How Neon Genesis Evangelion helped me cope with depression

Disclaimer: This post discusses some spoilers of Neon Genesis Evangelion. I tried to keep some of the most spoiler-y bits as vague as I could, so you can still understand if you haven’t seen the show, but it does discuss the whole series up to the end. Also, content warning for heavy discussion of mental illness

There’s a scene mid-way through Episode 4 of Neon Genesis Evangelion that feels like it sums up the emotional arc of the entire series in its aching beauty and crushing sadness. Protagonist Shinji Ikari, a teenage boy tasked with saving the earth from alien Angels in a giant bio-mech known as Evangelion Unit-01, realizes he can’t handle the pressure and runs away from home. With his head slumped down and music blasting in his ears to block out the world outside, he boards a train and takes it as far as it will go. We see flashes of people crowding up the train car and then slowly getting off, going about their day without giving Shinji more than a passing notice. After what could be hours, he gets off at the last stop and walks around the dark alleys of Tokyo-3 before finding a place to rest under a small piece of cardboard. In this bustling metropolis, surrounded by people, Shinji finds himself completely alone. 

I was first diagnosed with major depression at age 14, the same age as Shinji was in the show. I was a shy, artistic, closeted queer kid growing up in a religious all-American household, and at the time there was no real conversation about mental health or LGBTQ+ identity in our media. I was relentlessly bullied at school and spent most of my time at home trying to avoid contact with my abusive father. I had no friends, no one who I felt truly understood what I was going through. I was put in a mental hospital after attempting to take my own life in early 2005, the start of a lifelong battle of illness and recovery that I’ve been fighting to this day.

Around this time, I first saw Evangelion one late night on cable. To be honest, back then, I only watched about two episodes and didn’t understand any of it. It wasn’t until earlier this year, while stuck at home sick with the flu, when I decided to watch the whole series in earnest. And when I saw Episode 4, all those memories, all those emotions I felt all those years ago came rushing back to me like a flood. I saw how deeply, inconsolably lonely Shinji was and it reminded me so much of myself back then.

Neon Genesis Evangelion is a show about giant robots, awkward teenage relationship drama, shadowy government conspiracies, religious mysticism, Freudian psychology, existential philosophy, and anime as a whole. But more than any of that, I think, it’s about one person’s struggle to understand his own mental illness and communicate those feelings in a way that other people would understand, in a way that might help some of us feel not quite so alone in the universe.

Series creator Hideaki Anno famously wrote Eva after a 4-year-long depressive phase in which he barely left the house. He channeled those feelings of despair, isolation, and self-loathing into his art, creating a deeply personal story about troubled characters trying to connect to each other in spite of the pain they all share.

The story starts out as a fairly straightforward action-sci-fi romp, but around episode 15, the story becomes less about the robot fights and more about the internal struggles that Shinji and the rest of the crew face in their own minds. The story gets more dark, tragic, and apocalyptic in scale. Every major character has deep-seated trauma and emotional baggage. This all culminates in an absolute mindfuck of a two-part ending in which Eva pilots Shinji, Asuka and Rei come to grips with their deepest fears and insecurities, and have to decide for themselves whether they want to keep on living in spite of the pain of existence.

These last two episodes, to me, are what make Evangelion go from a great show to a masterpiece. After 25 episodes of trauma, death, and despair, episode 26 ends with a message of hope. Even though Shinji still hates himself, he realizes that maybe, someday, he can learn to love himself. In spite of his pain, he wants to exist in the world and be with his friends. He begins what may be a lifelong process of recovery. The ending, to me, has a beautiful message for those suffering with depression: no matter how awful you feel, your life still has meaning, and it’s worth it to want to live.

But the introspective TV ending, in part a necessity due to budget cuts, didn’t sit well with fans, many of whom sent Anno death threats after its release. A year later, Anno and Studio Gainax released The End of Evangelion, a cynical and deeply depressing movie companion to the TV ending. We see what truly happens to every single character in the show, and it ain’t pretty. At times, it feels like Anno is attacking his own audience psychologically for demanding closure to a series that had already ended. While in the end, Shinji still comes to the same conclusion – that he wants to live and be with others, in spite of the suffering it may cause – it’s clear that he still has a long way to go in fixing his broken mental state.

But ultimately, that’s how life is. There are no easy answers. You don’t always get closure. Recovery is a slow, often agonizing process, and relapses happen all too often. Going to the hospital wasn’t the end of my struggle with depression – in fact, it was really just the beginning. As I got older, my illness manifested as addiction and social isolation. It wasn’t until this year that I’ve been able to tackle my depression head on by getting sober, going back to therapy, and trying to understand myself a little bit better. I’m still struggling every day, but I’m in a much better place now than I was back then.

In the years since Eva’s release, people have become more connected than ever due to technological advances, but at the same time, people are feeling more depressed and lonely. Because of this, I think Eva’s message of connecting with others and trying to understand their pain is more important now than ever before.

Everyone in this world is fighting a battle that most of us will never know about. For many of us, that battle is in our own minds, to the point where it makes it hard for us to even get out of bed each day. But I think there is light at the end of the tunnel, so long as we are can love ourselves and others for who we are. In spite of the loneliness and despair that we all face through our daily lives, we aren’t ever truly alone, because this world is full of people who are just like us.

Take care of yourself,

Marissa

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