My childhood had many endings — witnessing my father’s abuse of my mother, which I remember better than the sound of his voice; the swift personality shift within my mother that I only later learned was triggered by the knowledge she was adopted — but none more definitive than when I was institutionalized in a mental hospital at 13.
I was always an odd child, prone to health issues and anxiety. I had a nervous tic of looking at my shoes when I walked, leading me to careen into door frames and people, as if facing the world with a direct gaze was too much to bear. By then, my mother noticed that my natural oddities had given way to something darker, and my suicide attempts and musings landed me in a mental hospital just as the holiday season was in full bloom. I still can’t see Christmas lights or smell a traditional Thanksgiving dinner without my heart seizing in my chest. I was in the hospital for over a month, and by the time I left, I was not the girl I was when I entered. My mental traumas in the years following that first hospitalization grew deeper. Even though my diagnosis shifted over the years — depression, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type II — one truth remained: I have tied my identity to my madness so fiercely, I don’t know who I am when I’m not ill.
Intellectually, I understand I am more than my diagnosis. I am passionate and bold, a great cook, and a kind friend who snorts when I laugh no matter how hard I try not to. Emotionally though, my greatest fear is that my illness is not a matter of childhood traumas and misfiring brain chemistry, but a personal, moral failing that no amount of psychiatric care can alleviate. During an adolescence marked by hospitalization, a gauntlet of medication, and public breakdowns that caused me to lose people I thought cared about me, I learned to create my own pantheon of madwomen, culled from stories both cinematic and historical. These women became my aunts, sisters, mothers, and comrades. They didn’t shun me for my illness because they, too, had struggled in the icy waters of depression or the glorious brilliance of mania. These women were femme fatales, bombshells, and mousy poets, scientists and common women with hands calloused from domestic work, reminding me of my grandmother and great-aunts. They were women trapped for decades in the chilly halls of unforgiving hospitals during the early part of the 20th century, whose names I only know because of the historians and mental-health professionals who gently coaxed them into the cultural consciousness, hoping that their pasts might speak to our present.
If I were born 50 years ago, it would be near impossible for me to find the care, both psychiatric and personal, to survive. Even in just my lifetime, apparatuses that are used to treat mental illness have changed dramatically, from the medication available to the length of someone’s stay in a psychiatric ward. But I worry what hasn’t changed is the language we use to culturally shape this experience. Mental illness, particularly for black and brown people, whose communities have yet to create an empathetic vocabulary to discuss this issue, can feel like a dark mark that can’t be hidden or scrubbed away no matter how hard you try. Film and television reflect and shape this cruel history. Madwomen are rarely depicted as beleaguered geniuses or the heroes of their own stories, but often its victims and villains. Sometimes their struggles in films, like the gratingly simplistic The Three Faces of Eve, or sexual thrillers from the early 1990s, like Fatal Attraction, seem to suggest that madness is a byproduct of womanhood itself. It isn’t that these characters have tragic ends that is the problem — it’s that they’re rarely afforded grace and interiority (the 1942 Bette Davis–led women’s picture, Now, Voyager, is a sterling example to the contrary).
Perhaps it’s knowing this history that made me bristle at the musical dark comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend when it premiered in 2015. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend satirizes and finds humanity in the trope that gives it its title. The series follows Rebecca Bunch (played by co-creator and writer Rachel Bloom), a Harvard- and Yale-educated real-estate lawyer who rips apart her moneyed life in New York City to chase a boyfriend from her teen years, Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), to West Covina, California. Now in its third season, it’s always been a bauble of carefully spun candy, with a trace of bitter truths lurking under the surface. It’s witty, well-acted, brazenly inventive, and a pleasure to watch. It has an elasticity few other shows come close to, let alone pull off with such regularity, in the way it melds cutting emotional truths with audacious musical numbers that reference everything from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to 1980s hair-metal bands. But I was always left cold by it. It took until season three, which takes a gimlet-eyed approach to Rebecca’s mental-health concerns, for me to realize that my chilliness toward the series wasn’t a mark of any inauthenticity I witnessed in its narrative. In fact, it isn’t that I didn’t see much of my own journey with mental illness on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; I saw too much of myself in the overachieving, myopic Rebecca Bunch.
