There’s a lot of buzz right now around the movie Eighth Grade, and for good reason. It captures the essence of middle school awkwardness in the way no other movie has.
The movie might have been the brainchild of Bo Burnham — a 27-year-old, male comedian from Boston — but the movie’s protagonist is a 13-year-old girl who struggles with anxiety. Most people struggle to understand the mind of a 13-year-old (despite having been 13 years old at one point), but for a young, childless man to nail the subject to the ground so well is baffling a lot of people.
Naturally, movie-goers are asking him how he did it. They assume he’s some sort of genius who cracked one of the greatest mysteries in the history of ever: understanding the psyche teenager. But as it would turn out, it’s less about understanding teenagers and more about understanding anxiety. He explains that understanding the universality of his anxiety is what helped him better understand his 13-year-old main character.
As Burnham told Quartz:
“The problem with anxiety, and I think it can bleed into other mental problems as well, it disproportionately tends to select people that want to be a little closed off and singular. And the feeling of anxiety itself, I describe it as, it’s like riding a bull, and the bull is your nervous system. And you’re just trying to hold on, and being in the world is so hard because everyone else is an equestrian to you, and you’re the only one who has to struggle with this thing.”
He goes on to say, “And that just isn’t true. I think the part some anxious people, myself included, don’t want to admit is that you don’t actually want to believe that your experience is shared. You actually want to be alone in this experience of anxiety, because it means you’re special. But you have to let that go. Because that is dark, it’s really dark.”
I’ve been struggling with depression and anxiety since I was a teenager. I started getting full-blown panic attacks at 18, and they have lasted into my 30s. But one of the hardest things for me to do was to admit it to myself. To admit that what I was dealing with wasn’t something only in my head, and it wasn’t until I admitted it that I started to look for help and learn how to live with it.
But with all the introspection about my own anxiety, with all the therapy sessions and medications, with all the late nights, up, sweating in bed, trying to will it to stop, I never once thought about others struggling with this illness, nor did I understand that it could help me connect or better understand someone else. And I never once could describe what I was struggling with nearly as well as Burnham did with the statement above.
The problem with anxiety, or at least my anxiety, is that it usually hits when I’m alone. Usually at night, for example, when it’s dark and everyone is asleep, and I’m awake losing control of the bull. And when it happens during the day, the last thing I want is to be around anyone. I shut myself off from the world and focus on the anxiety, trying to get control of it so I can find my way back to the real world where no one has to worry about my internal struggles.
When I did begin to talk about my issues in my early 20s, people brushed it off. They told me to get over it. They said it was all in my head, and that I needed to get out more, go out in nature, as if what I was feeling wasn’t real.
And when I think about that, I finally realize just how isolating it all is. People often describe those with depression and anxiety as shut-ins, but the reality is, we just don’t feel like the world understands our struggle. We think the world sees our anxiety as an inconvenience that only we endure, so we shut ourselves away.
What many of us struggle to do, or may have never even thought about, is realizing how many people around us actually do suffer with anxiety, and that in that shared struggle there is something universal. There is a connection that can help one person better understand another. And that, right there, is what Burnham did with Eighth Grade. He tapped into the most isolating thing in the history of ever, his own anxiety, and then used it as a means to better understand someone who is his seemingly complete opposite — a 13-year-old girl.
Now I suppose the question we all have in this is how can we turn our anxiety into a wonderful movie script? Well, that I can’t answer. But what I can say is that this gives me hope. This understanding that I can find a way to use my anxiety to better understand someone else, and along the way better understand myself, makes me feel like I’m not alone.
And for anyone struggling with anxiety, that might be the greatest gift ever.