by J. Sam Williams
Life for all of us has been difficult during the pandemic. We’ve lost loved ones. We’ve gone through depression. We’ve started and quit new habits. We’ve learned a new way of life. Extraordinary circumstances have been met and handled with: apprehension, doubt, frantic and calm mindsets, and sometimes; aplomb. For me the pandemic coincided with a complete collapse of whatever was left of the family I grew up with. And while I sat in the smoldering wreckage of that family unit - damaged already some 10 years previous - I found myself searching for some sense of family that I could hold onto.
Enter: a cartoon?
I would not have guessed that my main sense of comfort during this time would be a family/work place animated cartoon about a burger restaurant on the Jersey shore.
But there I was in the midst of all the destitution and despair, turning again and again to this show: Bob’s Burgers. I took in episode on episode instead of basically any other content, letting the Belcher family nurture me through my arduous journey.
Just before the pandemic hit my sister and I had a falling out. Already missing my mother, who passed away in 2011, and with no other siblings, that meant it was only my Dad and I who would talk. Not quite the nuclear family, more of just a 1:1 relationship.
This is when the depression started. I tried to distract myself with work, to speak to those I love about this, to write through it. Nothing but metaphysical metacognition seemed to alleviate anything at all, and even then it would be extremely temporary. For a year, as the situation became more dire I found no relief from all-encompassing fear, dread and such a feeling of isolation. That was until January of 2020 when Bob’s Burgers came back on the air.
It was early Monday morning. I was having trouble sleeping. I’d woken from a nightmare where my wife had been clubbed to death. I couldn’t seem to get calm to pray, and there was no one for me to call. My wife needed her rest, and a break from all the consternation we’d been dealing with together. I picked up my phone and looked to watch something, anything that could distract me.
A Bob’s Burgers episode had just been released on Hulu. Bob and Linda Belcher, and their trouble-making but well-meaning kids, deal with whatever mess they get themselves into: it seemed nice, relaxing. The episode was “Drumforgivin,” a story surrounding Gene’s love of music and a misplaced effort by Louise to protect him when a musical instrument store manager bans Gene from returning.
As I watched Louise and Gene navigate the tricky dynamic of when to help someone else, and when not to, I found my smile return, my laughter trickle out, my mind completely empty of the ordeal. What’s so fascinating looking back on that episode is that the main storyline is all about what misguided loyalty looks like, and how to respect boundaries when they are set by siblings. By siblings! The very thing I was dealing with, when put on TV, eased my mind, gave me a brief freedom.
For the next several months I watched the entire show three times. That’s almost 200 episodes 3x over within five months. I couldn’t consume this story about a quirky family enough. I cannot express just how unusual this is for me. I had always gravitated towards stories about chosen family, having been much closer to chosen cousins, aunts and uncles than I ever was to my real cousins, aunts and uncles. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Parks and Rec, Avatar the Last Airbender, Never Let Me Go, Dr. Who, A Little Life; these were the stories I looked to for cathartic, emoting, or escaping. For the first time I needed a story about what family looks like when it is actually your blood relations.
Through all the rewatches, the binging, I came to realize that I felt like I didn’t have a family anymore. Of course I had my wife, and who could be closer than her? No one. But I didn’t have what she had. A mom who would talk to her for hours; a dad that would make his own cards, and listen to her when she spoke; and a brother who would actually talk to her.
The Belchers showed me what love can look like between people who are actually related. Is it perfect? No. Should it be the role model for families? No fictional story should be. But it gave me such comfort to see Bob and Linda listen and support their children. It made me cry to see Louise, Gene, and Tina support each other.
I remembered getting home from work before my wife, sitting on our couch, and pulling up my phone to watch one of my favorite episodes. In the episode Gene finds a stolen luxury toilet in the woods. After failing one of those take-care-of-this-flour-sack-like-it’s-a-baby projects, Gene proves himself a good caretaker of this talking toilet, and becomes desperate to save it when it’s battery starts to die. I couldn’t stop myself from bawling as Louise and Tina enlist the help of their friends to save this toilet from powering down and being re-stolen by “Max Flush,” criminal extraordinaire.
