Trigger warning: depression, grief
Where there’s life, there’s hope. Every day’s a gift. Well, that depends…
This is not your typical fan article. I’m writing this as part of Mental Health Awareness Month, with the intention of allowing readers a peek into one mind under the weight of grief, physical pain, and enormous, crushing depression, all through the lens of the Buffy musical episode. Makes sense, right?
I wrote the bulk of this article as a journal entry in 2008, and have done a lot of emotional work since writing it. To be clear: I don’t publish this to elicit pity, or to invite anyone to talk about it with me. I’m not a professional, and there are some really good ones out there. I’m happy to point you toward a way to find one if you need an assist. I’ve been in grief therapy myself, and can’t recommend it enough.
I hope if you’ve gone through any of these feelings, you know that you aren’t alone. If Buffy has saved your life, you aren’t alone either. If reading this helps validate some of your feelings, or if it inspires you to reach out for help, it’s a win!
Will I stay this way forever? Sleepwalk through my life’s endeavor?
In 2006, I lost two precious people in my life. I’ll spare you the details here, as it’s still intensely painful to think or talk about. The day the second one died, my doctors decided I needed surgery. Given the intensity of my grief, and the pervasive nature of all the trauma surrounding it, I had misgivings about having surgery at that time.
The surgery went badly. Anesthesia didn’t work, and I was awake through the whole thing, and had to be sedated three separate times. The doctor performing it twisted and pulled and pushed parts inside of me that I didn’t know existed. I had no idea that level of pain was possible.
The physical and emotional pain continued, and by the end of September, it was decided that a second surgery was necessary. I remember waking up from anesthesia in a hospital room, still in a lot of pain, nauseated, and shocked by the brightness of the fluorescent lights in the room. Moving any part of my body was agony. Going to the bathroom required paging a nurse, explaining exactly what it was that I had to do, and having the nurse hold me up while I did it. My life was painful, too bright, too loud, and humiliating.
Bear with me through the requisite narrative here, if you will, friend. I promise, the Buffy references are forthcoming.
Recovery required a lot of medication, and a lot of rest. I wasn’t feeling much like being awake at all, but there isn’t enough medication to keep a person asleep around the clock short of medically inducing a coma. I decided I would need a series of DVDs to watch, but DVDs that weren’t good enough for me to get hooked, so I wouldn’t be angry if I fell asleep. A friend had told me again and again that I needed to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer series. I had been making fun of that show for years, without ever actually watching an episode. Cynical and snobbish by nature, I found the concept silly, and thought myself above it. I was into David Lynch films. I watched French movies without English subtitles…Needless to say, and to nobody’s surprise but my own, I was almost instantly hooked.
The Big Bad
By the time I was released from the hospital, I was able to walk a little. Not entirely upright, but a little. Lights were still too bright, and I was still humiliated constantly. I stayed most of the day and night in a dark room, while on the television, Buffy killed things that were bad. She had friends helping her out, and always made the correct decision toward the greater good. Something bad shows up? Buffy and her friends could kill it. This was a world where the evil things had faces and fangs and sometimes tentacles, but they were things that could always, always be killed. Sometimes victory came at a high price, but there they were—-staring Buffy and pals in the face, daring them to make a move. There were heavy losses on the side of The Good, but The Good always came out at least a few points ahead.
I had no strength, no energy, and most of the bad things I fought didn’t have faces, and the ones that had faces weren’t entirely evil. By law and moral reasoning, I was not allowed to kill them. Instead, I had to lie to everyone. I had to keep my chin up to keep the people who loved me from worrying. Every day, I sent out e-mails to friends, I made calls to try and follow their lives. I tried to stay active and interested.
I’ve been making shows of trading blows
Just hoping no one knows that I’ve been going through the motions
Walking through the part
Nothing seems to penetrate my heart
I went through the motions. I tried my best to stay within the niche I had carved out for myself in this world. I went to work when I could. When the pain was too much, I stayed home. I stayed home and took my medication and did what I could to keep the pain from driving me even crazier than I felt. When friends came by to visit or take me out, I tried to interact with them as much as I could, and I tried to be the person they expected me to be.
I was always brave and kind of righteous
Now I find I’m wavering
I tried really hard to want to be alive.
I tried as hard as I could to take care of my responsibilities. When any responsibility was taken off my shoulders, I was grateful that there was one less fucking thing I had to deal with.
