Sometimes, I fall into a hole. Not a literal hole, in the soil, but in my head; not only in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep, though it does happen then, too. I will think about one negative thing—it might have to do with something going on in my life, or it might have nothing to do with me at all. Then I’ll think about another negative thing, usually somehow related to the first one, but maybe not. The pattern continues, piling up on top of me, higher and higher. I can usually identify the pattern once it begins, but am powerless to stop it. I have no choice but to sit back and let my mind do its thing until it exhausts itself—until I’m crushed under its weight inside this hole of my own making, buried beneath steadily accumulating and overwhelming dread. And then I think about all of it at once—the things that have an impact on me, the things I can change and the things I can’t, the things completely outside of me—and I want nothing more than for it to stop, for good. This hole can open up at any point in the day, regardless of what I’m doing. I am always at its edge, I have been for as long as I can remember, and it’s my responsibility to keep filling it back up. So far, that is what I’ve done.
I’m not saying this is the same experience Maria Bamford has with her mental illness, which is different from my own. What I’m saying is that Maria Bamford helps me find the soil I need to fill in the hole when everything around me has given way. Or, to dispense with the metaphor, she helps me find reasons to do so, to talk about it, to understand it and find ways of living with and enduring it—my illness, I mean. She has always, with frankness and honesty, done this in her comedy. But with her new Netflix series, Lady Dynamite (co-created by Pam Brady and Mitch Hurwitz), she gives us a clearer and more powerful claim over her own story, and her illness. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen.
Bamford plays a fictionalized version of herself, a comedian trying to figure out her career and dealing with her bipolar disorder. We routinely check in on her in the present, trying to rebuild her career; on her recent past when she was institutionalized and in recovery for her mental illness; and to the further past when she was barreling toward a breakdown. Each episode ends with a choir singing, “I don’t know what I’m doing more than half of the time.” But Bamford is in complete control. You know the old adage about using laughter to cure disease and misfortune? Bamford knows it isn’t that easy. Disease is ugly. And you can find humour within that ugliness. At one point, her character, also named Maria Bamford (the series is extremely meta and often breaks the fourth wall), steals jokes from another comic for a comedy show for kids because she’s told her own comedy is not funny or appropriate. The stolen jokes kill, but she stops. It’s not right. She needs to be true to herself, risk failure, and do her own material, no matter what the kids think.
“Is anyone thinking of suicide?” she asks. “Don’t do it, it’s not the season for it.
“Late fall,” she instructs, knowingly.
No one laughs. Well, I did.
Lady Dynamite chooses to avoid drowning in darkness, creating a uniquely uncomfortable space for both its characters and its audience—one that is more familiar for those of us with mental illnesses, where ugliness and absurdity have no choice but to coexist.
Lady Dynamite is the latest in a recent run of TV comedies that confront mental illness with rare nuance and gravity. Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, especially in its second season, has dealt with Kimmy’s (Ellie Kemper) post-traumatic stress disorder after fifteen years as the hostage of a doomsday cult. In the second season of FXX’s You’re the Worst, Gretchen (Aya Cash) was revealed to be suffering from clinical depression, and the entire season examined the effect such conditions can have on modern relationships. One of the most honest and brutal portrayals of depression of late arrived with Netflix’s BoJack Horseman, a raunchy animated series about a sad-sack former star trying to figure out how to be happy, and realizing that maybe he can’t be. The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, from its pilot onward, has engaged with Rebecca’s (Rachel Bloom) depression and anxiety, often through song. Even Ilana on Comedy Central’s Broad City has mentioned offhand her medication for depression and anxiety, refusing to let it define her character (like most of these characters do, or at least try to).
There are also the dramas: Mr. Robot’s Elliot (Rami Malek) deals with several mental health issues; Rachel (Shiri Appleby) on UnREAL receives mental health treatment, whether she wants it or not, from her therapist mother, and seems to delve deeper into her cruelties and denial; and HBO’s adaptation of The Leftovers is commonly understood as a grand metaphor for depression and loss. If often seems, though, as if the comedies are able to be somehow more honest about the realities of their illnesses, following or subverting moments of pain and trauma with jokes—not that the jokes need be free of pain or trauma themselves. When Maria on Lady Dynamite mentions to Karen, her life coach (played by Jenny Slate, god bless), that she only has two friends, Karen is not surprised: “Yeah, because you’re bipolar! You’re incredibly hard to stay friends with—I mean, people are really just gonna fall by the wayside.” On The Leftovers, such a moment might have led to a severe music cue and a burst of violence; on Mr. Robot, Elliot’s precarious state might have prevented him from even picking up the meaning behind the message. But Lady Dynamite chooses to avoid drowning in darkness, creating a uniquely uncomfortable space for both its characters and its audience—one that is more familiar for those of us with mental illnesses, where ugliness and absurdity have no choice but to coexist.
