She kept saying she was going to do it, so I told her to just go ahead and do it already.
I was 19. She was 18. It was college. We were "dating," but that can mean many things at that age. We talked all the time on the instant messenger program ICQ, the little flower in the corner of our screens blossoming with a cutesy "uh-oh" every time one of us had a riposte for each other. I had always been a bit terrified of missing out on something exciting happening elsewhere, so that I spent so much time talking to her should have told me something my brain took a long time to catch up with.
I was in love with her desperately. I just didn't know it yet. I had just told her to kill herself. It was the worst, the most evil thing I had ever done, will hopefully ever do.
Loving someone with a mental illness is to invite an unseen third into the relationship, who's always just off to the side, a bad houseguest you can't get rid of
The "uh-ohs" stopped coming, then started again after a lengthy interval. It was that they started again that clued me in — she had gone away for a long time, and then come back, to tell me something, to settle accounts. I had that sucking feeling inside of me, the one you get when something's wrong but you can't pinpoint it. It's somewhere off, over the horizon.
I should tell you here that I did what I thought was the right thing then, that I sprinted upstairs all those flights to her room. She tried to walk away, leaving me to read the note on her computer screen, but the second I saw, "Dear Todd," I knew, knew, knew, in that icy black water in your gut sort of way, and I ran, pulling her into a hug before she got to the door, and she pulled away, sliding down against the wall. I stooped down to pull her up, resurrect her.
I was sure in that moment that her life might be saved, but our relationship would have to be done. Forever, probably.
I was too young and too stupid, both to handle something as momentous as depression and to have met the love of my life. The only thing I could do was get her to an ambulance and cut ties. Her parents could care for her. Her therapist could care for her. I hadn't the foggiest.
But I followed the ambulance to the hospital anyway, where we found out that the pills wouldn't have killed her, would have just made her sick for days, where she apologized for the paramedics destroying the T-shirt of mine she had been wearing, where I decided to stay for the night, at least.
Reader, I married her.
Around the middle of the first season of FXX's sardonic, lovable romantic comedy You're the Worst, Jimmy (Chris Geere), who has fallen in love with Gretchen (Aya Cash), only his brain doesn't know it yet, goes over to her apartment for the first time. It's a mess, trash strewn everywhere, no real sense of how a person might conceivably live a life there. It's the first clue the show would offer to viewers that it was going to turn into one of TV's finest portrayals of clinical depression later on down the line.
A lot of viewers and writers took it as another sign of the show's quirky sense of humor. Gretchen is pretty messed up, right? Both of these people are messed up, and that makes them perfect for each other, huh? It's an anti-romantic comedy, get it?
But the reason You're the Worst works stems from the way it treats its characters with complete and utter sincerity. It takes Jimmy and Gretchen's emotions seriously, and it is wiser than they are. Where it takes them two whole seasons to admit how desperately they love each other (in the second season finale), the audience knows from roughly episode four. It gets, as that finale is titled, that the heart is a dum-dum.
So when I saw Gretchen's apartment for the first time, I didn't think, "Oh, how interesting and unusual and funny!" Nor did I think it was just a funny plot complication when she accidentally burned down the apartment in the first-season finale, necessitating a move-in with Jimmy that both were unprepared for. Nor did I think her tendency to carry all of her stuff around in garbage bags and pile them in a corner was some sort of goofy character trait. And I didn't even see her tendency to be able to reduce any person she was talking to to emotional rubble with a single well-placed line as another sign of her fundamental nature as "the worst."
There's something about a TV show that hits you right in the gut, something that no other medium can quite touch. You grow with these characters over years. You get to know them intimately. They come into your home, for goodness' sake. And when you connect with a series, it's like building a real relationship, with someone who will let you get to know them and also maybe help you better understand yourself.
So when I saw Gretchen's apartment for the first time, I didn't think it was a one-off character trait, never to be seen again. No, I thought, "Oh, I know this person. I love this person."
