Jafar and the Wet Bandits

In an excerpt from Rachel Bloom's upcoming collection of essays, the actress lays out her complicated history with anxiety and depression.

rachel bloom book cover
Getty + Grand Central Publishing

In 2010, it had been years since I’d encountered the “Guilty Itch,” “The Bad,” “OCD,” whatever you want to call it, pick your favorite name. Sure, I had some other problems, but since I wasn’t experiencing repetitively guilty thoughts, I rarely thought about that period in my life at all. The memories were too painful and why dwell on the past because I was all better now. Case closed, gavel once again goes bang bang! Thinking the bad times were behind me, I launched into my twenties with all the hubris of the hero at the start of a movie sequel. Jafar would NEVER come back because I, Aladdin, had banished him to live in a magic lamp in the previous movie! The Wet Bandits would NEVER come back because I, Kevin McCallister, had banished them to jail in the previous movie! And my obsessive thoughts would never come back because I, Rachel Bloom, had banished them to the distant fog of memory in the previous movie! And also I had pierced ears and was fucking now so I was clearly a very different person!

But of course the villain came back. Had this part of my life been a movie sequel, the critics would have called it, “An unsurprising and obvious installment in the series.”

Then in May 2013, I received an email that would change my life forever: the screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna had seen my music videos and wanted to discuss doing a potential musical TV show with me. Within ten minutes of us meeting, Aline pitched me the idea of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, I went nuts for it, and we were off to the races. In what seemed like seconds, she and I had a full pitch for a television show.

I couldn’t contain my excitement the night before the first round of pitches. This was it. It was all happening for me. All I had to do now was not fuck up the pitch, and—Oh shit, it’s already 12:30 a.m.?!

I put my head down on the pillow to go to sleep. Nothing happened. As minutes passed and I still wasn’t asleep, I panicked. “Oh God. What if I don’t sleep so I’m too tired tomorrow and I fuck up the pitch and it ruins my life?” You would be right in remarking that I took it from A to C real quick.

I Want To Be Where the Normal People Are
grandcentralpublishing.com

And just like the night before fourth grade, I didn’t sleep at all the night before the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend pitches. When I met up with Aline the next day, I looked like I had been hit by a truck. When I told her that I didn’t get any sleep the night before, she said, “Oh, honey, that’s just nerves, you’re gonna be great!” Not knowing me well then, she thought it was just “nerves.” If only. I longed for the “nerves” that normal people felt.

But Aline was right. I DID do great in the pitches because adrenaline pushed me through the fatigue. But this didn’t help me feel better. Delirious from the lack of sleep the previous night, I feared what would happen if I, once again, couldn’t sleep. That night, the fear of not sleeping kept me from sleeping. Panicked, I took a Benadryl, and when that didn’t work, I contacted a twenty-four-hour house-call doctor I found on Yelp to prescribe me a single sleeping pill. I’d never taken sleeping pills before, but I was desperate. I drove to the pharmacy, picked up my single sleeping pill, and then, chickening out, cut it in half. After all, what if the sleeping pill made me addicted? That’s how sleeping pills work, right?

With some Benadryl and half a sleeping pill in my system, I still couldn’t sleep. At 6:00 a.m., I called my friend Dan in a panic. Dan was a doctor doing his residency on the East Coast, so I knew he’d be up. I sobbed to him on the phone: What’s wrong with me? Why am I broken? Whatever The Bad was, it had combined with insomnia to form a superstorm of depression and dread and panic. It was like this movie franchise had really gone off the rails and Jafar had fucked the Wet Bandits and it had also been a threesome with Voldemort and the baby that resulted from it was me.

After Dan talked me down a bit, he told me to get back into my real bed; I’d been sleeping on a mattress on the floor of the office so as not to wake Gregor with my insomnia. When I got into bed with Gregor and he saw the state I was in, he said to not worry about sleep, just try to rest. Those were the first words of comfort I’d heard in days. Taking away the pressure to sleep was the only way I finally fell asleep. It was only for three hours, but it was something.

crazy ex girlfriend, rachel bloom, im so happy that josh is so happy, season 1, ep 107, aired nov 23, 2015 photo scott everett white  ©the cw network  courtesy everett collection
A scene from season 1 of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. The show was praised for its unflinching depictions of mental health via Bloom’s character, Rebecca Bunch.
The CW Network / Scott Everett White

The next night I didn’t want to risk anything, so I called that house doctor, got another sleeping pill, and this time, I took the whole thing. Fuck it. I’d become an addict.

