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july - thoughts on i may destroy you, sex, culture and healthcare

Trigger warning: mention of rape/sexual assault


With the social media spotlight on sexual abuse and racism in June/July, it seems correct to have this post centred around I May Destroy You which I finished watching mid-July. There is not much television that I do engage with, but this honestly had me hooked and I would go as far as to say it is one of the most necessary and beautiful pieces of art I’ve ever seen. Everything from the cinematography, the acting, the storyline was sublime. I am a fan of raw honesty and this show had that in abundance. It shied away from nothing and held a mirror up to the culture that we are living in unapologetically. If you haven’t seen the show, I suggest you watch it if you’re able (it is quite triggering) before reading this post because wow, just wow. Every episode leaves a mark, in a way that makes it difficult to think about where to even start when discussing it.

The first thing that comes to mind thinking about the show is how it challenged my own ideas of respectability. There’s a gut reaction that makes you want to say ‘well Arabella should not have been on drugs’, or ‘ she shouldn’t have been in the club’, or ‘Kwame should not have met up with that guy in the first place, but in all honesty none of those things were the cause of the assaults suffered. There is a scene where Arabella goes to the support group and says ‘I’ve come to learn how to not be raped’ as if there is a special formula that you can just perfect. The only solution to rape is for perpetrators not to do it.

The show also reminded me of how sex is used at different stages of our lives. In the school scenes we see it as a kind of trophy, a way to gain respect/status and to show power. The sexual experiences that young people have in school usually form the foundation for a lot of other experiences and relationships that we have as adults. In other scenes we see sex as recreation, stress relief, and as a vehicle for intimacy and healing. It didn’t escape me that after each assault experienced, the person who had experienced it sought out sexual contact in attempt to move past it. The scene where Kwame was confused by the guy he had matched with making him dinner instead of just undressing him made me clutch my heart. It’s only now that I’m realising I don’t think that there was a scene where sex was shown in the context of love. There were the scenes with our European drug Lord that showed some sense of affection and mutual respect, but even those moments were eclipsed by the lack of respect shown in their fall out.

The show also highlighted how a lot of healing is attempted through busyness, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it did make me wonder where the place for stillness is. After being assaulted Arabella threw herself into the investigation, then into new relationships and then into being a social media activist. Where was the space just to be?

It also highlighted how often healing is interrupted by the demands of life itself. How could she even have the space to be with financial concerns and writing deadlines overhead. Capitalism stops for no man, not even those that are bleeding.

One of the stand out parts for me was a scene where Arabella and Terry visit the doctor’s office and find that Arabella’s blood pressure is high. Terry asks the doctor why that might be, and he suggests that part of it may be due to the fact that Arabella is using a vaporiser. Terry challenges this by asking the doctor to remember all the things that have been happening in Arabella’s life that also may be contributing to her high blood pressure i.e. having recently suffered a sexual assault, taking part in online activism, managing the emotional burden and pressures of listening to others stories while engaging in said activism, and managing the additional stress of being young, black, and the financial pressures, pressures to write etc. Terry makes the comment ‘it doesn’t take a professional to see that the stress from the phone will kill her before the vaporiser does’.

It’s a poignant point, and highlights a big problem in healthcare that we have seen played out recently with the COVID-19 outbreak; that we have a system that consistently denies the impact and role of social factors in health outcomes. With COVID, we saw the reports that said ‘members of the BAME community most likely to be affected by COVID-19’, without any recognition of why that is – social inequality, racism, higher rates of poverty facilitated by those aforementioned things, poor access to healthcare etc. In Arabella’s case, we see that Arabella’s problems are attributed to her vaping, and not the events in her life that have caused her to start vaping.

This issue spreads through all facets of healthcare including psychology too. We have a mental health culture that is predominantly founded on a biomedical model of psychological distress that locates the ‘problem’ inside of people’s brains. Where psychological factors are considered, the problem is often located inside of peoples thought patterns rather than in the relationship between someone’s thought life and their experiences navigating the world. Yes, a person may have an unhealthy thought life, but we also live in an unhealthy world and we would do better by people by not pretending that we didn’t.

I May Destroy You is a beautiful show because it highlights all of the ways that the don’t live in a healthy world but shows the value of our relationships in navigating this place. I appreciated that she had a black therapist that was receptive, affirming and helpful. The love in her relationships with her mother and brother was palpable too but it was the friendship between Arabella, Terry and Kwame that carried everything. I appreciated that they made space for each other to feel, they made space for each other’s anger, their frustrations, their sadness, their faults, their weaknesses, their grief, their processes, their betrayals. They really made space for each other to be human which is something I’m growing to appreciate more and more in my friendships: the space to be just human. Let's not forget her housemate too, who consistently covered her side of the rent when she was unable. We never got to know much about that character or that sacrifice, but we know he was a real one.

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