TW: Suicidal Ideation, Mental Health
During my inpatient stay, during one particular class – if I can remember this correctly – we talked about music. We talked about how, with music, we often turn on certain songs and tunes to fit our moods; to improve them. In other words, we turn on happy songs to become happier. We turn on energetic songs to amp up. We then talked about how when we turn on sad or painful music, it seldom makes us sadder. Rather, they make us feel comforted, as though we’re being gently held by the melody of the tune.
Depression and anxiety produce many lies. Like a factory line, there’s a routine rotation of falsehoods that permeate the mind, most notably the lie that, “You are alone, no one knows what you feel like, and no one will understand.”. Sad, depressing, painful music, I believe, comforts us because it immediately refutes this lie. American Football hits just right because Mike Kinsella feels like I do sometimes. Igor hits just right because Tyler, the Creator feels like I do sometimes. My Mood playlist on Spotify hits just right because a ton of people out there feel like me sometimes. It breaks down the lie that I’m alone, that I’ll always be different, and that I’ll never be understood.
This idea is what makes me really enjoy Inside, that Bo Burnham uses this musical memoir to log his experience with depression and anxiety. I hurt with him, because even with people and with the outdoors one can still feel alone, different, and misunderstood. I know this because, occasionally before the pandemic and especially during the end of 2020, I routinely imaged myself sitting in a chair with a splayed brain and shattered skull, a shot gun resting on my lap lamely, or perhaps against the floor after the strong blast. I often disassociated and felt like I wasn’t in my own body, like a third-person camera was flying behind me and I was controlling myself from a console or PC game. I slept in despite having stress dreams where sea creatures pulled me underwater, or I angrily yelled at people who made me mad, or people I blamed for all my problems. I would wake up ashamed of my feelings, then drown myself in self-hatred and negative self-talk, followed by toxic coping behaviors that strained my marriage, deteriorated my psyche, and ultimately led me to self-admit to an inpatient program in February. I felt alone, different, and misunderstood.
I am not those three things, I know that now, and I still keep in touch with people from my inpatient program because now that I’m back home, the setting I returned to reminded me of various reasons for why I felt alone, different, and misunderstood. And, in my return home, I started to see another lie in my life that’s been permeating it for years, a lie that, possibly, preceded the lies depression and anxiety produce.
For the last decade and a half, there have been many times I’ve shared my struggle with toxic coping behaviors – with sins – humbly seeking guidance for life-style reformation, and eagerly looking forward to the opportunity to lead a healthy and hopeful life. I yearned to change, I was eager for it, and I’ve even journaled an extensive list of times I sought help from various Christian sources. Throughout this journaling exercise, I learned that both my Christian peers and Christian leaders had seldom understood what to do with me. Routinely, the help I received devolved into, “Read your Bible more.” and, “How’s your prayer life?”. Even during my time visiting pro-church organizations to help with my addictive behaviors there was little difference between the language I heard in one place or the other.
Yet, during my inpatient stay, I experienced something wildly different. Through my education, it was essentially proposed that the life I was living may simply be incompatible with living at all. For, simply being alive is a low-bar for successful living. Sure, the toxic coping behaviors were totally incompatible, that’s a no brainer, but it was also proposed that there were several other factors in my life that produced compounding stress, tension, fears, and misery. And, as these things compounded, I sought ventilation, a release of tension, and this often provides the perfect opportunity for sin to breed. And then, following the trap of sin, shame and guilt permeate to produce suicidal ideation. As mentioned previously, there were times where I was fed up with my sin, the false ventilation it offered, and sought guidance. Yet, the guidance I received was half-baked, a chicken breast cooked under temperature, more willing to give me food poisoning than nourishment. In learning this, it became clear that something needed to change, but I struggled to think it was possible when I returned home to the same place, the same church, the same group of people I had been honest with for a very long time.
The Danger of Preserving the Status Quo
In an interview with Ted Chiang on The Ezra Klein Show, science-fiction author of Arrival, Chiang shares an observation regarding the mythology surrounding Superheroes. Superheroes are inundated with reinforcing the status quo, returning things to normal, rather than pursuing change. To take this observation further, this is observed even conceptually in the decade’s long history of the comic book: Peter Parker is still in High School, still in New York, and even the IP of Spider-Man on the film screen has bizarre and strange restrictions on how he can and cannot be depicted. Largely everything about the mythology of the Superhero is surrounded in preserving the status quo, and not necessarily on improving it.
