Early in 2017, after years of knowing something wasn’t right with me, I found myself sat in a therapist’s office with a diagnosis of depression with suicidal ideation. Now, that sounds more dramatic than it is, especially that second part. It doesn’t mean I tried anything, and in all honesty, I probably never would have, but when I was asked if my depression had ever become so bad that I had considered it, I answered honestly, “Yes.”
For the rest of the year, I spent time with my therapist and practised self-care as much as I could. I tried to go easier on myself, remove aspects of my life that were setting off my depression, and tried to reboot my brain. I also kept this all to myself. A handful of people knew about my depression year but a majority didn’t and still don’t. My wife, my therapist, a few friends, and the incredibly supportive Audiences Everywhere crew were all privy to it, but outside of them, I said nothing. And the reason is simple: I didn’t think anyone else would give a shit. I assumed that they would hear about it and say, “Yeah, mate, we all get a bit down sometimes. Man up!”
Which brings me to here and now, December 2017, and me writing an article that will be published and read by, I assume, billions of people. I am in a very good place. With the support of my wife and my therapist, I have managed to identify triggers for my depressive moments (my ‘bad brain days’) and began to manage them. I am no longer on Twitter, which has helped enormously; I have drastically cut down my caffeine intake, and I have stopped beating myself up.
One of the more unpredictable elements of my current recovery, and a big help when I needed it most, has been television. 2017 has been a great year for mental health on TV, and so many times I’ve been watching a show and I’ve seen myself there. A character has been talking about their own mental state, and they’ve described the exact thing I’ve been feeling but haven’t been able to put into words. They have also made it easier to bring up the subject of my own struggles with people when I can say, “Yeah, I have that thing that Bojack Horseman has. No, not alcoholism. No, not the head of a horse. Y’know what, forget it.”
The main aspect of TV’s aid in my recovery was how the shows sought to destigmatise mental health issues in society. Shows like Broad City, Bojack Horseman, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Lady Dynamite all put their characters’ issues front and centre even if the shows aren’t necessarily about them. Broad City’s latest season had an episode in which Ilana’s depression is exacerbated by Seasonal Affective Disorder and, as she has cut down on her meds, she spends the whole time trying to get out from under it with the use of a SAD lamp. The “revelation” that Ilana has depression is not played as a revelation. It’s nestled between jokes and is an off the cuff line to set up Ilana’s having to go to work while she’s spiraling. The scenes of her in work when the depression hits, when everything begins to slow down and seems far away for her, make for a perfect representation of that feeling. A tentacle of unbearable sadness wraps around you, and there are a million miles between you and everyone around you. Ilana is one of TV’s great characters who is characterised by her happiness and “fuck it”-ness, so to see her going through this is such a pure example for people to see that, yes, even people who are outwardly exuberant most of the time can be going through some bad stuff.
The MVP for mental health on TV this year, for me, has to be Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Season two ended with the cliffhanger that Rebecca now needed to destroy Josh rather than marry him or moon after him forever. The marketing for the newest season promised revenge and a new, sexier, evil Rebecca. How amazing then that the show gave us a taste of that for an episode or two before pulling the rug out and giving us a show in which all of Rebecca’s neurosis and pain took centre stage. Episodes five and six of the third season took Rebecca down some very dark roads, with episode five ending in a suicide attempt. Episode six found Rebecca back in therapy and getting a new diagnosis (accompanied by a song, of course). Rebecca’s joy at the possibility that a new diagnosis would mean a cure is infectious and, again, familiar. Once you know the name of the thing bringing you down, there’s a sense of power. You already know how the enemy fights but now you know its name. And if you know its name you can ask for help in fighting it.
What has been wonderful with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has been the unflinching way it has depicted Rebecca’s descent back into depression. She lashes out at her friends, she does irrational things, and she lies in order to keep her issues to herself. I find it so honest and real and encouraging that her friends only want to help her, and her diagnosis doesn’t change her in their eyes. When you’re not well, you assume that no one else cares and you’re going to become a burden to them. The number of times I apologised to my therapist for wasting his time or to my wife for being terrible company is ridiculous, especially as each time I did it I was told that I wasn’t wasting his time at all and that my wife loves my company. We still somehow have it ingrained in us that speaking about mental illness is a no-no and that it makes people uncomfortable, it makes us look weak, and it invites scorn. So to see characters on TV openly talk about their struggles, seek help, and work toward getting better was inspirational to me and a big push toward me picking up the phone and making an appointment to see someone.
I think it also helps that the shows referenced above are comedies. They are all incredibly clever, very funny shows that are meticulously written and which manage to Trojan horse their mental health message into our homes hidden inside musical numbers, animal puns, and slapstick. It is much easier to swallow a plot line about borderline personality disorder, Alzheimer’s, or SAD if you know that any minute now there’s going to be a punchline that puts all the air back into the room. Of course, this perhaps speaks to our societal discomfort about these kinds of topics, when a straight drama about them wouldn’t be as successful. But it also shows that we’re getting better though and a TV comedy doesn’t have to be flippant and about nothing. It can get big issues like this into the conversation on the backs of absurdity and very clever comedy writing, which we saw lots of in 2017.
Perhaps that’s because this year we’ve all, as reasonable people, felt the world slip away from us. Having 45’s unique brand of utter, incomprehensible bullshit beamed into our brains 24/7 can’t help but exacerbate our feelings of sadness, hopelessness, terror, anxiety, and worthlessness, so it’s important to see people on TV like ourselves presented as functional, normal people who need understanding, care, love, and someone to talk to.
And that’s the most important thing I learned this year, my depression year. Talking helps. It seems easy and obvious, but it didn’t occur to me at the time at all. Talking to a therapist was terrifying. My biggest fear was that I would go and see someone and they would belittle my pain and just tell me to get more exercise and cheer up. Obviously, this didn’t happen and when I eventually told my therapist about my worries, he asked me more about it and we talked about that fear. And the more I talked—and I talked a lot—the more I began to feel better. So if you’re watching Broad City, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Bojack Horseman, Lady Dynamite, Stranger Things 2, Mindhunter, Better Call Saul, Homeland, Orange is the New Black, This is Us, or You’re the Worst, and you can see yourself there and recognise symptoms of your own struggle, talk to people about it. It will be the best thing you ever did for your suffering, and it will help you enormously.
For Australia: Beyond Blue – 1300 22 4636
For the USA: Depression Hotline – 1 (630) 482-9696
For the UK: Mind – 0300 123 3393
For Canada: CSPS – 1-833-456-4566
Featured Image: Netflix