I don’t want to be writing this column. Every time I try to write of late – which isn’t often, because I’ve been avoiding it – anxiety takes hold of me. My heart rate increases. My shoulders tighten. I sit at my desk and cry in short, stuttering bursts, and then I stare at the wall. When I can no longer bear my failure to write anything, I watch television.
Television and depression have a history together. We’re all familiar with the trope: the person who stays in on a Saturday night watching TV in their pyjamas is the sad schlub with no life. A recent study conducted by a doctoral student at the University of Texas suggests that people who binge watch television are more likely to report behaviours associated with depression and loneliness. The study defines binge watching as two or more episodes of a show in one sitting, which seems an overly broad definition: as NPR reporter Poncie Rutsch points out, two episodes of Friends is only going to take up an hour of your time. That’s not quite the same thing as losing a weekend to an entire season of Game Of Thrones. And even if you are determined to watch TV like that, it might well be in the spirit of pleasure, rather than of loneliness.
I rarely watch more than two episodes in a row of anything, but during those two hours I can come close to forgetting myself. Television offers a temporary abatement of the dread that holds me in its grip. All my life, I have been afraid of strangers: afraid of meeting them, afraid of talking to them, afraid in particular of them paying attention to me. I like to enter a room and then leave it again without anyone having realised I was there. I often have trouble leaving the house. This shyness and fear are self-reinforcing: the more I choose to avoid people, the more afraid I am of them. I am not afraid of people on the television. I can switch them off. I can leave the room. They do not see me.
I grew up with a lot of television; I guess many of us did. My family did not eat meals at a dining table, we ate in front of the television. The television always seemed to be on, whether at my mum’s house or at my grandparents’ house: rugby league, Home And Away, Sale of the Century. My family felt a lot like The Royle Family, that wonderful British sitcom about a Manchester household who conduct their lives by the light of the TV screen. As a child who rarely lifted my head out of my books I came, gradually, to resent the intrusive presence of the television set. As a bored and angry teenager I started making zines. One of my first zines was called Television Is Evil.
By coincidence rather than design, it’s now been 15 years since I lived in a house with a functioning television aerial, which means that free-to-air TV, at least, has long ceased to be a meaningful presence in my life. I’ve never missed it. There is a part of me still relieved to have left behind the flickering suburban ambience of my childhood. During the early to mid-2000s, before YouTube or fast broadband, long before I even had a computer of my own, I simply never saw any television, unless it was at someone else’s house. I missed the Sydney Olympics and Six Feet Under and Big Brother and who knows what else. Now, with iView and Netflix and a working VPN, it scarcely matters. Here I am, a TV columnist without a TV.
What I do miss is the camaraderie of watching television in a group (I might be afraid of strangers, but I can generally deal with my own family). Streaming Netflix on my laptop before bed is not the same as watching The Simpsons with my mum and my brother, our plates of dinner on our laps. Maybe that University of Texas study points, as much as anything, towards our changing viewing habits: it’s much easier to binge-watch when we’re alone with our computers, rather than gathered around the television set, arguing over the remote. Maybe I do want to be with other people. Maybe I just don’t know how.
The television show that has moved me most deeply in recent years has never been screened in Australia. It’s a British series called My Mad Fat Diary, which recently concluded its third and final season. Based on a memoir by writer Rae Earl, My Mad Fat Diary concerns the life of teenage Rae (played by Sharon Rooney), who lives in suburban Lincolnshire during the mid-1990s. Rae loves pop music, has a conflicted relationship with her single mother, and suffers from mental illness. She injures herself when she can’t deal with her emotional pain.
Watching My Mad Fat Diary felt like watching my own mid-1990s teenage life played back to me in slightly fictionalised form. I cried and cried and cried. I saw Rae in myself: her self-hatred and her sadness, combined with an urgent need to understand the world that not even her bent towards destruction could extinguish. I saw her, but more powerfully, I felt that she saw me, that the show itself recognised me for who I was, and who I am, and told me that this struggle to keep living is okay, that it is not shameful. And so, by the light of the screen, I was just a little bit less alone.