Trauma and Relationships in I May Destroy You: A Therapist's View
Michaela Coel's I May Destroy You has been a huge success, with many praising its representation of the complexity of trauma both big and small, as well as its successful and more realistic portrayal of inner-city life
Therapist Geraldine Meadows explores how IMDY deals with trauma, relationships, and therapy
Contains spoilers for episode 12
When we think of things that may be destroy us, what comes to mind? As a woman, I might say rape, loss of a loved one, loss of my identity or living through a disaster. In another word: trauma. The recent runaway BBC success-story, I May Destroy You (IMDY), has been described as a ‘consent drama’. While it definitely deals with many variations of sexual consent, I suggest that IMDY can, more generally, be said to be an examination of trauma, relationships, boundaries and awareness – all four of which are often primary factors for many of us in seeking therapy.
I’ve come to think as trauma as bifold – there’s Trauma, such as living through war, being subjected to rape, or losing a limb. Then there’s trauma of the casual, everyday sort that most of us will be prey to at one time or another. Well-meaning but young parents who didn’t know how to listen or tend to a very sensitive, emotional child. Parents who divorced and from whence on, couldn’t be in a room together. School ‘friends’ who picked on you repeatedly, referring to your ‘five bellies’ and pushing you over so they could laugh at your podgy, teenage tummy.
It’s such a big word, trauma, and scary too, for many of us, but in fact, I’ve come to think of it as something we will all have to hold and bear in our lives. Arabella, our heroine in IMDY, has perhaps to deal with more of it than most. Seeming to be still in her late 20s, Bella is living life on the edge, partying hard and working hard, carving out a name as a writer by using social media channels. Her innocence and confidence are shattered one fateful night when her drink is spiked and she is raped. Hazy memories return in fragments as Arabella gradually comes to accept what happened to her. A particular scene soon after the night in question sticks in mind – at a meeting in a high-end hotel, Arabella is terrified when a waitress tries to serve a drink of water. Her trust in the world is gone.
What’s impressive is how Arabella then spends the remaining 12 episodes seeking to integrate her experiences into her self, rising to a stunning climax in the adrenaline-rush, rollercoaster-ride of a finale.
It’s not just that one big Trauma of course, we bear witness to several more incidents worthy of the name — from the small, such as when Susy, a publisher Arabella is thrilled to discover is also black, repeatedly refuses to extend a hand of sisterhood. We see Arabella’s wide eyes taking it in. Biaggio, Italian drug-lord cum boyfriend, never the warmest or most consistent, but his doorstep abandonment of Arabella truly sends a chill up the spine. In the next scene, we see her walking, trancelike, into the sea, as if to wash away the acute pinprick of pain from the night before.
Not just Arabella, but her tight web of friends bear their own scars too – Kwame, beautiful gay friend and exercise instructor extraordinaire – addicted to tapping on Tinder but afraid when a hook-up fixes him a plate of food, a delicious drink. Things without feelings seem easier, seems to be be the theme. And Terry - kind-hearted, loyal, loving Terry, who pours her energy and attention into her friend to detract from the pain of her own unsuccessful love and professional life. She keeps turning up, and trying, but until the final episode she carries just disappointment and dejection.
And what a final episode that is! In seeking to find closure, we see Arabella and her gang cut their way through three different scenarios in which her abuser is variously punched into oblivion on the street; broken to pieces as he reveals his own childhood trauma, and seduced at the bar and taken home for warm, consensual sex. In the end, the final closure is less dramatic, more internal and, to me, feels all the more lifelike for it.
Plaudits have been plentiful for the show, and rightly so, with reviewers gushing about how refreshing and real this take on young London life is. I agree with every word and feel actually grateful to see this slab of inner-city life so vividly depicted and full, for once, of talented, successful black people and not of white, middle-class privilege. It’s not perfect — as both a nosy-parker and a therapist, I’d love to have known more about Bella’s family, specifically her relationship with her mother. Kwame too – why the low self-esteem, the taught defences and the addiction to Tinder? So much more that could have been fleshed out.
However, this was one person’s show and I hope Michaela Coel receives all the awards, recognition and success she’s so richly due.
Her writing shows how these traumas, large and small, which inflict themselves on our being and which we carry with us, can be processed. She fights and works hard (through therapy, support groups, artistic endeavours and more) to incorporate them – to not shed them off but to weave them into the fabric of her life so that it becomes tighter; a closer, more coherent cloth, more likely to stand the test of time.
The depiction of therapy in the show has been criticised by some, and this may be justified when we consider therapist Carrie’s suggestion to seek healing via the medium of handicrafts. However I think the Halloween scene, where Arabella makes an emergency visit to Carrie’s home, is powerful and one which shows the simple, intense potential of the fresh perspective provided by therapy. ‘Can you leave social media?’, challenges Carrie. ‘Can you shut it down in order to listen, rather than speak?’ She explains how the constant noise and busyness can help us to avoid certain feelings but how we have to ‘process and understand them, otherwise we can’t process and understand ourselves.’
I think that’s what we therapists do – what I try to do anyway. To stand with my clients, to support them in times of turbulence, to help them to grow, in the way that’s right for them, while weaving in everything they’ve been through, everything life has thrown at them.
Her firm web of friends, her commitment to facing the truth and her determination to learn are ultimately what save Arabella. She may, indeed, have been destroyed. Instead, she is rebuilt.