In December 2014 I was admitted to Royal Liverpool University Hospital following a suicide attempt that was the culmination of years of incorrect diagnoses and aborted pharmaceutical regimens. My partner of eleven years and I didn’t really speak about the attempt for a long time. It was a pervasive thing in our life, built into the foundation of our relationship and our shared history, but it was something that neither of us really felt we had the ability to talk about. Neither of us wanted to hurt the other with a foolish word or incorrect phrasing.
In 2015, however, I was diagnosed with Bipolar II, which felt like the end of one journey and the beginning of another. For all the years I had struggled with finding any kind of definition as to what was wrong with my brain, finding an answer wasn’t a final solution. Instead, it began another long journey towards what my life is now – something mostly stable. Different medications, talk therapies, periods low and periods high— it all eventually evened itself out enough for me to function.
Even so, it wasn’t until 2018 that me and my partner spoke about my suicide attempt at any great length.
At the time we had both started watching Please Like Me —an Australian comedy created and written by comedian Josh Thomas that my partner has come across on Netflix. The show follows the protagonist —played by Thomas, and similarly named Josh—as he tries to navigate his early 20’s as a newly-out gay man alongside his best friend Tom, his ex-girlfriend, and various partners. While the show is remarkable for numerous reasons, the thing that specifically spoke to my partner and I was the depiction of mental health.
In the pilot, Josh’s mother Rose (Debra Lawrence) attempts suicide and is then diagnosed with bi-polar disorder—an illness from which Thomas’ real-life mother suffered from as well. Throughout Please Like Me’s four season run, Rose has other suicide attempts and is in and out of treatment centers. Hers is the most realistic depiction of bi-polar disorder that I have seen and beyond that it’s the effect it has one loved ones that is the most startlingly accurate.
My personal experience of bipolar disorder is not a story that can be told solely from my own perspective. It is something that affects all my family and friends, from simple things like cancelling plans at late notice to having to have loved ones sit with me for my own protection; medications and their side effects, a story of conversations about me without me present, of doctors and hospital visits. About when I am so low and everyone I love is scared for my well-being and I go to a hospital to be told there is nothing that can be done, or sitting in a doctor’s office for over an hour as he desperately calls around trying to find a specialist who can see me immediately; conversations between my sister and my partner, trying to find any kind of solution to whatever problem had arisen – be it from mania ruining my decision making to being incapable of forming a full coherent sentence.
It isn’t constant but it is consistent, in it’s own inconsistent way. It’s difficult to plan a life when you have no idea how your brain chemistry will be on any given day. Not even any given day, but any given minute. I could spiral into despair, have a full-fledged panic attack and want to go and do karaoke in the same afternoon. Eventually, my friends, family and I essentially gave up on plans and just tried to live on a relatively similar wavelength with one another.
When Please Like Me shows Rose struggling to get out of bed or participate in the things she usually would, knowing that it would help her but she just cannot do it, it strikes a very resonant chord in me. There would be entire days where I could logically process the idea that if I could get up, eat healthy and exercise, go to work, see my friends, and speak to my family, that I would feel better. Yet, it was somehow unattainable. Something ethereal I couldn’t grasp because my brain just couldn’t function in the way it was supposed to, firing signals in every single direction with no coherence.
So instead, I would just lay there. When my friends would go to the pub and have fun, I would stay home and fret about what they thought of me. How little of my life seemed my own. Seeing Rose’s experience on the screen—in a way that is sensitively and accurately told—made me feel validated. It is hard to sit and explain how my mind works, or doesn’t as it were, but when you can point someone to something tangible and say “This! This is it!” it makes you feel more solid, more recognizable.
The fact that Rose’s story isn’t the entire plot speaks to me also. So many times in TV and film these issues are depicted as deeply dramatic whereas in reality it can be quite humdrum. Simple things like the house being a bit dirtier than it should be and not having the capability to deal with it become the parts of life that are the most consistent. Scenes where Alan, Josh’s father and Rose’s ex-husband, states emphatically that Rose shouldn’t be asleep too much or should have a hobby are very real things that make up the everyday of living with Bipolar Disorder. I’ve had people I love be exacerbated with me because of this, just as I have been annoyed with myself for letting things like this slide.
Other shows have tried to deal with such sensitive issues in different ways. 13 Reasons Why (Netflix) has been rightfully accused of romanticizing it, while In The Flesh (BBC) took the opposite approach and treated it as some kind of sin that must be apologized for.
In reality, it’s neither. It isn’t a fault in character or something to be idealized and here is where Please Like Me comes back as a not perfect but certainly more nuanced portrait of mental health and suicide.
In one specific episode (“Scroggin”), Rose and Josh go on a camping expedition together in the aftermath of their friend Ginger’s suicide. During the episode they talk about Rose’s suicide attempts and Josh’s reaction to them. It is one of the rare moments that they address it directly to one another and it is one of the most honest episodes of television that I have ever seen. Josh admits to feeling frustrated and angry, but also that he tries to rationalise it with the truth: his mother is sick and she can’t help that. So when my partner tells me that she has seen something and it articulates how she felt but never felt she could say to me, it is something that we should watch together. It is something shared and understood without recriminations.
It’s easy for me, while trying to deal with my big weird brain, to lose sight of the impact it has on her. When she does get frustrated with me, I feel betrayed because it isn’t something I can help but it is a completely valid feeling that can’t be denied to be frustrated and upset with someone acting as I can. But when you see it in the context of something outside of yourself and your relationship, outside of the emotion of your relationship, you can get an understanding of the other person.
