TV: Raising Hope, Sabrina, and Mad Pride

On television, there’s really only a couple of stories available for themes of mental disorder or mental illness. There’s the crazy psycho, who has schizophrenia (or just an ‘unknown mental disorder’, a la Tyler Barrol of Revenge), and is a danger to anyone and everyone they come across. They are serial killers, rapists, kidnappers… you name it. There’s the tragic guest star, who just wants to have a life but can’t because her disorder (and these characters are typically women) gets in the way. Those… are pretty much it. And a ‘crazy’ character is invariably defined by their mental issue, with few details beyond that.

Which is why Raising Hope‘s “Sheer Madness” (2.15) episode pleased me.

Whether you’re a mental health advocate who wants to see a variety of stories represented, or a writer who just wants people to stop using the same clichés over and over, it’s nice to see a different spin on these issues. There are a lot of people who have  mental health issues that don’t impede their ability to live on a day-to-day basis, whether on regular medication or choosing to function without it. I’ve had a lot of good friends with different issues in this arena, ranging from mild the life-changing extreme, so it’s always frustrating to know that TV often refuses to tell their stories without jacking up the energy and danger/pathos to eleven.

In the “Sheer Madness” episode of Raising Hope, strait-laced but noted germophobe Sabrina has entered a relationship with lead character Jimmy, which leads to the two of them deciding to share all of their previously-held secrets. In an offhand manner, Sabrina tells Jimmy that “starting tomorrow, I’m going to stop taking my meds”. The moment she said that, my mind outlined what I was bound to watch for the next ten minutes: Sabrina seeming alright at first, and then even fun, before her super crazy forces her back onto the meds before she hurts someone, presumably the show’s titular baby, Hope.

Except that’s not what happens. It’s what the Chance family expects to happen – Jimmy’s face turns to panic when she tells him, and he immediately starts keeping an eye on her. But as it turns out, Sabrina ends up a little more impulsive, a little less withdrawn, but ultimately herself. In fact, it turns out she was only on mood stabilisers because she was terrified of spiders crawling in her ears when she slept, after a traumatic childhood memory. She’d wear a pantyhose over her face to protect it, raising the ire of her long-term boyfriend… and leading to the mood stabilisers.

I love that Sabrina has a mental health issue, and one that does effect her life, but doesn’t overwhelm it. The changes between medicated-Sabrina and nonmedicated-Sabrina are noticeable, but the show points out that those aren’t symptoms of Sabrina’s condition, but her natural personality without the meds. Her actual issue, a deep fear of spiders that alters her sleeping habits, doesn’t impede her life at all if she’s able to use alternate coping mechanisms, like she does at the end of this episode, to feel safe. I’ve known people whose conditions either don’t hurt their functionality, or do in minor ways, but television rarely shows them; it’s usually a dramatic, dangerous and overpowering mental disorder that constantly gets in the way of life. In fact, it’s just another facet of her character, alongside her being funny, level-headed and intelligent.

I also appreciate that it doesn’t have a pro-medication or anti-medication theme. Jimmy neither forces Sabrina to take her meds, nor does he tell her not to take them. He tries to fix her fear, but it really just ends up confirming it (and him adopting it himself). Sabrina’s medication is presented as a choice: it helps her manage her fear, but it also effects her personality in ways she’s not terribly happy with, a trade-off I’ve heard of plenty for people taking mood stabilisers. Because she’s in a relationship where Jimmy is okay with her other coping strategies for her fear, she prefers to not take medication, but there’s no sense that Sabrina couldn’t change her mind later.

Why did I mention mad pride in the title? The Mad Pride movement, in part, includes people with mental health issues who want to be able to live their lives without being constantly pressured to medicate themselves. Sabrina’s wish, to not medicate herself merely to please others, particularly when her issue can be easily managed in other ways, is the closest I think I’ve seen to television even considering anything other than strict and careful medication.

It’s nice to see something different for a change.

(Please note: Writing about mental health is not my typical field; I apologise for any inaccuracies or misuse of terms in the above, and let me know if there’s anything I should revise. I tried to be sensitive to the subtleties of various terms (mental illness vs. mental disorder vs. mental health issue, etc.), but feel free to correct me if I’ve gotten something wrong. Thanks!)

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