I Finally Found A TV Character Whose Depression Looks Like Mine
In You’re the Worst, I found what I've always been looking for in television — reassurance that I’m not alone.
I cried in the bathroom at work, always preferring the handicapped stall so I could stare out the window as I did. I cried on the subway, both ways, most often on the M train. I cried at punk shows, in between sets and waiting in line to buy a T-shirt. I cried in the middle of the night, next to my sleeping partner, trying not to be too loud. I cried while watching Law and Order, 30 Rock, MasterChef Junior. I cried on the phone with my mother, struggling to explain that even though I didn’t know why I was crying, I knew I needed to go home so I could cry on her couch, in a different city.
Gretchen's storyline is more than an accurate take on depression — it's a mirror.
Whenever this happens — when I am off my medication or when it ceases working, and the depression knocks the wind out of me almost out of nowhere — I start to seek reassurance: reassurance that I’ll be OK, that other people have survived the same thing, that I’m not alone. The problem is depression makes me want to be alone; it makes me scared of other human beings, wary and suspicious of people’s company, and unable to contribute to conversations beyond emotionless nods and robotic uh-huhs. So, I have to look elsewhere for this reassurance. That place is almost always television.
Unfortunately, I've found most television programs aren’t sure how to approach depression. More often than not, these shows go the ultra-dramatic route — the depressed person is wrapped under a pile of blankets, clutching handfuls of pills while contemplating suicide, sitting in a room surrounded by empty pizza boxes and spent beer cans. Depression on television is active; depression in real life is passive. Depressed television characters feel too much sadness; depressed people in real life don’t feel much of anything. It felt like no show would get it right — though BoJack Horseman gave a really admirable effort — until this season of You’re the Worst.
You’re the Worst isn’t a program I expected to praise for its poignant storyline about clinical depression. It’s an FXX sitcom about two generally unlikable and self-destructive characters, who reluctantly end up in a relationship after a spontaneous hookup, and who often shrug as they ruin the lives of those around them. The second season started with the usual hijinks of a couple newly living together, as Gretchen (Aya Cash) and Jimmy (Chris Geere) tried to prove to each other that settling down doesn’t mean becoming boring. Then it switched gears, with Gretchen suddenly sneaking out in the middle of the night, driving away from the house she shares with Jimmy. She’s seen spending her nights crying alone in her car, drunkenly lashing out at her friends, and then straight-up telling Jimmy that she suffers from clinical depression.
Gretchen stops caring about anything, because her brain won’t allow her to care. She can’t bring herself to get dressed, to enjoy socializing, to work, or do much of anything besides drink, snort Adderall, and plunge face-first into a pile of cocaine in desperate, failed attempts to feel something, anything. Gretchen becomes an unwilling participant in her mind’s continual downward spiral, and it almost hurts to watch, especially when it's a feeling I know all too well. Gretchen's storyline is more than an accurate take on depression — it’s a mirror.
Back in September, the month this second season began, I was coming down from my own major depressive episode. I'd just closed out the summer of aforementioned crying jags; I’d sneak away to cry in private, often while playing mindless games on my phone. (Have you ever seen a young woman sobbing hysterically as she plays Restaurant Story 2 on the sidewalk outside of her Astoria apartment? If so, nice to meet you!) It landed me back at my parents’ house in Westchester, where I spent a long weekend crying on and off all day. Their two dogs would stare at me curiously, cocking their heads to the side at the sound of my hiccups. I’d return a blank stare. They didn’t know how to help, but, to be fair, neither did I.
When I'm depressed, I spend a lot of time inside my head, giving in to the brain that seems to be doing all it can to destroy me. My mind insists something is broken within me, and that it won’t ever be fixed. I try to bargain with it: Maybe I’ll be happier if I were in a relationship, or if I moved out of New York City, or if I adopted some sad-looking mutt from the animal shelter who needs me to survive, whose mangy and matted fur looked as disgusting and worthless as the way that I feel on a daily basis. I call these "broken brain" moods, and when I'm stuck in them I can’t help but watch everyone around me who is smiling. I try to figure out what they have that I don’t, or what they’ve done that I haven’t. I never find any answers, only more frustration with myself for not just being happy.
