How Pitch Perfect Changed My Life: A Story of Recovery

pitch perfect movie changed my life
Only one movie truly changed my life.
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I have loved many movies in my thirty-eight years on this planet: Casablanca, No Country for Old Men, and Point Break being three of my all-time favorites.

However, only one movie truly changed my life. Only one movie managed to lift my spirits when I was consumed by anxiety and on the verge of ruining my marriage.  Only one movie helped me bond with my four-year old son Harry. Only one movie compelled me to get some much-needed cardiovascular exercise. Only one movie filled my head with infectious pop tunes that still make me whistle and smile at least once every single day.

I’m talking about Pitch Perfect. 

Yes, that one. The 112-minute comedy about a college freshman named Becca (Anna Kendrick) who reluctantly joins an all-female a cappella group.

The first time I saw Pitch Perfect I was not in a movie theater; I was in the Intensive Care Unit at Carolina Pines Regional Medical Center.  This was in May 2014.  On the night before my son’s first birthday party, I caught a nasty stomach flu and got so dehydrated that my heart went haywire.  As I laid in that hospital bed with my heart galloping at 165 beats a minute, I was terrified. Gasping for breath, my first thought was of Harry, of him having to grow up without a dad. In a flash, I thought of all the things I would miss if I died there with IVs in my arm and oxygen tubes shoved up my nose.  I would miss T-Ball games and school plays, trips to the park and bike rides and graduations.

But twenty-five years’ worth of panic attacks and OCD and depression had taught me to mistrust my body.  As had my other trips to the ER, all of them ending in humiliating fashion with an all-too-friendly doctor informing me that “No, Max, you aren’t having a heart attack, your heart is perfectly healthy.”

“This could be anxiety,” I said to the head nurse who seemed alarmed by my elevated blood pressure.   

Gently stroking my forearm, she explained that atrial fibrillation was a quivering or irregular heartbeat, and that, once hooked up to a heart monitor, it could not be mistaken for a panic attack. She also explained that A-fib could lead to blood clots or strokes, but not to worry.  

“Here,” she said, “I’ll put the TV on for you. Try to relax.”

Remote in shaky hand, I flipped channels until I unwittingly came upon the opening scene of Pitch Perfect: a group of college guys singing an a cappella version of “Please Don’t Stop the Music.” I watched for a minute, transfixed by the actor Adam DeVine’s comically-expressive face.  Although his all-male singing group was comprised of dorky-looking dudes in burgundy sports jackets, the Treble Makers, as I would soon learn they were called, sang and danced across the stage with a swagger typically reserved for performers like Kanye West. Toward the end of the song, the group formed themselves into a human airplane, and I laughed, the heart monitor beeping crazily beside me.

“You okay, sweetheart?” the nurse asked, poking her head out from behind a privacy curtain. 

I gave her the thumbs up and kept watching. The movie did not just take my mind off of my racing heart and fear of death; I was genuinely charmed by the musical performances, the light-hearted comedy, and the quirky cast of characters, especially the oddballs Fat Amy, the self-proclaimed best singer in Tasmania, and Lilly, a low-talker who confesses she “was born with gills like a fish.”

But most of all, I identified with Becca, the protagonist. Even though I was sweating uncontrollably and pumped full of Ativan to keep me calm, I was still an English professor by trade, so I noticed (and appreciated) Becca’s character arc. An alienated DJ who keeps everyone at arm’s length with sarcastic barbs and an “amazingly scary ear spike,” she manages, over the course of the film, to make friends, find romantic love, and utilize and be recognized for her musical talent, which is basically what all human beings are striving to do, no?  And, to put a cherry on this particular cinematic sundae, she and Fat Amy and Lilly and the other Barden Bellas win the prestigious (and delightfully nerdy) International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella.

By the time the end credits had rolled, my heart was back in sinus rhythm.  I was released three hours later, but as soon as I stepped into the early morning sunlight a dizzying wave of anxiety washed over me.

That anxiety persisted, unabated, for months. Unbeknownst to my wife or anyone else, I spent a lot of my free time researching atrial fibrillation and feeling angry.  According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, less than 2 percent of people under the age of 65 were afflicted with atrial fibrillation.  So why me? I asked myself. Why do I, a conscientious adult male who isn’t overweight, doesn’t drink or smoke, and eats a semi-healthy diet, have to take pills every day to keep from winding up in the ICU again? I was already battling crippling anxiety and depression, and the heart thing just pushed me over the edge.

In short, for those months after my unexpected trip to the ICU, I made life for my family and myself a living Hell. Until I was given an ultimatum by my wife, “Get professional help, or we’re in trouble.”

Cut to a week later and I still, foolishly, had not acted on her ultimatum. I remember I was in Wal-Mart walking laps, which was something I did whenever my anxiety level peaked. Covered in sweat, heart pumping, I was walking along when I happened to look down at my hands and realized they were trembling violently.  Nearing the electronics section, I stopped at an oversized bin of DVDs on sale for five dollars apiece. Plunging my hands into a sea of mostly forgettable movies, I rummaged around until I caught a glimpse of seven attractive, college-aged females wearing sunglasses and standing side by side. Above their heads was the tagline GET PITCH SLAPPED. I bought the movie, brought it home, and watched it that same day. I laughed at Fat Amy’s jokes. I sang along with the Barden Bellas. I even cried when Becca kissed Jesse for the first time.

The next morning, I found a doctor and a therapist, and I finally began taking much-needed medication for my OCD, Panic Disorder, and depression, an un-holy trinity of mental illnesses that had polluted my life for as long as I could remember.

Pitch Perfect also became a part of my treatment plan. I made a Pitch Perfect playlist on Spotify that I listened to every day when I went on my daily walks. At night my wife, my son, and I had Dance Time, and up-tempo songs performed by the Barden Bellas and the Treble Makers were always played, much to everyone’s delight. More recently, whenever my wife has a well-earned night out with friends, my son and I have Pitch Perfect Pizza Parties; we eat Little Caesar’s pizza, and as we watch the movie, we sing and dance and make silly comments, while I hold the remote control, making sure to hit the MUTE button whenever there is a curse word.

By any objective measure, Pitch Perfect is a successful movie. Do a quick Google search, and you’ll discover that it made $115 million at the box office while only costing $17 million to make.  With an average critic’s score of 80 percent and an audience score of 83 percent, it is certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, and it won a slew of accolades including four Teen Choice Awards and two MTV Movie Awards.  The movie produced some amazing music as well.  Racking up 1.2 million copies sold, the Pitch Perfect soundtrack was the highest selling soundtrack of 2013, and it contained three songs that appeared in the Billboard Hot 100.

But those are just the facts, and facts don’t always tell the whole story and they certainly don’t tell mine.

My story is about my un-ironic love for a movie concerning friendship and romantic love, self-discovery and teenage angst, music and competition, introversion and extroversion.

My story is about gratitude.

So thank you, Pitch Perfect. 

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