To state the super obvious, we’re a country on the brink of a mental-health crisis, if we haven’t already gone mad. This is reflected in pretty much everything (see: the other night’s presidential debate), but it’s perhaps best reflected online in the current popularity of the Donnie Darko explaining his “new friend” to his therapist meme.
For context, the scene takes place in the 2001 movie Donnie Darko, which begins on October 2, 1988, when troubled teen Donald J. Darko meets a mysterious man dressed in a bunny suit, Frank, who tells Darko the world is going to end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds. Darko, feeling anxious, depressed and isolated from society himself, quickly takes a liking to the confident bunny man, whether he’s imaginary or not. From his perspective, at least Frank can make sense of the otherwise chaotic and random universe.
Still, when the tired, disheveled teenager tells his therapist about Frank, he nervously admits that his new friend’s dire outlook on the future is silly.
Back in the real world, though, what does it say about our collective psyche that millions of quarantine-bound people currently empathize with Darko in this moment?
According to Mark Rego, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Yale University, the situations captured in the memes aren’t nearly as dire as Darko’s. Yes, the memes are “a sad consequence of our current situation,” he explains, but people posting a meme admitting their new friend is actually a plant don’t show mental illness. “In fact, people do feel a sense of bonding to things like house plants, pets and others known only via a media connection like TV and podcasts,” he tells me. “There’s nothing pathological about this in moderation and when the individual has the capacity to have genuine connections to others.”
Rego argues the movie Castaway better reflects the current mindset of many socially isolated Americans. “Tom Hanks’ character is stranded on a desert island and makes friends with a ball he calls Wilson and even attempts to rescue the ball at the end of the movie,” he says. Again, unlike Darko and Frank, Hank’s bond with Wilson isn’t the result of mental illness, but instead that of human’s “natural need and capacity to form bonds expressing itself when more appropriate objects, i.e., people, aren’t available.”
Modern life and work has long been pulling us further into isolation, Rego continues, but “COVID has piled on top of this trend and now put us alone in our homes whether we want it or not, cementing our isolation and loneliness into a place where even small talk and the faintest sense of belonging, such as at work or in small friend groups, are now a distant memory.”
In a way, then, a meme about loneliness and isolation can help replace that sense of community. “We’re at a point where we’re so totally bonkers that it’s funny, and we can start making fun of ourselves,” explains psychoanalyst Claudia Luiz. “And that helps us all feel collectively better.”
Also much like Darko in the scene with his therapist, Luiz says it’s best we understand that there’s no piece of blanket advice that’s going to help. “Certainty, clarity and plain old common sense can’t hold a candle to emotions and mental processes that make no sense,” she says. In other words, unpacking your emotional state to see what’s causing it is far more beneficial than trying to fix it using logic. “When you can start to hear your own truth, you don’t only get a new perspective on it,” she continues, “but the experience itself eradicates aloneness.”
All of which is to say, finding a sense of community in a volleyball is totally fine and healthy, but nothing replaces human connection. So if you’re feeling Darko’s pain on a deeper level beyond memedom, don’t discount the power of talking to someone. After all, there’s no shortage of readily available therapists who are much better listeners than your new plant.
“Sometimes solitude can be a time to reflect and relax, but too much of it becomes loneliness and our systems perceive it as stress,” Rego continues. Yes, this will likely result in more memes, but “we can anticipate more depression and anxiety and all that this brings as well.”
Ultimately, he says he’s unsure “where this all goes,” but he does know one thing: “Our need to be with others and develop relationships with them isn’t going anywhere.”