It’s been greatly encouraging to see so many examples of showrunners and writers trying earnestly to portray mental illness seriously and thoughtfully. I regularly think of the image of Gretchen in You’re the Worst, lying on the floor wrapped in a blanket, in tears, thanking Jimmy (Chris Geere) for staying with her despite her downward spiral. There is nothing glamorous about mental illness, but increasingly diverse TV writers’ rooms seem to be finding ways to reveal and portray the many ways in which it can manifest and be managed—or not.
Much of this is an extension of a wider cultural shift toward acceptance and the lifting of stigmas concerning those of us with mental illnesses. Still, I remain wary that, amidst the burgeoning mainstream attention paid to mental illness, the logical result is mere visibility or representation. Mental health advocates have tangible desires: If the point is to challenge systemic and hegemonic understandings of these issues, then what is simply being visible, absent any sort of control, really worth?
My desire to understand my illness as part of my identity does not just mean wanting more TV shows to watch and things to buy; often enough, these forces proceed so that they can celebrate their own enlightenment and generosity, allowing the whims of the majority to dictate the terms of mental health advocacy. My desires have nothing to do with the granting of favours—or even concessions—by a “healthy” majority. Several times in Lady Dynamite, in such a way that Bamford again reveals her acute self-awareness, the script makes fun of how she has come to be known as “the comic who works to destigmatize mental illness.” Various characters call Bamford “brave” for doing so, using soundbite-friendly language to turn the act of talking about mental illness into a sellable product, expertly parodying this sloganized method of remaining at a distance from making true, measurable differences. Lady Dynamite’s strength has been in having Bamford build on her existing comedic persona and comment on something that has been historically difficult to articulate: that mental illness is not something that must be confessed, and how disarmingly easy it can be to fall into a loop of meaning well while simultaneously taking a step backward, patronizing and further stigmatizing people, even inadvertently, along the way.
She talks about her illness because she wants to, not because she’s beholden to the capitalistic whims of others.
Consider the ongoing, aggressive commodification and institutionalizing of feminism and LGBT issues—Pride parades being proudly sponsored by private companies with anti-LGBT practices, oblivious brands trying to cash in on the “trendiness” of feminist ideals. It doesn’t mean these movements have been defeated, just that they have been somewhat corrupted—increasingly defined by easy-to-digest but meaningless consumption. A visible movement is one susceptible to the forces of opportunistic capitalism finding a particular aesthetic attractive; suddenly, the normalization of mental health is an issue that can be advertised and appropriated. Even well-meaning folks are morphing our intentions in a destructive manner, or at least in ways that maintain the status quo, uphold existing structures, breed complacency. Tweet a hashtag and wash your hands of the issue; watch as gatekeepers take up familiar coded language as if it is a radical and righteous act, slowly but surely wresting mental health advocacy away from those of us who should be in control.
When I am deep within my hole, buried under depression and anxiety, what I feel is a powerful lack of control. Over myself, over my mind, my body, my position. I am not thinking about good-intentioned engagement with supposed allies. I am thinking about my own desire to write the story of mental illness; I am thinking about how important control becomes when you are so accustomed to being out of it. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about having a mental illness is how often you don’t feel like the captain of your own body and mind. You are beholden to the whims of your disease, and people’s purported good intentions don’t really matter. They cannot help put you back in control. To have the option of finding some kind of authority over one’s self and one’s narrative is an indispensable opportunity.
Fundamentally, we control our own narrative up to a point, so it’s our responsibility to offer alternatives. Maria Bamford, and the creators and writers of Lady Dynamite, are embodying that fight. For all its silliness, the series is acutely aware of how its representation of mental illness differs even from those on other TV comedies. It is selling itself—by design, it’s bingeable and consumable—but it points significantly to different paths for us to take with our illnesses, purposefully disrupting the forces attempting to take away the narrative and make it universal. Bamford’s character is always coming up against the notion of selling out, or taking on commercial work because she needs the money, and her illness stops her more than once, but she also learns to stop herself. She talks about her illness because she wants to, not because she’s beholden to the capitalistic whims of others. She avoids the predetermined narrative of mental illness and shows us a way through. They’re not the ones who are going to help us climb out of the holes we dig for ourselves.
In a flashback in the season finale, Maria battles Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath in a Power Rangers-style fight. McGrath represents Checklist, the company for which she is the mascot, and capitalism in general. “You want me. You can’t live without me. I’m everything you fear and desire,” McGrath growls.
“I can live without you,” Maria responds. “You’re a false god!”
It turns out she was heavily delusional and was subsequently institutionalized. But in the present, she uses this as a lesson to “not let mental illness stop her now.” In a suitably tragicomic way, she takes control of herself and her narrative. She owns it.