In You're the Worst — specifically “LCD Soundsystem,” a brilliant, beautiful, and heartbreaking half-hour of television — Gretchen goes through all of these motions. She sees a seemingly perfect couple and their child. They look happy, so clearly they must be. She follows them, becomes fixated with them. She holds their baby. She takes their dog. She drinks the same wine as them, with them, and mirrors their movements. It doesn’t make her feel any better — ultimately, it makes her feel worse.
Gretchen’s actions, her words, her anger — these are all things I've done, said, and experienced. When Gretchen drinks too much, trying to ignore the faulty wiring in her brain, it reminds me to take out my recycling bin, overflowing with beer cans. When Gretchen sends Lindsay (Kether Donahue) to handle one of her work tasks, I remember every time I took a sick day because I couldn’t get out of bed, or found a freelancer to cover for me because the thought of writing a few words about television — a job I greatly love — exhausted me so much that I just slept instead.
But what’s most compelling, and achingly familiar, about this season of You’re the Worst is how Gretchen’s depression affects her relationship. She can’t feel anything for Jimmy, even though she does love him, because she’s become numb to everything around her — even the good parts. She lashes out and argues with him; she demands to be alone; she bails, leaving his apartment to crash elsewhere without telling him. He offers to help, but she knows he can’t.
I couldn't explain it to him, because I couldn't explain it to myself. All I knew was he couldn't help.
I was scared to tell my boyfriend about my depression. I knew he was perceptive enough to guess what was going on, but I also felt the terror of saying it out loud — confirming a diagnosis I had spent years trying to hide, and, in doing so, giving him what I figured was a perfect excuse to bail. Who wants to stay with someone “crazy”? And who wants to be the person asking them to stay? When I decided to stay with my parents, all I gave him was a simple text saying my roommate was out of town and that I couldn’t be alone. Then I left.
Understandably, he was concerned, but I couldn’t offer any other elaboration or explanation. I couldn’t talk to him because I couldn’t do anything. All I could do — all I was doing during those summer months — was make things worse for no explainable reason. I couldn’t tell him why I started crying mid-conversation, or what made me scream at him on a subway platform before jumping on the train and making him take the next one. His questioning refrains — “What’s wrong? Are you upset with me? What can I do? How can I help?” — became overwhelming and frustrating; his attempts to cheer me up made me sneer with anger at my phone, even though I knew the reaction was unfair. I couldn’t explain it to him, because I couldn't explain it to myself. All I knew was he couldn’t help.
In the season’s penultimate episode, “Other Things You Could Be Doing,” Gretchen explains to Jimmy, “I’ve always been able to flip myself back over eventually, but I ran out of time. This is how I am now, and it’s not OK with you, nor should it be.”
It’s a line that knocked me over, and I paused the episode as I sat there in silence for a few minutes. That line was every night we'd ever sat on my bed as I cried, all the times I insisted depression is something that I’m used to, something that comes and goes, but also something that was, for some reason, sticking around this time. It was something that I had accepted — this is my life now, and I will adjust to it — but something I couldn’t possibly inflict on another person. I told my boyfriend, repeatedly, it was OK if he didn’t want to stick around. But he stayed, and so did Jimmy.
Mental health is always a work in progress.
With Jimmy's help, Gretchen pulls herself out of this cloud, even if just a little. The series doesn’t just say she’s magically cured: Her depression is something she has to continue working on, finding relief in better ways than her chosen methods. (In the finale, it’s revealed that she isn’t on medication — which absolutely baffles Jimmy — but she acknowledges she has to figure something out in the future.)
As for me, I went back into therapy and found new medication that — knock on wood — has been doing a great job at keeping my moods level. There are still bad days, and there always will be, but I know mental health is always a work in progress. What makes it better is knowing people will stick around no matter how irrational you get; what makes it better is knowing you can still always watch television — and being alone with the television isn’t bad when you’re watching someone go through the same things as you. Mental illness doesn’t have to be a private, taboo, and shameful thing, and I'm grateful for You’re the Worst because it normalizes my depression. And when this thing you're going through is the subject of a major arc in a hilarious sitcom, it can’t be that bad, right?
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