Grey's Anatomy: the TV show that has always been there for me
here’s a song that I listen to every time I begin to feel the tendrils of sadness take a grip. For nearly 15 years, this song – Grace, by the Norwegian singer Kate Havnevik – has soundtracked every desperate and devastating moment in my life. It’s a little self-indulgent gift I give myself when I need to be enveloped by despair.
However, if I’m honest, I don’t listen to this song because of its lyrics, although they are melancholic, nor because it’s particularly emotional, although it is. I listen to it because of how it made me feel the first time I heard it, which was during the season-two finale of Grey’s Anatomy. After nearly 27 episodes of will-they-won’t-they, the show’s two romantic leads, Dr Meredith Grey and Dr Derek Shepherd, slope off together for an illicit sexual tryst in an exam room. It’s a moment of reckoning for both characters, imbued with lust and sorrow, and I must have seen it more than 10 times.
My emotional reliance on that song reminds me just how inextricably linked my life has become to Grey’s Anatomy. First airing in 2005, the show is now the longest-running medical drama in US television history. Now on its 17th season, it follows the lives of the surgical staff at a fictional Seattle hospital. The first hit series for the inimitable television mogul Shonda Rhimes, the show is renowned for subjecting its characters to catastrophic events, untenable amounts of trauma, horrifying deaths and accidents – and unbearable torrents of heartbreak. Such antics have helped turn it into a multibillion-dollar franchise and, 16 years since it began, it’s still the highest-rated drama for its home network, the Disney-owned ABC.
It’s also one of the most important things in my life. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that I begin a re-watch of Grey’s Anatomy every year, either consuming the show from the beginning or working through my favourite episodes as if I’m choosing from a pick ’n’ mix of pain and suffering. No other TV show leaves me as distraught; watching Grey’s Anatomy is often so painful for me that it verges on unpleasant. Yet, time and time again, I keep going back. Why? Because, despite all the suffering and the subsequent excitation-transfer I experience as a result, Grey’s Anatomy has also provided me with comfort and space for self-exploration at the times when I’ve needed it most.
I watched my first episode of Grey’s Anatomy when I was 16. It was autumn, two years after my dad moved out and a year after my best friend died of cancer at 15 after a cruel and intense illness. Grief wasn’t so much a feeling as the backbone of my existence; an ache that sat within my chest constantly threatening to crack me in two. When I was hungover on the weekends after Friday and Saturday nights spent in various parks necking bottles of cider, I would watch the show on an old desktop monitor, sitting in an office chair in my pyjamas.
The world of Seattle Grace hospital, the complex lives of the surgical interns and their often-unusual life-or-death medical cases drew me in, but it was the character of Meredith Grey, played by Ellen Pompeo, whom I latched on to. Meredith was complicated, her love life a disaster and her family life even more so. Having been abandoned by her father when she was young, she was dealing with her cold and ambitious mother, who had early-onset Alzheimer’s. The man she was in love with, Dr Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd, played by Patrick Dempsey, had revealed that he was married and that, after his ex-wife’s sudden appearance in Seattle, he would be trying to give his marriage another shot. The only good thing in her life was her friendship with her fellow surgical intern, the competitive, difficult and driven Cristina Yang, played by Sandra Oh.
Dark and twisty as she was, Meredith’s sadness wasn’t obvious; it wasn’t the sort of mental distress that left you unable to get out of bed, but instead the type that led you to disastrous decisions and precarious situations, such as, for example, finding your hand holding an unexploded bomb in a body cavity, as she does in one amazing two-parter, or sleeping with your friend, only to start crying halfway through. My life was not so dramatic, but it felt just as delicate and proximate to explosion. My grief had left me impulsive and volatile, desperately grabbing at any means of escapism, be it encounters with older men, drinking or succumbing to an all-consuming rage.
What I was desperately looking for was some acknowledgment of how my life felt unmanageable and some understanding that my actions weren’t the behaviours of a “troubled teen”, but someone in pain. The methods with which Meredith handled her own losses, be they personal or the deaths of her patients, provided that. Her life was messy, but the messiness was always presented without judgment. That helped.
The first re-watch I did with my mother. She would always fall asleep during episodes, but it was something we did together after my parents separated. The second was with friends while I was in New York the summer I left school and the third during university. I remember watching the season six finale, a mass shooting at the hospital, and waking up a friend in my halls of residence at 7am only to sob uncontrollably in her room.