You’re scared, ashamed of what you feel
And you can’t tell the ones you love
You know they couldn’t deal
Whisper in a dead man’s ear
It doesn’t make it real
All the while, I was making my way through DVDs of Buffy. One great thing about swallowing fistfuls of pain medicine daily (not recommended) is that your memory becomes horrible. Creating new memories is really difficult. Therefore, by the time I finished one season’s worth of DVDs, I didn’t remember how it started, or anything about any of the episodes. So I could watch the same thing over and over again, and it was like a completely new experience each time.
Some episodes, however, left an impression. There were three Buffy episodes I remember with almost perfect clarity: “The Body,” “Chosen” (the series finale), and “Once More, With Feeling,” which is the musical episode written and directed by Joss Whedon. The premise of the musical is that someone summoned a demon who makes people sing and dance like a Broadway musical, but with a couple of catches. One catch is, the lyrics to their songs reveal truths people had been hiding. The other catch is, people end up dancing so hard, they catch fire and burn to death.
“Once More, With Feeling” takes place during Season 6. The Season 5 finale ended with Buffy sacrificing her life to save the world from being overtaken by a hell dimension. In the beginning of Season 6, Buffy’s friends, who believe Buffy is trapped in some unknown and terrible dimension of Hell, cast a magical spell to bring her back to life. What her friends fail to realize, though, is that Buffy wasn’t trapped in Hell. She was happy and safe, in Heaven. Buffy knows, however, that if her friends knew what they had done, it would hurt them. Ever the martyr, Buffy keeps it to herself, sharing this information only with her unlikely ally, Spike the vampire.
Throughout the episode, there are mini-revelations, like the engaged couple Anya and Xander cheerfully singing some of the things they don’t like about each other, and the various anxieties they have about spending their entire lives together. Tara realizes she has to lay the smack down on Willow for being a magic junkie, and Giles realizes that Buffy is too reliant on him, and that he needs to leave town so Buffy can learn to grow up.
The bomb falls near the end. The reason I think it works so well is that it’s so contrived, so expected, and so overtly corny. The guise of musical narrative easily lends itself to cliché, and really boring humor that is used over and over again to the point that it is never funny again.
It is precisely Joss Whedon’s ability to add maybe the most important message of the show to that backdrop that packs such a punch.
The scene takes place in The Bronze, which is a nightclub in the fictional town of Sunnydale. The dancing demon is threatening to take Buffy’s little sister Dawn to Hell as his bride. Buffy and her friends all show up for the rescue, despite the growing rifts between them, which grew throughout the season and culminated in cheesy song and dance confrontations throughout the episode.
Then, Buffy starts singing.
It’s a jaunty little number, in rhyming couplets. She sings about how her life has become routine, singing while swinging pool cues, killing demons that look like puppets. It paints a picture of someone who’s reached the point in her life where things have become too rote. Nothing interests or excites her, but she still carries out her duties, goes through her daily routines. And then POW! Right in the face:
The music fades to a minor note, and Buffy, facing away from her friends, delivers the goods. She flat-out states, in several discordant lines, that she lives in hell because her friends, the people she trusts and loves more than anything, forced her out of Heaven. She finally faces them and sings:
There was no pain./No fear, no doubt/till they pulled me out/of Heaven.
So that’s my refrain./I live in hell,/ cause I’ve been expelled/from Heaven.
So give me something to sing about./I need something
Willow is crying and looking tormented. Xander is confused and looks ashamed. Even the former demon, Anya, looks horrified and guilty.
The demon shakes his head at Buffy, indicating that no, he wasn’t going to give her something to sing about. The music starts blaring again, in a frantic rock beat. Buffy starts dancing like crazy, throwing her hair all over the place, and to the delight of the demon, is just about to burn up. Then Spike catches her mid-death-spin, and sings in the same discordant tune:
Life’s not a song./ Life isn’t bliss./ Life is just this:/ It’s living.
You have to go on living.
You’ll get along./ The pain that you feel,/ You only can heal/ by living.
You have to go on living./ So one of us is living.
And then the loud, furious music fades completely out in the minor key. Silence. Out of the silence, we hear Buffy’s own words, which she spoke to Dawn just before sacrificing herself at the end of Season 5:
The hardest thing in this world is living in it.
More silence. Really uncomfortable silence. Cut to commercial break before the final scene, which is also a big surprise that I won’t ruin for you if you haven’t watched the series.
Every time I think of that song, or even hear a similar chord progression in a different piece of music, it actually tugs at my emotions so I can feel them physically, pushing and pulling like the doctor working on my heart.
Let me be clear: I am not a martyr. I am not heroic like Buffy and her friends. Up until about two years after the original surgery, I went through the sadness and rage of feeling that when I woke up. I was thrown into a hideous world full of pain, apathy, anger, humiliation, loss, unpredictability, violence, and too-bright fluorescent lights. I don’t know where one’s spirit goes under anesthesia, and I don’t exactly care. All I know is that it’s easier and safer, not as bright and devastating and painful as living in the world.
