When I picked up this book, my first thought was, "Is this white woman going to understand what it's like to be a person of color in this country?"
Editor's Note: You'll find mild spoilers for the Netflix show BoJack Horseman below, but also a lot of deep personal truths that make the spoilers worth it (IMHO). -Amber
Everyone has a piece of media that they connect with on a "real" level. You could call it your favorite or you could say how it changed you and how much you love it and all that, but let's get one thing straight: The connection I had with the Netflix original show BoJack Horseman isn't necessarily a love connection. Maybe it's admiration, but it comes with a note of incredible discomfort that I've never experienced from anything I've watched before. This show makes me uncomfortable, and because of that I have endless respect for it.
For those of you who don't have the Netflix Originals tab constantly flaunting a weird image of a cartoon horse at you (get Netflix, it's the future of television), you may not know what I'm talking about. So, for a refresher, BoJack Horseman is a Netflix original animated comedy. It's one of those "adult cartoons," wherein your anthropomorphic protagonist is also an alcoholic.
The show focuses on BoJack Horseman, our title character, who is a semi-retired actor constantly fixated on his glory days of starring in the fictional '90s sitcom Horsin' Around. Having done practically nothing with his life since then, his obsession turns from egotistical to depressive, and he gradually comes to the realization that his life is currently without meaning. The next two seasons have followed BoJack as he tries to make a movie "with meaning" so that he can pass off his depressive life as something that had an impact on people.
What makes this show particularly adult isn't the alcohol, sex, and swearing; it's the incredibly candid portrayal of our protagonist and the characters that surround him in his life. BoJack is depressed and has been most of his life. He was traumatized by an abusive relationship with his parents, weighed down by the guilt of selling out his friend now dying of cancer, and he's constantly pushing the people who love him out of his life for subconscious reasons he doesn't understand. Honestly, watching all of it made me a little squeamish.
I was captivated by the realness, but at the same time I was incredibly uncomfortable watching the characters in this show self-sabotage their way to misery and loneliness. It's a lot like watching a train wreck; you can't look away. But it's in the portrayal of depression that I really found some moments of incredible, terrifying relatability.
I've known that I'm a depressed person for almost my entire life, but that awareness hasn't made treating my depression much easier. For years, my treatment was determined by psychiatrists who threw pills at me instead of teaching me about coping mechanisms I could use in daily life. As a result, depression was always a confusing thing for me. Also, it was never just intense, bottomless sadness. Sometimes it was irrational irritability, permanent exhaustion, or just a sense of hopelessness that applied to literally everything.
I never saw my depression on TV or in movies. I saw the dramatic grief of women with runny makeup (but also perfect mascara) in oversized sweaters, sobbing in their rooms. I saw the romantic male leads — somehow, depression in film seems to always be fixed by "true love," whatever that means — go to comfort them and declare their love. Then, suddenly, it was over. There was dramatic looking away, passionate hugs and kisses, and then it was fixed. I never related to it.
So when I finally really saw depression as I knew it, a direct reflection of my illness, not an exaggeration and not an underplay, I didn't quite know how to feel. This is so intense, I thought. This is so necessary. But, as the show progressed, I began to notice not only the truth about depression depicted in BoJack Horseman, but the behaviors as well. I started asking myself, more and more often: Do I do that? Is that me?
It was in BoJack Horseman's second season that I was deeply struck by grim reality.
[Editor's Note: Spoilers for Season 2 of BoJack Horseman are about to intensify! -Amber]
I watched BoJack's desperate clinging to his sometimes-girlfriend and manager Princess Carolyn turn sour. His struggles to find meaning in his life, to pull himself out of his hole of depression, resulted in him pushing her away. Her attempts to help were dismissed, then ridiculed, and then after she turned her back, met with desperate pleas to come back. Then BoJack began the vicious cycle all over again. However, it wasn't the damage to the titular character that made me nervous about the parallel; it was the damage to Princess Carolyn.
Jesus Christ, I thought, I do that. I know I do that.
How many times had I pushed my loved ones away because I didn't know how to let them in while I was depressed? And, how many times, when they went far enough, did I desperately try to pull them back to me? I've lost relationships because of it. Depression made me isolate myself, and pride made me continue to hurt my loved ones. When my heart went out to Princess Carolyn, I was forced to confront what exactly it was I did to the people around me. I felt guilty. This show about a cartoon horse made me feel guilty.
Maybe the realest moment I encountered while binging on this show revolved around a secondary character, Diane. Diane is a writer struggling with finding meaning in her work, and in her love life. When she settled down with the sweet, if ignorant, golden retriever called Mr. Peanutbutter, my boyfriend and I found the parallel in our lives to be uncanny. The contrasting personalities were on point with us, even down to the careers: writer and actor.
But the little fun "oh that's us" moments got heavy a bit later down the line, when we watched Diane dissolve into probably the worst partner we'd seen depicted on a television show. She lied, she pushed her husband away, she patronized, and she excluded him from her bouts with depression and self-neglect. This time I thought, God, I hope that isn't me. I didn't want to identify with this character so intensely any more. I wanted to be better than her, but if I was honest with myself, I didn't think I was.
In a time when I was looking to really settle down with my own "golden retriever," I saw the absolute worst of unchecked depression and anxiety and how it can sabotage a relationship. Every time this character hurt her husband, I would silently make eye contact with my boyfriend and feel so incredibly guilty. I knew that I did what BoJack did, and I prayed I'd never do what Diane does.
Depression isn't always sympathetic. It can turn you into a monster that hurts the people who love you the most. You bite the hand that feeds you, then say you're hungry and ask for more. You don't see your own faults until you suddenly do, but the moment of realization doesn't make changing yourself any less of a tough task. Your pursuit of happiness is never a light at the end of the tunnel. It's usually an endless marathon that you never see so much as a damn mile marker on, and you always feel like you run it alone, no matter how many people are actually there with you, getting hurt with you and feeling pain with you.
Left unchecked, depression will rob you of those people. Whether they give up on you or you hurt them enough that you give up on them, it's an unfortunately very possible reality that we almost never see outside of gems like BoJack Horseman.
A real view of depression, even if it's through the life and times of a cartoon horse, is something that all people who've ever struggled with it, through themselves or others, really need. The romantic Hollywood rose-tinted-glasses view of depression is honestly bullshit, and it's a good thing I'm so uncomfortable when I watch this Hollywood horse sabotage his own life. Thanks to BoJack, I can see myself. I can see the very worst in myself, so I know where to turn for a reality check.