A Year Without Televison, One Month In

Last month, on Tuesday July 5, I stopped watching t.v. shows. The plan is that I won’t watch or re-watch sitcoms or one hour dramas for 365 days. The exception is Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, which Netflix will release on Black Friday. I also permit myself the chance to watch movies.

I had slight nausea over the long weekend leading up to zero hour. It reminded me of moving to New York and later choosing to move to rural Massachusetts. It felt radical and potentially dangerous. Intellectually, I understood that I was being melodramatic and also that I had a problem. I had to quit.

I’ve enjoyed this era of prestige television for a few reasons. As a writer, I appreciate a good story. An anglophile, I now have access to an unprecedented amount British content here in the U.S. And, perhaps the most universal of all reasons to binge, television is a potent diversion.

Not a true digital native, I still think about t.v. sets, boob tubes, and aging hippies in bookstores wearing “kill your tv” buttons. When I turned off the television in my childhood home, I was making an incisive gesture. I was saying that I chose the present, the tactile, and the uniquely and privately felt.

Reading, listening to music, talking on the phone was considered a healthy alternative to prime time. But you can watch shows now, spend massive blocks of hours on a streaming site, and not be reprimanded at all. The stories are smarter, or at least there are enough of them to serve the idiosyncratic tastes of smaller and smaller taste cultures. And who’s going to argue with bespoke content?

As much as I love spotting a Welsh accent or being familiar enough with one family of British actors as to have made a drinking game about them, I know that I’m willing to let tens of dollars drain from my sad bank account each month because of how watching numbs me to my own feelings.

Most of what I know about mood disorders comes from living with two of them. I know there are coping mechanism that I almost involuntarily employ to get from Monday to Tuesday, like excessive sleep on Saturday and Sunday. Now I can fairly easily admit that watching anything works just the same. It’s significant that while I wasn’t doing physical damage to myself, I wasn’t bingeing food or alcohol, constant viewings of Agatha Christie novel adaptations were disrupting my life. My ability to live up to my responsibilities was being compromised.

If I wasn’t reading or working or listening to a podcast, I was streaming. I could make the argument that a few hours balanced against the learning, money earning, and socializing wasn’t a crisis. But then I had this problem that I struggled to solve, employing productivity apps, various calendars, crystal meditation, and lots of talking. There was this other thing I wanted to do, every day.

I wanted to be creative. I am creative, I thought. I must create!

I have a novel in the works and shorts stories and essays that I want to see published. Remembering how much Liv Tyler’s character in Empire Records inspired me at 14, by highlighting all that could be done in 24 hours, I started blocking my days down to the minute for different tasks. I made time for my opiate, television. Then I tried to wedge writing into whatever empty space was left early in the morning or late at night.

At some point during this campaign to obsessively audit my time, I began rating my satisfaction with how I performed in different areas of my life. I often didn’t like my job or my writing. I told myself that it was okay disliking work because I was a writer. But I never addressed why the writing wasn’t working.

To write I have to first be clear of the conditions that needle and paralyze me. If I’m anxious, opening a document can feel like opening a bag of bees. At the same time, I understood that welcoming the warm, slack jawed stupor of watching so much t.v. prevented me from feeling what I need to, from knowing what I need to know in order to write.

Seven weeks later, I’m unequivocally different. I’ve read books, written a lot more, and slept reasonably. I did lapse for a period of two stressful weeks, however, watching enough movies to make a mockery of the movie-watching provision and two mini-series, which is a category of content I now count as a total cheat.

My plans remain that same, nevertheless. I think it’s important that I caught myself and understand what went wrong. This project is now about gains rather than deprivation. I know what I want to have accomplished in another month and I actually stand a chance of doing it.