There are people who can cheer themselves up by a conscious choice to feel differently. Some people can listen to happy music to influence their internal state, for example, or watch an uplifting movie. It never occurred to me to try this until I found out that other people did it, and when I did try, it never worked. Listening to something happy when I’m not feeling happy is the emotional equivalent of trying to eat ketchup on ice cream. The clash of “flavors” is so dissonant that it actually makes me feel worse. Trying to listen to some happy pop music when I’m depressed is, I have found, a surefire way to either make it all worse or just piss myself off.
But, I have found a different means of altering my emotional state…
Stephen King famously said that horror “feeds the alligators of the mind”, and I think he’s on to something. The dissonance produced when I try to consume happy media while unhappy is painful. But I’ve found that if I consume something that matches how I feel, my mood is ameliorated. It’s as if I and my environment stand on opposite ends of an old-fashioned balance. If I place something on the other end of the balance that doesn’t match my mood, I just sink deeper. But if I put something there that matches my mood, then the balance comes even. Some sort of equilibrium is reached, and I experience a release of tension.
Let me give you an example. During my early 20s, which was a rather dark period in my life, I frequently struggled with depression and suicidal ideation. I wasn’t depressed all the time (depressed people seldom are) but experienced it as something that came in waves. During one particularly harrowing episode, I remember laying on a couch in a basement. The lights were off and I was curled up in a ball, looking for some way to stop the existential nausea I was feeling.
All of the sudden, for no apparent reason, I had a bizarre idea. I had heard of a short story in the horror/sci-fi genre called I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, by Harlan Ellison. I hadn’t read it, but I had a vague understanding of the premise: five people are trapped inside of a computer that eternally tortures them in a kind of artificial Hell. I followed the sudden compulsion to look the story up online and read it. It was every bit as horrifying as I had heard. It was the kind of story that would be gut wrenching if you read it in a normal mood. And when I finished it, I felt just fine. The “nausea” was gone. The alligators were sated.
Ever since then, this has been a reliable technique for me to alter my emotional state. Feeling anxious? Throw on some Shostakovich. Pissed off at the world? Black metal, please. Wistful in a bittersweet way? Some Lucas Paakh, or perhaps something haunting by Brahms. Horror movies help sometimes, as do the darker shores of fiction. King calls it “feeding the alligators”, but I experience it as something purgative, as if there is some rot in me that needs to be vomited out. Reading the horror or listening to the scratchy borderline atonal string quartet gets rid of something in me that needed to go.
Consuming art is a temporary solution. I’ve found that when I have a long-standing issue, some chronic existential nausea that must be purged, the only viable long term solution is to create. To truly get rid of it, I have to write a story or a piece of music that examines and purges the issue. It’s as if I can get rid of it by making it beholden to consciousness. By giving it shape, I attain mastery of it, the way a sculptor masters a block of marble. As a fairly damaged person, I’ve tried a lot of things to fix my issues: therapy, martial arts, weight lifting, changing my diet, drugs both licit and illicit, alcohol, nicotine. Consistently, I have found that the only thing that really quiets the discord inside of me is to create something that captures it. It’s almost like magic, as if I could trap evil spirits in a dreamcatcher.
This, I think, is common (though not universal) among people whose creative outlet is the written word. Other artistic forms are more active: one gets the sense that a composer imposes his will on sound, bending it until it manifests how he feels. The same goes for the visual arts. Movie directors are famously domineering. But writing, for many people, is a kind of confession. One creates, and it is an expulsive process. But the process is more of a confession than an imperative.