I wake up every day, right here, right in Punxsutawney, and it’s always February 2nd, and there’s nothing I can do about it. – Phil Connors (Bill Murray)
Groundhog Day is one of my favorite movies, definitely in my top ten. It’s funny, it’s a bit philosophical, a bit sad and with a touch of sort of… fantasy? Sci-fi? Well, no matter, it’s generally very well regarded and with good reason. It asks many big questions about what we would do with second, third, fourth, and thousandth chances. How would we behave in a world without consequence, where we are, effectively, immortal? Is Phil in purgatory? Is he in Hell? But it also asks many questions about small things- routine, about daily habits and patterns, the things we do that are so much our second nature that we don’t even realize it. Ultimately the movie provides some answers in the choices Phil makes but you can (and I have) get into deep discussions and arguments over the answers, over the message of the movie and how you relate to it.
How we come to regard certain movies, or books or songs, depends on the context of when we experience them. If you listen to a love song when you’re in a new relationship you may feel differently about it than you would if you listen to it following a break-up with a longtime partner. Likewise I watch Groundhog Day differently these days than I used to. For me it’s a movie that I identify as capturing what depression is.
My own depression was like waking up every morning stuck in the same day with the same routine and without hope that the cycle will break or that things can get better. It’s a deadening drone of habits and rituals that numb you. So you try and relieve that negative pressure that builds up day after day after day. Phil got drunk, robbed an armored car, seduced women in the town and led the police on a chase through town. Me, I got drunk almost every night. And it worked for a little while. I could be the guy who had five or six beers at Trivia Night and be a lot of fun. Go through a bottle or two of wine at dinner with family. Who didn’t see anything wrong with a tumbler of scotch everyday after work. And maybe, why not, have a second one (because the first one worked, right)? There were days where I convinced myself there was nothing wrong with filling a cooler with beer and sitting out on my balcony all afternoon getting hammered and falling asleep before dinner time because, hey, it’s summer time! But it’s never enough and eventually it catches up to you, and somehow makes each days habits and routines a little harder to make it through.
That’s what leads to the desperation of suicidal feelings. Feeling suicidal isn’t necessarily a desire to die but rather a feeling of being trapped and seeing no other way to break out. In the movie Phil reaches this point and, while the movie plays some of it for laughs (the looks on the faces of the guests in the bed and breakfast when the lights dim when Phil takes a bath with a toaster) it also plays some of it more deeply and emotionally raw- think of when Phil jumps from the clock tower. He just wants to break the cycle and he’s desperate enough that killing himself seems like the only way out.
Like many suicide survivors though Phil comes to see that killing yourself isn’t the answer. The next part of the movie feels like recovery. He starts to make better decisions- he tries self improvement, he tries looking out for others and for enjoying each day for the possibilities it holds. It’s only when he learns to accept what he cannot change and improve that which he can does he break the cycle of being stuck repeating Groundhog Day. This is what mental health recovery looks like. Even once you start getting help, getting on a treatment course your depression doesn’t go away overnight. The routines change slowly and gradually, sometimes imperceptibly. Phil learned to play the piano like a prodigy- something that if you go by Malcolm Gladwell must have taken around 10,000 hours, that would be over a year, assuming 24 hours of practice. More realistically he worked an hour per day with his instructor, so it could have taken him nearly thirty years to master the piano. Thirty years of the same day. I don’t mean to intimidate anyone facing recovery, but it’s not a matter of just flipping a switch.
In about a month it will be the two year anniversary of my suicide attempt, and subsequently the decision to work at getting better and to quit drinking. I’m still in recovery. I still face temptations to have a drink (or several). I still have days where I’m absolutely miserable, or anxious to the point where I break down. But they’re becoming less frequent. It is getting better. I think this is where real life and the movie diverge. I don’t know that with depression and alcoholism you ever wake up to find it’s February 3rd. But with enough work and change, you can make every February 2nd a great day.