Here are my TV and movie rules, as I understand them:
- No lying, at least not sustained lying. It’s okay to fib occasionally, but if someone is “going undercover” or “pretending to be someone they’re not,” I’m done.
- No fantasy. No sci-fi. Let’s have the universe operate under the known rules, which are already unpredictable, amirite?
- Murder mysteries are ideal, but avoid these keywords: “noir,” “chilling,” “suspense,” “serial killer,” or “thriller.”
- No monsters. Not even cute ones, like Gremlins. They’re not cute if they become demons.
- No sister-separation stories. Frozen, I’m looking at you.
- No children-in-peril stories, which eliminates the rest of Disney and nearly all of Pixar.
- No stories where I cannot predict the ending. Yes to Murder She Wrote. No to The Wire.
- Prioritize long-running TV series. Only after three or more hours with the same set of characters do I relax. Then I only want to watch those characters till the end of time.
- Good dialogue is overrated. Words should have the temperature of a warm bath.
- Shows that advertise Viking Cruises to seventy-year-olds are a win.
- Let’s not create humor from uncomfortable situations. Michael Scott of The Office is funny because he always says the worst thing possible. Avoid him.
- No reality TV. It’s in the uncanny valley of being too real, yet not real enough.
- Don’t even try turning on the news.
- Period dramas are great, but period dramas in which someone hides potentially family-ruining secrets, as in Downton Abbey, are not. (Yes, that is most period dramas. Your point being?)
But what kind of TV shows or movies does that leave, Heather? you might ask.
Glad you asked! Last night, my husband and I watched an episode of Murder in Suburbia, a short-lived ITV series featuring a wisecracking duo of female police detectives. A user review on IMDB says this: “It doesn’t take much of a detective to spot the real criminals: the writers of this show.”
In other words, it leaves me no movies and terrible, terrible television.
The rules started after I had kids. It wasn’t just movies and TV—it was books, too. A friend recommended The Corrections, or my husband got interested in a new sitcom, but I had a hard time mustering any interest at all. New things—unfamiliar things—required energy I no longer had.
If I ignored the disinterest, I’d regret it. For instance, I enjoyed Downton Abbey for a few episodes, but as the plot lines grew tense, I found I had trouble sleeping afterwards. With two kids under five, that was a deal-breaker.
My newfound rules caused arguments with my husband—he was hurt by my sudden disinterest. It caused embarrassment—a writing friend would lend me a copy of their favorite book and I’d return it unread, unable to get past the first chapter. It caused internal strife—why couldn’t I just get over myself and watch Brooklyn 99 after the two main characters had to go into witness protection?
But after fighting the rules for ten years, my husband and I, through much trial and error, realized we both loved laughing at bad British television. So I gave in to the rules. You just do better if you follow them, I thought.
The rules were…unusual, I knew. Maybe they were quirky? My need for them did not make sense to me, not really, but most nights, my husband and I held hands and watched TV together in peace, and I slept well afterwards. When the odd “serial killer” or “undercover” episode aired, I’d hide in the other room until the peril was over. You know, like one does.
It wasn’t until recently, when I got diagnosed with autism (surprise!) and with C-PTSD (not a shocker, but still upsetting), that I started looking at the rules—all the rules, the many, many rules I’ve learned over the years to avoid distress, lost sleep, anxiety, crying jags, disassociation, trauma triggers and the like. And though the rules most obviously affected my media usage, they also involved faith, relationships, activism, my schedule, sleep, food and community.
I finally admitted how much the rules controlled me.
On the plus side, they kept me safe, and well-rested, and happy. But often, I felt my life was not entirely of my own choosing.
Worse, the rules limited my family’s choices, too. Media-wise, it was if I had various, complicated and impossible-to-avoid food allergies and thus could not attend dinner parties, restaurants or shop at most grocery stores. Also, the only meals I’d eat with my family featured foods that were all the same color.
I knew the rules were limiting, and that other people ate frittatas, or pizza, or enchiladas. I’d think, wouldn’t that be nice, and go back to enjoying my yams and carrots. But I also noticed my family members sighing at their plates.
It feels weird to name my grief: I’m sad I can’t watch TV. It sounds petty. I mean, who cares? I have a sound roof over my head, a wonderful family, a happy marriage.
So let’s go deeper: My husband’s software is regularly used on movies and in television, and when he asks me to watch something his fifteen years of hard work has made possible—say, the beautiful movie that just won an Academy Award—I say no.
I say no.
When my kids get excited about movies, such as my oldest, who has now seen Puss in Boots at least three times, and she asks if we can have a family movie night so we can enjoy it together, I feel panicky.
I see her seeing my aversion.
My reluctance makes me feel awful, honestly. But I have learned what happens when I ignore the rules: I’ll subject myself to several hours of mild-to-medium panic, discomfort and overstimulation. I’ll have to force myself not to leave the room. Afterwards, I won’t know what to say when the person I love asks if I liked it, because the answer will be no. The experience will leave me feel jittery, resentful and drained.
I can see that something is objectively well made, worthy of praise, and yet know that I will hate the experience of watching it.
It does not make sense, even to me. But if I can’t enter into enjoyment no matter how hard I try, why torture myself?
I started this essay wanting it to be funny. Ha ha, I thought, see how silly my hangups are? But I think my desire for these rules to be funny is part of the problem. I keep telling myself it’s just TV, and thus no big deal, but feeling regular distress, panic, and shame over something so everyday, unavoidable and omnipresent is not something I should make light of.
I want the rules to be less important to me than they are. But I’m not doing myself or the people I love any favors by pretending we’re not living with grief when I obey them.
When I read over the rules, I see deep terror about the vulnerability of children, the difficulty of relationships, the shame of hiding, and the uncertainty of our collective future. The rules tell me I don’t find trauma, suspense or violence entertaining.
That’s not silly. That’s understandable for someone whose childhood was filled with all three.
I honestly don’t know whether health is me accepting the rules as-is (autistic people are fairly notorious for their, um, particular tastes) or getting enough trauma therapy to allow me to relax the rules without harming myself. Perhaps both/and. I don’t know what’s possible or desirable. I’m trying to figure out how best to care for myself now that I understand where my rules come from.
And honestly, in the end, it is just TV. Despite my limitations, my husband and I get to hold hands and laugh at the shows we watch every night. My kids joke about my terrible taste in media and love me despite my limitations.
Most of all, every time I watch poorly-scripted, wise-cracking detectives, I affirm that it isn’t silly for me to feel safe.
I’m sad I can’t watch TV. But I’m glad that despite my grief, I’m choosing to love myself every time I turn it on.