Good Damage? Are you supposed to make something out of your mental health issues?

Prompted by Bojack Horseman series’ Season 6, Episode 10 titled “Good damage”. For Vietnamese Version, visit InPsychOut.

Very often when we hear from someone with depression and other mental health concerns, we hear their stories after they have gotten better. And equally so often, we hear about what they have gained from their journeys, something along the lines of “10 lessons from my years with depression” or “Why my traumas make me stronger”. This creates a narrative that people who go through distressing experiences, including mental health issues, will eventually get something good out of their traumas.

In fact, this thought pattern is not exclusive to psychological problems. “Everything happens for a reason” is one of those universal wisdom beliefs that get tossed around in our everyday conversations. Researches, including one from Yale University’s Department of Psychology, also suggest that we tend to use this thinking in unfavorable circumstances, for example when going through a breakup or trying to comfort a friend who just lost their job because of coronavirus. For decades, from Marilyn Monroe to Albert Schweitzer to Oprah Winfrey — all of our society’s most successful and respected individuals, have attributed their successes to the quote. There are thousands of internet articles and forums where people credit this thinking for their personal development. The phrase is also used in clinical settings. For example, the health center at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, US cites the phrase to encourage traumatic survivors to make good out of their bad situations. In other words, when we say “Everything happens for a reason”, we implicitly suggest unfortunate life events can lead to positive outcomes and make us stronger (or more intelligent, wise, humble, etc.).

But what if, you try your best but still haven’t found a way to “redeem” your depression?

What if you could not declare any concrete achievement, credit any skills, or write any inspiring post from the traumatic experiences you have gone through?

Does that mean you have wasted your time being depressed, for nothing?

Does that mean that you have yet to fully “overcome” your issues?

Does that mean your experiences are not justified?

In short, despite its good intention of encouragement, the “Everything happens for a reason” mentality can be detrimental to people struggling with mental illnesses.

It creates the pressure that one needs to make something good out of their painful experiences. It propels people to justify their mental health issues, trying to find some form of gain that supposedly makes up for their sufferings.

Consequently, this mentality can create a negative loop of not only invalidating ones’ mental health issues but also making people doubt their own mental health progress.

Mental health depression recovery, get better, everything happen for a reason illustration
C: Illustration by me (Ngan P)

I know this is the case for me.

When I was going through dark phases with my mental wellbeing, and even after getting better, I kept waiting for the moment when I finally “put my depression to good use”, before I could tell anyone about my experience. I kept thinking perhaps I should have written about the lessons I learn, or the resilience I gained after being able to climb out of that dark place. I wanted to tell people that my depression story has a happy ending. I did not want people to feel awkward by a miserable story (and I totally understand why it is the case, I also have a hard time comforting people when they go through traumas). I know this started with good intentions. After all, I did not want to perpetuate the stigma of mental health, that it is something bad that you are cursed with. Instead, I wanted to give people a nuanced view of depression, to give people dealing with mental health issues hope that there will be the end of the tunnel. And by coming out of the tunnel, all our mental health problems will be somehow, worth it.

But then I kept waiting and never found that “eureka” moment. I keep asking myself:

But what if there is no happy ending to tell?

Is my depression not worth it then?

Is all what I went through pointless?

Those questions kept playing in my head as I kept my depression in the closet.

Mental health depression recovery, loneliness, mental wellbeing, self development
Photo by Josh Nuttall on Unsplash

This is also why Diane Nguyen’s story in the Bojack Horseman series hit me hard. In particular, her reflection and thought process in episode 20, season 6, titled “Good damage” address that very poignant question: “What if it’s not good damage, but just damage?… Does it mean I was miserable for nothing?”

For those who have not watched the show, Bojack Horseman is an adult animation series following a humanoid horse who used to be a 90s sitcom star but has faded out of the Hollywood spotlight after 18 years. The show creatively transcends the medium of animation to address heavy topics such as addiction, sexuality, depression…, all with humor and nuances. (Seriously, if you haven’t, go watch it right now — I can wait).

One of the main characters, Diane Nguyen, is a Vietnamese American author who goes through clinical depression. There are so many reasons why Diane is one of the most human characters in the show, and it is not because she is a person out of a humanoid world (or perhaps it is the creators’ intentions?). Anyway, the more important reason is, out of a Hollywood-set show, as a mediumly-famous writer with no extreme drug addiction or sensational scandals, compared to the rest of the casts, her struggles feel closer to the majority of audiences. Throughout the span of six seasons, we see Diane struggles with her depression, feeling guilty for being miserable despite having a comfortable life, one that is significantly better than her childhood, which leads to even more traumas. In the last season — season 6, Diane finally addresses her depression and makes progress with it, having a supporting boyfriend and a more fulfilling job.

