When SpongeBob SquarePants creator Stephen Hillenburg passed away last Tuesday, I found myself thinking a lot about the impact of his show on pop culture and the hard and funny lessons it taught me, particularly about my depression. How I came to comprehend it in the first place was through Hillenburg’s creation of Squidward Q. Tentacles.
For better or for worse (but mostly for better), I’ve related closely to Sir Tentacles in recent years because of how he’s helped me understand depression in general, how it operates in my life, and how to deal with it. I could probably trace its origins back a little further — abusive families will do that — but I wasn’t officially diagnosed with depression and PTSD until after I suffered a debilitating ACL injury between my sophomore and junior year of college. In the aftermath, I sometimes wouldn’t eat or bathe for days. I occasionally ate too much. I went from sleeping normally to either sleeping all day or being up all night. I became even more jumpy and anxious than my upbringing had taught me to be. I lost interest in a lot of the things I loved — including writing. And I found that I completely avoided the soccer field where the injury had taken place.
From that point, there were many things I did to cope. Binge-watching SpongeBob Squarepants was one of them, usually with pizza rolls and alcohol. (For some people, emotional eating and drinking aren’t too far behind depression.) I did attempt to give myself a fair and healthy shake at dealing head-on with my struggles through therapy — which worked for the three seconds I could actually afford to pay for therapy.
Though I had spent my early childhood roasting Squidward for his “nasty” attitude, I saw myself very clearly — and rather uncomfortably — in him this time around. For myself and other Black millennials I knew, who were far more likely to dismiss the importance of mental health, it was perhaps the wake-up call we needed.
Squidward exhibited many of the symptoms and hallmarks of major clinical depression. At the Krusty Krab, he was always tired and regularly regretted getting out of bed and going to work. He was apathetic about his own existence, and the existence of others. When pushed to his emotional limits by SpongeBob, he often experienced bursts of anger — either from irritability or frustration. He was disinterested in performing happiness and joy publicly in ways that made those around him more comfortable — particularly in the workplace — but recognized that his “nasty” attitude had to be contained somewhat because… capitalism. And he was extremely discontent with and resentful about the mundane turn his life had taken: getting up to go to work, being miserable at work, coming home, sleeping, and maybe finding a sliver of joy in between from playing his clarinet.
In “Band Geeks,” one of the series’ most beloved episodes, Squidward’s despair comes to a head. His high school nemesis Squilliam Fancyson pops up to deride his lack of of professional and personal success, goading him into accepting an offer to the Bubble Bowl halftime show with his nonexistent band.
While it remains one of the few moments in the series where Squidward “wins” (as SpongeBob rallies the denizens of Bikini Bottom together for the performance), the envy, regret, and frustration he experiences during this episode is 100 percent relatable. I mean, technically, Squidward is doing decently enough. He’s employed and maintains a roof over his head. But he’s also stuck in what many of us would consider a dead-end job, is likely paid minimum wage by Mr. Krabs, who is extremely cheap (just like a Baby Boomer!), and at this point, has come nowhere close to realizing any of his dreams (the very same that he’s shown to have buried in “One Krab’s Trash”). When Squilliam comes to town and flaunts his own success, Squidward is forced to confront everything he’s given up on.
Let me tell you: As a millennial of color who lives in constant existential dread just at the idea of having to maybe show up at my high school reunion, I feel this. A lot. Dread about being that nobody at the reunion. Dread about financial insecurity. Dread about uncertain futures. Dread about barely making enough (or even minimum wage) to cover the necessities like housing and healthcare that should be guaranteed. That’s not even getting into the hefty school loan debt that our generation collectively faces, the ugly gap in how this dread is distributed when we break down race or gender, and so many other things.
Overeducated. Underpaid. Underappreciated. Undermined.
It’s all dreadful, truly. So why wouldn’t millennials like myself relate to Squidward?
But even so, it’s not all gloom and doom with him. Like many folx who may be living with depression or some other mental health issue (and are perhaps undiagnosed), he can still display the full range of his humanity (and the human experience). Case in point, though he despises work, and by extension SpongeBob, when the latter is mistreated at the hands of a customer in “Pizza Delivery,” Squidward is incensed, empathizes, and fiercely steps in to defend him. In “Band Geeks,” when he proves Squilliam wrong, we see him experiencing pure and unadulterated joy. And while he can be read as battling a mental health issue, he deals with it mostly through his dry, caustic, and bitingly sarcastic wit. The scope of his character ensured that I could identify with him, that myself and other folx who live with mental health issues could see that we are normal, everyday people who aren’t just “sad” all the time. That our existences are nuanced, as are our struggles, and how we cope with them.
Such nuance includes the observation that, as one person tweeted, some Black families have at least one family member that we just don’t talk about because most of the family has written them off as “crazy.” Such nuance comes with the understanding that while younger generations of Black people understand the impact that poor mental health can have, we’re mostly ill-equipped and ill-prepared to discuss or properly combat it. Instead, we’ve been told that the solution is merely to pray it away, that these are “White People diseases” that we’re dealing with, or that the suffering reflects poorly on us and our families. To alleviate the most biting symptoms of our mental health issues, we’re turning to less-than-ideal coping mechanisms, self-medication in various forms and, for myself, self-deprecating humor. Especially when we cannot afford therapy or are too ashamed to engage in it, even when we know we need it.
None of this is cut and dry, because people aren’t cut and dry. If this nuance doesn’t sum up the plight of millennials of color and our other unhealthy coping mechanisms, I don’t know what does. And perhaps Hillenburg was writing with us in mind all along.
Whatever the case, Squidward, at the hands of Hillenburg, joins a long line of fictional characters in our cultural lexicon who can be interpreted as living with mental health issues, but still live the fullest ranges of their truths on our TV screens. Characters like Eeyore. Or Oscar the Grouch. Sailor Saturn. Dr. Cox. Bojack Horseman. They’re all vibrant and often painful reminders that we aren’t alone.
Squidward is a testament to Hillenburg’s commitment to truthful, humorous, and touching storytelling. And our culture is so much poorer with his passing.
If you or someone you know are struggling with emotional health issues, help is available. Head to halfofus.com for more resources.