I believe this other lie is the over-reliance and security perceived by many in the status quo. I bring this up because in observing my own recovery journey, it required profound changes. To put this in perspective, my life was like a sponsor saying to their partner, “Find another route home from work so you don’t pass a liquor store.” Yet, taking binge trips liquor store just to binge drink isn’t the primary problem, it’s a supplemental – yet still sinful – opportunity for deceptively effective and incredibly momentary ventilation from the stress of work, a hateful boss, and coworkers who do nothing but harass them. The true solution in the example isn’t to alter the course home, but to find a new job.
By preserving the status quo of the job, the primary problem this individual faces is not solved. As such, the status quo remains. This individual continues to work the job that slowly kills them, and they, perhaps, find alternative means to alcohol, or maybe indulge a new vice to release the tension. The same could be said if a sponsor directed, “Okay, you struggle with internet pornography. Put some blockers on your browsers.” Meanwhile, their marriage had already been on the rocks, and their children are stubborn, and perhaps someone at their church routinely flirts with them. Soon, this person may not be looking at internet pornography, but their shacking up with a church member on the side because their status quo was never challenged.
My intention in the above examples is not to imply that the moral obligation of the human in addiction or toxic coping behaviors is to consider it sin to still live the same life, or to shame them into pursuing wild life-altering changes in their lifestyle, but rather that, in most cases, the person who endures their toxic coping behaviors is living a myriad of life-style incompatibilities. Case in point, someone I knew struggled against a serious addiction. During my time with them, they had moved, their spouse was having great difficulty persevering in the marriage, the Pandemic was in full swing, their job had increased their work load, they were constantly having to re-up on certifications, and during one encounter I recall them saying, “I just can’t wait until next weekend when we’re on vacation so I can finally rest for a bit.” On top of all of this, their spouse was beginning to experience what may have been panic attacks, although they were still in the process of diagnosing this particular experience.
When I stepped away from this conversation, my first thought wasn’t that they should stop their negative coping behavior (although that’s part of it). My first thought was, “That lifestyle is not compatible for any human being on the Earth.” Moving is one of the most stressful things to go through, and I’ve known of other people who literally never experienced panic attacks until they had moved (consequently, one such person had also started a new job during their move. The compounding stress began flaring via panic attacks at the market, car rides, etc.).
“Jesus”, the Great Preserver of the Status Quo
These experiences and observations all were taking place under the Christian umbrella, simultaneously within the local church, pro-church, and para-church. In each situation, a majority of what I personally experienced, and what I was seeing in others, wasn’t a need to change their life, but simply to hunker down against their sinful behavior and “man-up”, or “meditate on what the Lord thinks about you.” I am against using terminology like the former, but the latter is wonderfully powerful when one can actually experience it. However, it is hard to hear the gentle loving kindness of our Father when one is enamored with an incompatible lifestyle.
In my experience, in my area, Christianity doesn’t seem to understand that mental health issues and toxic coping behaviors are often indicative of a suffering heart. Sure, I had heard it said to me that I was using toxic coping behaviors to self-medicate, but seldom was my heart ever excavated. And, on the chance occasion someone tried, it was excavated to simply say, “That’s where Jesus belongs.” In example, if I were to share that I was having difficulty with someone, then I should look to Jesus and his kindness toward this person primarily for my fuel to be kind back to them. Broadly, this is not bad advice, but intimately, this is terrible advice. There was little recognition that the situation itself may be toxic, and that toxicity was the breeding ground for my soul to pursue toxic coping behaviors. In one such instance, I recall someone interpreting my situation as merely a “worship of comfort”, and that if I wasn’t seeking comfort all the time, maybe then I could endure their relationship. Never did it occur that the relationship, itself, was the problem. As such Jesus was all you needed, because the status quo of the relationship would be more important than setting appropriate boundaries, healthy confrontation, relocation, or even a “time-off”.
Jesus, then, was not someone who changed my life, but returned my life to a status quo. Jesus was a superhero who saved me when I was looking to jump off the edge of a building, but He was never portrayed to me as someone who would walk down the stairwell to hear why I was there. His job was to stop me from sinning, not to become my friend. Both experientially as I engaged Christianity through honesty and humbleness, and as I was taught from biblical leaders, Jesus didn’t have time for me, because really He could only be in one place at a time, and the only reason He would be there was to stop me from sinning. He was never there, really, for me. He was there for the sin. He was there to stop me from dying, but not there to help me live.
Yes, at times this Jesus was a Jesus who would step in and help me “feel better”, drawing me away from my anger, sadness, misery, and pain. Emotions, which at their core are signals, were being converted into moral standing. If I were angry, it was because I was sinning in my heart. If I were sad, it was because I had a lack of faith. If I were filled with misery, it was because I was unsatisfied with my provisions from the Lord. And, if I shared my pain, it was only something to rejoice because suffering made me like Jesus. Thus, again, Jesus was not a friend, nor was He a lover of my soul. He was the hero who flew in to prevent me from sinning. Then, He was gone.
