defining “trainwreck”


Amy Schumer’s new movie, Trainwreck, is not about mental illness.  It’s not about mental health, and does not aspire to provide any particular social commentary. It is an honest love story, one where we see our protagonists, played by comedic geniuses, at their most attractive, as well as at their “worst.”

Part me of me hopes that Amy Schumer never reads this. She would probably make fun of me for finding so much significance in her fairly light-hearted movie. But most of me really hopes she does. (She is Amy Schumer, after all).

The movie follows the young Amy Townsend, played by Schumer, who regularly smokes marijuana and maintains significant stocks of alcohol. She sleeps with a good amount of men, and never sees any of them for too long. She’s doing well at work, but not quite “incredibly.” She probably only filters, or thinks through, about half of the words that leave her mouth.

Yet she describes her life simply, and happily: “I’m just a modern chick, who does what she wants… Before you judge, you should know, I’m doing fine. My friends are awesome, my apartment’s sick, and I have a great job.”

This sentiment reflects the way a lot of us measure our lives. The success of our relationships, living spaces, and professional goals are pretty common metrics.

I identify a lot with Amy Schumer’s character, in ways both trivial and Important. She’s a blonde Jewish girl living in New York, trying to find her way as a writer. But she also has deeply rooted anxieties and fears, especially regarding relationships, and has a lot of trouble approaching her familial relationships. This especially manifests in the ways she speaks about her married younger sister and late mother, following the decline and eventual death of her proudly single father.

Schumer’s concerns do not arise out of thin air. Her “crazy” has a rational basis.

Watching Trainwreck closely, however, reveals a more nuanced question of how we use these standards to measure our emotional wellbeing. After all, the film’s very opening challenges us. We are presented with a successful, sex-positive, independent, urban woman: the feminist ideal.  But she says mean things to her family members, and disrespects those in her work environment. She’s certainly not at an unhealthy weight, but repeatedly will comment that she’s not exactly “in-shape.”

We’re just not sure how we’re supposed to think about her.

And the movie doesn’t give us a simple answer. The characters that surround Amy, aggregated, don’t know how to feel, either.

Amy is incredibly satisfied with her life. Yet her sister disapproves with her drinking and sexual promiscuity; her father is sort of proud, but also distant. Her boss thinks she’s a pretty talented writer, but wants her to aspire for more. Her boyfriend, played by Bill Hader, goes back and forth.

This movie made be think about the metrics of what it means to be doing badly, to be trainwreck. What is does it mean to not be okay?

I also wondered about who has the authority to think about these questions. Is this simply friends and family? Can we rely solely on ourselves? After all, we can’t even consider questions of healing or reevaluation, unless we believe we have a problem first.

At many times in my life, I’ve identified as a “mess,” my personal word for trainwreck. Often, this will align with personal mental health concerns. Rarely, my “being a mess” correlates to any particular measurement of failure, outside my own mind.

Usually, when I’m feeling the most sick, I’m doing great in school. I’m probably overachieving, and I’m paying an absurd amount of attention to the most minute of my friends’ concern (which can manifest as paranoia). When I’m feeling the most sick, I have a fantastic social life. These all stem from a fear of being alone in my head, and being forced to confront the bad thoughts that might invade it.

Still, on paper, I’m doing a lot better than fine. If you wanted to keep track of my mental health, the normal story of “falling apart, doing badly in school and struggling to communicate,” don’t really apply. And that’s not just true for me. I’ve found with many of my peers, their metrics for emotional health, for doing fine, and for doing great, are not the stereotypes that we’re often provided. This is especially true for people who know how to keep mental or emotional health struggles on the inside. (I guess, besides starting this site, I’m pretty good at that?)

These are the stereotypes considered by Schumer.

In Trainwreck, Amy is ultimately  “doing badly” for reasons other than our traditional notions of what it means to be a mess when you’re a 20-something year old woman trying to find your way. No, she discovers she is doing badly because she hasn’t learned to listen, or respect, those close to her.

Appreciating her friends, boyfriend, and family, and being a bit more emotionally receptive, is the reform that concludes the movie (albeit with a really cute final dance scene, that I hope becomes as iconic as the ending monologue of When Harry Met Sally).

It is never just about smoking, drinking, or sex. Trainwreck is funny, but more importantly, it’s honest. People can’t be measured or analyzed so easily. We have different ways and metrics for falling apart, and can disagree on what that means.


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