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How An Anime Series Helped Me Recognize My Depression

The world of Paranoia Agent can seem overwhelming and monstrous. But it looked very familiar to me.

Depression is large. I don't mean this in the sense that depression as a mental health disorder is widespread (though, of course, it is). I mean that an individual's depression is greater than the confines of his or her mind. Depression spans past the cliched image of a man with head in hands and infects not only the wrinkles of personal experience, but the larger world beyond. It can make life seem bleak, and the settings and systems surrounding that life equally dark.

If this sounds scary, it's because it is. For most of my childhood, I stumbled upon depressed characters with whom I had very little in common — Catcher in the Rye's Holden Caulfield and The Bell Jar's Ester Greenwood or even primetime television's Dr. Gregory House. They possessed an almost implosive form of sadness and fear; their depression seemed self-contained and anxious, as though fueled from some tightly drawn ball of melancholy stuck in the chest. While this may perfectly reflect someone else's sadness, it did not and does not mirror mine, and it only left me feeling more isolated.

Then I found anime.

I started watching anime when I was about 14 years old. It first interested me because of the bombastic soundtracks and realistic depictions of violence and sadness, but they kept drawing me back because they scared me in a way I'd never been scared before, not just of the actions on the screen but also of my own reactions to them. Certain images and characters and sounds made me feel as sad as I'd ever felt, and hungry for something I couldn't quite identify. I know now that my reactions were provoked from how anime portrays mental illness, and how depression and psychological trauma are often treated as dramatic focal points in anime. I've found this in the popular series Neon Genesis Evangelion, Welcome to the N.H.K., but, eventually, and most significantly, in Paranoia Agent.

The entire series totals a mere 13 episodes, but it drew me in immediately, and introduced me to a dark cast of characters whose troubled minds changed not just their own perceptions, but each other's realities as well. Through a series of separate stories — each one connected by the violent attacks of a mysterious, roller-skating, baseball-bat-wielding young boy named Lil' Slugger — Paranoia Agent reveals how the mental trauma of its characters begins to swell and spread into the city of Tokyo itself.

In the second episode of Paranoia Agent, a popular, arrogant sixth-grader named Yuichi becomes alienated from his classmates because of his resemblance to the rumored attacker terrorizing their community. The anxiety he experiences because of this, fueled by the whispers and stares of his neighbors and teachers, pushes him into dangerous psychosis — so much so that he begins to see those around him as distorted demons living in a crude, crayon-drawn world. In just one episode, Yuichi shifts from joy to despair, confidence to manic paranoia, calm reserve to violent instability, finally culminating in a near-catatonic state of denial and fantasy. It's during this unlivable moment of crisis that Yuichi is struck by Lil' Slugger himself.

One of the main questions that Paranoia Agent forces its viewers to ask — does Lil' Slugger truly exist, or is he a figment of his victims' imagination? — is a clever model of the uncertainty that often accompanies depression. Paranoia Agent's victims have to combat both inner and societal doubt at the peak of their trauma. Living with depression, for me, has always meant questioning the legitimacy of my feelings. Both are painful and isolating processes. But I related most significantly to one specific character: Lil' Slugger's first victim, a designer named Tsukiko Sagi.

Sagi is a shy and successful artist who's created an extremely popular character named Maromi (a Hello Kitty-type icon that looks like a pink dog) and who is now under pressure to create an even bigger character for her company. This pressure, her loneliness, and the bitter jealousy of her colleagues, sends Sagi into the crisis that draws Lil' Slugger to her. Sagi's subsequent trauma and depression further alienate her from the rest of the world, but as her public functionality weakens, her power to create grows ferociously, and in entirely new ways. She begins to imagine Maromi as a real creature with a voice and personality, and a series of increasingly larger, supernatural events take place in Tokyo as a direct result of both Sagi's imagination and depression.

When I watched Paranoia Agent for the first time — alone in my room during freshman year of college, via subtitled YouTube videos streamed between midnight and 7 a.m. — I was also on the brink of internal crisis. I was in a relationship that made me anxious and angry; I was receiving increasingly poor medical news from a slew of different specialists; and I wasn't allowing myself the chance to confront these facts long enough to grieve or evolve. On the rare occasions I did confront the thoughts that scared me the most, and my feelings about them, I was quick to belittle their severity. I blamed laziness or lack of willpower instead of larger forces at work. Beneath all of this, a sort of psychological white noise was growing louder.

My depression didn't care that I was ignoring it, though. I could refuse to acknowledge its existence within me, but I couldn't stop it from infecting the world around me. Nights became scarier. Food tasted worse. My girlfriend was suddenly sad in ways I'd never seen expressed; my relationship with my family grew uncomfortably tense. I hung up on my mother — the first, and probably only, time in my life — because I was certain I couldn't handle hearing one more word through the phone. My life was reacting to the depression that I'd been dismissing in a way that suggested something was very, very wrong.

Discovering Paranoia Agent didn't give me a magical lightbulb moment of self-awareness, but it did help loosen walls I'd spent years constructing around my depression. What I saw in this particular anime, which I had never seen before, was a world with paper-thin boundaries between realism and hyperbole, a world existing, at once, in the farthest extremes of each. It was a reality I understood. Characters sometimes experienced painfully dull and common anxieties, but these small incidents could send a shockwave — sometimes on an apocalyptic scale — through their lives and into the lives of their families and neighbors. I saw a depression that, like mine, was never passive.

Indeed, the depression of Paranoia Agent is an active opponent of the day-to-day lives of those who deal with it. It gives depression the visual and thematic power to mirror the destruction it can cause in real life — and, occasionally, the creation it comes with as well. Like Sagi, I know that my skills and interests in writing, comedy, and music are partially born from my depression, and most certainly evolve through it. I create new worlds every day to make sense of my depression or to calm my worries, and it's no coincidence that I also enjoy writing fiction, or that for years and years I filled notebooks with detailed maps of imaginary nations. I would never call depression a benefit, least of all for anyone who isn't myself, but it is foolish to view depression as a purely destructive illness. If anything, depression is one of the strongest creators, and largest forces, in my life.

It's this sense of largeness that pulls me toward anime like Paranoia Agent, whose characters and conflicts are often larger than life. When I watch them, I'm allowed the rare opportunity to see something I've only ever experienced in my mind be displayed publicly through story and art. It spurs a blurred feeling of both relief and almost-overwhelming fear, but I'm grateful for it. It's a chance to learn more about this unwieldy thing which affects my life, and to understand that I'm not alone in it. It's helped me seek the help I needed for years, and allowed me to cut myself a break once in a while.

These practices, over time, have become invaluable in my fight against sadness and fear. Since first watching Paranoia Agent, I've discovered many other anime — as well as novels, comics, and essays — that portray or describe depression in a similar way. I have also seen a half-dozen different therapists and been off and on several types of medications. I'm better than I used to be — not necessarily because I'm happier, but because I've had the chance to recognize what my depression looks like and what it can do to my world. And each time I rewatch Paranoia Agent, or find a new anime that similarly depicts depression, it's a bit like a mini therapy session. Or rather, it's like getting back into the boxing ring, sparring against a longtime rival whose moves I can more easily anticipate.