The love they showed one another was so touching. Was I the one who had been bad by not supporting my sister? Could I be more like the Belchers? That was silly. None of the Belcher children would ever speak the way my sister spoke to me. But I could be more supportive. I could speak up. I could fight for what I saw.
Yet I was scared. Scared to stir to the waters. Scared to act in any way and feel the whip of my sister’s reaction.
I gathered up all my courage and I said something.
It only got worse - and then worse, and then even worse-er.
Through it all I kept watching Bob’s Burgers, desperate to have any semblance of a loving family dynamic in front of me. Desperate to lift myself out of this harrowing depression. Desperate not to affect those around me too much. My chosen family, those who I loved and surrounded me, lifted and supported me. But I needed this one fix, this sign that relatives can be loving too, that family can work.
I couldn’t understand why this need had become so important to me. I’d never in my life been concerned about holding onto a sense of blood relation family. I’d seen chosen family work so well. But of course, it finally dawned on me. My wife and I were nearing a point in our life where we thought, “Hey, this could be a good time to start trying for a child.”
My sister's demands, actions, and health had sprung up inside me a great fear inside me. What if I couldn’t create a safe environment and future for my children? What if they had to face the fear I did with my own family? What if they had to meet my sister, and her husband? Could I let that happen, or was I too frightened that they might try and hurt my children? Why did a world exist where this was my family experience?
This became an unending thought, like a song stuck on repeat. I could be watching basketball, doing the dishes, playing board games, teaching online - it didn’t matter - all I could think about was my own potential failures with hypothetical children.
And yet, once more, Bob’s Burgers could give me relief. A relief to keep me calm and think clearly for a while. It would only take half an episode. I could stop midway through Bob negotiating a bank robbery, or trying to save Teddy’s Thanksgiving. I could see Tina wheel around the school robot, or Linda try to talk Gale out of more stupidity. It didn’t matter, just witnessing family talk, argue, and try to help each other was enough to make me feel hopeful.
As nightmares popped up, and my feelings of isolation and bleakness only deepened, I found myself physically uncomfortable. It was hard to move, it was hard to want to move. I couldn’t exercise, write, I felt like I was failing my students. I was gaining weight like crazy. In moments of solitude I was crying more than I ever had, not wishing to burden anyone.
One night, some couple months after a dangerous family encounter, I woke up from a nightmare. I could still see the kitchen knife my sister held, stabbing me over and over again. I went out to the kitchen and sat at the counter for fifteen minutes or so, sipping on a tall glass of water.
I watched a little Bob’s Burgers, the episode where Mr. Fishoeder introduces his brother Felix to the Belchers for the first time. I laughed at the ridiculousness of those two wealthy brothers, and then went back to bed and slept.
I had a detailed dream that I wrote my own Bob’s Burgers episode. In the episode Louise is gripped by a new prank battle, and ends up humiliating Tina in front of Tina’s crush, Jimmy Jr. The two begin feuding and Gene is caught in the middle.
At the same time Mr. Fishoeder and Felix are arguing because Mr. Fishoeder won’t admit he has one of their mother’s old taxidermied monkeys. Felix won’t let it go because that monkey used to be his best friend growing up, but Mr. Fishoeder doesn’t want to admit it because he broke off the monkey’s tail and is embarrassed. But Teddy knows Mr. Fishoeder and tells Bob and Linda who intervene - Bob begrudgingly - to try and help the brothers through this mess.
Gene sees his parents mediating this sibling spat and realizes he should do the same, attempting to bring his sisters back together. Tina gets on board but it takes a special conversation between Louise and Mr. Fishoeder to get Louise to realize she’s in the wrong and should apologize, that being a sibling is about loving all aspects of your siblings, not just the ones you like. It’s the whole person or nothing at all, and at the end of the day that’s what families do. Love and support.
Since that dream I’ve no longer experienced the sense of depression I had then. I no longer rely on Bob’s Burgers the way I used to - though I still watch lots of it - and I’ve come to a comfortable spot with my mentality with my sister. I have my boundaries and I can enforce them where I need to. Cause if she wants to love me she needs to support all of me, not demand from me.
And while things aren’t patched up, and haven’t gone back to what they used to - and probably never will - I have found solace in where we are. I am content and full of love, albeit from a distance. And I no longer have a need for such extreme escapism. I feel confident and free.
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