But when I woke up, I wasn’t an addict. Instead I’d slept nine hours and felt back to my old self. Glad that was over and never to return!

. . . Until a few days later when I had to get up the next morning for another early meeting. Once again, I dreaded the night and the horrors it could bring. It had become muscle memory at this point.

When I went back to New York for a friend’s wedding that December, the jet lag made my sleep anxiety even worse, and eventually this turned into a dread that haunted me all day. I had never felt worse. And then, in the middle of this, Gregor got down on one knee in front of his old West Village apartment and proposed.

Part of me was the happiest I’d ever been in my life. But the other part of me was still feeling The Dread. (That’s a new name for The Bad, catch up.) I was fed up and frustrated and furious at myself. Why did I continue to ruin my own life by thinking these thoughts? On the outside I was smiling and rapping “Baby Got Back” at the surprise karaoke party thrown by our friends, but on the inside, I was screaming at myself, This is the best night of your life! Don’t feel dread! Don’t be an anxious cunt! Be! Happy!

When I got back to LA, I was in very bad shape. I now felt a constant sense of overwhelming depression and I couldn’t stop thinking my circular thoughts and I couldn’t solve them and nothing would make them go away. I was nauseous all the time. My hormones were out of control. I couldn’t concentrate. And I knew that I was doing this to myself. I was letting The Dread ruin my life.

And then something amazing happened.

I booked a T-Mobile commercial. STAY WITH ME HERE.

Knowing that my call time for the T-Mobile commercial was 6:00 a.m. the next day, I lay in bed as usual, nervous about being unable to sleep for a high-stakes morning event, as usual, all of the questions roaring in my ear, as usual.

And then another question entered my head. This wasn’t in the sinister voice of the other questions. It wasn’t The Dread. This question had a softer, kinder tone and it said, “Hey, you DO realize you’re getting this worked up over a T-Mobile commercial?”

Oh GOD. That question was right. What the fuck was I doing? I didn’t care about T-Mobile. I wasn’t even a T-Mobile customer. I was with AT&T. Now, THAT would be a commercial to freak out about.

It was like this movie franchise had really gone off the rails and Jafar had fucked the Wet Bandits and it had also been a threesome with Voldemort and the baby that resulted from it was me.

I grabbed my computer, went on Psychology Today’s therapy finder website, and sought out, for the first time, a psychiatrist. And when I walked into his office two days later, I told him EVERYTHING. I told him about the bad thoughts I’d had at age nine, how they transformed into all these catastrophic relationship and career fears, how it felt like The Bad was always coming for me to destroy everything I held dear. I barfed out everything I’d been ashamed to admit to myself for the past 26 years. And at the end of the barfing, I said to him ten words I’d never said before: “I want to change and I need help doing so.” And I meant “help” in every sense: help with fighting the intrusive thoughts, help with changing my perspective on life, and, most important, chemical help.

I took a deep breath and prepared myself for his diagnosis of whatever weird thing was happening to me. But instead, he told me that what I was experiencing was stuff he’d seen before.

The specific diagnosis didn’t matter; all I needed to know was that I wasn’t a freak and I certainly wasn’t “voluntarily doing this to myself.”

Rather than naming a specific illness that I needed to treat, my doctor preferred to approach the whole thing from a more holistic level. My intrusive thoughts, my ups and downs with romantic obsession, and the feelings of misery I’d had throughout my life were all connected. Under his guidance, I learned so many things over the next six months. I learned how to meditate to help me stay in the present. I learned how to sort out which thoughts were important to dwell on and which thoughts were trying to trick me. I learned the beauty of a pill called Prozac.

And I learned that The Bad, The Dread, The Hungry Hungry Manson Caterpillar—again, pick whatever name you like—will never really go away. It will always be a part of me. Even now, during high-pressure moments, an irrational question or feeling of dread will sometimes pop up like a tiny little Jafar tapping me on the shoulder. And when that happens, I try not to blame myself or solve the problem or fear that it’s happening. I try to just . . . let it be. Does that always work? No. Because this shit is fucking hard.

However, I’d like to think that if my life were indeed a movie, a critic would say of this part: “A satisfying end to a confusing but ultimately rewarding franchise.”

Adapted excerpt from the book I WANT TO BE WHERE THE NORMAL PEOPLE ARE by Rachel Bloom. Copyright © 2020 by Handsome Iguana, Inc. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.

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