This Jesus, quite literally, was the Jesus that would confirm the deep rooted lies of the enemy. If you were depressed or anxious, you were alone. If you were depressed or anxious, no one knew what you felt like. If you were depressed or anxious, no one will understand. For, how could this Jesus make me feel united to Him, nor knew what I was feeling, nor understand me? He was only there for a moment, to stop me from sinning, and then he was gone. This Jesus did not have time for me, this Jesus did not know me, and this Jesus did not transform me.
This applied and taught philosophy of Jesus is wholly incompatible with Scripture, a Jesus who is less concerned with what is truly going on within an individual, a Jesus who ultimately won’t have time for you because he’s more focused on your sin. No, the true Jesus, evidenced by the book he wrote, is routinely filled with figures who cursed the day they were born (Job blaming birth as the reason for his suffering, Job 3:11-19), wished they would die rather than keep living (Paul’s excruciating attempts to go to Asia which produced in them despair, 2 Corinthians 1:8), and at times questioned their fate (Jesus, Himself, on the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, Matthew 27:46). These pillars of faith – one for whom is the head of all faith – experienced the full array of emotional experiences. These pillars of faith, in their exclamation of what was inside of them, give broad and powerful indicators of a need for change. And, as we observe further in their lives, great change developed and succeeded in their life.
In this emotional freedom, the Lord reminded them they were not alone, that someone knew what they felt like, and that they were understood. The Lord’s love is more than stopping sin, He is love itself, wholly committed to those for whom He loves, countless thoughts of each individual He cares for (Psalm 139:17-18). Such freedom to feel, such freedom to share, such freedom to endure and persevere the sufferings of life. Such freedom am I only now beginning to experience.
Breaking Away from the Status Quo
Now, while misery, pain, suffering, and the responses we have to them are not always sin, and while this truth was encouraged many times by fellow Christians, it was always in service of the status quo. The suffering endured amidst the status quo was like the suffering of childhood, the young one with a skinned knee who merely needed to learn to endure occasional pain. There was little taught in terms of converting this suffering into a form of motivation, or observing this internal turmoil and seeking to understand it as an indicator of things gone awry. If one was upset, angry, or unhappy, it was likely from a bitter, unsatisfied, selfish heart that was not faithful to the Lord’s provision. The invalidation of one’s experience is sorely unfortunate, but what disturbs me most about this is one grand implication: the status quo is always right, and the status quo is the Lord’s will.
Such irony to impart this philosophy among those who are simultaneously taught we are living in a fallen, sinful, broken world. The status quo is not heaven, the status quo is truly of only use as a statistical barometer. It, too, provides indicators of our lives, but it does not demand that we accept it. Otherwise, we convert the status quo of life into an idol, something to be worshipped, something to be gingerly dusted and regularly polished, maintained carefully at the expense of all other provisions and opportunities.
It is then important to meditate on what can be done to change one’s life for the better. What grand situations can be manipulated or altered, within one’s own power, to improve them? This is an extremely difficult task, and as I’ve pondered the life changes I’ve made since returning from my inpatient stay, it’s almost otherworldly to think they were possible. A new job, a new church, a new coterie, and even a new marriage (still the same wife, lol). With so much change, there was a two week period where my exhaustion overcame me. I could barely move from the couch. My wife routinely refilling my tea cup as I rested from emotional debilitation. I had done so much change in my life, so much change I never thought possible, that a wealth of tension in my life had been released. All the emotions, feelings, thoughts, experiences, these ruminations that churned and burned within had been released through, Lord willing, healthy means. The change left me charred in the best possible ways. I could gloriously call what was happening a recovery, and I was soon seeing that life was more than just fighting sin, but actually experiencing what it was like to be someone’s friend, to know there were others like me, and to be understood. The motivation that poured from this experience was palpable, tangible, and as evidently explained above, life changing.
This only became possible because I was overcoming the perpetual and spiritual gaslighting I had been endured for several years. That, by revealing what was inside of me, I could grow beyond what had sorely become my status quo. In being accepted with love, care, compassion, and every fruit of the spirit, I was able to have my life changed rather than simply “saved”.
Life is hard. It is. To ignore our painful responses to a hard life is to ignore a core reason we have feelings. These wonderfully effective God-given indicators, as I learned to engage them appropriately, completely reoriented my life. To actually have my frustration, anger, sadness, pain, and suffering validated, and to be encouraged to change them for the better, to do so out of faith, and to be able to live; what a wonderfully freeing experience.
