What Diane Nguyen Taught Me About Finding Healing Through Failure
When I moved to America, I thought I could fashion a new life out of the escape, but a BoJack Horseman character taught me to be patient with setbacks
Brooklyn Mistress America—
What they don’t answer is this: How does one reconcile early promise with latter-day setbacks? What happens to rudderless people who neither have the support nor the sympathy of understanding parents? What happens to people who, by the very nature of their struggle and the color of their skin, stick out like accidents in a place like New York City where everyone looks like they belong?
Because routine breeds nostalgia breeds habit, I began rewatching BoJack Horseman to fill my time. There is something to be said about the healing properties of a show about anthropomorphic characters that are just fantastical enough to feel removed, yet fucked up enough to be relatable. If the show didn’t alleviate my anxiety, then it certainly told me I wasn’t alone in my failings. That Diane Nguyen—the show’s moral and intellectual, albeit flawed, center—would always be around.
In the show’s second season, fresh from the failure of what she thought was a philanthropic trip—but which eventually turned out to be a skeevy public relations campaign—Diane returns to Los Angeles, to BoJack’s doorstep. There, in BoJack’s large mansion, without the pressure to perform productivity, Diane spirals. She stops bathing, spends all day on his couch drinking all his beer, wiping her chip-layered fingers on her t-shirt, refusing to clean up, and get back to life.
“I really thought I could do it,” she tells BoJack in one episode. “I could go far away and help people and be this best possible version of myself.”
“And what happened?” BoJack asks.
“I couldn’t. I wasn’t the person I thought I was.”
At twenty-three, I was hurting and I wasn’t sure why. I didn’t know that the balloon-font-shaped letters inside my head—sometimes taking the shape of arbitrary letters, the other times pointed and vengeful—leaving me breathless were, in fact, anxiety modeling itself after the thing that drove my work. Words. I believed that my parents and I fought incessantly because we were different people who had outgrown living together—not because the resentment I had repressed against a bullying father and an emotionally draining mother was finally showing up.
Even Mumbai, the city that had once ensconced my deepest secrets and embarrassments was pushing me away, with its noise and commotion, its propensity to be cruel to people of one kind and lavish on another, and its abysmal administrative setup. I was in my early twenties, tired and uninspired.
It wasn’t just the anxiety and the exhaustion. I was unable to write anymore. I plunged head-first into literature, without any precedent, like a madman, and came up short. I fought to put words on paper, to sieve a separate, curious, questioning life away from my family who wanted their children to become the engineers they couldn’t. Where I was still writing repetitive long-form features at work, I found it nearly impossible to write about my life, situate whole stories in my hometown, and draw verse from the incoherence.
I didn’t realize just how far up the wall I was being pushed, until one day, in a musty beauty parlor, I unraveled like silly string.
“What do you do?”
“What do you write about?”
“What movies have you written about?”
“Where can I read your work?”
The parlor auntie had questions—as aunties often do—which I answered sitting on the makeshift bed, pantless and in pain, as she used hot wax to remove chunks of hair from my legs. I told her I was a journalist and writer, that I wrote about culture, that I had written about thismovie, thatmovie, and thatothermovie, and that I could be found online. That didn’t stop her.
“What do you want to write about next?”
It knocked me out. It landed like a punch in the thick of my chest cavity, leaving me breathless. It was not a rarefied question; in fact, one or another derivative of it had been posed to me countless times before. But despite the generous air conditioning in the room, sweat collected in my armpits and pooled in the vessel of my cupid’s bow. Words like “write,” “what,” and “next” scribbled themselves inside my mind in balloon font, their size growing and squeezing against the limits of my cranium. I begged the parlor auntie to stop, pinched money into her hands, and ran out.
It wasn’t the question itself, but the implication of the “next,” and the pointed particularity of it that sent me running. I had known the answer to the “next” when I was a high school student destined for something big. I had known the answer to the “next” when I quit engineering a semester in and took up journalism, shaming my father in the process. I had known the answer to the “next” with every internship I took up, every job interview I appeared at, and every class I sat in. “Next” symbolized tomorrow, something better than today: next weekend, next month, next year, next time. A do-over.
My anxiety and inability to write hadn’t just clouded my “next,” but had diffused any promise of it. I felt, implicitly, like a failure. I had quit engineering to do something grand, and while everyone who stuck around made good on their promise, I hadn’t. Who was I in the absence of my “next”?
I tortured myself trying to find an answer, without once pausing to cradle my body through incessant panic attacks, that wouldn’t stop coming.
I also became obsessed with planning a way out. In the naivety of early twenties, when you think a vacation can fix a few gloomy months, I really believed that doggedly pursuing writing with blinders on would fix my anxiety. I began planning a move to America, and as a broke wannabe writer, spent hours on the internet scouring for programs that could give me a full ride.
Somewhere in the deep corner of a subreddit dedicated to MFA programs, I came across BoJack Horseman and Diane Nguyen. I had known of the show, of course, but the Redditor shared a very particular screen grab of Diane with the words, “If I don’t make some change in my life, then this is how I’m going to feel forever.”
Maybe it was the quote, or maybe it was that bewildering epiphany that comes from reading the right thing at the right time, but six months later, I’d moved hell and high water to get to New York.
