This post is part of my series for Mental Health Awareness Week 2018! The series includes articles, poems, and photo essays by many guest authors about mental health and related issues. For more information, click here!
Content warning: this post covers c-PTSD and may affect those with PTSD
I fell in love with Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable, Kimmy Schmidt’ from the first time I heard Mike Britt (playing Walter Bankston) sing out, “Unbreakable, they alive dammit, it’s a miracle. Unbreakable, they alive dammit, females are strong as hell.” The upbeat song already sounded like it could be the theme song for my life. I often have had feelings of “well, I’m still alive, some how I’m strong enough to get through this.”
Then comes Kimmy, a woman who spent 15 years in a bunker run by a narcissistic priest, who decides to leave the city she had grown up in, and been kidnapped in, to start a life in New York. She not only wants to discover what the world has to offer, but she also wants to stop being identified as a victim. Her bubbly outgoing attitude, positive determination, and love of 80’s & 90’s pop culture references immediately made me think of myself. For the first time, I felt that a character on TV not only represented my personality, but also mirrored my struggles with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD).
I know, this sounds like the beginning of a review for the show (which I’ve already written here), but that’s not my intent with this post. Instead, I want to talk about how I felt that ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ accurately depicted my journey of recovery with c-PTSD and how important that accurate representation has been to me. I can’t speak for all people with PTSD, so to say that it accurately depicts everyone’s emotional recovery process is a stretch, but for this girl, the show was shockingly accurate.
While I have been very open on this blog about my recovery and treatment for PTSD, I haven’t ever really talked about the specifics of why or how this came to be. I’m not ready to share the full details of my trauma, partially because I’m not ready to deal with the personal backlash it would cause, but also because, to me, that’s not the best part of my story. I’d rather focus on my process of recovery. That doesn’t mean that stories of trauma aren’t important or helpful to educate others, but that’s not where I am right now. So, forgive my use of vague descriptors when discussing my past trauma.
Unlike Kimmy, I was not kidnapped and forced to live underground. My bunker, rather, was a metaphorical one, but powerful, never-less. I had endured years of sustained narcissistic abuse. This had shaped how I saw myself, relationships with others, and the world as a whole. Even after removing myself from the abusive situation, I mentally remained there for a long time after. One of the most dangerous after effects was that I didn’t yet recognize how unusual my treatment had been. I still believed that it was my fault. And I still believed all the lies I had been told about myself.
One day, all of those illusions shattered. I had been working with a therapist who helped me see the truth of my situation and I felt as if I was seeing the world, myself even, for the very first time. Just as Kimmy faces a world that has changed significantly during her imprisonment, I, too, was trying to find my footing in a world I didn’t understand. The lies I had been told about who I was as a person began to fall away and I was left trying to figure out who I really was, just as Kimmy tries to figure out who she is in this outside world.
Surprisingly, ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ is a comedy. Its peppy music, bright colors, and snappy one-liners paint the show as anything but bleak, yet it still tackles the subject of Kimmy’s trauma with honesty. No, they don’t show Kimmy crying in her shower for hours because the pain is so overwhelming, something that I certainly have done, but it’s in how it talks about these very real moments without holding back that make it so accurate. It’s upbeat tone is part of the magic of the show. Most depictions of survivors are relentlessly depressing and only show the characters laughing or smiling as they make some kind of major breakthrough. That’s not what my experience with PTSD has been. Even when living in the abuse, there were times of laughter and joy, and depicting abuse survivors as constantly withdrawn and depressed makes it much more difficult for people to recognize when someone is hurting. It can also leave survivors feeling like they don’t really have a right to be upset because there were times when they felt ok. Recovery doesn’t mean being sad all the time. My life doesn’t have to resemble a dark gritty drama just because I lived through some dark and gritty times. I can live in a bright comedy, as well.
However, attempting to just smile through all the pain and think positive thoughts also will not help me recover from my past. Leaving the bunker, either physical or metaphorical, doesn’t mean everything is suddenly better. Kimmy faces many obstacles in this new world, and attempts to stay perky and spirited through it all. I mean, why be sad when you can be happy, right? Except, especially where trauma is concerned, you can’t just shove your feelings deep down inside and cover them with a smile. Kimmy learns, just as I have, that hiding from the negative emotions whether it’s through work, relentless cheeriness, exercise, or chanting “I’m not really here,” doesn’t actually make things better. The negative emotions still exist and find ways to pop up in your life, whether you want them to or not. And, you can’t just ‘Buhbreeze’ your problems and make them go away. The damage remains unless you actually go in and clean up the mess.
Yet, life doesn’t stop for you to recover. And there isn’t some definitive line between your past, recovery, and your future. In fact, you can be both moving forward in positive ways while also struggling with a painful past. Kimmy Schmidt shows this so clearly, especially in the frustration of making positive changes in hopes that would magically erase the pain, but it doesn’t. Inspirational posters like to push the idea that that’s exactly how you overcome your past, by just making good choices for the future and ignoring everything from before, but that’s not how it works. It’s the whole ‘Buhbreezing’ thing all over again. As shown in the show, as well as my own experiences, recovery is ongoing. Seeing that even after three seasons Kimmy has issues that pop up from her trauma helped to remind me that it was ok that I was doing the same.
All of this serves as an important reminder: representation matters. It’s hard to explain how much it matters to people who have never struggled to be represented, but it does. Seeing people you relate to, tackle obstacles that you are tackling, validates your experience. Beyond that, even, it validates your existence. You start to recognize that, not only are you not alone in your journey, but that your journey isn’t something you need to be ashamed of or hide away. You learn that even if you don’t look or act like the accepted norms for our society, you are equally valid. And that’s a really powerful thing to learn.