It’s why I can also confidently say Life is good. It is. When I embrace the joy I experience at times, my feelings indicate reality: breathing fresh air through my nose and feeling the sun beat against my neck is awe-inspiring. Why can I not be permitted to feel both good and bad? Even God was angry with Moses when Moses refused to believe He could use him to save His people (Exodus 4:10-17), why can’t I be angry about climate change, Jeff Bezos’ simultaneous wealth and uncaring business practices, the internet’s horribly unfiltered and overwhelming distribution of content, and family strife where sons barely know their fathers?
It’s these unfortunate beliefs in unreality – the lies that depression and anxiety produce in us, or even that people are not permitted to feel what are often considered “bad” emotions – that propagate self-hatred, discontentment, and images of cutlery jabbed between my ribs until the blood in my heart spills out. Believing lies about the real world destroy the real world we want to be a part of. It creates a perilous, cluttered room with one fan and a door too small to exit. Believing the lie of depression and anxiety, and worshipping the idol of the status quo stuffs us inside a small room called “surviving” and never gets us to the place called “living”. And as one remains stuck within the confines of their heart, never once stepping out from inside, they become their own precarious status quo.
It’s nonsense, it’s ridiculous, it’s killing people and it’s killing others.
The Opportunity of Honesty, and the Freedom to Change
So I loved Inside. I loved that Bo Burnham tore down a lie that I’ve often told myself. The songs, the lyrics, the music, the experience within Inside proves wrong the lie that we’re alone, that no one knows what we feel like, and that we’re not understood. Inside also alerts the listener to a serious need for change, that the status quo is dangerously unhealthy. While Bo Burnham largely deconstructs modern western culture, specifically what it’s like to be someone entrenched in the internet, I would argue there’s a status quo in Christian circles that seems to produce a lack of understanding regarding what is becoming (and largely, already was) a massive cultural problem here in the west: mental health. And, even Bo Burnham briefly off-hand references growing up in a Christian household for a time. With this in mind, I wonder what kind of Jesus he was taught about?
Simultaneously, I hate that Bo Burnham went through this emotionally deteriorating period, just as I hate what I’ve been through, but I love that he both shared his experience and seems to be using Inside as part of his process through it. I’m glad to see we’re both moving through mental health problems rather than killing ourselves. And I hope he’s able to settle in with people who tell him he’s not alone, that there are others who feel like him, and that they understand him, too. And that he’s able to meditate on goodness, both implicitly as he engages the world and explicitly as he makes changes in his life, because there’s so much of it to be had. There’s bad, too, yes. It’s healthy to recognize what’s bad, respond to it, take stock in it, but there’s more than just the bad to take stock in. There’s undoubtedly goodness. I would argue Inside is a part of that goodness. He made it. Right here. Be proud of it.
Now, I don’t think he’ll ever read this (if you do Bo that’d be cool), but consider this my contribution to Burnham’s lyric about “maybe I’ll sit on my couch and watch you next time.”:
This was my 2020 (and many other years): miserable, posturing, self-loathing, routinely picturing my dead body, disassociating, and routinely rejected or forgotten when I was seeking help.
Even so, in my enduring, I got help. And now, it’s me continuing to request it with honesty and security, while also enjoying the goodness along the way, including this wonderful musical memoir. God has been gracious and merciful to me, loving me even at my worst (Romans 5:6-8).
Lastly, bettering oneself is not always about doing better, but often times adapting to what will be better for oneself. We do not need to follow our own perceived status quo. In other words, a comedian does not need to be funnier, a comedian is a person, and a person can be malleable. A comedian is a comedian when he is a comedian, but a person is a person whether he’s a comedian or a carpenter. To lock oneself inside the limitations of their type or calling or casting is to self-impose oneself into a status quo. Perhaps, when given the opportunity, think on what new things can be enjoyed. I don’t know, but if you are reading this, Bo, or Mr. Burnham, or Mr. Ham, think outside yourself (not in a disassociative sense), and see what else pleases you. Or, perhaps explore. The foods we like we did not know we liked until we took our first bite. Explore and try new things, you may find you like them. Then you may not feel trapped by the need to be better, but freed by the joy to be Bo Burnham.
I’m still trying to understand what it feels to be Melvin Benson. Perhaps, someday, I’ll find out.
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Melvin Benson is the Founder, Editor-In-Chief, and Lead Host of Cinematic Doctrine. He’s written fiction and nonfiction for over a decade with short stories featured on the Creepypasta Wiki and Wattpad. His novelette Ethereal Temptation, a teen drama with a tinge of magical-realism, can be read for free here. His hope is to see King Jesus glorified as far as the east is from the west!