One of the greatest pleasures of the series is watching Rachel Bloom inhabit this character. She is at her best when she interrogates Rebecca’s mania, capturing the seductive quality of a manic episode. Its garish, bright intensity fools you into believing this is your best self as you dive headfirst into a series of self-destructive and often exhilarating behaviors. I can see myself in Rebecca’s relationship with mania, the vivacity of her daydreams, and her fraught relationship with her mother.
In season three, several episodes reveal that Rebecca’s issues are much more knotted than the unchecked depression and anxiety she occasionally mentions. In episode five, “I Never Want to See Josh Again,” Rebecca finds herself living with her controlling mother, stuck in a miasma of depression and bad habits, doing something I do with ritual intensity when depressed: Google the least painful ways to kill myself. After finding out her mother has been drugging her strawberry milkshakes instead of speaking honestly with her about taking medication, Rebecca gets on a plane back to West Covina and tries to kill herself by methodically swallowing the pills she found in her mother’s room. It’s an hour of television that is both harrowing and empathetic. But it’s the next episode, “Josh Is Irrelevant,” that cut closest to the bone.
I watched the screener for “Josh Is Irrelevant” a few days before it aired in a haze of my own depression that I had been passing off as stress. Even in this mental state, I was keenly aware of what a step forward this episode was for the series. Tonally, it was a touch more somber. In Rebecca’s shifting emotions, I saw my own history: the giddy elation of a new diagnosis she believes can solve everything, the buoyant mania that often follows a suicide attempt, the careful navigation that comes when you’ve tried to set fire to your own life and still have to move forward. When Rebecca receives an unexpected diagnosis of borderline personality disorder in the episode, I felt my heart lurch in my throat. Even though I have often spoken out against the stigmatization of mental illness, personality disorders make me fearful. Something about the word “personality” rankles me, confirming a noxious fear that the problem is oneself rather than a matter of illness. By the time “Josh Is Irrelevant” aired, I was hospitalized in a psychiatric unit for a suicide attempt; a few days later, a psychiatrist suggested to me that I, too, may have borderline personality disorder.
My greatest fear as an adult has been to be hospitalized again. The stakes are much higher than when I was a child. I support myself financially with no safety net of family or a partner to depend on. Seeing this episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was almost too perfectly timed to a breakdown that had been percolating for months. The fissures had been growing deeper, the memories and habits I thought I buried long ago were oozing to the surface. I passed off my pain as mere stress from my job, even though I knew something else was happening.
Where Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s typically keen understanding of Rebecca and her mental problems somewhat falters is in the season-two finale, when we see flashbacks of her time at a mental hospital. We learn that Rebecca left Harvard after a romantic entanglement with a college professor. She set fire to his belongings with alcohol and found herself forced into a court-mandated psychiatric hospital stay. The series only briefly depicts Rebecca’s time in this hospital — the scene amounts to less than a minute. It would be ludicrous to expect the series to depict a mental hospital stay with deft precision in such a short scene. Still, it harkens to the more prosaic renderings of this experience that are littered throughout pop culture. It’s shot, like the other flashbacks, with a gray bluish tint far away from the saccharine, bright palette that the series typically hews toward. Rebecca sits on a decadent lawn with two other patients lost in their own worlds. Two nurses watch over them. As a nurse hands Rebecca her medication, she asks the other, “What’s with this one?” in a gruff manner. In just a few seconds, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend reproduced the ingrained cinematic mores of mental hospitals that are always depicted as grim, regimented hells, no matter how necessary they are for the character.
