The Anatomy of Grey

At least one of my family members and more than one friend suffer from bi-polar disorder. When I hear that someone has been so diagnosed, my heart sinks for them, because mental illness is so complex in general and this one seems particularly slippery. It can be managed with medication, but, from what I have been told, getting the medication right is a matter of trying, failing, succeeding, failing again, tweaking, re-tweaking doses. Some people are luckier than others in finding the right treatment. Too many, like my sister, try, try and try again. She needs the meds to balance bouts of anxiety and/or depression, but too much balancing can leave her simply flat.

She has been in one of those flat periods recently. The January blahs that seem to affect everyone, except maybe alpine sports fanatics, haven't helped. With her free-lance work slow this time of year and the garden too wintry to offer release, she turns to her favourite TV show, Grey's Anatomy. She has watched the seasons available on Netflix ten times. "Isn't that weird?" she asked. She knows exactly what's coming, she has the dialogue practically memorized and she doesn't cry at the sad parts anymore, though she did smile at something during one recent viewing, she admitted, laughing at herself. She can appreciate why people would think her crazy for doing this. She thinks it herself and doesn't really understand why, instead of trying a new series or a new book - because she is also a great reader - she returns to Grey's.

When I told this story to a friend, he compared her to a child who wants the same story read over and over again at bedtime. The comfort of familiarity, no surprises. Considering that my sister's illness was triggered by a major traumatic event, it is easy to see why she likes to know what she's getting.

This started me thinking of why people like to read genre fiction, which generally adheres to a formula, with some changes in plot and character in each book, like driving through an old neighbourhood where people have been doing a little renovating, and a few new families have settled. You basically know what you're in for. It may be why people on vacation in foreign countries are relieved to see a Starbucks or McDonald's sign, or shop at a chain store where even the floor plans could be identical to those in their hometowns. Opera purists like their operas pure; new music is a harder sell than Beethoven's Fifth; bands do well playing "covers". The herd impulse to seek out the comfortingly well known hearkens back to survival instincts that steered human development. Hunter gatherers turned to agriculture because growing plants was presumably a less chancy way of feeding themselves than depending on wildlife to show up. Big agriculture is trying to make the uncertain business of farming even more predictable, and profitable, with genetic modifications to common crops.

There's much to be said about reducing stress by leaning towards the predictable, but predictable becomes boring. Grey. Maybe it's hard to notice the status quo for what it is simply because it is the norm, like traffic when you live on a busy street. Sure there are probably quieter streets, but it might cost more to live there, and who knows what the neighbours would be like? A person has to be healthy to venture out of the grey zone, to open the curtains, change the channel.  I'm hoping that the right mix of drugs, or whatever else it takes, will give my sister, and anyone else who has been idling in the shadows, the courage to do that soon, no disrespect to G.A., which I have never watched myself; but could it really be worth that many re-views?