WHY EVERYONE SHOULD BE WATCHING ‘TOTAL BELLAS’

This is a repost from Jordanchaffiotte.com, 2016

You should be watching E’s Total Bellas. That’s a sentence I never thought I’d say with any sort of sincerity. I don’t just mean you should watch Total Bellas because it’s really entertaining, though it is, or because the Bellas are the best part of Total Divas. You should be watching Total Bellas because it’s brave enough to talk about Bryan Danielson’s battle with anxiety and depression.

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Right before filming for Total Bellas began, it was revealed that Daniel Bryan was forced to retire. The story is well known at this point, but for non-wrestling fans, here are the basics: Bryan was concussed and throughout months of brain scans, memory tests, etc. there were disagreements between Bryan and the WWE on whether he was fit to come back to the ring. He agreed to see a 3rd party doctor, and that advance scan showed a small, but significant enough progression to convince him it was time to hang up his boots. Bryan admits that he’s had a history of post-concussion seizures, and with hopes of starting a family soon, he had to make the right call for his health. He retired on Monday Night Raw, and I think most wrestling fans could tell you exactly how it felt to be watching him as he told his hometown crowd, “I am grateful.”

 

Bryan went home, he did a press circuit, and later in the summer was brought on as the General Manager of SmackDown. What Total Bellas shows us, however, is all that he went through in between those points and that it wasn’t a smooth transition into his new life. In the first part of the season, Bri is still on the road as a full-time wrestler which leaves Bryan home with her family. She talks about how every week she comes home and can tell his depression is worse and worse. It’s a particularly hard situation because he doesn’t wake up every morning and feel the pain of his injury, which can make it feel like it’s not real. But it is real, and Bryan has spoken about how he has to think about his family and think about the future.

Candidly, Bryan explains how when you lose something you love like this, it really is just like losing someone in your life. Grieving it is normal and for someone with a history of depression, it’s bound to be a difficult path. He’s put his entire adult life into this one thing, and now it’s gone. That leaves him with a sense of emptiness that just about everyone, whether they’ve suffered from depression themselves or not, can relate to. We see him feeling directionless, unable to even think about a replacement career yet. The episode before revolves largely around their sex life in the typical reality TV way. With the larger picture, however, now I look at that episode completely differently, showing a couple who might be having trouble connecting during a hard time in their marriage. Bri talks about how usually his depression hits hard for a couple days and then is fine. This time, though, he seems to be drowning in it.

Bryan and Bri, despite being on Total Divas for 6 seasons, have actually managed to maintain a level of privacy. No one knew about Bryan’s post-concussion seizures, and Total Divas has never touched on his depression. So it’s not just refreshing, it’s important, that Bryan and his family- less we forget that Brie and Nikki Bella are executive producing it the show- are coming forward on national television and telling his story. It’s a hopeful one too, as we have the dramatic irony that has made Total Divas so entertaining for me in the first place. Fans, at least wrestling fans, know exactly what happens in the next few month. We know Bryan is given an on-screen role as a general manager, but at the point of filming, he’s directionless. The feeling that he will never love anything the way he loved wrestling is a really relatable story to anyone who’s ever had to give up something they love. Watching this play out there’s a feeling of hope that no matter what you’ve lost, it’s temporary.

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Total Bellas is not a gold standard for anything anywhere. Bri says plenty of things about his depression that are ill-informed, and she clearly has difficulty understanding why he’s reluctant to seek therapy. But in a way, that allows us to see the realities of living with mental illness. Sometimes he just can’t put the way he’s feeling into words that she’ll understand. That’s painful in its own way.We also see Bri’s side and for someone who usually seems fairly unrelatable, this storyline gets her to connect. All she wants is to make it go away for him. At the end of the episode, we see her grappling with her options, asking if she should give up her own retirement match to come back home with him. Even though she’s not perfect, I feel for her. Mental illness is complicated, and Total Bellas doesn’t shy away from that. By putting that out there, on E Network of all places, they’re opening a lot of doors to talk about it in all its complexity.We know how harmful the stigma behind mental illness can be, and if this ridiculous reality show chips away at it even just the smallest bit, that is beyond worthwhile.

I remember very clearly the WrestleMania 30 stretcher job. It was my first WrestleMania and I didn’t even know a stretcher job, (someone pretending to get hurt so that they can jump off the stretcher and continue the match in a resounding victorious moment) was a thing.That year, Daniel Bryan, who had pushed his way into competing for the highest championship in the company in the first place, pushed past officials, tore off his neck brace, and went on with the match to become a world champion. Hundreds of thousands of people did his signature “YES” chant as he celebrated that he had achieved his wildest dream. For months after his injury, we kept waiting for Bryan to jump off of that stretcher. We kept holding on to the idea that he would overcome this, as he overcame so many obstacles before. But that’s not how the body works, a big heart and an undeniable passion can’t fix brain trauma. And as Total Bellas seems committed to showing, his big heart and undeniable passion can’t simply solve his struggle with anxiety and depression. That’s just not how this works.

Total Bellas airs Wednesday nights on E at 8pm, and last week’s episode, “Who’s the Boss” is definitely worth a watch.