Nothing in the world can make you feel less like a superhero than mental illness. And that's why it means the world that so many of genre's greatest heroes are open about their own struggles.
I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression in my late 20s, but they'd always been a part of me. I was a happy "normal" person who'd had a happy "normal" childhood, but there was this ever-present cloud inside of me, something that filled my chest, my heart, my mind, and it made me sad. And that didn't feel "normal," so I just didn't talk about it. That feeling inside of me would team up with this other as-yet-unnamed feeling, and the two would convince me of several things: One made me afraid me I was worthless, I was untalented, and everyone hated me. The other told me that none of this was in my head, that I was accurate, that I deserved to feel this way.
And still, even as an adult, those feelings are still how my anxiety and depression manifest. My anxiety fills me with this panicked sense that I'm a bad writer, a bad friend, a bad mother; my depression tells me it's all true. My anxiety makes me overcorrect when I experience these imaginary feelings that seem so real; and my depression tells me that they are real, and that I'm only making it worse. These are lonely, isolating conditions sometimes. The chemicals in my brain can fire up (or become low and slow to produce, depending on what is sitting in the driver's seat) without warning, or at a hair trigger. The feeling in my chest sets, heavy, and my skin quakes from within, my heart pounds, and I'm scared of something I can neither see nor feel. And all of it makes me feel small.
So to know that those who seem so big, so powerful, experience the same feelings that I do, that all of us who struggle with mental illness do? It means everything.
Just last week, Ryan Reynolds talked to the New York Times about his anxiety diagnosis, something that might surprise fans who have long known him as the wry jokester that made him so perfect for Deadpool. "I have anxiety, I’ve always had anxiety," he said. “Both in the lighthearted ‘I’m anxious about this’ kind of thing, and I’ve been to the depths of the darker end of the spectrum, which is not fun.” Those darker depths comprised his early 20s, a period he calls a “real unhinged phase.” He was self-medicating his way through nights spent awake filled with anxiety about his future. He said, “I was partying and just trying to make myself vanish in some way."
Chris Evans has been very open about his similarly "noisy brain," a concept every one of us with anxiety can relate to. "It’s so funny how noisy my brain is," he said in a video that appeared on the YouTube channel Motivation Madness. "Everyone’s brain is noisy, it makes thoughts. The problem is, in most of our lives, the root of suffering is following that brain noise and listening to that brain noise and actually identifying with it as if it’s who you are. That’s just the noise your brain makes, and more often than not, it probably doesn’t have much to say."
Social anxiety may seem like something that impacts only quiet introverts, but even those of us otherwise loud and extroverted know that struggle all too well, including Evans—who, even after years in the entertainment industry, experiences panic during premieres. "It's not like a junket," he told Rolling Stone in 2016. "Junkets you sit in a room and they bring 'em in. I can do that all day and not have a meltdown. But the premiere – that's overwhelming. It's the volume of it: You're in the center of this thing. You can fight a whole army if they line up one at a time. But if they surround you, you're f*cked."
Of course our genre heroes aren't just those who put on costumes and fight villains. Thanks to Veronica Mars, The Good Place, and Frozen, Kristen Bell is one of our favorites both in the roles she plays and in her real-life frankness about mental illness. In 2016, she appeared on Off Camera With Sam Jones and discussed her diagnoses with anxiety and depression and, notably, how she takes medication for those disorders. Taking medication is massively common for those of us with mental illness, but discussion of that medication remains stigmatized and goes unsaid for many people even as they publicly discuss their illnesses. Some even boast of not needing medication or having stopped taking it. For many of us, that is not a possibility—and that's OK.
Bell has been open about another aspect of behavioral health care that most people keep very quiet—marriage counseling. She and husband Dax Shepard have been honest about their stints in marriage counseling, and they've done so in the casual, conversational way that fans have come to expect from the pair, which is frankly incredible. Counseling and medication are tools for living a safe, happy life, and for celebrities to speak freely about those things can do more than just make us feel less alone—they can save lives by reassuring us that it's OK to get help. If Anna of Arendelle can take her meds and see a counselor, then so can the rest of us.
Depression and anxiety are common, more common than many of us realize, but they also face a great deal of misunderstanding. One mental illness that remains greatly misunderstood is obsessive-compulsive disorder, something so minimized in society that it's become a shorthand for liking your house clean. Shannon Purser (BARB!) wrote a piece for Teen Vogue about her experience living with OCD and depression, how it's less "lol I organize my closet a certain way" and a lot more hating yourself because of the things your brain convinces you to think and do.
"I grew to believe that I was evil, disgusting, and perverted. My disorder not only caused me to fixate on certain thoughts or images, but also curated ones that were specifically disturbing to me and bombarded me with them," she wrote. "Having a stray, weird thought or image pop into your head — maybe something super-sexual or violent — can be a perfectly normal thing for the brain to do, and most people are able to brush those thoughts off and move on. I wasn’t. Instead, they were all I could think about, and they got worse and worse until I was convinced that I was an unstable predator. It was nightmarish. I felt dangerous. I thought I deserved to die, and I felt utterly alone."
To openly share with the world your diagnosis of mental illness is wonderful—it matters. But beyond that, to share what that means in your day-to-day, the Instagram-friendly light and the utter abject darkness alike, provides a sense of normalization. Reading Purser's essay, or listening to Bell and Shepard discuss marriage counseling on his podcast, it does for us what genre entertainment has always done for us—it makes us feel less alone, less "weird."
But one of the first genre icons to be open about mental illness was also, for many of us, our first genre hero. Carrie Fisher had few secrets when it came to her bipolar disorder and addiction issues. Not only was she never hesitant or ashamed to discuss her struggles, she was the first person—let alone the first woman—I ever saw who could joke about them. To her, mental illness wasn't tragic or shameful; it was just life. It didn't define her, but it was part of her. And she wore that part like she wore her iconic hair buns. As she said in Wishful Drinking, "If my life wasn't funny, it would just be true and that is unacceptable."
We may not be superheroes, but every single day, we fight the villains that exist inside our own brains. And, usually, we win. If that's not heroic, I don't know what is.