Editor’s Note: See Jane Write now publishes articles and personal essays by writers who identify as women, non-binary folks, and our allies. Learn more here.
By Dr. Mikkaka Overstreet
2020 was supposed to be my year. After living with debilitating chronic pain that doctors refused to believe, I’d had a hysterectomy at the end of 2019. The pain stopped, and I started healing my relationship with my body. I was eager to start living again after over a year of lying miserably on my couch beneath a heating pad. I had been through the wringer physically and emotionally and was ready to reclaim control over my life.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
I have always had mental health challenges. My first suicide attempt failed when, at age 16, I swallowed all the pills I could find and went to school in search of more. Some friends noticed and I got called to the counselor’s office. Nothing came of it or the copious pill intake. I had my first panic attack at a state fair that same year. After my mother and her boyfriend arrived at the hospital, I almost had a second attack, causing the doctor to ask my mother to leave. True to form, my mother *promptly* cursed the doctor out. Despite my obvious anxiety and its clear human triggers, they sent me home with no additional information or tools.
A few years later I went to college, and, after a single free therapy session, the campus psychologist referred me to a psychiatrist. He gave me Zoloft and my whole life changed. I had no idea the rest of y’all were just walking around the earth without being in a constant state of fight or flight. Still, generalized anxiety and bouts of depression have remained my norm, and passive suicidal ideation often lurks in the recesses of my mind.
Thus, the pandemic hit me hard. I was already low from the period of chronic pain, the grief of the hysterectomy, and the complicated changes both had wrought on my body. Suddenly, the world seemed to be imploding and everyone was quarantined, and it all felt too hard. My doctors upped my Zoloft and added an antidepressant to keep the rising dark at bay.
Somehow, in the midst of all of this, my marriage became a sanctuary. My husband and I spent nearly every moment of every day together and we liked it. We talked about everything and nothing and used this unexpected isolation to get to know each another even better. Still, my mental health challenges were hard to explain to my logic-focused, engineer-brained husband.
Then we started watching Big Mouth on Netflix. If you haven’t watched it, you are missing out on the silliest, raunchiest, most ridiculous adult animation. The show follows a group of middle schoolers and chronicles their pubescent changes in excruciatingly accurate detail, despite the show’s utterly nonsensical approach. Everything from unwanted erections and awkward masturbation to first periods is fair game.
While it is absolute madness, Big Mouth does a superb job of exploring body and sex positivity, as well as humorously but sensitively explaining various aspects of gender identity and sexuality. The representation of diverse identities is also top notch with various races, ethnicities, religions, genders, disabilities, and sexual orientations included in natural and intersectional ways. The voice cast is stacked with the likes of Nick Kroll, Maya Rudolph, Jordan Peele, Nathan Fillion, Thandiwe Newton, Fred Armisen, Lena Waithe, Keke Palmer, and many others playing recurring roles. (There are so many celebrity performances, that despite watching all six seasons repeatedly, I had no idea before writing this that Kristen Bell is the voice of a pillow one of the characters regularly gets—ahem—intimate with. Did I mention this show is absurd?)
One way Big Mouth manages to connect with audiences is through the expert personification of various emotions. Perhaps the most well-known characters are the hormone monsters—horny, emotional creatures assigned to most children when they hit puberty. They convince the children to masturbate or to scream at their parents or to cry hysterically, which makes for at least half of the show’s relatable humor.
As the show progresses, we meet more creatures. David Thewlis voices the Shame Wizard, who thrives on making the children feel bad about their bodies and urges. The Depression Kitty just wants to lie on your chest and feed you soupy ice cream. My personal favorite, Tito the Anxiety Mosquito, wants to help keep you safe by thinking of everything that could possibly go wrong at any time.
As soon as Tito was introduced, I knew this show was on to something. The way Tito buzzed constantly around the characters’ heads, pointing out their worst fears, sometimes multiplying into so many mosquitoes that a character feels like they can’t breathe—it all felt so familiar and accurate. And when the Anxiety Mosquito and Depression Kitty started working together, I saw my current struggle reflected back to me.
More importantly, my anxiety-free husband understood these metaphors. Constantly buzzing fears and heavy, immobilizing cats made sense in a concrete way. Soon, we began to talk about my anxiety as a separate and manageable entity. Rather than it being a mysterious, internal source of struggle, my anxiety and other monsters became perfectly normal problems we can discuss and deal with compassionately and patiently.
For me, it was also valuable to think about how all of these entities work together and how we all have several of them to varying degrees. The Big Mouth spinoff Human Resources spends more time with the creatures, exploring how they form committees for each person. So, while the chair of my committee is typically my Ambition Gremlin (with my Anxiety Mosquito close at hand), my husband makes up for his lack of Ambition Gremlin by letting his Love Bug and Logic Rock run things. It makes for a good balance.
I believe in the healing power of art. Was my marriage already great? Yes, undoubtedly. But there’s always room for growth and this silly cartoon gave us the language we needed to communicate more effectively and sustain our relationship through a difficult season. For years, I’ve been saying I was going to write a thank you letter to Mark Levin, one of the show’s producers. Mr. Levin, if you and your three spouses are reading this, thank you for your art and for all the laughs. Thank you for the smart and sensitive way you handle mental health. Thanks for seeing me and so many others.
As for everyone else, go watch Big Mouth.
Dr. Mikkaka Overstreet is an educator and writer based in North Carolina. She has written two academic books, a number of scholarly articles, lots of posts for Book Riot, and an absurd number of as-yet-unpublished works ranging from young adult fiction to terrible poetry.