Anxiety Is Becoming Visible In Pop Culture—Finally
Shut Up, Brain is a new column by Jill Gutowitz in which she looks at everything from pop culture phenomena to the quirks of interpersonal relationships through the lens of someone who lives with anxiety.
In the backseat of our friend's Honda Civic, Ashley was rubbing her chest, taking tiny sips of air through chapped lips. We were 16, and had been friends for nearly a decade, but I had never seen her like this. I asked Ashley what was wrong; she said, "I have really bad anxiety."
She told me her mom was helping her get medication, because she felt like this all the time, and once it started, she couldn't stop it. My heart dropped. I knew this feeling: nothing was wrong. We weren't in trouble. We were driving through our beautiful, wooded, sunny hometown, bopping to Top 40 music—an extremely low stakes situation. But it didn't matter. And it hadn't when I had felt it, either. Anxiety isn't situational and it doesn't discriminate—it comes and goes as it pleases, rips through your core like a tropical storm, and leaves you swirling, gasping, begging for relief. That was the first time I heard the word "anxiety" used to describe a disorder, rather than a feeling.
I'm not sure I ever saw mental disorders portrayed in media when I was young. Having "mental problems" was a roast meant to be lobbed at your craziest friend, a silly punch line from What About Bob? I thought people with mental health issues were mythological lunatics—I couldn't possibly know one myself; I couldn't possibly be one myself. These people were medicated, locked in institutions, bound by straitjackets, strapped to their beds, forced to question their own realities, and diagnosed as clinically insane. Obviously, people with mental health issues can experience these things. But the problem is, unlike what pop culture would have had me believe, they might experience none of these things. But it's because mental disorders are so stigmatized that I was clueless about how these issues could affect anyone—me.
I've been living with severe anxiety for years, and although I would argue it didn't truly "activate" until my early 20s, I definitely felt ripples of it in my adolescence. It's been a decade since that memorable moment in the Honda Civic, and in that time, I've seen major strides made in onscreen representation for marginalized communities—though, I'm not sure I'd call anxious people "marginalized" so much as "misrepresented" or "misunderstood." But even with those advances, I've barely ever seen my perpetual, tortured mental state played out onscreen.
I know I'm not alone with my anxiety—I have many friends and family members who suffer from the same issues. But on TV, in music, and on the big screen, anxiety disorders can feel invisible, which brings about a sort of cognitive dissonance; I never see a stranger walk by on the street and think, Maybe she's like me. In fact, quite the opposite. I think, What's it like to be normal? To stroll down the street without spinning on an inner hamster wheel? To just live? Even though anxiety is very Zeitgeist-y right now—if I see one more meme about being anxious, I'll lose it—it hasn't been normalized. And that makes me feel alone.
When we see mental health issues depicted in pop culture, we often see depression, like You're the Worst or the Sarah Silverman-starring I Smile Back; tragic suicide, like 13 Reasons Why or Christine; dissociative personality disorders, like Split; sociopathy or psychopathy, like American Psycho or Dexter; or obsessive and violent episodes, like You and the upcoming Greta.
But where are the movies and TV shows about anxiety? Like, real-life anxiety, the inescapable kind that follows you around like a sinister shadow, threatening to upheave your life if you're presented with even the most trivial of triggers. Movies or shows centered around mental illness are usually designed to lead to a big climax, a collapse, a tragedy, an event—like when Cate Blanchett's titular character utterly unravels in Blue Jasmine, or when Hannah kills herself in 13 Reasons. Or maybe the boiling point serves as a launching pad for the story, like in Silver Linings Playbook, when Pat moves in with his parents after a stint in a mental institution. We often follow these characters' descent into madness or the aftermath of major breakdowns. The reality of living with anxiety—what it's like to manage and endure it—just isn't as cinematic because of how rare it is to have that "big bang."
For many—and definitely for me—anxiety is about minutiae. It's an overwhelming deluge of little things, and trying not to let them swallow me. The goal is to somehow make sense of this thundercloud looming in my chest, daring me to acknowledge it, to succumb to it, to panic in an important business meeting, or on a plane I can't get off, or at dinner with a friend who won't stop talking. It's about sitting with it, living with being uncomfortable, trying new ways to allay that feeling—whether it be through medication, meditation, yoga, exercise, special diets, crystals, whatever. The reality of living with an anxiety disorder is that every day is different, and there's no apex or devastating final act. It's monotony. I wake up, I desperately try to get through it, I learn and I re-learn how to deal, because some days, the things that usually helped to soothe me or alleviate the pain just don't work anymore.
Yes, anxiety has been represented onscreen. But, Blue Jasmine is the only movie I've ever felt truly recognized me (which is dark). And yet watching it was like watching my worst fears come to life. It was like a horror movie and makes me wonder what would happen if I let my broken brain go to the precipice it so often begs me to step toward. And that's more terrifying than any blockbuster horror franchise. Fuck off, Saw.
But things are changing. More creators and musicians are starting to illustrate mental health in more realistic ways. Twenty-one Pilots have incredible songs about living with anxiety and depression—I recently cried listening to "Migraine," in which Tyler Joseph sings, "Am I the only one I know waging wars behind my face and above my throat?" Natasha Lyonne's new show Russian Doll offers brilliant thematic metaphors for grappling with your own depression, trauma, and PTSD. Ariana Grande's new album thank u, next is brimming with mental health bops about obsessing and overthinking and trying desperately to reel in an imaginative brain.
In January, Julia Michaels released a song with Selena Gomez called "Anxiety." Michaels has opened up about her struggles with the disorder, and I relate to most of the lyrics, like, "My exes will say I'm hard to deal with, and I admit it, it's true." Me. Or, "I got all these thoughts, running through my mind, all the damn time and I can't seem to shut it off." But other parts feel minimizing—and I don't think it's any fault of the song itself, but rather a knee-jerk reaction to seeing my own mental disorder being memed to death, like it's a cute, quirky character trait.
Anxiety isn't just about overthinking, or wanting to bail on plans with friends (I mean, trust me, it's definitely about these things). There's more to it. It's the consequence of overthinking, the places it pushes you after hours of stewing over something completely inconsequential, and feeling the physical effects of such on your body—a throbbing heart, a clenched chest, a constricted airway or rising vomit. It's the wheels that are constantly turning, and trying to control them, or, at very least, guide them without letting them cripple you. Discussion of mental health shouldn't always about the breakdown to end all breakdowns; it should also be about the little moments, like being paralyzed by a bottomless social media scroll, or abruptly leaving a date to throw up, or those times when I find myself wobbling back-and-forth on the balls of my feet, trying to decide if I should go to the kitchen or the bathroom first, or if they're the same distance, or which would make more sense logistically. It's an indefatigable battle.
I want to see a change in pop culture. Maybe I want to change it myself. If you've ever been admitted to a mental institution, or if you've attempted suicide, or you're bipolar, or you're gravely depressed—you're not alone, you're not hopeless, and you're not "crazy." I want to strip these mental disorders of harmful stigma, and I want to stop seeing them glorified onscreen. I want to talk about anxiety and depression in ways that are honest and real and empathetic, and dig my fingers into their day-to-day realities. So, that's what I'm going to do. The movie about my life isn't supposed to end, not yet. Actually, I don't even want it to be a movie—I want my life to be an award-winning series that gets super-uninteresting in its eighth season because all the characters end happy and resolved. Does that sound boring? To me, it sounds like the most fascinating thing in the world. Now all I need to do is figure out how to tell that story.