“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” – Exploring the Most Misunderstood Mental Health Condition

Source: The CW / Netflix

Co-created by Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a whacky musical comedy that follows our ‘crazy’ protagonist as she tries to win back her teenage sweetheart. Rebecca Bunch (played by Bloom) is unhappy in her successful lawyer job in New York, so decides to uproot her life and move to West Covina – the same city that her ex (Josh Chan) lives in. Unbeknownst to him, she has not moved there for work (as she claims) but instead in an attempt to reignite the romance between them. From stalking, scheming, and bucket loads of drama to emotional recovery, self-discovery, and heartbreak, this show has it all. Crazy-Ex Girlfriend manages to make light of dark content through on-point R-rated observational comedy in the form of Broadway theatre. This show tackles many of life’s difficult, complex, and incredibly human problems, none more so than mental health issues. You are aware of Rebecca’s mental health difficulties from the get-go, but it’s not until season three that she gets a diagnosis of one of the most stigmatised mental health issues out there: borderline personality disorder (BPD).

Borderline personality disorder (referred to more recently as emotionally unstable personality disorder) is frequently misunderstood. Many assume it is related to having a split personality, but this is not what it means at all. Those with the condition are often labelled manipulative, dramatic, attention-seeking, and judged to be liars. This means people often suffer in silence or receive treatment that isn’t right for them and doesn’t reflect their struggles. BPD can manifest differently from person to person, and often it is present alongside other mental health problems such as PTSD, bipolar disorder, depression, addictions, and anxiety. Those with BPD usually struggle with emotional instability, distorted patterns of thinking, impulsive behaviour, and intense but unstable relationships with others. It is not entirely clear what causes BPD, but many sufferers report that they experienced trauma, neglect, or abandonment during childhood.

Source: Scott Everett White / The CW

Around the time I was watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, I received a diagnosis of BPD. I’d struggled mentally since I was a child, but none of my previous diagnoses seemed to fit. I could go from feeling happy and confident in one moment to distressed and self-deprecating the next. When I got sad, I believed I’d always been this way, and wasn’t able to remember a time when I was happy (even if I was happy earlier that day). I’d also react with extreme distress and fear whenever I felt rejected or abandoned, and in these moments, I found it very difficult to do anything else. Even before Rebecca had been officially diagnosed, I related to her on a level that I never had to a fictional character. Her dad left when she was young, she was up and down like a yoyo, and she acted incredibly impulsively — just like me!

In the first season, Rebecca is portrayed as your stereotypical ‘crazy ex’. She does note in the season one theme tune that this is a ‘sexist term’ and the ‘situation’s a lot more nuanced than that’, but overall you get the impression that that’s what she is: she’s a crazy ex-girlfriend. Her denial of it almost reinforces this idea, as though everyone else knows what she is apart from her. It feels like this ‘crazy-ex’ narrative has been around forever. Also known as ‘psycho girlfriend’, this term has for too long been used to describe women who have a mental health condition. That’s not to say that all of Rebecca’s behaviour was acceptable – far from it. The show itself portrays Rebecca as a flawed character: she hurts people, lies to people, and frequently breaks the law. But by seeing events from Rebecca’s point of view, you begin to understand her. You don’t blame her for what she is doing, instead, you are rooting for her to get help. (Okay, you’re also rooting for her and Josh to get together, despite suspecting she might have some underlying issues to address and this wouldn’t be good for her. But that’s beside the point.)

Pictured: Rachel Bloom (centre) as Rebecca
Source: Scott Everett White / The CW

Her love for Josh along with her ‘brand-new pals and new career’ mean that Rebecca’s mental health takes a back seat in Season One. In Season Two, her parents – a seemingly comical (but actually abusive) mother and a deadbeat unreliable father who left when she was a kid – are introduced in more depth, and to say that their treatment of Rebecca is problematic would be an understatement. Whilst dealing with them, she has several other romantic pursuits and begins seeing a therapist on and off. By Season Three, you start to realise that she needs real help and that (spoiler alert!) seeking out romance is not benefiting her. This is where the real growth happens; her friends find out her deepest secret and, instead of hating her for it, try and support her in getting some help. She agrees, and eventually receives a diagnosis of BPD. Things that didn’t add up before start to make sense, and she begins the difficult task of working on herself. I was touched – I felt as though she and I were uncovering our struggle with BPD together, side by side.

Whilst I think that mental health diagnoses can be problematic, when I received mine (alongside Rebecca receiving hers), I felt more validated and understood than ever before. This is a common, tough, and even life-threatening condition that not enough people know about. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend gives an honest, non-judgemental, and stigma-free portrayal of BPD from Rebecca’s perspective. I applaud the show for telling the honest truth: both that she has reasons to act the way she does and that her behaviour is unacceptable at times. She’s not manipulative or attention-seeking, she is struggling with a mental health condition that millions of people struggle with, and she’s doing a fantastic job.

Words by Charlie Martina

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