At the height of my postpartum depression and anxiety, I had been to the emergency room twice for palpitations I perceived to be a heart attack. I also had an MRI for migraines I was convinced were the result of a tumor. I often lay awake watching my daughter's monitor for hands that would snatch her from her crib. I called my dentist after hours and pushed for her to assure me my tooth pain was not an infection that would spread to my brain. Most nights before turning out the lights I asked my husband Dan to assure me I wouldn't die in my sleep.
On one particular evening, I was lying in bed with my legs against our headboard, trying to take the pressure off of an ache in my calf that I was pretty sure was a blood clot slowly making its way to my lungs. Dan slid into bed and I turned my head to him, panicked tears already rolling down my face. "Do you think…?" Before I finished he said, "Yes, I will see you in the morning. I promise." He caught my eye and we both started laughing. It wasn't exactly funny, but even in the midst of my very real distress, I knew my thought patterns weren't typical. Sometimes finding humor in it made it feel less overwhelming.
Tracee Ellis Ross reinforced that in last night's episode of Black-ish when her character Rainbow ("Bow") and her husband, Dre (played by Anthony Johnson), take a quiz about postpartum depression. Dre reads the first question: "Do you feel sad, hopeless, overwhelmed, empty?" Through tears, Bow responds: "Ah…well, I feel sad and I feel hopeless and I feel overwhelmed, but I don't feel empty, so I guess it's a no for me." It's a moment of comic relief in the scene—while Rainbow is clearly depressed, this moment pokes fun at her just falling short of being the total package of PPD misery.
"I think that comedy can help us shine a light on important mental health issues, when it is done responsibly," says Mike Fraser, a psychologist chief of staff at Behavioral Associates in New York. "Comedy that aims for the easy laugh by poking fun at people struggling with real mental health issues obviously doesn't help. But if it can bring exposure to issues that millions of people battle—often in isolation—comedy can open the door for people to get an important conversation going and possibly even reach out for help."
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As Dan and I watched the episode, we were both especially struck by a scene in which Dre and Bow visit a doctor about her perceived condition. They discuss Bow's symptoms—anxiety, insomnia, crying and constant insecurity—and the doctor assures her they are not only normal, but treatable. Bow represents a huge number of women when she tells the doctor, "I can get through this, I don't want medication." Her doctor replies, "postpartum depression is a mood disorder—it's not just something you can power through—and it's not something you should be ashamed of."
It's the postpartum PSA of my goddamn dreams—one I wish they would play in place of the over simplified, condescending crap most women hear before exiting the hospital with a new baby.
Dan points out that the scene represents a support system some women will never see in real life. And I knew he was right: My own experience with a doctor who listened to my symptoms and then put her hands on my knees and told me to go for a brisk walk was proof enough. Even though I had dealt with depression and anxiety for most of my adult life, her patronization made me second guess what I knew to be facts. Lucky for me, by the time I made it to the car my support system (hi mom) was on other end of the phone while I screamed, "Fuck that lady!" I knew that exercise couldn't "cure" what science has shown to be chemical. But I was pissed for the people who would accept her words as truth.
Hours of therapy and one daily dose of Lexapro later, I still struggle with bouts of depression and many of my impulses from those early days of motherhood have hung around. But each night when Dan locks the front door and I walk over to touch it—a habit rooted in obsessive compulsive tendencies—we both laugh. "I know, I know," I say, smiling as I reach out my hand. It's a necessary ritual for me to feel at ease, but the lightness we sometimes inject into it makes it feel less clinical. And that's what Black-ish offers its viewers when Dre cozies up next to Bow on the couch and rattles off questions from a women's magazine quiz, giving her props on her near perfect score (and while that equates to depressed as hell, Bow is never one to bomb a quiz of any type).
There were some scenes that were a little too neatly tied up, particularly one where Bow's mother-in-law Ruby apologizes for her vast misconceptions about PPD (which included comments like, "I didn't go to some quack doctor because I was mentally ill with some made up disease"). The turnaround between her blatant ignorance and acceptance is a bit quick and, sadly, unrealistic, but it sticks with the show's intent of bringing a serious issue to an accessible 30-minute comedic platform. After all, I realized, most people don't discuss mental health on the regular as we do in our household. Shows like Black-ish might be the open door they've been needing to walk through.
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