‘One Day At A Time’ Faces the Stigma of Mental Health, Head-On

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Recently, I have been hit harder than ever by my vestibular migraines. While I have spoken about my disabilities in the past, my health tends to be like a roller-coaster of ups and down, currently it is on a frustrating spiral down. Because of it, I have seen my anxiety skyrocket. Living with a chronic illness is frustrating, to say the least. In a need to escape and also feel seen, I turned to the fantastic show One Day At A Time from Netflix. One Day At A Time is a sitcom that follows a Cuban-American family in Los Angeles. Despite its upbeat format, the show is not afraid to tackle hard issues head-on including immigration, homophobia, and mental health.

The single mother of the show, Penelope, struggles with PTS, post-traumatic stress which does differ from PTSD, from her time spent in the military. Unlike PTSD, PTS is a common, normal, and often an adaptive response to experiencing a traumatic or stressful event. In the first season of the show and into the second, Penelope begins taking anti-depressants much to the horror and devastation of her traditionally Cuban mother, Lydia. This is later compounded when Penelope joins and female veteran therapy group. Lydia, despite loving her daughter more than her own life, shames her for taking the medication and going to therapy. While Lydia eventually comes around the journey is still difficult for both her and Penelope.

I have spoken about my history with mental illness in the past and how it correlates within my health journey. I still take an anti-depressant daily. I keep my anxiety pills and asthma inhaler on me at all times. I am proud of that, but I haven’t always been. Being from a conservative Mexican-American family, mental health was never spoken about and always carried a heavy cloud over it. In a lot of ways, I relate to Penelope. Penelope is terrified of the stigma that has been placed on her.

During season two, episode nine “Hello, Penelope,” Penelope decides to get off of her medication without the supervision of her doctor, as someone who has done this, I can tell you with absolute certainty you should never do this. Penelope quickly spirals into a depressive and dangerous state where she begins having passive suicidal ideation. It may sound like jargon, but it’s common and occurs when you wish were dead or that you could die, but you don’t actually have any plans to commit suicide. Penelope should love her life but she can’t and the idea of trying to love it and teaching her children to love theirs is so overwhelming she would rather stay in bed all day than face reality. Anyone with depression has faced a similar scenario, myself included.

In my past, there have been many moments, particularly when I was not medicated, where I should love my life but didn’t. I was getting treatment for my thyroid, I was seeing results, I had a stable job but it didn’t matter and I still didn’t want to wake up when I went to sleep.

Penelope, in desperation, heeds the advice her therapist recommended during one of the sessions she attended and records herself. She hears what she is thinking out loud and finally is able to realize that is not who she is. One of the most terrifying moments for me when I was starting anti-depressants and anxiety medication was my fear that I would no longer be myself. For both Penelope and myself that notion couldn’t be further from the truth. Medication keeps me alive, medication keeps me functioning and for that, I am thankful.

There is a moment in the episode where Schneider compares his history with addiction to Penelope’s needing depression medication. He says “There is something I want that I can’t have for the rest of my life. And there is something you don’t want, that you have to have for the rest of yours.”

That statement hit me like a rock. So much of my life, now as a chronically ill woman with a history of mental illness being included in that, has been defined by having to do something for the rest of my life I don’t want to. I don’t want to take thyroid pills, I don’t want to get blood work done every three months, I don’t want to keep anxiety medication in my purse, but I do because I want to alive far more than I don’t want to take those.

Toward the end of season three, in an episode aptly titled “Anxiety,” Penelope’s therapist Pam admits while Penelope is telling the group about her ongoing panic attacks that there is no cure. She also ensures to Penelope that having anxiety and depression does not make you unstable, unlike what Penelope was telling herself. Pam emphasizes that these conditions, not dissimilar to any other conditions, make you human. Having lived with her medication and PTS hidden from her children, Penelope learns that she is no less a good mother because of her issues with her mental health.

Penelope ends up telling both Alex and Elena about her condition after seeing signs of anxiety in Elena. Penelope makes the difficult decision to face her fears, face the stigma that has been placed on her for so many years and talk to her children so they can live healthier lives. I wish someone had done that for me within my own health journey and I commend this show for talking about the issue so bluntly and with so much compassion.

Currently, One Day At A Time was just announced by Netflix that it would not be renewed for another season but showrunners are hoping to shop the series around to other places. Considering how rare portrayals of accurate portrayals of mental health are on TV, I highly recommend everyone pick up their remote and binge-watch it. Shows like this and episodes like this normalize mental health and remind us how common it is because, at the end of the day, my anxiety is as just as normal as my Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and getting help for either condition is also completely normal.