I’m so happy to be kicking off Mental Health Mondays with a personal essay from someone I really admire. Jaime is a filmmaker and founder of the brilliant Share A Scare campaign, which gives back to some charities.
Thank you to Jaime for feeling able to open up and share his relationship with his self-described ‘cinema warrior’. None of this has been edited by me, it’s just pure, raw emotion and I hope it can help.
TRIGGER WARNING(S): Suicide.
When I sat down the first time to write this essay, I thought it was going to be a piece of cake. I wrote a couple of versions of this, had a great friend look over my work, and it was at that point that things got real. After a lively discussion, I realized that even though I’m ready to talk about it, thinking about my mental health still makes me emotional. I cried while talking this out, and I’m still in tears now as I’m rewriting this for the third time. I’m not sure if the third time will be the charm for me. I’ll count it as a victory if I’m able to just get this out.
From my childhood till now, I’ve struggled with mental health. Even at a very young age, I struggled deeply with self-esteem. I don’t exactly know where it all stemmed from, but at some point I was diagnosed with ADD (a diagnosis I’m still not sure was correct) and through a bad combination of meds, I lost a chunk of my core self for a long time. For those of you who don’t know what a bad combo of meds can do, it’s not something that can be shrugged off. Self-esteem issues evolved into feelings and thoughts of pure hatred toward myself. You’re a failure. You’re so pathetic and ugly. Going into details about this is is like holding a knife against my heart. It brings me all the way back to the time I pressed a small steak knife to my own body when I was about 10. How’s that for a segue?
I’ve never talked about this in detail because I feel it’s silly. I can’t think of a better adjective because it should make me sad, right? Sadness being the highest emotional concept? I’m more embarrassed than anything. At that young age, I stood in the kitchen, with that knife in my hand, the tip of it knocking on the front door of my stomach, craving to hurt myself (or worse) because I thought I was the biggest piece of shit on the planet. You’re no good. You’re a freak. What’s your problem, breathing and all? I remember wanting to give in to those words, and that pain.
What happened next still has my brain tongue-tied, or lobe-tied. The TV was on in the living room; I can’t recall the channel, but this was in the ’90s, when it was a big deal for cable stations to air movies during the day. While I’d been toying with the idea of using that knife on my own body, Batman Returns had started playing. Danny Elfman’s beginning theme snapped something in me, like scissors cutting through a vein clogged with black blood. Have you ever seen a horror movie where someone throws up black blood? Imagine something like that. At the time, at that age, I couldn’t explain it. My desire to see a movie overruled my desire to end my time on this planet.
Reader, I’d like to note that at the time of writing, I had to step away because I just put in words something I’ve never told anyone, ever. What universe is this?
Since that moment in my childhood kitchen, up until just this year when I rebooted my life after going through a divorce, mental health issues have been part of me. The explanation of my mental health’s relationship to cinema feels almost simplistic. I’ve used a projector before as a way to convey the hope movies fill me with, but I had to force myself to interrogate what, exactly, cinema does for my health upstairs.
Honestly, it takes many forms, but there’s one in particular that I’ve noticed the most throughout my life. I’m going to invoke a character from a story I wrote a long time ago when I was in my teens. I think of cinema being in the form of this woman warrior, specifically a knight, in beaten-up armor, with a long sword, and minus any sort of helmet (she doesn’t need it). She’s nameless, tired, and just keeps going.
When you have a brain that’s determined to bring you down, it manifests into ugly forms. A bad immune system, a heightened addiction to a vice (in my case, food), or a determination to make risky decisions. It’s a vicious motherfucker. Your mind is determined to destroy you, one way or another.
That’s when my cinema warrior busts down the door. She wields her sword, fighting with all her strength to vanquish all that fucking anxiety and subdue that depression. Sometimes she fails, as do I, and yeah, when you live with mental health challenges, you’re familiar with failure. But when she wins, she’s won all the times that have counted the most for me. Every single time I had a thought about suicide or an impulse to give up on my dream, I’ve thought about her. In her aspect as a warrior, cinema reaches out to me to bring me back from the deep. She even has the ability to replace negative thoughts with positive ones; thoughts that resonate with perseverance and determination.
I don’t know if there will ever be that magic pill that’ll just banish anxiety, depression, and everything in between. For now, yes, there are meds that can be effective when properly prescribed. For me, the best way to combat anything negative is to have a support system already in place. An ally in the fight. Cinema, in the form of a nameless warrior, is my ally. Cinema is my constant, my motivator, my push, and my love. With her by my side, I know I can make it through each day, even during the worst of times.
If you’re reading this and you have your own bouts with mental health, I hope you have an ally. And if you don’t, ask yourself, what’s the thing that keeps you going? Does that keep the monsters at bay? It’s never absurd or weird when it’s the key to your survival. And remember, you’re not alone. Ever.