7.6 The Critic
Disclaimer: In case you didn’t know, I am not a medical doctor. Some of the information in the following piece is purely my opinion and the various results are based on my own personal experiences. Good, that’s out of the way.
A couple of years ago, I took an improv course at Second City. During one of the first classes, we did an exercise where the teacher asked us all to pretend we were animals. Along with the animalistic movements, we were to add noises - grunts, growls and such. I thought to myself, I feel so stupid doing this. I looked out over the class, at all these grown adults making animal noises and learned something. We were in a closed classroom, the teacher encouraged us to go as far as we could and everyone there was acting like idiots. It wasn’t the teacher or anyone else in that room stopping me from acting like an animal, it was me. There was a voice in my head that told me how stupid I looked, how stupid I was for signing up for this class, how ridiculous the entire endeavour was and that I should just leave.
That damn voice has been there for as long as I can remember. I think, or at least hope, that other people have the same one in their head. Imagine that, we are all individuals with distinct personalities, but one thing that potentially binds us is a similar voice of contempt for ourselves. Maybe some people don’t have that critical voice in their head, to which I say to them, Either you’re fooling yourself or you’re some kind of evolved species.
A few years ago, I had a writing teacher that told us about the two voices in our head. Within a paragraph, I’ve upped the ante to two voices. By the end of this piece, I might realize I have multiple personalities. Anyway, she told us that there is the voice of the devil, not in a theological sense, just the side of us that holds us back and stops us from doing things. The other one is a doubting voice, not necessarily bad, it just keeps us in check, makes sure we’re making the right decisions. I could do with a little less devil and a little more doubting. The devil is loud and obnoxious and tends to get his way.
For me, the devil has been a kind of shadow, a dark figure that follows me around. He’s faceless and has a voice like he’s chewing on charcoal. He wears all black, including a black fedora with a long brim that dips down over his featureless face. But he hasn’t been following me around as much lately. Here’s why.
A couple of months ago, I was in a car accident and suffered a concussion. I went to some pretty dark places, got depressed and felt all sorry for myself. My mother gave me a book called Superbetter by Jane McGonigal. She is a game designer and went through many of the same problems I did in the aftermath of the concussion. So, she designed a game to help heal her brain. As in a lot of video games, you create a persona and play as a character. There are power ups, quests and bad guys. The difference is that the power ups and quests are all designed to keep you on track to do things that are good for you and for healing your concussion. You can also create bad guys to fight and eventually conquer.
I thought about this and the devil came to mind. But I did something a little different. Because the devil is so critical of what I do, I decided to call him The Critic. You can upload photographs to represent the different bad guys you create, and I immediately thought of the animated show from the 1990s called The Critic, created by Matt Groaning and which starred Jon Lovitz. If you remember this show, the main character is hardly what comes to mind when you think of the devil. It made me laugh. By personifying this voice in my head as an animated Jon Lovitz, it somehow instantly disarmed the ambiguous nature of this part of my brain. With ambiguity comes fear and uncertainty. With The Critic came an image that I could deal with easily.
The video game Superbetter led to other forms of positive rehabilitation. I was told not to use my brain, that it needed time to heal. Although I do agree with this, at the same time, it was my need to use my head that made me better. Yes, at times I pushed myself and paid for it. Maybe I’m still not completely there, but it was the creative activities that I’m involved with that made the different.
Having to do podcast interviews or prepare a story to share in front of a roomful of people, whatever the case, I needed to exercise my brain in order for it to work for me the way it used to. I understand that concussions are still a mystery. The severity of them can vary and the symptoms are all over the map. For me, what I needed to do was start thinking creatively again. I needed to uncross whatever wires got crossed. One of those wires was turning the shadow of the devil into the ridiculousness of The Critic.