For Hope Street Cards Book Club this month I cheated. Twice.
Firstly, I decided that since it was Mental Health Month I could probably get away with reviewing a Television show and not a book, because luckily for us at this time of year the ABC partakes in regular ‘Mental As’ programming (however light on it was this year).
But then I didn’t end up fully finishing the show I was going to review (Gus Warland’s ‘Man up’), so instead I have chosen to review my all time favourite show that depicts mental illness. It’s not currently screening on television. And it is definitely not a book.
I was lazy.
The show is Please like Me. And I really like it.
For those of you who may not have yet viewed its brilliance, Please like Me is an Australian dramedy (I did not invent that word – apparently it is a ‘thing’), rooted in the autobiographical, and centres around the character played by Josh Thomas - conveniently named Josh Thomas. The show explores his life, relationships, and misadventures. In the series' inaugural episode, Josh is dumped by his girlfriend, comes out as gay to his parents, and moves back in to live with his mother who has bipolar disorder and has recently survived a suicide attempt. Not one to hold back, Thomas is able to inject potentially fraught subjects with incredible humour.
From the first episode I was hooked. It is now three seasons in (all currently available on ABC iview in Australia and hulu in the US), with the fourth season coming to the ABC on 9th November 2016.
This show has provided the very best rendering of people experiencing a mental illness that I have seen so far.
At the centre is a cadre of characters living with mental health problems at its centre. Josh’s mother in the series, Rose (Debra Lawrance), is admitted to a facility to seek care for her depression in season two, and following the suicide of a fellow patient Ginger (Denise Drysdale), Rose and Josh retreat to rural Tasmania to escape the heaviness that hangs back home.
In the episode - ‘Scroggin’ - Josh and Rose have lengthy discussions about Rose’s previous suicide attempts, and the effect on Josh of growing up with a mother struggling with depression in a manner that is frank and gorgeous in a way few other shows have managed.
The third season sees Rose in a lighter place, though she is now living with Hannah (Hannah Gadsby) who is grappling with the effect of medication on her personality. “I can’t wait to be beige again,” Hannah says after a period of self-harming and having realised that she can’t function without it. “You take medication to get yourself out of a dark hole, but you end up just in a display home on an empty street.” To date, this is the very best description of psychiatric medication I have every heard!
And all of this occurs while Josh falls for Arnold (Keegan Joyce) - another fellow patient of the psychiatric facility Rose attended - whose anxiety requires Josh to navigate the world a little differently in order to manage things. As their relationship develops, Arnold has difficulty not letting his condition get in the way of what might be there, and as of yet it’s unclear exactly how much success he has had. The beauty here is the accuracy of observation in how difficult it can be to help a loved one who can’t really explain or understand their own sadness.
This show deals with lots of big issues – coming out, abortion, suicide, drug taking – but there is such compassion for all the characters throughout. And the show does a beautiful job and demystifying and de-stigmatising the experience of both sides of mental illness – the individual and their loved ones – by telling their stories with honesty and humour.
The wonder of Please Like Me is the power in these stories. I reckon that most people who have lived with a mental illness or loved someone who lives with one, will understand the power in these stories. They show that the punishing daily test of confronting your – or their – emotions is a manageable one, and they also offer the ability to see our own experiences reflected in a context which helps us to see the brighter side, too.
Rather than present facile/dull narratives of loving family members and strong personal relationships healing all wounds, Please Like Me totally gets that living with mental illness is a recurring and ongoing process, one that requires self-care and professional help as well as a strong support network. Just because there’s love and kindness around doesn’t mean you’ll get through it. It’s still pretty shit. But love and kindness can make it a tiny bit better.
So that’s October book club. A total cheat, which I will now re-frame as ‘self-care’ for Mental Health Month. No books. But wonderful television viewing. If you haven’t already, engage in some worthy self-care yourself and check out Please like Me.