My Year Of Cultural Abstinence

 Brittani Lepley
Brittani Lepley

If you’ve perused Twitter lately, you’ll have noticed that the “best of” the year lists are piling up, every other tweet a link to the best films, books, music and television of the year. And I hang my head in shame, having hardly anything to add to the conversation. I’m certain no one is looking for my input, but usually by the end of the year I’d have hand-picked my favorite books, movie and music. I absorbed culture and in years past, I resided in cities where I actually lived it: Los Angeles and New York. I attended book readings and writing classes and visited museums and saw the requisite indie films. Yet in 2013, I did none of these things; darkened by illness and depression, my cultural knowledge was nil.

In 2012, I read about 75 books, often two at a time, often two or three in the same week. I was an English major and I wrote a lot too; publishing a weekly blog, and articles in the Daily Beast and the Huffington Post. For me, both producing and consuming art gave me the heartbeat I didn’t feel when I walked into my job as a copywriter. It distracted and invigorated; reading, especially, was the only cure to loneliness I’d ever known.

But in late 2012, I came home to visit suburban New Jersey from Los Angeles. I was hospitalized at home, and the diseases I’ve had since birth, the ones that had mostly been quiet in the warm Los Angeles sun, came pounding back. I have a complicated medical history, including lupus and cancer, but for the past 8 months it had almost become an afterthought, a lifestyle I happily indulged.

With the resurgence of my lupus, an addiction to the terrifying steroid prednisone was forged, and with that came a diagnosis of autoimmune diabetes. Time passed and I languished; in and out of hospitals, I was approved for disability midway through 2013. Because of this, I stopped working and moved into the carriage house on my parents’ property, their care and support was now a necessity.

Along with physical illness came the darkest depression I’d known; I imagined a thousand ways to die, most of them organic and resulting from disease, but some self-made. And I completely shut down: to family, friends, art, music, television and movies, and my beloved books. I couldn’t read past three chapters; all the novels whose release I’d anticipated piled up around my bed.

As the end of the year lists began in the early mornings of December, I had the sudden realization that I hadn’t seen or done a thing this year! I’d barely read any books, had taken in a handful of movies, and ventured into my beloved New York for cursory appointments only.

Dumbfounded, I reached out to friends and fellow cancer survivors, who suggested that difficulties they’d had reading stemmed from trauma of some kind. And this clicked in an obvious, real way. I’d been diagnosed with PTSD earlier in the year, a disorder characterized by fear and withdrawal.

And I had withdrawn, into my bed, under my covers, with only old reruns of The West Wing to keep my mind slightly occupied. It seemed to me that all that I’d absorbed physically and medically over the past 18 months–hell, over the past 27 years–had finally welded me to my bed, to a place where I could process it.

I relived the pain and surgeries and I relived it again, when it kept happening, when I was hospitalized for Halloween and then last week for the three days before Christmas. And because I was only living in this moment–this very concentrated sick, scared moment–my mind was too busy, too drenched with emotion and rawness to accept any other form of emotional currency. I couldn’t pick up feelings from books because I had too many of my own.

Instead of being the shell I thought I was, I was actually overwhelmed, laying spread-eagled on the bed, with all this very real stuff to overcome. But as the end of the year rolled around, and the best of everything lists were shared, I not only realized how little I’d taken in, but how much my shutdown had really hurt me.

And so, with Christmas a scant few days away, I ventured to drive myself out of this hole.

Firstly, I considered the advice I’d been given: read something funny and easygoing. I downloaded Rob Delaney’s memoir, and his elegant and hilarious prose has my mind on something besides pain and illness for a change. I needed something to listen to as I read, so I set up a playlist with a well-curated mix from favorite blogs and immersed myself. Last night, as I drove home from a family gathering, a song by CHVRCHES filled my car and my senses exploded, in that brief, loud joy that only good music can produce.

I’m a huge film lover, but I hadn’t seen a movie in the theaters in 6 months. I considered the movie theater my biggest hurdle. I’ve never been agoraphobic, and my love of popcorn is well-known (I’d sneak into theaters to buy a bag, and not see a movie)…but I just couldn’t bring myself to sit through a movie without checking my phone or hitting the bathroom for solo comfort. I’d become addicted to loneliness, to my own insular world of pain and depression, and the social media that feeds it. Finally, in a burst of indecision about movie times and which theater we were going to go to, I grabbed my brother and I sat through American Hustle. And I had…dare I say it? I had fun.

Fitting a year’s worth of art into a week is impossible, but in my attempt I have come to face truths about myself that only culture could provoke. I have to come to see that I partly chose the loneliness I so abhor. I chose the darkness and the quiet of a black room where no one could ask me to think, or to even try. Perhaps I needed this quiet reset, but it’s more likely that it further damaged my psyche.

See, choosing to read or watch a thoughtful film or take in an art piece is a bravery of some sort. I didn’t realize this until I wasn’t brave enough. I didn’t realize how hard it can be to confront something that may disappoint you, or make you sad. And it has only been in these last few weeks that I have come to see that the joy and stimulation it brings is so worthy of the try.

So I’ll hurry up and see my films and make my lists and I’ll look back and say 2013 wasn’t so dead, after all.

Without art, I was more nothing than I’d ever been. I was blank, and I was without Beyonce. And I know I’ll never go dark again. TC mark

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