reflective of our lives and our realities, however, it also means we may find something that’s useful. Exactly that recently happened to me

One evening last week I was channel surfing, and one of the NZ broadcast channels was showing a UK TV programme broadcast here as Hoarders. In that episode, a 64 year old gay man was in need of help for the second time in eight years, and we learn his hoarding problem was a result of the depression that followed the death of his partner from cancer, something that happened quickly: “There wasn’t enough time to think about what was happening,” he said. He also explained that afterward, he’d start multiple projects—sewing, crocheting, etc., “but instead of finishing one, I’d start another one, and another one, and so on.”

For obvious reasons, this caught my attention. I’m not a hoarder, even if parts of my house are overrun with moving boxes (the garage in particular). On the other hand, I’m also not an “un-hoarder” because I haven’t dealt with the mountains of stuff that was moved here from the last house. It’s true, as I often say, that it’s 24 years worth of stuff for two people, and it’s also true that I don’t have places to put everything (this house is significantly smaller than the last house, which was smaller than the house before that, and stuff was accumulated along the way). But I know damn well that while those are all facts, they’re not the reason I haven’t dealt with the stuff yet.

Which brings me back to the programme. I noticed, especially at the beginning of my grief journey, that I’d sometimes get obsessed with doing projects, like printing out and framing photos of Nigel and me, but it could be absolutely anything, even unusual things (like finding bedside lamps for my guest room). I, too, have found that “instead of finishing one [project], I’d start another one, and another one, and so on.” While there are plenty of projects I’ve finished (including those where I hired someone), there are far more that are incomplete.

It’s quite common for people dealing with deep grief to develop anxiety disorders (something that hoarding is classified as). I know that Nigel’s loss of his partner before me is what led to his anxiety disorder. Recently, I sometimes felt unwell, experiencing systems similar to the heart rhythm issues I’d had before. I checked, and my blood pressure and heart rate were all fine, and my home ECG showed that I wasn’t in afib and didn’t have tachycardia, both of which sent me to hospital in the past. Apparently, I was just feeling anxious, and seemingly for no reason.

One day a couple weeks ago I was feeling that way, but decided to go mow my front lawn, anyway, because it was going to rain that day. After that, I unexpectedly had to go try to capture the neighbours’ dogs who had escaped their yard while their humans were away for the day. This involved a walk around the block, plus another, shorter walk later. And after all that, I felt fine. Because physical activity made my symptoms go away, it reinforced for me the fact that what I was feeling wasn’t heart rhythm problems, but anxiety, something I suspect reared its head because I feel my life is stuck because I miss Nigel so terribly, but especially because I don’t have a clue what’s next for me.

I’m also keenly aware that I continue to fight a war with the naysaying voice in my head that I was talking about in March, but that’s always been there to some extent, kind of like background radiation. Adding that on to the sort of intense ennui that profound grief brings, and even the simple fact that none of the things I “should” be doing around the house, let alone what I could be doing, are even remotely fun without Nigel, and it’s pretty much a recipe for remaining stalled.

I imagine that some of that must’ve been what the man in the TV programme was feeling. He dealt with his loss by hoarding, while in my case it’s been more about not doing things. Like him, I’ve seen that doing something to move forward is one of the best strategies to get past the roadblock.

Unfortunately, I also feel I’m over-medicated, now that my heart rhythm issues seem to be resolved. That leaves me very tired all the time, and I have naps several days a week. Of course, emotions can tire us, too. Despite all that, there are times I manage to shove my way through the exhaustion, like I did that day the neighbours’ dogs got out, and I feel better for it (possibly those released endorphins people talk about).

All of that went through my mind as I watched that programme the other night. I suppose the resonance was a bit stronger because the man they were helping was named Nigel. Whatever the hook was, it helped reflect my own life back to me, and that was a useful thing, even though the reflection was distorted.

Each of us has to find our own way through the life we have and the issues we face. Sometimes we can see ourselves or aspects of our lives reflected in pop culture, and sometimes that can be useful. This time, for me, it was.

*The programme is from UK broadcaster Channel 5, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Viacom, who broadcast it as Hoarder Homes: No Room To Move. This programme is inherently better than the American series called Hoarders— it’s kinder, gentler, and less false-dramatic than the American version (though in my opinion the American programme didn’t start out being as over-dramatic and brutal as it can be now). This particular episode was labelled “Season 1, Episode 4” on the TVNZ on-demand service, but Channel 5 said it was “Series 1, Episode 3”. I have no idea why there’s that difference.


Roger Owen Green said...

I've only seen bits and pieces of the US version of Hoarders, but like most reality shows, I rather hate it. There is a kind of meanness that pervades them all

Congrats on finishing a project. I have the same problem, having a project then interfering with another. One involves seeing all of the International Films on Hulu before it's due to renew, one involves the blog, which is postponing the Wikipedia I promised to do, or the genealogy I promised my sisters I'd work on.

Arthur Schenck said...

I used to watch Hoarders waaaaay back, and it was very different then. They used mental health professionals (psychiatrists and psychologists) who specialised in hoarding to help the person through both the trauma of clearing their hoard and the underlying anxiety disorder. Somewhere along the way the show seemed to switch to relying mostly (maybe entirely?) on the "organising specialist" or whatever to "counsel" the person, and, it seemed to me, they often became angry/annoyed with the sufferer. That gave the episodes a kind of cruel overtone, I thought, the meanness you mentioned.

The British one is very, very different: It's not a freak show and gross-out fest like the American one, but instead, it's a look at human beings who are struggling, and how they're helped through that by dealing with their hoard. The whole tone is both kinder and far more humane—and, I think, human.

I just had a thought about the whole many-projects-to-do thing, and I wonder if my jumping around so much is also why I'm a magpie blogger? Dunno, maybe?