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What Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Taught Me About My Illness

It’s clear that some of Rebecca’s symptoms are something the show’s other characters know, rationalise, and even are attracted to: ‘she’s just zany, but in a cute way.’ For Rebecca — and me — impulsive, self-destructive behaviour comes off as sexy or glamorous personality quirks.

This essay contains mild spoilers for Season 3 of the television show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

‘What is it, what do I have, really?’

Just one week ago I sat in my therapist’s office and said this out loud, wondering, beseeching her for an answer, some salty-crisp nugget of understanding that I could offer the world. In my several years of struggling with mental health, I’ve skirted several diagnoses: starting with depression, anxiety, and moving on to trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and borderline personality disorder (BPD).

That’s only one reason why the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend resonated so much with me. Another: this season happened after my most recent breakdown, in June, when I found myself in an ICU after an overdose.

One night in June, I swallowed 24 crocins. I gulped them down with water in multiple batches between sobs. Then I walked to a neighbour’s place, rang the bell till they answered. Then there was an Ola cab, an ER room, a tube thrust down my throat, an ICU stay for three days.

When Rebecca gratefully downs that strawberry shake, I was reminded of the hot chocolate my sister put in my hands at the tail end of a breakdown. I still feel the mild discomfort of the stomach pump some days, and the rhythmic beeping of the ICU monitors strangely soothes me to sleep. I’m also familiar with what I’ll call the ax-panic. I spent much of my energy assuring people I’m getting better (even if that’s hard to claim), that I’m safe and feeling good.

After I returned from the hospital, I started taking wobbly steps, baby giraffe-like, out into the rest of the world. My relief at feeling ‘safe’ again meant that I temporarily became eager to ‘live life’ again, and one part of that was dating again.

Bad idea. Bad, bad idea, as it turned out. Still: I’m bad with authority, and especially when it comes to love.

My already-shattered stress thresholds were no match for the moderate (often pleasant) anxieties of dating, meeting someone new, and making conversation. Perhaps what I wanted was just the treat of taking pleasure in my appearance and personality again — and meeting new people can, temporarily, offer that.

I hit it off with one such connection immediately. He was quiet, well-read, and intelligent; we exchanged book recommendations, shared poetry and music, and fell into the habit of long, meandering late-night conversations. You know — all the stuff I’m going to topple into love with, unrestrained. We drank wine in an Indiranagar tea-joint (you know the one) on a rainy day, kissed in a bookshop — all the familiar, glorious cliches.

The next time we spent time together — still in the midst of Bangalore’s intense, show-stopping rains — my mind gave way. I started to panic, late at night, hours away from home and with no option but to stay the night. I disclosed to him that I was ill and easily triggered by some things, and to his credit, he understood completely and helped me get home safe. I fled the next morning and spent the next few months grieving the loss of what could have been, sending him the occasional song or book, and nothing else.

That wise old psychiatrist was right: now is not the time for dating (or, as he put it, intense romantic relationships). I had to learn by doing, and my skin hunger was (and is) too great to stop seeking connection. I date at great personal risk to myself, as I half-jokingly told a friend.

A gif from the theme song of the first season of ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’. Rachel Bloom, who plays the protagonist Rebecca Bunch, gesticulates and speaks firmly. The subtitle text reads: ‘The situation’s a lot more nuanced than that.’ 

A gif from the theme song of the first season of ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’. Rachel Bloom, who plays the protagonist Rebecca Bunch, gesticulates and speaks firmly. The subtitle text reads: ‘The situation’s a lot more nuanced than that.’

The key dramatic revelation of this season is, as it turns out, that the ‘crazy’ of the show’s title is BPD. The AHA moment in the show is Rebecca’s diagnosis. This, again, echoes some of my emotions when I read about BPD (and, more importantly, about its main treatment, dialectical behaviour therapy, or DBT). Notoriously under-diagnosed, incorrectly treated, it’s something this publication has covered before in-depth. After Girl, Interrupted, this is the first mainstream depiction of BPD I can think of — and, while there’s song and dance here to lighten the mood a bit, the show doesn’t use it as a crutch or a distraction — the darkest moments of this season carry a chilly silence.

It’s clear that some of Rebecca’s symptoms are something the show’s other characters know, rationalise, and even are attracted to: ‘she’s just zany, but in a cute way.’ For Rebecca — and me — impulsive, self-destructive behaviour comes off as sexy or glamorous personality quirks. It is, of course, a trope, and one that has served the show well through its run. This season, it doesn’t make a spectacle of Rebecca’s illness; it does implicate us in consuming her ‘craziness’ as a form of entertainment.

With a diagnosis is the possibility not just of compassion but of understanding and acceptance. ‘When you’re labeled as crazy, the “right” kind of diagnosis could mean the difference between a productive life and a life sentence,’ writes Esme Wang.

Even so, what’s the illness and what’s not? That’s the sieve I struggle to work with. Legitimately stressful events — losing friends, losing jobs, losing a flat — all of which happened to me since June this year, after a suicide attempt, all warrant some degree of stress and anxiety, of course. Given that, it’s going to be fascinating to watch how the show will navigate Rebecca’s life with her new diagnosis and her love life, especially. How will she pay for her therapy? (I’m lucky enough that my sister can afford and has agreed to pay my therapy bills).

I don’t yet have a diagnosis. In answer to my question, my therapist (a kind, non-psychiatric professional who wisely knew I would go down a google-rabbit-hole should I have been given a new diagnosis) just gently suggested that I’m doing the hard work of returning to myself.

For now, I’m good with that.

I’m tethered to my Wednesday therapy sessions. My city, my flat, my sister. The rest is all a wild maze of not knowing. But I’m beginning to dig and erect signposts, and wear comfortable shoes for the walk. And there’s always Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to binge-watch.

Bevu Bella is a queer woman living with depression, anxiety, and what she believes to be low-grade BPD, although doctors can’t decide on her diagnosis.

Featured image credit: Alia Sinha

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