Depending on your point of view, You're the Worst dedicating a substantial part of its second season to examining Gretchen's clinical depression has either been a masterstroke or something that has tanked a once funny, charming show.
I'm much closer to the former camp than the latter, but it's also been something far more important to my wife and me: something bracing and funny and real that feels like it knows us. Since we met at 18 when she walked into my dorm room and, in the words of my mother, "seemed like she just set up camp," she has been like Gretchen many, many times — bold and funny and rage-filled and sunk inward with sadness and constantly uncertain of her own considerable potential. And I have been Jimmy far too often, hurling myself into a belief that I can fix a person I love, because that's what you do, right? You find the Band-Aid. (Here, I should let you know, lest you worry, that my wife has read every draft of this piece and encouraged me to write it.)
The reason so many have argued You're the Worst "stopped being funny," I think, is that comedies are supposed to resolve in punchlines, and depression is irresolvable. The show has made great comedy out of this central fact, with a lengthy, very funny montage of Gretchen's friends trying to pull her up out of her dismal spirits when she spends an entire day lying on a couch, staring at nothing in particular. She's a hollowed-out shell, and Jimmy keeps trying to fill her back in, not realizing this is impossible and all he can do is be there for her and wait.
Comedy is, of course, filled with characters who believe they can accomplish a goal and keep falling short. One of our most common human failings is to bite off more than we can chew and end up stuck in an endless cycle of miniature cataclysms. Comedy can help us laugh at that tendency within ourselves and at how we never quite know when to quit. But failure is a kind of resolution, isn't it? And Wile E. Coyote wanting to catch the Road Runner, for instance, is light-years away from Jimmy trying desperately to pour the woman he loved back into the shell she left behind.
Both You're the Worst and Gretchen herself keep telling Jimmy that he can't save her, but he insists he can. And why wouldn't he? That's what life and conventional wisdom and fiction keep telling us. If you can just cheer somebody up, if you can remind her that life is worth living, then you'll help her. You're the Worst is using our own longing for resolution in comedy to force us to think about how weak we can feel in the face of a loved one's mental illness.
Comedies are supposed to resolve in punchlines, and depression is irresolvable
Because here's the thing: Reminding someone that life is worth living is — 99 percent of the time — pretty good advice! A depressed friend of mine says he gets through suicidal moments by reminding himself of all of the upcoming movies he's looking forward to that he won't get to see if he kills himself. It's silly, he admits, but it works, because it reminds him there are things he loves that are worth living for, no matter how much evidence his depression presents to the contrary. And when you're someone who loves a person with mental illness, the best thing you can do is simply hold onto her and let her know you're there, even if it doesn't do anything.
Jimmy doesn't heal Gretchen. But he finds a way to reach her in the depths of a cave. Instead of making an assignation with an attractive bartender he's spent Gretchen's bleakest moments making out with, he chooses to stay at home and try to help. He brings in her friends, who are as powerless as he is to pull her back from the brink. He reminds her of people who care about her.
And, finally, he builds a pillow fort around her, so they can be together. And he just holds her, and she cries. And it works — sort of. The depression lets go a little bit. For a time.
If You're the Worst has come in for criticism in its second season, it's been in its depiction of depression as featuring just as much rage as sadness. Sure, TV's most famous other sufferer of clinical depression and anxiety was that rage monster Tony Soprano (though, tellingly, he was never officially diagnosed — his therapist danced around it). A few people have argued to me that the show's depiction of depression has focused too much on Gretchen's angry outbursts at her friends and at Jimmy, things that would be rare in a real depression sufferer.
Maybe this is true for some, but it has never been true for my wife and me. Yes, You're the Worst has neatened some things and sanded off some corners in the name of making compelling fiction, and it has intentionally heightened certain aspects of Gretchen's depression for dramatic effect. But her rage rings terrifyingly true to me.
Every time you've loved someone long enough, you know enough about that person to carry nuclear options into any argument you have, things you could say that would either tear the relationship asunder entirely or harm it so badly that it would take weeks to repair. They're things your partner is insecure about or secretly fears about herself. They're old slights that you've agreed to bury. They're monsters under the bed you've signed a mutual pact to ignore.