Emotion isn’t a rational thing, though. When Josh tells Rose that the doctors had informed him that if they hadn’t gotten the drugs Ginger overdosed on out of her system fast enough that she would die slowly over a course of weeks, he admits that it was an “angry day”. This is something that my partner had never stated to me outright, nor something I recall the doctors saying, and when she saw that emotion being processed on the show, it was something she wanted me to know. That is the reality of living with a mental health condition and living with someone who has a mental health condition. While it is true that blaming someone for a health problem isn’t a fair thing to do, it is still watching someone you love being fundamentally unable to help themselves and even literally hurting themselves. Anger and frustration is merely a natural reaction.
So when we sat down and talked about it, it was in that same way: how she felt helpless and terrified; watching someone she loved intentionally hurt and not knowing if they were going to survive, and not only that but it could be a prolonged thing. About how angry she was, how hurt that —although she rationally knew it was a result of an illness I couldn’t help—I had effectively chosen to leave her and everyone I love behind. I explained that, to me, it wasn’t anything like that, how it was me trying – in my entirely misguided way – to help her if anything. To stop being a burden, to stop being someone who so irrevocably made everything around me worse. For that was what my brain convinced me was the truth. It twists everything in your life that is good into something you only taint with your existence.
Your mind is the thing that balances everything, it allows you to address your emotions and feelings in a rational, logical way (or it is meant to), and when that facility is gone, you spiral. Although we never see the interior of Rose’s thought process— in the series you don’t get any moment where she explains how she feels, even from a third person audience perspective —we see it etched into her face and in the way her relationships function.
When Rose commits suicide, it is after a final meal with Josh and his father, Alan. It is never explicitly stated but what I take from it is that this final meal, where they enjoyed each other's company, where she was present emotionally and felt entirely herself, was something that she didn’t want to lose. She didn’t want to go back to the life where she couldn’t rely on herself, where she soured all her relationships and hurt the people she loved. It was the best her life could be and she couldn’t trust that it would be that way.
It is something that is immensely difficult, when you can function as yourself but then lose it again.
Ultimately, our conversation ended as these things do, quietly and with a mutual sadness that we had both experienced something so traumatic and difficult, so me and my partner go for dinner and we don’t speak about it again until the next time I feel down and we are both scared. This is what Please Like Me gets so right. There is no resolution to it. There are still days when I can’t get out of bed, or my brain suddenly scrambles and I can’t communicate; when anxiety crumples me or depression sits on my chest and fogs my world. And there are days when she understands and there are days when she is frustrated and angry. That’s life. It’s the small moments that make it up. That is our shared experience.
It’s this idea that there is no resolution to it that has spoken to others as well. Manuel Betancourt in his Mic article lauds the show for not presenting a “facile narrative” with the typical TV message of Love Conquers All— a message that will be persistently reiterated in different ways on social media where people will say that they are there or that people can talk to them no matter what. It isn’t always the case and acknowledging that is a strength.
Please Like Me isn’t just about Josh and Rose, of course. There are heaps of other characters whose experiences mirror the anguish of existing in one’s 20s as well as other forms of mental health struggles. More than anything, however, the show isn’t afraid of showing that the 21st century is lonely and difficult but it doesn’t want to smother you with it or sentiment, it just shows people trying their hardest.
Be it Josh, Rose, Josh’s best friend Tom, or even Josh’s romantic interest Arnold whose difficulties with anxiety permeate multiple seasons with the way it impacts those around him as well as himself (this is something spoken on beautifully by Samantha Cavalcanti for GLAAD). These are people who aren’t good or bad—they’re just people. They aren’t defined by any one thing and they aren’t judged for what they do or don’t do. They are just trying to get through their lives. When you are constantly at war with yourself due to your mental health faltering, just being able to fight the battle is enough in itself. That is Please Like Me’s greatest strength. In the end, for Rose, it isn’t a war she can win.
It is in the fourth, heartbreaking season that Rose does kill herself and is later found by Josh. There is no note or funeral depicted, and the image we are left with is of Rose in the morgue. This is a deliberate choice on the part of Thomas, who specifically stated that he wanted the show to be unequivocal in portraying suicide as a fundamentally bad idea. He manages to show this without being didactic about it, just letting the image do the talking. In lesser hands, there would be more of a dramatic flourish - a character talking about how and why it’s important to specifically not talk about this. A problem with dramatic media is the necessity of it having to be dramatic but when showing something so grave it is important to not glamorize it. There can be a sense of a twisted romance to suicide sometimes in the imagined funeral, the people upset that you’re gone. For some people, it can be vindictive, others it is validation that they mattered and that this was the only way to get that. It is exactly this that Thomas avoids.
The one thing that has changed since 2014 is that experience. We know the highs and lows, and we know how to navigate them in a healthier way, by talking about it. By trying not to let it fester and being vigilant, be it preemptively speaking to a doctor or something as simple as getting back in touch with people who may have drifted as you’ve begun to struggle. Anything that can tether you down to the ground and help you stay oriented.
I don’t want to end up like Rose in a morgue, lifeless in a cold, sterile room. Josh Thomas with his bravery and honesty truly gave me something that cannot be taken for granted or lost: something I can revisit when I lose my way, something to ground me. It is something I can look at and understand and it is something that can help me be understood. Seeing my experience reflected in the show helps me. It helps me feel like I’m not crazy and it makes me feel like I’m not making it out to be worse than it is. In a sense, it is validation. I suffer from Bipolar Type II, I make mistakes and I do some things right, and I don’t stop fighting to do my best. That’s what I take from Please Like Me, and what many others I suspect will, too: that I’m not alone and I am not judged.