I still felt the anger of being torn away from someplace safe; being thrown back into my grief, into a niche that didn’t fit me any more, but without the physical, financial, and emotional means to dig another niche somewhere less painful. To be honest, it wasn’t anger. It was absolute white-hot rage, and it burned throughout every inch of my body, which was still a painful, crusty husk of what it used to be. My body wasn’t a tool any more. It was a prison for grief, and I was furious beyond comprehension that I was stuck inside it with no escape possible.
I went through phases where that anger was unjustly focused on my friends and family—the people who care about me and the ones who wanted me around. I admit with great shame that I actually sometimes resented them for being the tethers that kept me stuck inside my body. I did my best not to take it out on them, but regretfully, I hurt quite a few people with my bile. I never meant to hurt them. The words came out of me in such a string of such violent self-hatred that the people hearing them could only interpret them as an attack on them. I’d then have to stuff it all back inside, and backpedal, convincing my loved ones that they were, in fact, loved ones, and that my rage wasn’t directed toward them.
So one by one, they turn from me
I guess my friends can’t face the cold
But why I froze, not one among them knows
And never can be told
Even if it was unjust and unfair to my friends and family, I sometimes got angry at them and tried to beat them back with every ounce of strength I could muster. I fired whatever bile I could in their directions and tried to make them go away. I tried to annoy them so they wouldn’t talk to me any more.
I tried to make people stop liking me just to relieve myself of obligation to them.
I did this without ever telling anyone how or why I felt this way. It’s just that they couldn’t possibly understand, or have the slightest idea what it was like unless they’d been in this sort of position; that they loved more than previously thought possible, lost those you love for no good reason, stared death in the face several times, and prayed for that death to come back and give you another chance like an abused lover might.
I failed my friends by not trusting their ability to separate my pain from themselves.
After several bouts through that Kubler-Ross grief cycle, you finally realize that you actually have the power to let your will to survive just sort of float away. You want to let everyone, including yourself, go before your time.
But you can’t do that.
You have to go on living. The pain can only be healed by living.
And if you’re going to go on living, wouldn’t it be better to go on living WITH your friends and your family?
I still occasionally vacillate between wanting to live and not wanting to live, but that struggle is not relevant any more. It happens, but there’s nothing to be done about it. Like the physical pain in my body, it’s just another thing I accept it and live with. It’s part of who I am, and it always will be.
Ultimately, Spike was right—the only way it’s ever going to heal is if you’re alive. Healing doesn’t mean seeking or feeling comfort, or pushing the demons away. Healing means making and holding room in yourself for the shadows, for the pain, for respecting those parts of yourself enough to accept them. Easier said than done.
Yep, the hardest thing in this world IS living in it.
But sometimes, you just have to bow your head, and explain what you’re going through to the people who care.
Living alone with grief and depression, you have good days and bad days. Some mornings, you wake up and think, “Hey! This could be a great day! This could finally be the day things turn around!” So you put in some DVDs, you pick up a book, you do whatever it is that you have to do to keep your mind from atrophy. When you don’t feel better, when the waves of grief overtake you regardless of how hard you fight, you just might cry yourself to sleep because your worst fear has come true:
The world carries on without you as an active participant. The people you have been choosing to live for; the people who are the only reason you haven’t taken your life, which would make things so much better for you, actually might NOT care what happens to you. So what now?
You’ll get along.
The pain that you feel,
only can heal
You have to go on living.
The burden of carrying these feelings around lessened upon realizing that not only were they felt by fictional characters, they were understood and met with love by the writers, creators, and actors in a television show. There are people in the world who understand your pain, no matter what form it takes, and no matter what caused it.
To anyone suffering, and the world at large is suffering right now: I sincerely hope you feel more seen, more understood, and completely met with love. You aren’t alone. And you will heal.
So we will walk through the fire
And let it
Let it burn
Let it burn
Let it burn!
You won’t just heal. You’ll thrive. And when you’re ready to share your story, when you’re ready to talk about it and be that example that lets others know they aren’t alone? That’s a fire that can’t be extinguished. The folks who created the show, the people who have been touched by the show, and the author of this article—we’re all by your side in whatever you’re going through. We see you.
Here is a link to a wise teacher I’ve found extraordinarily helpful in dealing with loss and grief. Stephen Jenkinson founded the Orphan Wisdom school, and wrote some of the best books on the topic that dive deeper than Kubler-Ross. Highly recommended!