When my wife gets into an argument — any argument, but especially one when she's in a depressive episode — these are the areas she immediately leaps to. And she knows she can say them to me, because I know her well enough by now to know that it's not her who's saying them, not exactly, and that when, after the fight, I explain to her how bad she made me feel, she'll apologize endlessly, through tears. We'll be back together then, the cord that has bound us since 18 as strong as ever.
But in the moment of that terrible fight, all she wants to do is push me off the cliff, so I'll join her and push some button I can't un-push, so we'll just blow everything up, mushroom clouds billowing on the horizon. And because I am the kind of person who fights by trying his very best to pretend he's not in the middle of a fight, it drives her even more to anger, creating a horrible, self-perpetuating loop. She yells. I whisper. She yells louder. We forgive each other.
But sometime, maybe, we won't. Sometimes, we barely outrun that outcome, can feel its ragged, hungry breath on our backs, almost smell its snarl. Sometimes I wonder if I can have children with someone who turns even the smallest of disagreements into the continuation of a long, serialized argument we've been having for more than a decade.
She tells me that the depression wants to corner her, isolate her, get everybody away from her. And over the course of our marriage, she's learned coping skills that have kept the wolves at bay more and more often, have made us the happy, functional couple we are when things are good far more often. We can fight without blowing up the world. Until I misjudge something, or she misjudges something, and it's the end of Dr. Strangelove all over again.
But, hey, the heart is a dum-dum, right?
The question from many who aren't intimately acquainted with depression is this: Why would anybody ever put up with that? Isn't it abusive? Jimmy runs into this, too. Why go back? Why not run off with the seemingly normal, nice bartender? Why not try for a life that doesn't exist alongside the constant possibility of chaos?
Jimmy's own father advises him to leave Gretchen. Jimmy's mother, the old man says, was like Gretchen, and that was fun for a while, but when push came to shove, they just couldn't make it work. They were doomed to fail before they even started, and on some level both of them knew it. (You're the Worst might know this too. The theme song's most constant refrain is: "I'm gonna leave you anyway.")
The fact of the matter is that loving someone with a mental illness is to invite an unseen third into the relationship, who's always just off to the side, a bad houseguest you can't get rid of. This is, I suppose, not as sensitive to the mentally ill as I could be, but then neither is the fact that I am exhausted by my wife's depression sometimes, even as I accept that it's inextricable from all of the things that make me love her. I want to say, sometimes, what about me? What about all of the people who love someone who can turn at any moment into a hurricane? What do we get to say?
The question from many who aren't intimately acquainted with depression is this: Why would anybody ever put up with that?
We don't talk about mental illness in the United States, not really. We'll quote statistics, or we'll point out that the number one cause of gun deaths is suicide (my wife refused a gun in our home even when we lived in the far more gun-happy Midwest for this reason), or we'll talk about how we need better mental health care in the US, but we don't do anything, because we believe, on some level, that we can snap people out of it. The thought that a problem can't be fixed, only diverted, isn't just harrowing — it feels wrong somehow. We are at once too polite about it and at a loss.
So if we don't talk about mental illness, we really don't talk about those who lived beside it and recognized it and didn't know what to do, those who have lost and been lost. Or, as Jimmy and I might think, we can't talk in polite company about how you can see her lying there, not looking at anything. You know she's there, but she's gone. And who's going to come to comfort you?
To its credit, You're the Worst does not suggest depression can be defeated. It suggests, instead, that it can be lived with. In the second season finale, Gretchen reveals she hasn't been on medication, and Jimmy, agog, insists she renew her prescription and start taking it again.
Gretchen's excuse is, more or less, that she knows how to handle her depression. It comes and goes (my wife calls it a sine wave), and when you're in the middle of it, it consumes you whole, but when you're not, you can go to the grocery store or make love or take a shower. You can be a human being, instead of depression wearing a human being suit.