The experience of a psychiatric in-patient stay is of course complicated by money, class, race, and insurance. Each psychiatric unit is a world unto itself, so I can only speak to my experiences with any authority. I am still trying to find the right words to communicate to my friends, who have been invaluable during my stay and my current recovery, and properly embody an experience that was equal parts harrowing and restorative. This much I can say for certain: No film or television series has yet to encapsulate the blend of heartbreak, desperation, and regiment that comes with being in a mental hospital.
Even being in a good facility (and finally having health insurance), the early days of my my recent hospitalization can only be described as dehumanizing. I was stripped of my phone, my belongings, and all my clothes, put in a thin hospital gown, and left in a cold, harshly lit room, given no clear answers by the nurses who took my blood, their faces marked by various shades of pity and concern. I was able to get my diary back and at least put my thoughts, however jumbled, onto paper. I wrote, in part, “How did I end up here again? I feel like I’m being punished asking for help. They handle me here like I’m made of glass, like I’m a child unaware of how the world works. But I see just fine.” The last statement isn’t entirely true. I was suicidal and deeply depressed, after all. In reading my diary passage, I am reminded that even the most empathetic filmmakers have yet to understand that living in the world with mental illness, if you have a modicum of self-awareness and high functionality, is a constant negotiation of self. Being in the hospital heightens this truth — any darkly wry joke could be misinterpreted as a cry for help, and so much of life inside a hospital is out of your control considering there are bed checks every 15 minutes. Being a black woman, I’ve learned, compounds these issues given that our lives are already heavily circumscribed and our humanity is rarely acknowledged in all its complexity.
As distressing as this recent hospitalization felt, it was also deeply necessary. I needed to face my illness and understand the ways it had been poisoning my life. I needed to learn, swiftly and undeniably, that I had to change not just how I treated my bipolar disorder, but examine my own relationship to it as a marker of my identity. I needed to be in the mental hospital in order to remember why I want to live in the first place. I’m not sure I would be here today if I hadn’t been hospitalized.
After Rebecca’s breakdown, in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s latest episode, the midseason finale, she says to her psychiatrist, “My whole life I’ve only known how to be like really good or really bad, but being human is living in that kind of in-between space.” I was struck by Rebecca’s burst of self-awareness because it reminded me of statements I had said before to psychiatrists and therapists, my mother and my friends. I have always been painfully aware of the internal and external factors that have come to form my illness. I can easily talk about my black-and-white thinking, my father’s abuse, my mother’s emotional manipulations, and my masochistic tendencies that make my episodes worse. I can tell you all about how I have defined myself far too much by my diagnosis. I can speak eloquently about how I have grown to long for depressive episodes because being well feels undeserved, even unnatural to me. I can tell you how the thrill of mania has a siren call that I all too easily respond to. What’s difficult is what comes next for women like Rebecca and myself: recovery. Cinematic history has never been interested in the recovery process for madwomen, only their downfalls. No matter how self-aware you may be, it’s an endlessly difficult process. There are no easy answers, no brightly lit musical numbers to lose yourself in — only the painful negotiation of letting go and rebuilding. That’s why I am so curious to see what happens next on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. The series has always been intelligent about how it handles its characters’ issues with surprising pathos and dark hilarity. Its creators have discussed poring over books on borderline personality disorder and are aware that recovery is not a swift process. As co-creator and writer Aline Brosh McKenna told Vanity Fair, “It’s a very long struggle, and a lot of people pass through it, but it can take a very long time — and Rebecca’s issues are very deep-seated.”
The first two times I was discharged from the mental hospital in my teens, the emotion that hit the moment I stepped outside was an intense euphoria nothing else before or since has matched. This most recent time was different. The bliss was still there, but an undercurrent of sobriety followed it. I had the strange and sudden realization that this was just the beginning. I felt a sense of security knowing that I had the tools necessary to thrive, even if I wasn’t quite sure about wanting that or if I even believe I deserve it. I don’t have the answers about my recovery, but as I navigate its ebbs and flows, I yearn for what seems always out of reach for the cinematic madwomen, like Rebecca Bunch, who reflect my turbulent history: a measure of peace.