Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Why trash TV is good for you

When I was fifteen, I – very suddenly, it felt like it happened overnight – started suffering from anxiety.


I didn’t really talk about this very much to anyone except my parents, and it didn't last for a particularly long time. I was studying for my GCSEs and I felt a pressure that it’s hard to explain or even feel now; like trying to remember a nightmare, I can remember the facts but not the fear. However, I kept a diary at the time, which reads a bit like somebody living with a permanent fever. It’s a series of to-do lists – ‘memorise 15 formulae by lunchtime OR YOU WILL FAIL MATHS, re-read five chapters of To Kill A Mockingbird, DON’T EAT CHOCOLATE YOU ARE FAT,’ mixed in with pleadings – ‘I just want to feel normal again. I just want this feeling to go away. I want to wake up tomorrow and feel normal.’


And then – suddenly – there would be a paragraph of normality, a description of what had happened on Eastenders, or in the latest episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I didn't go out a lot at the time, and these half-hour slices of nothing-y television were keeping me sane.

I think (awfully) that what I felt at that time was probably pretty normal for a stressed out teenager. It never tipped over into full-scale depression – I never, for example, contemplated suicide – but I did wonder sometimes if I would ever feel 'okay' again. I remember one particular day I’d been sitting in the garden with my Dad trying to understand some maths equations. I was completely convinced at the time that I would fail Maths and ruin my life (I got an A). It was boiling hot and I remember the sun was on my back and I felt sick and exhausted and fed up and I couldn’t stop wondering what the point of it all was. I sat on the steps watching ants crawl over a melting ice lolly stick and I remember thinking 'I wish I was an ant.' I mean, an ant. 

That evening, finally, I went inside, where it was cool, poured a diet coke and made some pizza, switched on the TV and put on The Simpsons.

Within a few moments of watching Bart Simpson bargain for his soul back, I could feel my own soul calming down. I thought to myself, it’s alright. Life is okay. So long as I can enjoy pizza and find The Simpsons funny, life will be okay.

I don’t always find The Simpsons funny anymore (I mean, some of the latest episodes are just...anyway), but I still use television in exactly the same soothing, mind-numbing way I did back then. It is a soothing, calming port in the whirling storm of daily life. I appreciate that perhaps I should come home from work and read a book, or sit and discuss politics with my husband – but mostly, I just want to sit on my sofa and watch Masterchef. Watching Greg Wallace grinning and gurning over a chocolate mousse with foam on top is my idea of therapy.

My husband sometimes asks me how I can watch Youtube videos and vlogs  – why it is interesting to me to watch girls with nice hair go through their mail or talk about what shampoo they’re using at the moment – and yet the mundanity of it is exactly the point.  I can feel my mind relaxing when I watch it, the corners unfurling, the stress of the day melting away. It is absolutely meaningless froth, and I can watch it without thinking about it at all. And so for a few minutes at a time, my mind stops buzzing.

Cookery shows (Nigella, Masterchef – you name it, I’ll watch it), vlogs, and Made In Chelsea – that’s my poison. Yours might be X Factor or Love Island or cartoons made in the 90s or sport you don’t really understand/care about or one of those property shows where Kirsty pushes around a young couple who inexplicably have £1million to spend on a flat in Brighton (‘here’s the second bedroom…’ ‘mmm…’).

But whatever it is, I think it’s worth seeing the value in it. These things are not merely guilty pleasures – there is a valid reason we enjoy them. We live in a world where our attention is continually diverted and our minds are constantly busy. When I wake up in the morning these days I don’t lie awake, looking at the ceiling – I reach for my phone. I don’t stare out of the window on the train, I look at my phone again. At work, I flick through the news, read blogs; even in the queue for my lunchtime salad I’ll be back on my phone – it’s like an Instagram-Facebook-Twitter loop, a space-time continuum. We never switch off.

Psychologists worry because people don’t get bored anymore and boredom is valuable; it breeds creativity, it gives us the headspace to think. I genuinely believe that watching fluffy television gives me that space – lets me reset – and maybe then I can hold a conversation about something serious without wandering off mid sentence because my brain is thinking a thousand different things. 

These shows are more than just a distraction, though – they are also a comfort blanket. They remind us that life can be trivial, and happy, and light, when it doesn’t always feel that way. When my friend broke up with her boyfriend a few years ago, she watched every single episode of the Kardashians. Did she really care about their lives? No. But did it distract her from the sadness in her own? Yes.


So don’t let anyone berate you for your guilty pleasures, or in fact ever think of them as guilty. Because in some dark day ahead that I don’t want to imagine now, I know it will comfort me that in some world, Homer Simpson is still saying ‘Doh!’  I will take reassurance in the fact that I can still enjoy pizza and watch The Simpsons and laugh. 

And life will be okay.
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