And this is probably true. Medication, therapy, all those sorts of things — I sometimes wonder if they're more for those of us who love people with depression than they are for those who actually struggle with it. My wife's medication makes her so much better than she's ever been. She has an amazing job, and she's a wonderfully attentive spouse, and when we fight, we just fight like normal married people do. But would she be on it if she weren't trying to placate me on some level?
Every depressed person I've talked to fears on some level, deep down, that maybe the depressed self is their real self, that medication is a sort of cheat or brain hack that evades the reality of their actual personality. We are so accustomed to believe in living our truest possible lives, and in most cases this is a good thing. We Americans can love whom we love openly. We can argue and shout and express ourselves and still like each other. We can openly divulge our political preferences or even our deeply felt thoughts on toothpaste.
It doesn't surprise me, then, that so many I know fear the medication is a kind of lie of themselves, a crutch they shouldn't need, maybe just a better pair of running shoes to outrun the dogs. And as You're the Worst moves into its third season, it can't simply say Gretchen is "fixed" because she's on meds. It has to acknowledge that learning to live with depression is like learning to live with someone you love — you have to figure out how to make all of your stuff fit in the same space.
Here is what I've learned:
A friend once told me that loving someone else is easy, that it's harder to learn to accept yourself as worthy of being loved. As someone with his own baggage (as we all have), this spoke deeply to me. Loving my wife was easy. Letting myself believe she loved me — even in the worst times — was hard. Once we got there, I could truly help her — not to get rid of the depression but to find her way through the mazes it keeps throwing up.
Also, maybe this:
Loving someone is seeing the best possible version of her superimposed over the actual person at all times, even when you hate her. I loved my wife for too long not necessarily for who she was, but for who I knew she could be. And maybe that was terribly unfair to her — okay, it was terribly unfair to her — but it was how I stayed and how we made it through the wilderness.
Being loved is fearing, on some level, that you are not worthy of that love. It is terrifying and vulnerable, and if you fell in love on the first day of college, it makes a great story so long as you can pretend part of it wasn't a horror movie. But being loved is good when you can trust that the other sees you, yes, but also sees the flaw in the photograph that superimposes your own best self over your rotten, stinking core.
And, above all else:
When you boil it down, life is just physical processes. You don't even have to think about them, about the way you breathe in and out, or the way your heart beats, or the way my fingers type these words even as I think them. Your brain is so good at all of this that it knows how to tune out the sound of your heartbeats.
But if you try, if you really try, you can hear your heartbeat. You can stop the process of your breath. I can keep my fingers from typing.
Depression isn't just a condition or a disease or a mental imbalance. It's a process, a series of them that you can replace with other processes that don't get rid of depression but build better ways of dealing with its lies.
In "Avant Gardener," one of my favorite songs about depression (or, at least, I think it's about depression — it's probably just about a respiratory ailment), singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett sings about a day that starts with her staying in bed too late, before going out to dig up weeds in her garden. "All of a sudden," she sings, "I'm having trouble breathing in."
This is what it is, I think, for both of us, maybe for Jimmy and Gretchen too. It's realizing that you can tell yourself to breathe, that you can, on some level, find a way past this, whether around or through, that even if the medication is a lie, we are all the sum of lies we tell ourselves anyway.
Here you are. Feel yourself. You are the sum collection of all your joys and fears and disappointments and losses. You are both that and something else. Breathe in. Hold.
Think of her laugh. Think of her smile. Think of the person you were, and the better person she has helped you become. Think of the time she, in the depths of a depressive phase she tried not to label as one, adopted two 10-day-old kittens and bottle-fed them for months, because she doesn't want anything, ever, to have to die. Think of how you used to go, in the middle of the night, to Wendy's drive-thrus and listen to Coast to Coast AM to eavesdrop on people who had constructed their own alternate realities to undergird the universe. Think about how you do the same thing every day, both of you, but it makes things better, because it's what we all do to survive.
Todd VanDerWerff is Vox's culture editor.