When a book deal opportunity comes, she wants to write a book about herself and her own traumas. Here is a dialogue from the show when Diane gets asked what the book is about:

Diane: I think it’s about trauma… or damage

You know, those bowls that break and the cracks get filled with gold and then they’re even more beautiful?

Like we are all damaged but it’s good damage.

This represents a pattern in her thought process. In the show, Diane and her ex-husband, Peanut Butter, have multiple conversations on kintsugi — the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with powdered gold, silver to turn them into ornaments. It is first brought up when she goes through their divorce, after her trying to “squint” to see the good left in their marriage, and emerges again when she is dealing with depression. She again attempts to make amends with her traumatic experiences by justifying it with something good — and in her case, it is The Book.

Yet, despite having wanted to do so for so long, Diane could not bring herself to write The Book. Instead, she accidentally writes an upbeat young adult fiction about Ivy Tran, a Vietnamese-American teenage detective who solves mysteries in the mall. While the Ivy Tran book gets over-the-top positive reviews from her publicist, Diane can not sit with the fact that she fails to write The Book she wants to, her own memoir.

Here is how the conversation between Diane and Princess Carolyn, her publicist, goes:

Diane: I have to. (write the memoir)

Princess Carolyn: Why?

Diane: Because if I don’t, it means that all the damage I got isn’t good damage, it’s just damage.

I’ve gotten nothing out of it. And all those years I was miserable was for nothing.

I could have been happy this whole time… Is that what you’re saying? What was it all for?

When I was a little girl, I thought that everything, all the abuse and neglect, would somehow make me special. And I decided that someday I would write a book that would make little girls like me feel less alone.

And if I can’t write that book…

Princess Carolyn: Then maybe write that other book?

Princess Carolyn: Maybe this book does that, too.

Diane: Yeah?

Mental health depression recovery, loneliness, mental wellbeing, self development bojack horseman
Credit: Bojack Horseman, Season 6, Episode 10: “Good damage
Mental health depression recovery, loneliness, mental wellbeing, self development bojack horseman
Credit: Bojack Horseman, Season 6, Episode 10: “Good damage

It is incredible how a conversation in an animation can pack so many real, raw feelings.

At the end of the episode, Diane reaches somewhat of an inner peace with her own traumas, just by a quiet “Yeah?”. There is no climax, no eureka moment, no triumphal memoir to publish. As Princess Caroline points out, and as she realizes, Diane does not need to write the memoir to make amends with her broken pieces.

It is extremely vulnerable, yet endearingly comforting.

It gives us hope in a humble way. Perhaps people, especially those who are struggling mentally or emotionally, can get better without necessarily making something out of their sufferings.

The reality is, even after someone supposedly overcomes depression, there is no direct trajectory that leads to concrete positive gains. The journey with mental health does not have an ever-happy-ending closure, by which you are supposed to win an achievement or to be immune from relapses. Sometimes, even after gaining agency over their mental issues, one can still find themselves confused with the new mental space they inhabit. They may not be able to turn their pains into life lessons or personal skills, at least not right away. They may not have positive developments in their personal or professional life to make up for the past. Perhaps there will be, with time, but everyone is on their own clocks.

With that being said, it is also worth remembering the reason why this wishful thinking is so popular. Especially in dark times, the thought that you can come out of it even better than you are before, gives people hope and strength. Thus, it is not about silencing people who share their successes after mental health problems. We should give them the attention and the applause they well deserve, for their strengths and the motivations they bring to others. Instead, it is about bringing more nuances to mental health conversations, especially during and post depression.

We should encourage people to share their stories and journey, not even if, but especially if they are still coping with it or they have yet to make something good out of it.

These types of relatable stories can be just as motivational as the success stories, particularly for those who are struggling,

TL;DR: So what is the takeaway?

By avoiding one-sided simple narratives of making triumphs out of mental health issues, we can take away the pressure to justify psychological problems and encourage a healthier expectation for our journey with psychological well-being.

By doing this, we can make it easier for people to process their anxieties, voice their problems as well as to get better in their own ways.

Just as things can happen without a reason, we do not always need to emerge from our mental health problems like a phoenix.

Sometimes we just come out of it as ourselves.

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Ngan P

Ngan P

Creator at heart with too many interests. What I’m working on: wellbeing, digital media & tech, diversity & sustainability