I was persistently unhappy at university, my life a whirlpool of residual grief, an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, loneliness, undiagnosed depression and traumatising sexual encounters with straight men. It was then that I began to regularly dip into the DVD box sets, selecting the most devastating moments to watch whenever my mental health felt unmanageable. I may have been sad, but at least I wasn’t impaled on a metal pipe, left for dead after a plane crash or being hit by a bus (RIP, George). The formulaic and conclusive nature of TV also gave me hope that, like the torment inflicted on the characters, my own pain would be finite: through either death or the passing of time, everything ends eventually.
There’s an arc in season four when Meredith, unable to keep hold of her relationship with Derek, haunted by her abandonment issues and teetering on the edge of desolation after a number of avoidable near-death experiences, visits a therapist. “You’re careless with your life,” she says to Meredith. “You’re not slitting your wrists, but you’re careless … And if you don’t watch out, one of these days you’re going to die because of it.”It’s complicated …Patrick Dempsey and Ellen Pompeo. Photograph: AF archive/Alamy
I was re-watching Grey’s Anatomy after an attempt to kill myself and I was struck by these lines, realisation dripping down my spine like cold water. I’ve never really considered myself suicidal, although I’ve acted upon suicidal impulses. It’s more that I’m not always tethered to the idea of staying alive. Since my early teens, I’ve partaken in risky and dangerous behaviours, ambivalent to my own continued existence. I flit constantly with thoughts of my own oblivion, their intrusion never quite overwhelming, but always persistent. In a piece for the Outline, the writer Anna Borges compares this passive suicidal ideation with living in an ocean. “And when you live in the ocean,” she writes, “treading to stay afloat, you eventually get the feeling that one day, inevitably, there will be nowhere for you to go but down.”
Watching this episode of Grey’s Anatomy, one that I had probably seen half a dozen times, woke me up to myself. How I had previously avoided such an icy wave of recognition seems incredible to me now. All these years later, Meredith and I are still trying to figure out how to continue living when you go through life like this.
I’ve always prioritised friendships over romantic relationships. So when, after 10 seasons, Sandra Oh left Grey’s Anatomy, I was devastated. The friendship between Meredith and Cristina was, and in my opinion still is, the show’s defining romance. I even debated ending my own relationship with Grey’s Anatomy; after nearly a decade, maybe it was time.
Of course, I didn’t quit, and on subsequent revisits to Cristina’s departure and the seasons that preceded it, I’ve come to see her leaving as an integral aspect of Meredith’s narrative. This has been evinced in the seven seasons that have followed it, but also through my own understanding of what it means when friendship ends. The loss of a friend, whether through distance or disharmony, leaves a specific type of scar, one that continues to itch and niggle for the rest of your life. But the experience can also embolden you and help you see yourself better as a result. Throughout my 20s, I collected too many of these scars. Some of them still keep me up at night, but they all act as a reminder of who I have become.
Since Cristina left, Meredith has blossomed, becoming the sort of surgeon and parent she thought she could never be. Sometimes, when I think about the friendships I’ve lost, I feel like perhaps I’ve blossomed, too.
A study by Cristel Antonia Russell and Sidney J Levy published in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that people like to consume content that they’ve watched before because it allows for a sense of control, affirmation of experience and emotional regulation against what they call “existential insecurity”. This makes a lot of sense when I consider my relationship to Grey’s Anatomy: even with its heart-wrenching emotional punch, it provides me with consistency even when things feel so wildly unstable.
It also makes me think of a line uttered by Mephistopheles in Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus: “It is a comfort to the wretched to have companions in misery.” The discourse surrounding mental health today would suggest that indulging in such sadness is the antithesis of self-care and so-called wellbeing. But as sadistic as it sounds, I find solace in the characters of Grey’s Anatomy and their persistent, dramatic unhappiness. Sitting with their sorrow and the feelings of melancholy they elicit in myself is, at times, cathartic, even if some argue that such self-flagellation is self-indulgent.
But they don’t need to get it. With its latest season – which has already aired in the US – Grey’s Anatomy has been tackling Covid. It has been doing it well and at times it has made for deeply upsetting viewing. There are even rumours circulating that this could be its final season, although I’m sceptical; as long as people like me enjoy being emotionally tormented by the writers, it will continue. Either way, I’ve just started another re-watch – the third lockdown in the UK has chipped away at my reserves and I’m struggling. I need something that will make me feel like things could be normal again, even if that normal involves the horrors of a fictional hospital in Seattle. As Meredith’s mother would say: “The carousel never stops turning.”
Season 17 of Grey’s Anatomy begins on Sky Witness in the UK on 17 April. The first 15 seasons are available on Disney+
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or by emailing email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit samaritans.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255 or chat for support. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis text line counsellor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org