This is a very personal story. It’s a story about the power of movies and how they can affect us at a deep, personal level. It’s also a sad story; a story about suicide. Suicide is a sensitive subject, so if you feel you might get “triggered” by a story about it, please read no more.
My mom killed herself in 2006. I was 19, she was 47, and we all knew it was only a matter of time before it happened. When she died, I was angry. I claimed I understood why she did it, but truthfully, I hadn’t the faintest. Years passed, my moods constantly oscillating between anger, frustration, fear, and depression. Rarely a day would pass that I wouldn’t be, at some point, consumed by attempts to process and rationalize the pain. It impacted my studies, my relationships, and my jobs. I did my best to keep it together, but in truth, I was unraveling at the seams. And then, I re-watched Groundhog Day for the first time in years, and everything changed.
Yes, that’s right, the 1993 comedy starring Bill Murray gave me closure on my mother’s suicide – stay with me here. I had popped in the DVD at my dad’s house, gotten comfy on the couch and was ready to enjoy one of my late mother’s favorite movies. The first act had barely begun when my father said a few words that honestly changed my life. He said, rather nonchalantly, “Oh, Groundhog Day, I can’t watch that movie anymore. Your mom and I watched that movie the night she died.” A coincidence, I thought, in the moment, but those words ricocheted around my brain while I watched. Somewhere around the midway point, around when, spoiler alert – Bill Murray’s Phil starts attempting to kill himself or spends entire days in bed, that it clicked.
My mom, due to her crippling anxiety, uncontrollable mood swings, and insurmountable depression, was stuck in a loop of her own. Despite every attempt – volunteering for charities, going back to college, meditation, medication, stints in a psych ward, religion, spiritualism, moving out of her family’s home, virtually every type of lifestyle change you could think of – she was stuck. Her life couldn’t change. She did the only thing she could do to break the loop – she ended it.
I was floored. I felt like I was examining the situation for the first time. I sought out every special feature, documentary, and interview Harold Ramis did for the film. I found an interview where he states that Phil spends ten thousand years in the loop, at least in the original drafts of the script. It makes sense, when you think about it. Simply based upon the skills he develops, Phil spends at least dozens of years living the same day over and over again. Imagine the sheer madness that would set in. I began to empathize with what my mother went through. I never could imagine what it was like to live in her mind, to deal with the physical and mental demons that haunted her, but I could imagine what it would be like to be stuck in a loop, like her, like Phil. The frustration is impossible to comprehend, but thinking about it in these terms, for whatever reason, made me start to feel at peace with everything that happened. If I was her, or Phil, for that matter, I think I would have done the same. And you can’t blame someone for doing the only thing that seems to make sense.
So thank you, Harold Ramis. I never got the opportunity to tell you, but your silly, brilliant little film about an implausible loop in time on Groundhog’s Day changed my life, and for that, I am eternally grateful. May you rest in peace.
-Patrick B. McDonald