This article contains spoilers for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
CW’s Crazy-Ex Girlfriend (streaming on Netflix for anyone in the UK) has been understandably praised across international media outlets for its great efforts to represent what life with mental illness is like, in an authentic way. Main character Rebecca Bunch (portrayed by writer and co-creator Rachel Bloom) has been designed with care, excellent writing, and meticulous attention to important details about mental health. As the show is bringing its fourth season to a close, they’re continuing their focused, realistic representations by opening conversations about more specific mental health experiences. In the most recent episode titled ‘I Need a Break’, the show unravels a story of how love can feel like a ‘cure’ and the dangers that come along with it.
“I’m like a cactus – living from compliment to compliment, storing them in my body through long periods of drought.” ‘Love Kernals’, Crazy Ex Girlfriend
As they humorously depict in their dark-humoured musical numbers, Rebecca (who has been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder or BPD) develops a self-awareness of how she uses love and affection to avoid her problems as each weekly episode rolls out. In the song ‘Love Kernels’ which parodies Beyoncé’s Lemonade in the visuals, Rebecca details how she uses compliments and breadcrumbs of affection for survival, coming back for ‘replenishment’ when she feels depressed.
This, paired with the opening sequence line “I’m just a girl in love, I have now underlying issues to address” shows Rebecca’s dangerous relationship with, well, relationships. Dating is an emotional rollercoaster at the best of times, but having mental illness contributed to that mix can make love even more difficult to navigate.
In the episode ‘I Need a Break’, Rebecca’s ex-boyfriend Greg has reappeared after moving away years before, and they’ve rekindle their relationship together. Now around six weeks into dating (only months after her suicide attempt and voluntary admission into a recovery and rehabilitation programme), Rebecca’s fun, sexy and caring relationship distracts her from addressing those ‘underlying issues’. She stops attending group therapy, doesn’t take her anti-depressants, and instead opts for water park visits, cinema trips and sex on the living room floor. Allowing herself to get lost in her infatuation and desperate desire to feel loved, her recovery is unfortunately affected.
Often the focalised character for revealing deeper messages to the audience about mental health, Rebecca’s therapist Dr. Akopian reaches out, concerned about her absence…
“You deserve love and intimacy, but you need continue the hard work on managing your BPD. I just don’t want you to forget the work that you need to do for self-care right now, because romantic love, for you, can be tricky… If you discontinue our work, I’m worried you’re going to backslide.” Dr. Akopian in Crazy Ex Girlfriend
Rebecca bursts into a musical number as a response – childishly exclaiming “I’m not sad, you’re sad.” As I know through my own experiences of dating with mental illness, being told your attempts to mask your symptoms haven’t worked can feel confrontational and lead to feelings of shame, as though you’ve been caught out. Crazy-Ex Girlfriend shows that important reality perfectly accurately, dressing it in humour and extravagant musical numbers to make it digestible and harmlessly fun – without romanticising.
Desperate to believe she’s genuinely recovered and managed to skip the hard part by falling in love, Rebecca gets drunk and tries to sleep with two of her ex-boyfriends, desperately trying to perform stability. But when her ex-boyfriends instead gently encourage her to return to therapy and get help, she comes to understand the importance of working hard on recovery.
Describing her disorder as a ‘relationship of its own’, Rebecca appreciates that she needs to deal with her darkness instead of committing to a relationship at the risk of hurting the people around her. Ultimately, the audience watches as Rebecca breaks up with her boyfriend, kindly explaining that her health is more important to her than anything else.
Of course, having a mental illness doesn’t mean you can’t function in society or that your entire identity is dominated by your illness. People with mental health issues date successfully often and can experience intimacy and love normally. I myself have been in a happy relationship for almost two years while recovering from anxiety disorders. I’m a creative writer, lover of dogs and avid reader, but I have a psychiatric disorder and that means I’m not always myself when I’m triggered (which can complicate love).
And Rebecca in Crazy Ex Girlfriend, for example, is an intelligent business owner, creative person, and will do anything to support her friends, but her symptoms are activated by certain displays of intimacy in relationships because her past close relationships led to pain, shame, and feelings of anxiety.
Having access to stories like this, of love, mental illness – and especially of letting go of love to prioritise mental health recovery – are signifiers to me that I’m not alone. They’re comforting, reminding me that I’m not selfish for prioritising health over love – and I’m sure they have a similar effect on others. Stories like Rebecca’s show us that sometimes leaving is an act of self-care. And in a society that constantly reinforces the message that love equals happiness or health, it’s important to show that this isn’t always the case