The Powerful Lesson I Learned From Kimmy Schmidt

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix
A few weeks ago, I found myself in my standard weekend position — at home, exhausted and laid out on my couch, enjoying another episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt — when I experienced what can only be described as a gut punch.

In TV terms, a gut punch is basically when shit gets real — the “there’s no turning back” moment, or an enthralling big reveal. But in this case, I’m talking about a more personal experience. It came during that scene when Kimmy, now an Uber driver, picks up Andrea (her alcoholic soon-to-be psychiatrist, played by Tina Fey) in season 2. “Why does it smell like a pine tree gave birth to an onion in here?” Andrea asks. Kimmy answers that she hasn’t been able to shower because Titus is using their shower to store his dolls (naturally), which leads Andrea to a very important follow-up question. “Do you always put others’ needs before yours?”

Yes, I answered in my head, in part for Kimmy, but mostly for myself. “Happy people value their needs as much as others’” Andrea adds a few beats later, and that’s when I could feel tears starting to form. I’d had the same conversation a few days earlier with my own therapist, about my inability to set healthy boundaries.

For those who don’t watch the show, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt follows a young woman taking back her life after spending 15 years trapped in a bunker where she was the victim of “weird sex stuff,” as she puts it. It is a testament to the power of Tina Fey (who is also co-creator of the show) that the writers have somehow managed to make a story about surviving kidnapping and sexual abuse actually funny. But as someone who’s struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) partially resulting from multiple sexual assaults (with some run-of-the-mill anxiety and depression in there, too), I am drawn to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt probably more than the average viewer just there for the slapstick and Peeno Noir.

While not every trauma survivor has had a positive reaction to the show, I think of Kimmy as nothing short of revolutionary. Not only is she one of few popular characters on TV right now who are grappling with the nitty-gritty details of how trauma and mental illness can affect your life, she is at once cheerful, pleasant, well-groomed — and still royally fucked up.

Unlike most media portrayals of mental illness, Kimmy is neither incredibly sad (think Louis C.K.’s character in Louie), or incapable of functioning (think Diane Nguyen towards the end of Bojack Horseman). And this is important because, while certainly mental illness can look like that, for a lot of people (myself included), that is a dangerous oversimplification. Kimmy is a direct negation of what I call the “too-sad-to-function” stereotype.

“It's easy to think, Well, I am not crying all the time, so I don't have depression, or, in Kimmy's case, I am capable of moving forward with my life, so I can't have PTSD,” says Jenny Jaffe, founder of Project UROK, a non-profit organization that works to destigmatize mental illness. “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt does a great job of showing how our ideas about what mental illness looks like can prevent us from seeking treatment.”

Perhaps owing to my typically friendly, positive outward demeanor, the most frequent reaction I get when I disclose to someone that I have depression, anxiety, and PTSD is, “But you seem so happy!” And for a long time, this idea that I am too bubbly or high-functioning to actually be struggling prevented me from seeking the help that I need (and deserve).

I completely understand why — on the outside — it might look like I have my shit together. Between a full-time job, writing on the side, singing in a choir, hosting a comedy show, making appearances in other live events throughout New York City, and helping out my friends and family, to the untrained eye, it looks like I’m not only functioning, but extremely high-functioning. But in reality, weeks can go by when my only public appearances have been at work and on a stage — anything involving straight social interaction is simply too exhausting and anxiety-provoking. While I can keep up appearances when I’m busy, it’s much harder to sit down with someone and talk about my true emotional state.

Part of the reason this is so difficult is because I don’t want to be a downer. When I’m depressed, I am acutely aware of my negativity, and I desperately want to avoid spreading it. In fact, to compensate, my coping mechanism is usually humor — making jokes and providing sarcastic running commentary to help ensure that other people don’t feel as sad as I do. While men are often conditioned to repress difficult emotions so as not to appear weak or feminine, women tend to feel compelled to lighten the mood — to put others’ needs before their own, Anna Eckhardt, LCSW, a psychotherapist in private practice, tells me.

Echkardt offers the example of how we’re taught to "be gracious" above all. In our society, women are taught to be thankful for the space, time, and things “allowed” or provided to them, she says, with the result being that when we need to demand these things for ourselves, it becomes very difficult. Eckhardt adds that this is one of the most common struggles she sees among women in her practice.

Similarly, Kimmy is constantly trying to assist others: helping Titus get his acting career up and running, helping Jacqueline realize she’s more than just a trophy wife, and trying to determine the cause of Andrea’s alcoholism. The plot (and the humor) relies on the fact that anyone can see she’s got to turn her attention inward. It’s funny when she drops everything to bring Jacqueline’s son Buckley and his friend into a sewer to play Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles because it pinpoints the ridiculous lengths Kimmy will go to in order to help her friends and ignore her own problems.

It would have been easy for the writers of the show to make sure this all blows up in Kimmy’s face, or to at least give her a nice Aha! moment in which she realizes she must focus on herself. But instead, Kimmy is able to simultaneously start therapy and continue to help Titus, Jacqueline, and Andrea. It isn’t an all-or-nothing situation where Kimmy has to stop being herself (a helpful, cheerful human) in order to get better.

Fans of the show will remember that Kimmy’s desire to help is so profound that she is drawn to a job as an elf in a year-round Christmas store because she identifies with the elf ethos of always helping others. While I am not employed as an elf, I tend to lean on helping others as a coping mechanism. It is very hard to be anxious about my problems when I can concentrate on fixing someone else’s problems.

For example, a few years ago, just before leaving Ireland — where I’d lived for eight years — I was having panic attacks with such regularity that I thought I was having a series of heart attacks. Racing thoughts kept me up most of the night, but sleep wasn’t even an escape, because that’s when the night terrors kicked in. All of this was on top of a major depressive episode that left me in a fog.

Rather than focusing on my own issues, though, I spent nearly every day for two months caring for a close friend during her extended stay at a psychiatric hospital. Everyone near and dear in my life, from my best friend to my mom, could see that I was struggling, and that I was cruising toward an emotional disaster. At one point, a close friend and colleague went as far as suggesting that the time I was spending in a psychiatric hospital could actually make my conditions worse — as if bipolar disorder or schizophrenia were contagious. What they didn’t understand was that helping her was my way of coping.

This is a subtle, but very important nuance. Yes, my altruism and friendliness are coping strategies, but they are also a part of me. It may sound obvious, but learning that for myself (with the help of my therapist) was an important breakthrough. It helped me understand that my diagnoses and I can co-exist; I didn’t have to change who I am to deal with my anxiety and depression, or with my traumatic past.

And neither did Kimmy. Ultimately, she has her own breakthrough while she is trying to help Andrea quit drinking. After handcuffing the two of them together, Kimmy drags Andrea to a rooftop. Throughout the course of the day, Kimmy realizes that she blames herself for the way her mom abandoned her, and the season ends with Kimmy confronting her mom and coming to accept that she can’t change what happened.

Here again, the resolution is obvious, but the important part is that the way she got to it was messy and convoluted. The point is that navigating life with any mental health struggle can be an extremely complicated road. Watching Kimmy go through this process of coming to terms with her past and beginning to receive treatment was cathartic for me. But more importantly, it may also serve the greater good: With every nuanced portrayal of mental illness comes the opportunity for seeing these issues in a new light — and for remembering that we all have our own strengths and limitations to work with.

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