‘Euphoria’ Is Honest About the Painful, Unglamorous Realities of DepressionJuly 31, 2019 Off By Alex Wexelman
On this Sunday's episode of HBO's Euphoria, Rue, in a send-up of noir films, imagines herself as a hardboiled detective trying to crack a case that doesn't quite add up. It's a moment of fantasy—a bout of mania following a depressive episode in which she watches 22 straight hours of Love Island.
Throughout this episode, titled "The Trials and Tribulations of Trying to Pee While Depressed," Rue, the series' main character, a recovering addict, can no longer rely on drugs as an easy out from the depression she feels during everyday life. During her monologues that guide the plot's action, Rue narrates her torpid feelings in a way that is rarely enumerated so accurately on a major television show.
To recap: When we enter the series, Euphoria with Rue returning from rehab and making a beeline to her drug dealer’s house. In the first several episodes, she feigns sobriety, but at the behest of a new friend, Jules, she ditches narcotics for good. The two latest episodes cover the first time Rue is experiencing living “clean.” In “Trials and Tribulations,” the plot centers on Rue’s alternating states of mania and depression. She oscillates between highs (calling her friend at 2 AM to inform her about her new pet theory about high school drama) and lows (being so deep in the throes of gloom that she can’t physically leave her bed to urinate).
Despite having to pee, Rue hasn’t left her bed in 24 hours and the idea of having to “stand up, exert 172 muscles each step for 35 feet, just to sit on cold porcelain and piss out toxins,” as she puts it, feels daunting and this is when she knows she’s in it. "The absolute worst part of depression is that even though you know you’re depressed, you’re unable to stop yourself from getting worse," she adds.
I relate to this: Frustration is what I feel most commonly as a person fighting to get better. I spend an evening interrogating why I ate only one meal and have gone [redacted] days without showering, only to repeat those habits again the next day. When my mother expresses her concern, I usually invoke Freudian thought and blame my destructive drive on an urge to sublimate my own near-death-experience, but, the truth is, I’m really trying to get better. It’s just that the path forward sometimes leads backward.
“The other thing about depression is it kind of collapses time,” Rue continues. “Suddenly, you find your whole day’s blending together to create one endless and suffocating loop. So you find yourself trying to remember the things that made you happy. But, slowly, your brain begins to erase every memory that ever brought you joy. And, eventually, all you can think about is how life has always been this way. And will only continue to be this way."
The episode was written by Euphoria creator, Sam Levinson, who drew upon personal experience while adapting the show from an Isreali miniseries. “I was a drug addict for many years, and I had a lot of anxiety and struggled with depression … What I really wanted to get at the core of is the pain and the shame about what you’re doing,” Levinson said the ATX TV Festival in June, according to Page Six.
In my own journals, where I chronicle daily life as a person carrying the burden of mental illness, I have written very similar accounts of time’s slow trudge forward and the way my brain seems to be actively fighting against my desire to get better. (One entry reads, “Life is passing me by. I feel like a patient, etherized upon a table, waiting in vain to come out of my paralysis”). Rue's plight spoke to me directly in a way that BoJack Horseman and other shows lauded for their depiction of mental health frustratingly get wrong, or even stigmatize.
Rue’s struggle is on the nose, whereas BoJack Horseman’s journey was too distinctly entangled with male entitlement. In the 61 BoJack episodes to date, the titular character is stuck in a hellish cycle of his own making, dragging his hooves for five seasons before he begins to take responsibility for the way his actions have hurt those whom he loves. He returns, again and again, to prescription medication and alcohol as a way to deflect his trauma, which causes strains on all his major relationships, including that of his estranged daughter, Hollyhock.
It takes BoJack a myriad of major screw-ups until, with the help of his patient friend Diane, he seeks treatment in the finale of the latest season. The show reflects that, in even modern-feeling depictions of mental illness, men are granted room to “make things right,” while women in the same position are held to be selfish and erratic, or, worse, meet a tragic end as BoJack’s Sarah Lynn, a former child star with whom he worked on the show that brought him fame, Horsin’ Around, dies of a drug overdose.
Before entering the clinic, BoJack asks Diane, “What if I get sober and I’m still the same awful person I’ve always been, only more...sober?” She replies that she thinks that that is a very real possibility: “Rehab is not a cure-all that’s gonna suddenly make you not an asshole.”
BoJack's privilege sets him apart and permits him to bring chaos into his loved ones' lives. Rue, as a non-white, non-wealthy woman, is afforded less leeway. BoJack isn't less realistic, per se—he's just less relatable because he's buttressed by power, wealth, and fame, in the same way I'm not.
In the same style as BoJack's attempts to portray depression, aAnother Netflix original animated series, Big Mouth, touches on depression in a way that doesn’t quite make the mark. In season two, one of the main characters, a precocious teenage girl named Jessi, is held hostage by a monster, the Depression Kitty, who initially goads her into a room without exits and in a somnambulant purr, asks, “Jessi, have you ever laid on your side, facing away from the television, listening to a Friends marathon?”
At first, Jessi acquiesces to the idea of doing nothing. But once she realizes she doesn’t want to lie in bed all day, it’s too late, and she’s been trapped under the weight of the Depression Kitty. It’s an apt metaphor, but the conclusion is rushed: Her friends help rescue her and she decides to attend therapy, just like that. Kitty, as a personification of depression’s crushing burden, is a good visual for something that is metaphysical, but the tight turnaround from trapped to exalted isn't what depression is actually like: As soon as Jessi recognizes she’s in a bad place, she looks for a way out. But often, the bad place can be comforting because its repetition is familiar, and breaking free is often its own struggle. The Centre for Clinical Interventions created a diagram showcasing “The Vicious Cycle of Depression,” which cycles from depression to low energy, fatigue, and decreased interest to decreased activity and neglect of responsibilities to increased guilt, hopelessness, and ineffectiveness, which leads back to depression. In my own experience, this can manifest in going to bed at 5 AM, waking up at 3 in the afternoon, getting mad at myself for sleeping the whole day away, and then continuing the routine on a self-hating loop.
Euphoria is more careful in its slow build toward Rue's mental health progress. There are setbacks, but they engender growth. By the episode's end, Rue realizes she might need a stronger force to intervene if she is to manage her symptoms. The National Institute of Mental Health stated that, in 2017, an estimated 3.2 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 in the United States had at least one major depressive episode. These stats rise with age—per the same report, an estimated 11 million U.S. adults aged 18 or older have had that experience, as well.
In Euphoria, the endurance it can take to ask for and receive support and treatment for depression is just as on par with the way the show portrays the illness itself. Rue tells her mother she wants to go back on medication, concluding, "These feelings [of depression are] fixed and constant and [will] never end for the rest of my life."
Each day, for me, brings its own challenges—there are always unexpected obstacles to progress. Accepting that and continuing to trudge forward, like Rue does, despite and because of her experience while watching Love Island, is a mental salve. What Euphoria masters are the ups and downs that make up the daily life of a person trying to coexist with depression. Breaking from the cycle of depression isn’t as easy as recognizing the symptoms, but includes diligent work, which Rue, by rejecting recreational drug use and opting for SSRI intervention, has to figure out after literally sitting with it for a long—and unglamorized—time with her illness.
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