Emma on “Glee” and Mentally Ill Me

26 Apr

In Tuesday’s extended episode (“Born This Way”), “Glee” tackled self-image, including appearance, sexual orientation, and mental illness. While this made for an interesting mish-mash of self-awareness, I found myself relating most to Emma Pillsbury, McKinley High’s neurotic guidance counselor. Since the beginning of the show, Emma’s been a bit (OK, a lot) of a “neat freak.” Early on, I got the joke, “The guidance counselor needs guidance.” Hilarious. I find it especially funny given that I’m a gal with a Master’s degree in counseling who suffers from mental illness.

In episode after episode, Emma frantically sterilizes her environment, and the audience laughs. Ha, that smartly dressed redhead! Each week I pretended to laugh along thinking that “Glee” just makes fun of everyone (especially Christians and virgins.) But last week, the show took a major turn—it started to address the issues associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Though an imperfect representation of mental illness, at least “Glee” is bringing the issue into the public eye, and not in the “funny” and endearing way that shows like “Monk” and “House” and movies like As Good As It Gets and Matchstick Men have addressed mental illness. “Glee” shows that Emma suffers from mental illness, that she suffers.

Mental illness is a strange beast—either it is portrayed as “not a big deal” (“Everyone gets a little down sometimes”) or as a monstrous disease that overtakes the lives of its sufferers (think sociopathic killers on crime dramas or the aforementioned dramatizations of characters with OCD.) Then there are celebrities like Catherine Zeta-Jones and Demi Lovato, who are willing to admit they struggle with mental illness, but they’re OK now. And, of course, Charlie Sheen who clearly has a mental problem, which he won’t admit. But where are the people like “Glee’s” Emma who live in spite of mental illness? Few and far between.

No one wants the stigma of mental illness. I certainly don’t want it to plague me my whole life. I am keenly aware about how much I say, wonder if I revealed too much, and ponder if I should just shut up about my severe depression and anxiety. I don’t enjoy the sideways glances I get from acquaintances that read my blog or hear a rumor about me. They wonder if I’m in my right mind, if I’m OK, but no one dares to ask what is really going on or how they can help me. I know the stigma; I live it every day. And like Emma, it keeps me sick. Someone rightly told me that secrets keep you sick. What if the secrets are about how you are sick…mentally?

Towards the end of “Glee,” Emma finally seeks professional help and is given a prescription for a SSRI, which she takes in her office (because who doesn’t want to down her first psychiatric medication at work?) With that swallow, Emma spoke for a lot of mentally ill people who have been kept silent. Yes, we suffer. Yes, we go to weekly therapy. Yes, we know we are mentally ill. But like Emma, we are not our illness. Emma does not equal OCD anymore than Amy equals depression, anxiety and the rest of the stuff my therapist writes on my diagnostic sheet. Emma is a person with OCD, not an illness, just like Amy (that’s me) is a woman who lives with depression.

And I bet you thought “Glee” was just a show about a bunch of underdog kids who sing and dance. In reality, “Glee” is becoming more of a phenomenon that is making outsiders (homosexuals, fat girls, the mentally ill, and more) insiders, which encourages all of us to be a little more honest about who we are.

For an interesting behind-the-scenes look at the Glee episode “Born This Way,” head on over to the Glee homepage (link).

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8 Responses to “Emma on “Glee” and Mentally Ill Me”

  1. Charlie's Church of Christ April 27, 2011 at 12:10 AM #

    my wife is starting to watch all the Glee episodes. I have no opinion on the show – though from what you say I appreciate that they are taking the outsiders and pulling them from the margins.

  2. jjiraffe April 27, 2011 at 12:37 AM #

    Great post. I just started watching the first season, and her character sticks out, in a good way. I haven’t seen the episode you’re referencing, but it seems clear that her OCD is running her life. Yet, she soldiers on. And I LOVE the way she dresses, on a totally shallow note.

  3. The Girl from the Ghetto April 27, 2011 at 1:05 AM #

    OMG, I swear to god that I was going to post a similar post tomorrow afternoon! I’ve been tweeting about Michael Douglas all day. Are we on the same brain wave or what?

    Love your recap by the way! I’ve recently become depressed and I hate what its doing to me. Thank you for being so outspoken about your own depression. I’ve always suffered from anxiety, but I use cognitive behavior therapy to control it, which works wonders for me, as does walking for my depression.

    Mental illness is always stigmatized and it drives me nuts. I have a friend with a Schizophrenic sister and my own mother has Bipolar Disorder. Whenever we mention our relatives to people, they automatically act like our loved ones have the cooties, and some are dumb enough to ask if we have it, too. Not everyone who is mentally ill is crazy, but they sure do suffer, and its never nice to judge.

    My husband and I both have OCD. We’ve never been diagnosed with it, but we have it. He is worse than me, but we are no where near Miss Pillsbury, thankfully.

  4. Amy April 27, 2011 at 8:04 AM #

    Charlie, personally I preferred the first season more, but I do like that other characters have received more attention this season, including Kurt, who I initially didn’t like because he was a bit catty. However, he’s sort of chilled out and, I think, given people a picture at the bullying faced by homosexual students. I’m a Rachel fan, so the downside of bringing out the other characters is that she doesn’t sing as much.

    JJ, I KNOW!!! I love Emma’s style! She’s so Hepburn-esque. I am loving her hairstyle this season, too. I also like that she provides an alternative to Holly’s wild “let the kids have sex whenever and wherever” they want. I guess it’s because Emma is OCD, but whatever, at least she’s providing another point of view. That whole, I didn’t have sex with my husband and we’re getting an annulment plot line was pretty stupid though.

  5. Amy April 27, 2011 at 8:14 AM #

    GirlFromGhetto (BTW, I still think you look too stylish to be a nerd, but anyway…) Thanks for being so open and sharing! Since OCD is primarily an anxiety disorder at its root, the severity is definitely in degrees. Even though I don’t have OCD, I have little obsessions and compulsions because of anxiety. It really just depends on how the anxiety manifests itself, you know? 🙂 Therapy really is the best thing. A lot of people are afraid of medications, and I think if one doesn’t need meds, that’s great. I am not one of those people. So I liked how “Glee” did show Emma taking the medication–because the stigma of taking meds for mental illness is even worse.

    Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are tough. And everyone has an opinion on what they are. My personal favorite is that people think schizophrenia is the same thing as “multiple personality disorder.” But I’ve seen medication REALLY relieve people with schizophrenia of their symptoms–I think that’s where psychiatric meds have been most effective. Again, bipolar disorder varies from person to person, just like anxiety and depression…people don’t understand that. They also don’t understand how moderate-to-severe depression and anxiety work together.

    Just trying to break the stigma a little, I guess.

  6. Jenny B. Jones April 27, 2011 at 5:27 PM #

    I liked how they made Emma’s issue less of a cartoon/comedy issue last night too. Proud of you, girl. Good word. Hang in there.

  7. thereadingdate April 27, 2011 at 5:40 PM #

    I was glad that Emma took that big step forward in the episode. Nice to see some character growth there. Glad Kurt’s back at New Directions too – thought he was gone too long. Wonder if Blaine will transfer too.
    This season of Glee has been spotty but I’m still very much a fan.
    Thanks for your insightful post!

  8. Sofia February 14, 2015 at 1:37 AM #

    You have been able to address exactly how I was feeling. I have GAD and suffer from regular panic attacks. Thank you for talking about this issue!

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