Aside from mental health and reckoning with childhood trauma, BoJack Horseman understood something implicit about do-overs. They’re not often possible, the show argues. Despite centering itself around an anthropomorphic horse-man who is desperate for a new beginning, all his sins wiped clean, the show doesn’t allow BoJack a fresh start. He can never leave his past behind. Any and all reckoning must be done with all parts of him, not just the ones he likes.
If BoJack is the show’s hypothesis, then Diane Nguyen supports its argument. She escapes her abusive family in Boston, comes to Los Angeles and becomes a ghost-writer for celebrity memoirs. She follows a faux philanthropist to war-town Cordovia, calls out a powerful Hollywood mogul for sexual harassment, divorces her incessantly optimistic husband, writes lists for a BuzzFeed-like platform, and stubbornly rallies for issues. For Diane, a do-over meant making something of her life, culling from her sad and misunderstood childhood a tangible story worth telling.
At the beginning of the show, as one of the few self-aware and rational characters, Diane is primed for—if not outright success—stability. Where BoJack’s misbehavior and its repercussions allowed the show to explore the nuanced underbelly of Hollywood, Diane’s rough character arc spelled that the world wasn’t much easier for ambitious squares either.
I landed in New York in 2016, convinced that my anxiety had been temporary and that it hadn’t followed me to America. I imagined life here as an after, a clause completely separate from my life back home. Just like Diane who washed her hands of Boston. I took my foreignness and wrapped it around myself during the city’s harshest winters. Hadn’t Diane embraced the same fish-out-of-water awkwardness in LA? At my poorest, I wrote stubbornly. Didn’t Diane move into a bare-boned studio after divorcing a Hollywood star? I absorbed the exhaustion with pride. Wasn’t I, much like Diane, primed to write a book?
There is nothing special or unique about seeing yourself in a fictional character; stan culture thrives off that connection. But there is something to be said about being exposed by one. I saw myself in Diane’s mulish obsession with fairness, her faulty idealism, her inconsistencies, and her unshakeable quest for integrity. And like her, I was so focused on making sure my life away from home meant something that I could barely take a minute to calm my panicking heart.
But an MFA degree and three years in New York City later, I was no closer to writing the Great Indian Novel than I had been in Mumbai. My fresh start didn’t come divorced from life back home; my anxiety came rushing back in the most ill-timed moments. Every minor setback would send me spiraling for days. Mostly, I still couldn’t address the elephant in the room—how my relationship with my parents continued to deteriorate despite the distance. But I kept turning to Diane, kept looking to her for some sort of blueprint.
Five seasons later, Diane would be divorced, jumping jobs, and completely unmoored.
BoJack Horseman aired part one of its sixth and final season in October 2019. Diane quits her job at the unethical feminist content company and leaves Los Angeles once more, this time for Chicago to be with her boyfriend Guy. She finally begins work on her memoir, but finds her depression worsening with every page she is unable to write. She struggles with yet another failure, but this time, all her past demons come haunting back. This isn’t any book she’s writing; it’s the accumulation of her life’s pain. Would she ever be able to justify her trauma without a memoir to show for it? She crumbles under the pressure.
There is nothing special or unique about seeing yourself in a fictional character. But there is something to be said about being exposed by one.
I watched Diane fluster through her depression while crashing on another friend’s couch—this time having poured all my savings into an artist visa—with my mental health in pieces. I checked off her symptoms for mine like one would on a grocery list of already-purchased items. I did what I had initially set off to: left Mumbai, pursued writing, and wrote whole poems, but I was back in the same place I had been a year before. I didn’t get my do-over. And neither had Diane.
When I moved to America, I thought I could fashion a new life out of the escape, but Diane Nguyen taught me to be patient with setbacks. By the time BoJack Horseman took an interval before airing part two of its final season, my expectations for Diane had radically shifted. I didn’t want the memoir for Diane anymore if it meant for her to dredge up her past without healing.
I didn’t care for her success if it meant for her depression to go unacknowledged. By rooting for her, I inadvertently slipped in a wish for myself. Exhausted from the burden of expectation, I wanted for Diane and myself respite. In whatever shape it could come.
My visa application got approved as I waited for the season to return. I watched the show’s final episodes in the pockets of time I could steal from moving into my new apartment, not for a fresh start, but for a continued story. Diane does not finish the season as a critical darling of the New Yorker and a memoir savant, but as a successful writer of a teenage detective series. She doesn’t write the “essays on damage” she had meant to write—at least not yet—but still manages to deliver a spunky, feminist book that best reflects her values. She also actively begins work on her mental health—gaining some weight on the road to healing and learning to be okay with it.
In May, I took the step I had been avoiding for years and found myself a therapist. For the first time, I learned to open myself to someone I didn’t know and to him laid bare the bones of my anxiety. I also concede to the role class, background, and circumstances play and let myself swallow rejections with a curt acknowledgment.
An unproductive evening doesn’t leave the same acrid taste on my tongue like it used to; I allow myself fun on evenings I can bear to do little else. I turn to a blank page not as a necessity but as a possibility. Perhaps a world will open itself to me in due time. And with Diane Nguyen’s help, I will be okay with it.
Meher Manda is a poet, short story writer, culture critic, and educator from Mumbai, India, currently based in New York City. She holds an MFA in Fiction, and is the author of the chapbook, Busted Models, published by No, Dear Magazine in Fall 2019. Her work has been published and is forthcoming in Hobart Pulp, Epiphany Magazine, Los Angeles Review, Glass Poetry, and elsewhere.