A couple of months ago I was sitting in the movie theatre with my 15 year-old daughter, weeping my way through Still Alice, the movie she’d urged me to see with her.
Unlike my daughter, I hadn’t read the novel the movie is based on but I knew enough of the plot – a woman’s descent into early-onset Alzheimer’s – to come with tissues prepared.
I was right to be prepared, it’s a gut-wrenching tale. Much of the movie centres on Alice’s relationship with her family (and especially her youngest daughter), as they all try to come to terms with her aggressive illness.
I sat sniffling in the dark, completely caught up in the story unfolding on the screen. I wasn’t just watching Julianne Moore playing a character from a novel, I was imagining myself learning that Alzheimer’s would make me lose myself a little at a time (and remembering that time I put the mail in the freezer, wondering if that’s a sign!)
I didn’t just see the complex mother and daughter relationship depicted on the screen, I connected to my own relationship with my daughter, how much she means to me and how quickly the years pass…
Said daughter, having endured enough vicarious embarrassment, broke into my reverie by leaning over and whispering, “Get a hold of yourself!”
Perhaps not the most empathic intervention one could offer, but it did shake me out of my painful pondering.
Although I try to put it more gently, I realize it’s the same advice I often give to clients when they’re caught up in anxious ruminating: “Get a hold of yourself, stay present with what’s happening right here right now, notice the stories playing out in your mind, and also notice that they are just that – stories.”
That isn’t to say that sad and terrible things haven’t happened or won’t happen, it’s just to acknowledge that our memory of something tragic or our projection of something feared is different from our lived experience in this moment.
Our minds are endlessly creative and uniquely skilled at spinning tales that will entertain, enliven, or terrify us. Anxious minds usually opt for terrifying. To paraphrase a famous quote by Mark Twain, some of the worst things that ever happened to us never happened to us.
If we can get emotionally caught up in a tale developing in front of us in a darkened movie theatre when we know it is all make-believe, it’s no surprise that the tale is that much stickier when it’s playing in an endless loop in our own heads, and stars us and the things we care most about and are most afraid of losing.
We might choose to distract ourselves from the stories, or land on rituals or superstitions that give us the illusion of control (knock on wood).
We can also choose to practice mindfulness. To get a hold of ourselves – sometimes literally – bring awareness to what is happening right here right now, to notice the movie playing and also notice that in this moment we are in the theatre seat, not in the scene on the screen.