My Mind at the Movies

How the World of Cinema Helped Me Cope With OCD and Social Anxiety

Photo by Matt Krieg on Unsplash 

The first movie I can ever recall seeing was Free Willy. I was only 3-years-old and I have this memory of sitting on the carpet, neck craned, staring directly up at the television as the movie played out. I was completely in awe of everything I was looking at. That may have started my life long love of whales, but I believe it also started my stronger obsession with film. I used to watch that movie over and over again on repeat, sometimes getting up at 5 or 6 in the morning to sneak downstairs and put the tape in the VCR. Eventually, the sound became worn out on all three Free Willy VHS tapes I had.

Although my anxiety didn't become a huge problem until my teen years, I was always a bit of an uncertain and shy child. I often needed my sister for support and reassurance when doing things, and I often hid behind her as we met new people. Although I always had uncertainty and wasn't very outgoing or assertive as a child, I didn't really notice my social anxiety until I was about 12. This is about the time that I started collecting movies. DVDs had just come out and completely taken over the use of VHS tapes. I was just starting to get my own money from babysitting and had more freedom to buy what I wanted. Although I'll always say that I had an interest in film from the age of 3, age 12 was about the time that I was really able to pay for myself to go to the movies or buy any DVD I wanted. It didn't take long for it to become an obsession.

I wouldn't be diagnosed with Social Anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder until I was 26-years-old, which is why I think I was so confused and internally distressed as a teenager. I didn't understand why I reacted to situations differently and not like most other people my age. Why did certain activities frighten me, while other teenagers did them with ease? My hands shook while giving presentations. I found it difficult to talk to people my own age that were not in my “inner circle.” I felt beneath other people and everyone else was above me. Like I wasn't deserving of anyone's attention.

As I got older, I found myself incredibly anxious at the thought of drinking alcohol. To this day I do not drink, but more for the reason of simply not liking the taste more than anything else. At a time where most teenagers wanted to experiment with alcohol and party, I found myself more anxious than ever. In fear that the friends that were my comfort zone would want to venture out into a world that was not comfortable for me. So I threw myself into watching movies more and more, visiting the movie theatre at least once a week.

Not only were films stress relieving and an escape, they were something that always made me feel comfortable and safe. Despite seeing different films each time, the theatre never did anything unexpected. You grabbed your drink and popcorn (extra butter, of course) and sat in your seat. The screen is so large in front of you that it is the only thing to put your attention on in the darkness. Most especially if you are a respectful movie-goer and keep your phone in your pocket! It gives you approximately two hours of uninterrupted escape, one of the few times that I could find my mind completely relaxing,  and not overthinking.

The older I got, the more I escaped into films. No matter how much I enjoyed it, I grew more and more lonely as it was not always the sole interest of close friends who, by no fault of their own, were now growing interested in other activities.

I haven't thought until recently how movies became part of an OCD ritual that I never knew I had. If I had a particular favourite film, I would often watch it up to 10 times in a row. Each time I was watching it my mind would relax more and more. When that stopped working for that particular film, I found a new one to obsess over in order to keep the overthinking down. I'll always maintain that I am definitely a movie obsessed fan girl, just like many other fans of Harry Potter, Star Wars, or other film franchises. But I think for me there was also a sense of needing films more than just enjoying them as an avid fan.

It wasn't until I went to University to study film that I truly felt like I fit in somewhere. I now had friends who understood film in the way I did and found joy in it the same way. I think this was the first step in accepting myself for who I was. Other than a couple close friends that had stuck with me through it all so far, it finally felt fine that I didn't like to go out and party, that there were actual people in the world that shared a deep interest of mine.

Near the end of my University life, I sought treatment for my anxiety through a therapist. The first one I went to was good, but there was still something missing. It wasn't until I met my current Therapist after moving to Toronto that I have made big strides in combating Social Anxiety and OCD symptoms through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Through this, I have found ways to still be social and engaging with my surroundings while also loving film. I still have a collection of over 500 DVDs. However, I have found that my obsessive tenancies with films have diminished since seeking treatment for my OCD and Social Anxiety. I will always love film, and it will always be a source of stress relief for me, but I have found a sense of calm despite the fact that I no longer watch a film 10 times to feel safe and secure. I look back at my memories of being a film obsessed teenager with fondness, knowing that a love of something so simple got me through a time where I didn't understand my mind. I know now that I could have very well turned to other sources of pain relief such as drugs or alcohol. Although I look back at my past and regret that I was scared of the world and did not understand the workings of my mind, I can't say that I regret not partying and drinking. Given the mental illness I was struggling with, it is entirely possible I could have gone down a very different path. I will always be grateful to film for steering me clear of trouble until I could be properly diagnosed and truly understand my mind. Having been properly diagnosed has allowed me to understand how my mind works, and to look at my thoughts from an outside perspective. I know that particular thoughts and feelings are not "me," they are created by my anxiety. This has been huge in helping me combat this illness. 

Today, I can still put on that DVD, sit back and watch a pirate on a ship, a princess in a castle, or a detective solve a crime on the big screen. I leave feeling relaxed and at peace as I always have. But the difference now is that I can walk away, feel comforted after one viewing, and go out into the world and experience everything I was so fearful of in the past.