By Mike McMahan, LPC
If you’ve ever been to Walt Disney World, and tend to think too deeply about these experiences, this article published on Atlas Obscura may hit home. Though I hadn’t personally thought about it in relation to the Magic Kingdom, it is certainly a fit. As the article notes, when Mickey Mouse is walking down the street, as far as kids are concerned (and anyone, really) that’s really Mickey. This is much like our own version of “reality”: typically, once we decide something is real, we’re sticking to it and it’s hard to change the course. The idea of creating a shared space, in which participants forget about the so-called “real world” and lose themselves in this consensual reality is not unique to Disney, certainly. I have experienced it at concerts as well. People may be dressed in similar fashion, or they may be wearing t-shirts of the band that is performing or similar bands. At times, this experience can bleed out of the concert venue into the surrounding area. Maybe you recognize a fellow fan by their appearance on the way in and wave or say “hi.” Phish and Grateful Dead fans have been known to set up vending areas outside of the concert and sell t-shirts that include a snippet of a lyric. This is a very subtle way of acknowledging a shared reality, as someone who is into the band will recognize it and connect with the wearer, while someone not familiar with the music will likely see it as pure nonsense and move on.
One of my favorite experiences with this phenomenon was the opening night of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. At the theater where I saw it, every single screen was showing the film. People were cosplaying the roles, so the lobby was filled with stormtroopers, tusken raiders and sith. There were cardboard cutouts of the film. Souvenir cups for drinks. Foods and snacks renamed with a Star Wars theme. Middle-aged nerds such as myself were wearing t-shirts and were giddy with delight. It wasn’t anything near reality, but for that few hours, we all agreed that it was.
Depression is much the same, but in a completely opposite manner. Once your brain locks you into a narrative dominated by depression, it can often be all that you see. Instead of seeing t-shirts suggesting Star Wars and fun, you see shirts that remind you that everyone else is skinnier, more successful, happier. Instead of Mickey Mouse reminding you that you’re at Disney with your family, you see dark clouds and imagine ghosts from your past, reminding you of failures and telling you that you’re worthless.
The thing is, this reality is no more “real” than Disney World or the opening night of The Force Awakens.
Coming out of depression is not a sudden thing. It’s hard to leave Disney because you’ve had such a good time, but it’s not literally hard to leave. You get on a bus or in a cab and go back to the airport and go home. In the same way that you see signs that you’re on the way in, you see signs that you’re on the way out. “Thanks for visiting Disney World! Come back soon!” There are signs that you’re leaving a concert too. The band is playing an encore—they’re almost done. The house lights are back on—you’re outta here. Depression is the same way.
I have written previously that psychotherapy can be like a journey, so it makes sense that this metaphor of Disney as pilgrimage would also apply to psychotherapy as well as the journey of healing that a client undertakes.
Something I frequently work with clients on is observing. I ask them to look for signs that they are coming out of their depression. The purpose of this is two-fold. The first is a sort of “light at the end of the tunnel” effect. Once the client starts to see that a few things may be going right, it gets easier to hold on and work towards better times. We have all experienced this, but it’s hard to see when you’re mired in the dark hole of depression. The second reason for this is so that if depression should re-occur, they will know the signposts to look for next time as a guide out of the dark. It can be anything: it’s easier to get out of bed; you’re cooking healthier meals; you make plans to go out with friends for the first time in a while; you feel like you’re enjoying reading novels again. Once these signposts begin to pop up for my client, I reinforce these positive signs during our sessions and encourage them to look for more. It gets easier as it goes, because as the client starts to feel better, the signs are going to be more prevalent.
The article also refers to rituals, or behaviors that we do all the time at certain times. People may easily fall into rituals with their journey through depression. How often have you heard someone say something like “whenever I get depressed, I just sleep all day?” Or “I’m so depressed I just ate a whole jug of Ben and Jerry’s.” While these are jokes, somewhat, both sleeping too much and overeating can be signs of depression. If you have journeyed back from depression, it might not be a bad idea to ask yourself what are the signs you’re diving back in? And what rituals do you participate in that reinforce these feelings.
And when you’re back at full speed, why not a trip to Disney World?
Mike McMahan, LPC, is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Tx.
Therapy Goes POP
Perspectives on therapy and mental health as viewed through the lens of popular culture