A very personal story of how one person has found a way to cope with very dark thoughts, with help from cinema.

As well as a spoiler for The Rules Of Attraction, please note this candid, honest article does come with a trigger warning for those experiencing suicidal thoughts.

Not too long into Roger Avary’s 2002 feature The Rules Of Attraction, a young woman takes her own life by slicing her arms open in the bath. This woman hasn’t been named. She’s merely a bystander in a film that, up until that point, has used suicide largely as a punchline.

The scene itself flirts with cliché from the start. Played by Theresa Wayman, the young woman calmly places a razor blade next to the bath. She lights some candles. Harry Nilsson’s Without You plays on the soundtrack. Considering the sarcastic tone of Avary’s film up until this point, it feels like we’re being led towards another cheap gag.

And then…it starts to hurt. Wayman’s face contorts in pain as the blood rushes out of her arms, the camera starts to shift off keel and the music begins to distort as it reaches its climax. It feels awful. Painful. It makes you wince in empathy.

And then we cut to the reality. No music, just a dripping tap. A bath full of bloody water. And we are left not with some grand, poetic gesture from a woman suffering from unrequited love.

Instead, there is just a dead body lying in a bath tub.

I first saw this scene in my twenties, when I was battling some fairly severe mental health issues. I had suicidal thoughts on a daily basis, a mindset that would eventually lead me to start self-harming. And like anybody with these kinds of intrusive thoughts, suicide can often feel perversely romantic. An act of spite against a hateful world. A final middle finger to everyone who never understood how much you suffered.

But watching that scene in The Rules Of Attraction was one of the first times I thought – ‘God, what an awful way to die’. The twisted poeticism of sinking into death as candles burn and music soars is ultimately skewered in favour of the painful, bloodied truth.

That scene genuinely helped me find some perspective on suicide – perspective I was having trouble finding through books or therapy sessions. There was an awful clarity to this nameless girl’s pain that cut through the endless chatter inside my head to the sober reality of suicide.

When I started to self-harm, it came from a misguided sense that the world didn’t take my anxiety seriously enough. My obsessive compulsive tendencies – something I’d had since a teenager, when my parents were baffled as to why I kept switching my bedroom light on and off – had reached their apex, a miasma of tapping, repetition and overblown superstition. I’d return again and again to step on a specific piece of pavement, fearing if I didn’t that my family would die in a car crash. I’d keep touching a door handle until I felt that I’d touched it ‘correctly’, even though I couldn’t tell anyone what that even meant. It was just a feeling, and certainly not a rational one. All sorts of illogical thoughts and actions controlled my life.

So slicing my left arm with a knife felt like an appropriate manifestation of what was going on inside my head. Almost saying – ‘There, now you can all see how messed up I am.’ The wounds I inflicted with a knife or nail scissors (or, on one darkly comic occasion, a potato peeler) felt like a release of some kind, as well as a physical signifier of feelings that I could barely explain, let alone deal with at the time. Growing up in a typical middle class environment where emotions weren’t voiced – only buried – I never really voiced my depression to my family, and it took years before I began to seek professional help.

Yet one of the things that helped me navigate my way through those darker days was my love of film. Film offered not just an escape, but also the opportunity to try and comprehend what I was going through. To see all of my own issues in a new light.

It’s a common misunderstanding to think that those suffering from depression will try and avoid depressing films. Ever since my mental health deteriorated, I’ve often find dark films inspiring – because here is a writer or director going through the very same thing I am, using their pain to create art that talks to others about their struggles.

So as I first began struggling with OCD and depression, I was struck not only by the aforementioned scene in The Rules Of Attraction, but many others I encountered. Luke Wilson’s distraught Tenenbaum calmly shaving his face before attempting suicide to the whispers of Elliott Smith. Frank the apocalyptic bunny rabbit asking Donnie Darko why he’s wearing ‘that stupid man suit’. Jennifer Connelly screaming underwater as the horrors of Requiem For A Dream unfurl around her.

These unflinchingly dark films offered comedy too, a form of twisted mischief. Think the gleeful self-hatred of Edward Norton beating himself up in Fight Club, or Nicolas Cage’s exhausted paramedic berating a suicidal patient for selfishly not going through with it in Bringing Out The Dead. It proved that even in the darkness, you can find some proper belly laughs.

Horror films were especially helpful. Horror became a release valve for all the troublesome thoughts in my head. Seeing death in graphic close-up allowed me to channel suicidal thoughts into a safer world of make-believe. Years later, when I heard Wes Craven describe how horror films release fear rather than create it, a lightbulb went off in my head. Because that’s exactly what they did for me, offering catharsis without physical pain or genuine threat.

Looking back at where my career has taken me – from writing about films in both student and professional publications to talking about them on the radio to programming them at different cinemas – it’s obvious how film has been a guiding light for me. In a way, that career path feels almost like paying a debt of gratitude to an art form that has helped me in my times of need. And times don’t come needier than when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

I’ve been lucky enough that none of my close family or friends have died in the past year from COVID-19, but old mental scars have been reopened in the face of new stresses. My mental health has been fragile at the best of times since becoming a parent five years ago – largely thanks to sleepless nights sapping me of my desire to engage in self-care – but it completely plummeted when I suddenly found myself confined to a house with two very young children. My normal coping mechanisms like playgroups, visits to grandparents and the distractions of a job I love were swiftly taken away. I found myself anxious and exhausted with intrusive thoughts invading my head, relying on my hugely supportive wife to help me through it. I even held a knife to my arm for the first time in years. Although I didn’t cut the skin, it was a sign of just how traumatic I was finding it all.

But when our two boys were tucked up in bed after another draining day, escape once again came in the form of film. The gory body-hopping of sci-fi horror Possessor. The violent, pseudo-Western thrills of Bacurau. The seaside terrors of a fanatical Saint Maud. These films were a godsend to me, and will have been to many others, as people across the globe found themselves confined to their homes for months. Whether those people were looking for meaning, explanation or distraction, film will have offered a much-needed outlet for shared anxieties.

None of this is to suggest that film has been some kind of miracle cure for my mental health issues. The central parts of my treatment since my youth have been therapy, medication and the support of my family and friends across an extended timeframe, and to suggest otherwise would be irresponsible. But in my long experience, dealing with mental health is all about finding the right coping mechanisms, and one of mine has been (and always will be) watching, writing and talking about the world of film.

Whilst I haven’t self-harmed for some time now, the truth is that all of the thoughts which have plagued me since my teens will be with me in some form or another until I die. There’s no getting round that. But that doesn’t scare me as much as it once did.

After stumbling around in the darkness for years, I’ve finally found a path to stay on. And film helps to light the way.

The Samaritans are available around the clock all year, and want to talk. Call 116 123 for free, or email [email protected]

Images: BigStock

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