Buffy and Mental Illness Or, Why a Show About Killing Vampires Makes Me Feel Okay with the World Natasha (screen name preferred by author) Guest Submission
It wasn’t until I re-watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer after I finished high school that I really found an appreciation for the cult TV show. My carefree nine-year-old eyes weren’t tuned into the subtext of what it meant to be a vampire slayer like my newly independent 18-year-old eyes were. I devoured the show as if I had never seen it before and I cried more than I thought an adult should as I followed the “Scooby Gang” on their journey from high school to adulthood—and in them I found familiarity. But what was it about a group of teenage kids slaying vampires and casting spells that I related to so well?
I don’t know if it was intentional on Joss Whedon’s part, but to me being the slayer was akin to living with mental illness, and I had a shiny new psychological assessment that basically said that was what I was doing. Trying to balance having a mental illness and having a life can be incredibly difficult. It can deteriorate relationships, affect your schoolwork, impact your working life, and for the most part, you feel utterly and completely alone. In Buffy Summers I found a familiar figure—a representation of everything I was going through as a young adult living away from home. She was the Slayer: chosen against her will to defend the Earth from evil. The weight of the world was literally on her shoulders, and being grounded could actually be a matter of life or death. Throughout high school her grades suffered, in college she was forced to drop out, and in life she struggled financially and couldn’t keep a basic job working at a burger joint. She was the Slayer, the Chosen One—and it was poisoning every aspect of her life just as my mental illness was poisoning mine.
“Whether we have good days or bad, we are all still living on top of a gaping Hellmouth. But we can deal with that, because we’re all slayers.” Through the use of effective metaphor in BtVS I was able to confront my suppressed emotions that were the cause of my anxiety and depression. I could sit in my room in a haze of emotional confusion and cry as I watched the characters of BtVS attempt to live out their lives the best they could with a gaping wide Hellmouth underneath them. This slightly camp show about vampire slaying and the moral complexities of good and evil was like therapy to me, and realising that even slayers struggle to pay the bills helped me feel ok. In the book Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy (a collection of essays edited by James B. South), philosopher Tracey Little explains the extraordinary use of metaphor in BtVS better than I ever could: …metaphors have the capacity to help viewers put their own fears and emotions into perspective, deal with such fears and emotions in a more effective way, to provide a point of comparison with the reality of the viewer and that of the show, Watercooler Journal
to recognize that the fears and the emotions played out by the show’s characters may be similar to their own, and finally, to legitimize the feelings of the viewer. The complex nature of such metaphors also allows for multiple interpretations on the part of the viewer, providing the viewer with a means of agency for interacting with the show on a deeply personal level. (284) Legitimizing feelings—that is exactly what was happening whilst watching BtVS, and it’s an important thing. Often we feel our thoughts, our actions, our beliefs and our ideations are irrational or silly. We don’t think that our feelings deserve the attention they need in order for us to put up a fight, and because of that we repress them in favour of façade. If anyone was ever the perfect poster child for repressed emotions, Buffy Summers would be it. But through Buffy we learn that, although we are mentally ill, we can still be heroes—and god knows we have all developed super-strength in order to fight our demons. We wake up every day already fighting a battle with ourselves and we go to bed—though not necessarily to sleep—still fighting. But such is life, a never-ending battle for survival. Whether we have good days or bad, we are all still living on top of a gaping Hellmouth. But we can deal with that, because we’re all slayers.
As far as a support system is concerned, Buffy does have some awesome friends, but ultimately they don’t understand her. They support her, and they try everything they can to help her, but they are always on the fringes of understanding the burden of being a vampire slayer, and that’s okay. In our own lives we have friends that don’t get it, and likely never will. That’s not their fault, and it’s not Willow’s or Xander’s or Tara’s or whoever’s fault either. Their lack of comprehension of the feelings and complexities involved with being the Slayer aren’t there to further Buffy’s character arc. Buffy’s friends are dealing with their own problems—Willow has an untapped power inside of her that she is learning to control, Xander feels emasculated next to his powerful female buddies, and Giles is coming to terms with the fact that he may no longer be needed. Yet, my heart broke for Buffy who was constantly assumed to be emotionally stronger and more mature than she was, just because she was the slayer. Even upon meeting Faith, another slayer, she felt disconnected because Faith was swimming in her own issues and refused to let anyone in. Instead she put on the face of someone brave and tricked everyone into believing she was fine. This, in turn, hurt Buffy even more because it made her feel weak in comparison. But that is simply not the case. Everyone has their own world inside their head, and everyone has a part of themselves that tries to get their vulnerabilities and bring them down. The juxtaposition of Buffy and Faith and their respective ways of coping with life reminded me of this, and helped me realise even putting on a “fake” brave face is still a show of bravery. As Buffy Summers said, “The hardest thing in this world is to live in it.” Remember, your mental illness does not define you. Slay on, slayers.
originally published in at http://hvngrymag.com/2014/03/12/buffy-the-vampire-slayer-and-mental-illness/ image credits, in order: ©Warner Bros. ©Warner Bros. Watercooler Journal
Hvngry's Natasha opens up in a guest submission about the empowerment inherent in Sunnydale, CA (from our Apr. 2014 issue).