Hallmark Christmas Movies Kept Me Sane
When an antibiotic pushed me off the deep end, saccharine holiday romances were my unlikely tether to “reality.”
In 2015, I ended up like many millennials: “stuck” under my parents’ roof. I’d spent 2012–2014 trying and failing repeatedly to execute DIY overseas moves, and now I was home to figure out my next steps. I was in rural southeastern Pennsylvania, with no money and no car—nowhere to go and no means to leave—but being an involuntary shut-in didn’t didn’t break me; ever the happy loner, I fell into a bookish routine. Instead, the “real” fun began just before the holidays. That’s when I was prescribed an antibiotic* for a common female health problem. Just a 3-day course. Of mega-doses.
And oh. my. God.
Almost immediately, I became an ever-trembling, ever-terrified mess.
Yes, I’d read that “psychosis” was a possible side effect in the leaflet of contraindications, but I wasn’t too concerned; I had no history of psychiatric disorder, and the risk supposedly stemmed from a drug interaction that didn’t pertain to me. Of course, I learned later that the leaflet skirted the truth (the drug is documented in medical literature as triggering neuropsychiatric complications all by itself) and that I wasn’t the only person in my family to become paranoid on that medicine. Alas, I didn’t have that info at the time, so I reasoned that maybe I was suddenly “just really stressed”—and hence took a second course weeks later.
Yet from the very first dose, a broad range of intrusive worries had set up shop inside my head. And almost everything triggered or amplified them. Except for Hallmark Christmas movies: my bizarre, unlikely solace.
Realistically, it is stressful to be unable to afford surviving unassisted—but while my attendant millennial anxieties were run-of-the-mill prior to that medicine, they warped into something that felt all-pervasive and almost sinister. In hindsight, the episode felt like OCD on steroids. Thus, while everyone else was feeling cozy in anticipation of the holidays through November and December, I was PARALYZINGLY anxious. About everything: eating, drinking, breathing, opening window blinds, closing window blinds, showering, applying makeup or skincare products, choosing clothes for the day, writing, singing, throwing empty bottles in the recycling bin, talking to friends, looking at photos of loved ones. Every action felt like it could carry unintended, disastrous cosmic repercussions. On the plus side, I understood this was irrational. On the downside, understanding on an intellectual level that your terror is irrational doesn’t cancel it on an emotional one.
Yet even while I sensed that my myriad fears symbolized core anxieties involving guilt over accepting my loved ones’ support (e.g., eating, since my parents paid for the food) and about my own years’ worth of major life choices that failed (i.e., now every choice and idea, no matter how trivial, felt potentially wrong), I cannot overstate the depth of my constant terror. I couldn’t read, couldn’t write, slept fitfully, could barely focus on my freelance gigs — and knew I’d spiral deeper unless I could get out of my head.
…which is where Hallmark came in. As if by divine mercy, Hallmark started marathoning its holiday movies right around when I started my antibiotic — and though I’d been staunchly uninterested in TV throughout adulthood and was always an “only way out is through” kind of person who eschewed escapism, suddenly, this mattered not: I sensed I needed TV. I needed a distraction from the self-compounding mess inside my mind — and quaint storylines, unflaggingly polite dialogue, pretty mountain chalets, and evergreen farms felt like just the thing! So I came downstairs each morning in my pajamas and a fleece robe, settling into the recliner under layers of afghans hand-crocheted by my mom—trembling so hard for hours on end that I felt like I was vibrating (whether for fear or for neurotoxicity, I don’t know)—and I stared at the big-screen TV while movie after movie transported me into a world where nothing scary ever happened, much less seemed remotely possible.
In hindsight, I see a twisted humor in this: that I went sort of nuts and therefore adored the Hallmark Channel. Picture it: fragile young white woman shaking under blankets, glued to Hallmark 24/7. We can laugh about me. It’s okay. I’m better now—thank God. But here’s why I fell so hard for those movies at that time:
About the biggest concern that anyone in a Hallmark Christmas movie ever faced was which sort of fulfillment to chase — with the implied promise that they’d always find the kind that made them happiest. Or the question of whether they might prefer the sleepy simplicity of a rural town over the excitement and opportunities of the city—with the implied promise that they’d end up wherever they were most content.
All happiness, every time!
I won’t detour too far — plenty of insightful critiques have already been written on Hallmark’s holiday programming—but it’s true that Hallmark usually provides loaded answers to the questions that drive its plots, generally insinuating that creative fulfillment (e.g., ice sculpting, writing, cooking) is good, while non-creative professional ambition is unequivocally bad… and that small-town life is always best. Creativity is grand, I agree, but otherwise we all know those worldviews are overly simplistic. I knew this even while I was unraveling. As a well-traveled(-ish), very liberal woman with an M.A. in the social sciences, I also saw the holes in Hallmark’s representation, and the flaws in its feminism. So perhaps my ability to find comfort in the Hallmark Channel back in 2015 — despite being female and liberal and wanting a career in a city—was a mark of my privilege as someone with pale skin and an interest in men. (In fairness, the Hallmark Channel is supposedly making efforts to remedy its racial bias. No news on the hetero bias, alas…)
As a critical consumer of entertainment, though, I wasn’t really putting stock in the films as signposts towards fulfillment. I wasn’t looking to them for validation. I was too progressive to take the plots seriously. I just appreciated that they offered potent hits of serenity — unlike the news, my Facebook feed, or all the other countless movies/shows driven by dysfunction and drama. Such was, and is, the real wonder of Hallmark’s winter wonderlands: they contain no threat of unpleasantry. The lovers always unite. The underdog always wins. And every Big Question receives a life-affirming answer.
