Rebecca in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

MIND

How Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is having the smartest, most empathetic conversations about mental health

Rebecca Bunch has got a new diagnosis. And Maggy van Eijk, who herself has been diagnosed with the same condition, is grateful for the show’s compassion and comedy

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By Maggy van Eijk on

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a revolutionary TV show. The comedy-drama has been surprising viewers with its self-aware musical ingenuity from day one. The latest episode only confirmed what fans have known all along: that if you’re not watching this show, you simply don’t deserve your Netflix subscription. [Spoilers ahead for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend season three.]

The most recent season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend had presented a depressed, distraught and suicidal attorney, Rebecca Bunch, but in the latest episode (“Josh is Irrelevant”, E06) a ray of sunshine bursts across her face. Hope beams from her big eyes and her posture changes from slouched to upright like a Disney princess who has just woken up from a great night’s sleep. “He just opened a whole new future of possibilities for me,” she tells BFF Paula. Who is she referring to? A new love interest? A new Josh Chan? Not quite. It’s a doctor (Dr Shin) who holds the promise of something more wonderful than love: a new mental health diagnosis.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has consistently been sensitive, nuanced and clever when tackling topics around mental health. The show’s writers have sacrificed neat narrative arcs to interrogate the often-contradictory nature of mental health disorders. On the one hand Rebecca can appear manic and scarily disconnected from reality (lying to Josh about being pregnant with his baby, for instance). On the other she’s a talented attorney (uncovering scandals hidden by big corporations) who would do anything for her friends (making sure no one in the firm loses their job when there’s a new boss in town).

In the latest episode we see Rebecca coming to terms with a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (BPD), which is characterised by impulsive behaviour, unstable relationships and emotional instability. The diagnosis is fully revealed in a series of terrible decisions that crescendo into an overdose on a plane.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has portrayed Rebecca’s current mental health and the anxiety, OCD and depression that has come before in a way that feels informative and empathetic, yet still hilarious and relatable. The show presents her struggles from the inside out. We see the volatile highs and lows of disparate mental health conditions from Rebecca’s point of view, rather than through the potentially judgemental gaze of another character.

I too have borderline personality disorder and I can’t express how grateful I am to this show. I’ve never seen BPD depicted in such an understanding way

The viewer shares the hope that Rebecca harbours in the lead up to her diagnosis: maybe now Rebecca will get the help she needs? Perhaps her chaotic and often destructive life choices will start to make sense. As she sings in the contagiously cheerful A Diagnosis, people with mental health labels aren’t perfect “but at least they know who they are”.

As a person with just such a label (I too have borderline personality disorder), I can’t express how grateful I am to this show. I’ve never seen BPD depicted in such an understanding way. There have been other portrayals of mental health conditions on TV: bipolar disorder in Homeland, postpartum psychosis in EastEnders and post-traumatic stress disorder in You’re The Worst, to name a few. However after my diagnosis I struggled to find a fictional character with BPD that I could use as a reference point. Most characters that are widely believed to have personality disorders are often depicted as unhinged and dangerous (think Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction and Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander). They are scary ladies you can’t trust.

Turning to Google didn’t bring me much joy either. When my boyfriend told me he was researching my condition I went onto the search engine myself only to find articles about how no one should ever date me. Apparently I’m a terror who will tear you apart. Rebecca Bunch does a similar search only to find hyperbolic statements telling her she’s very likely to kill herself and that “treatment is slow and often difficult”.

This leads to our troubled protagonist wondering if her diagnosis is incorrect. She wants to shake herself off from her condition: “It’s not something I have, it’s something I am,” she frets. The label she craved now seems frightening and claustrophobic. It’s not until she returns to her permanent therapist Dr Akopian that she goes through the symptom checklist and realises she really does meet the criteria.

Rebecca’s acceptance of her BPD at the end of the episode is pivotal. It reveals her inner self, the one that’s often overshadowed by impulses, dissociation and obsessive romantic love. Like Rebecca I’ve often clung onto my own version of Josh Chan because other people hold the promise of salvation. However, placing your entire future in the hands of another human is like trying to turn a hotel room into a home. You can’t stay there forever. It’s not until you see what’s buried underneath your skewed emotional landscape that you can begin to make sense of your life. “It’s not about Josh,” Rebecca confesses. “Maybe it never was.”

As someone who has worn the BPD badge for four months longer than Rebecca, I’d tell her to prepare for a bumpy road ahead. I’d tell her to stick with those group therapy sessions the doctor tells her to go to, and to keep filling in the workbook (my guess is she’s holding the Dialectical Behavioural Therapy workbook towards the end of the episode which I fill in weekly myself).

“Now that I know what I have, I hope I can get the help that I need, but the truth is I don’t know what the future holds,” Rebecca concludes. That’s very much the crux of BPD and any mental health condition. You might make progress. You might go up, only to come back down again the next day, but all you can do is move forward, even if it’s inch by inch. And if you have it in you, don’t forget to launch into a glittery musical number every now and again.

@maggyvaneijk

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