What Buffy the Vampire Slayer can teach us about mental illness

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Jun 30, 2018, 12:30 PM EDT

"The hardest thing in this world is to live in it."

I've been thinking of those words a lot lately. With the recent losses of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, a general sense of darkness in the world as we've come to know it, and my own ongoing struggles with depression and anxiety, struggles that ebb and flow from still and calm to crashing, crushing waves, those famous words uttered by Buffy Summers in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 5 episode "The Gift" are etched in that part of my gut where I most feel my own mental illness. That aching, tightening emptiness beneath an overflowing, overwhelmed brain, so full of thoughts and feelings that I can't parse them. But somehow, those words remain clear and within my grasp.

The hardest thing in this world is to live in it.

Depression is an illness that takes. It takes energy, motivation, little bits of our minds and souls drizzling out until they don't feel like us anymore. And anxiety fills those spaces with terror and panic. When the two work together they can make me feel at best useless and at worst actively destructive, like I'm making the world worse by being part of it, like when bad things happen it's my fault, like the world is on my shoulders and I can't handle it.

And while I know it's just the chemicals in my brain playing cruel tricks on me, it's these dark feelings that helped me find solace in Buffy.


When I was in my teens watching the show, I didn't know how much Buffy resonated with me as a character. I fancied myself more of a Willow with Xanderly tendencies. But I knew Buffy's desire for normalcy, to fit in despite this massive piece of her life that got in the way and complicated things; I always understood that in a way that only now do I see was vital to my existence at the time, my ability to survive it all. I understood why Buffy would sometimes withdraw from her friends, even turn on them and push them away. I understood the need to be "strong," to pretend things were okay. I understood the feeling that no matter how hard you tried, no matter how much you did, no matter how much you succeeded in one area, that you could still fail in others and that failure felt like a defining quality. I understood not because I was a Slayer, the Chosen One of a generation, but because I was a teenager with a mental illness I didn't understand, one I'm still trying to understand and to exist with. And it's f*cking hard.

But it's also part of me. My mental illness has shaped me in a fundamental way—I'm not who I am in spite of anxiety and depression, but because of them. They do not define me, but they are part of me. They are inconvenient and messy and hard. But they've made me kind and understanding. They've made me feel weak but they've made my heart strong. They're my powers. And like the Slayer, there's a lot of sh*tty things that come with those powers. But maybe I can help people. 

So I talk about it. I talk about the pain, the ugly, the things we don't show in Instagram selfies or funny tweets. I talk about it so others know they're not alone. And it's hardly the "Chosen" speech — it's far more "We happy, we few, we band of buggered" — but by being honest about the pain, by owning it, it becomes ours.

Of course, the state of the world isn't helping matters. Maybe a Hellmouth isn't opening (although it would honestly explain a lot about the past two years), but there is a consistent feeling that the apocalypse is coming and we have no Buffy to beep. Since the 2016 election, therapists have cited an increase in "fatalistic, depressive" qualities among their patients. While the Season 3 episode "Earshot" was postponed due to a school shooting storyline in 1999, today mass shootings are a near-constant, a part of our normal. There may not be vampires or demons, but we live in a world with plenty of monsters and a very real knowledge that we alone cannot stand against them. That whatever power we find in our pain, we can't save the world.  

But even Buffy didn't do it by herself. According to the World Health Organization, 350 million people have depression. For a deeply lonely disease, we are myriad. We may never know each other, but we are in this together. And we may never fully control these powers, but we can learn from them. We can find hope. Because there is always, always hope.

The hardest thing in this world is to live in it, yes. But that's not how Buffy ends that speech. She goes on. And so do we.

"The hardest thing in this world is to live in it. Be brave. Live."

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.

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