Thus, even while these movies dropped the ball on equality—of various kinds—they still created a world where outright existential threats were moot. Sure, any given script might include a dour client, a jealous romantic rival, an arrogant aristocrat, or a douchey date… but nobody was getting murdered, stalked, harassed, brutalized, or raped. Nobody was being physically or verbally abused. No one was getting wrongly incarcerated. No one was struggling with addiction, or facing imminent starvation or homelessness. Nor was anyone crushed by student loan debt, or fearing for the loss of their reproductive rights, or terrified about their own lack of access to other sorts of affordable healthcare… nor was the Earth heating up alarmingly fast.
The characters didn’t have it “all figured out,” but it was okay, because they were safe, in realities where nothing scary ever happened and everything around them was coming to light and to life with the seasonal spirit of generosity, possibility, wonder, love, and warmth.
The other mental-health miracle of Hallmark’s canned predictability? Its unspoken promise that any given movie would contain at least one real-life reminder I desperately needed: some dreams do come true, some “impossible” dilemmas do resolve, some life-affirming new opportunities and connections can be just around the corner at any instant… and sometimes when we’re feeling really hopeless, an angel does appear and has our back.
In fact, who knows, maybe the movies’ appeal was even something primal for me; if genetic memory applies to happy stuff, then holiday romance is in my DNA. My parents and grandparents solidified their early bonds around the holidays, so maybe this, too, was why it felt soothing to watch couple after couple pair off: I exist because holiday romance happens. So as long it was still happening (even if just on TV), then all was right with the world. (Sounds like a stretch, but when you go off the psychological deep end, I’ve learned that you swim in a very metaphorical place.)
And even the commercials were a safe space; Hallmark offered no newsroom previews about disasters, political or otherwise. No ads for horror flicks to stoke terror of the unknown.
To borrow from a popular Christmas carol:
All was calm. All was bright.
At least on the Hallmark Channel, if not inside my head.
The comedown from my rough ride on that antibiotic was a long process. Apparently, this is normal. Neurochemistry’s a delicate thing. Re-centering in sustainable wellbeing, particularly without the benefit of professional counseling, can take some time. I was lucky to have healthy coping mechanisms and a caring circle of family and friends. I hope I never visit that dark headspace again, but I’m also thankful I did when I did, not just because I had the support to come through it safely but because glimpsing my own darkest depths was a uniquely empowering experience. It unlocked astonishing realizations about the workings of my psyche, which made me more mindful of myself going forward. It also helped me see wounds I didn’t even realize I had, such that now I could heal them.
But when I look back on all those days of watching Hallmark from the recliner, and all those nights of falling asleep to Hallmark on the bedroom TV, I feel an almost-reverence now for artistic “safe spaces.” The experience showed me, beyond any doubt, that when you’re barely hanging on to sanity and everything feels frightening, it’s vital to be able to retreat to a world where nothing feels frightening at all. Even if that world is entirely a fantasy, far removed from the “real” one. Because the worlds we visit inside our imaginations do make a difference in our wellbeing. Ask any therapist.
I don’t advocate that we bury our heads in the sand and deny life’s challenges or disappointments, but I do hope we recognize the value in content that offers a respite from fear and pain. Much like how a sapling will take root more easily in undisturbed soil than in soil that’s always getting churned, the tender shoots of recovery can take root more easily in tranquil spaces too. You can transplant your psychological seedlings to a more “realistic” environment later, but while they’re fragile, it helps to spare them from disruption.
Friends and I have talked often over the years about how representations of violence, mental illness, and toxic relationship habits tend to be “the norm” (if not also glorified) in movies, TV, and even popular songs. I consume that kind of media too. And yes, the world needs art that amplifies despair — so that we all become more aware and we turn our attention toward healing it. But the world also needs art that doesn’t amplify despair. Because despair — that feeling that no improvement in circumstances, no happy eventuality, is even possible — can be so crushing that it ends lives.
When I was at my most fragile, I was beyond-lucky to have the softer kind of art in endless supply. Its gentleness, combined with its perennial suggestion that life can be magical and joyful, ultimately helped me push back against the dangerous fear that I might never feel secure — or find love, or have a life of my own — again.
So, you won’t hear me self-righteously rip on anybody for liking cheesy–wholesome media. Whenever there’s a steady wellspring of stories that help people set aside their fears and re-center in their faith in life’s possibilities, we all win.
*Lest I scare anyone needlessly away from a drug that might be totally fine for them, I haven’t named my antibiotic here. However, it is one of the drugs mentioned in this piece on antibiotic neurotoxicity on Vice.