How Good Omens Changed My Life, Cured My Depression, and Fixed My Posture
This is a thank-you note to the creators of the Good Omens series. I admit it is rather a long note, and I hope I’ll be forgiven for that. But I hope that, like the cold open in episode 3, it is only as long as it needs to be.
Good Omens isn’t just brilliant entertainment. It has changed lives. Many of the fan messages that I see Neil Gaiman answer on social media are heartfelt and emotional expressions of gratitude. People say it helped them understand themselves, their gender, their sexuality, their identity, and made them feel comfortable and safe being who they are, often for the first time in their lives.
I’m one of those people. And I can’t help but wonder, if Good Omens had been around when I was young, how differently might my life have gone?
Born in the US in the mid-80s, I had an unhappy childhood. I was autistic during a time when little girls who could speak and did well in school were not diagnosed with autism, so I never had any explanation for why I was so different. The other people in my life always seemed to be angry with me, though no one would ever explain why. According to them, I “knew very well” what I had done wrong. On top of that, I wasn’t very good at being a little girl, something my family, schoolmates, teachers, and even total strangers found offensive. By an early age, I had learned three key lessons:
1. I was Bad.
2. I was Wrong.
3. I was Not Allowed.
There were certain things little girls were expected to do which I didn’t want to do, and didn’t understand the unspoken social pressures to do, so I didn’t do them. I didn’t play with dolls or have tea parties or play dress-up. I didn’t dream of the day I’d be allowed to shave my legs and wear make-up. I thought princesses were stupid.
The list of things little girls were not allowed to do was far longer, and I treated it like a child’s bucket list. I played outside with bugs in the dirt. I made friends exclusively with boys. I played video games and baseball (NOT softball, ugh) and tried (and failed) to learn to skateboard. I sat with my legs apart. I asked to buy my clothes from the boys’ department, but I was always told No.
I was very unladylike.
I heard that word a lot as a child. It was my biggest crime. My mother and grandmother would often grumble about my inappropriate conduct. They tried to be strict with me, and scolded me ferociously when I inevitably failed to even realize I had done something wrong. My mother would put my hair up in braids and ponytails and fume when I pulled them out at the first opportunity. My grandmother was certain that the problem was that I was always hanging around with boys. (I’m afraid she rather confused cause and effect there.)
On more than one occasion I was told off for “walking like a boy”. I’d had no idea that boys and girls were supposed to walk differently. I was just walking. I couldn’t understand what my being a girl had to do with anything at all. I wished I was a boy. Boys always got to do the fun things, wear the nice clothes, and no one ever told them they’d be so much prettier if they smiled. It was so unfair.
I read Good Omens sometime in the mid-2000s. I liked it. I didn’t fall in love with it the way many people did (my read-it-so-many-times-it’s-falling-apart book is Neverwhere). But I enjoyed everything Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett wrote, and the book was a wonderful combination of both their talents and styles. When I saw Neil promoting the upcoming video series on his Tumblr, I thought it sounded neat. I read the book again to refresh my memory for when the show came out.
Leading up to the release, Neil commented on the nature of Aziraphale and Crowley’s relationship. For the series, he said, he’d written them as a love story. I found that interesting. Before then I’d had no idea anyone saw the angel and demon as anything other than friends, though I definitely liked the idea.
When I finally got around to watching it, I was very impressed. It was delightful. It was surprisingly true to the book, with a lot of fun extra bits thrown in. Nothing critical, in my opinion, had been left out. The new ending was inspired. I was grinning from start to finish. It was just about perfect.
There was something special about the show, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Watching it made me happy. It made me feel comfortable. I just wasn’t sure why. I would have to watch it again to see if I couldn’t figure it out.
I’d like to say that as I got older, I fought back against the idea of gender roles, insisted on being myself regardless of what anyone else thought, and became a rebellious young person out to change the world. I didn’t. Autistic people tend to take rules very seriously, and I wasn’t allowed to be rebellious.
The sense that I was Bad and Wrong and Not Allowed grew stronger all the time. Social relationships were getting more complex and harder for me to follow. Puberty didn’t help. I became an outcast, lonely, miserable, and perpetually confused.
During this time I started getting scolded for having poor posture. I needed to Stand Up Straight. I didn’t really understand how. I was just standing. That was how my body stood.
At my high school there was a Gay-Straight Alliance club. (Society’s understanding of sexuality and gender was a lot simpler — and less accurate — in those days.) The gay teenagers in the club told me I was surely one of them. After all, I wasn’t feminine, and there was only one possible explanation for that: I was a lesbian.
I gave it a shot. I wasn’t very good at it. Things never worked out the way I expected. I knew something was wrong, I just couldn’t figure out what. I started seeing the school therapist for depression. I insisted there was something wrong with me and begged her to tell me what it was. She told me I was “just very intelligent, and sometimes intelligent people are a bit odd.” She assured me I’d find my way before too long.
She was wrong.
I watched Good Omens again. Then again. Then a few more times. I liked it better and better. I kept noticing little details in the background, easter eggs and references. I supposed I could imagine Crowley and Aziraphale having romantic feelings for each other, but it wasn’t overt. It didn’t jump out at me. I felt like I was still missing something. After all, there were surely a lot of subtle signals and undertones I wasn’t picking up on. So I did what any sensible modern autistic adult does when they get lost in nonverbal communication: I looked on the internet.
A lot of people had been analyzing this show since it came out, and they’d put in a lot of effort to explain their conclusions to the world. Most of them were about the Crowley-Aziraphale relationship, listing in minute detail all the signs that they were in love. Some incredibly helpful people had even collected images of the characters giving each other longing looks or sweet smiles that my brain had completely failed to register. Having it all so carefully framed made it possible for me to see it. How could I have missed all that? Suddenly it was so obvious.
But one thing kept bothering me. Many of these posts referred to the angel-demon duo as “gay”. But how could they be gay? The one thing that had been crystal clear to me from the start was that angels and demons are “sexless unless they really want to make an effort”. I supposed I would have to respect people’s headcanons, but something about that got under my skin. It bothered me that people thought Crowley and Aziraphale needed to be gendered. I was quite pleased to let them just be people, without any of that messy business about masculinity and femininity and… genitals and all that.
I was onto something there.
Once I was in college, there was no one around to tell me how to look. I cut my hair short and started wearing men’s clothes. I was frequently mistaken for a boy in the women’s bathrooms, which upset me. Why did I have to look a certain way to count as female? Why couldn’t people just believe me when I told them I was?
I took a Sex and Gender sociology course and learned the word “transgender”. We even had a trans woman author come and speak at the school. For a brief time, I got excited — could I be trans? I gave it a lot of thought, but… no. As much as I’d always wished to be a boy, I wasn’t actually one. I didn’t even like it when people mistook me for a boy. Alas, I was stuck being female. I just wished I could be female while still being allowed to be myself.
I joined my university’s LGBT club (we’d made a lot of progress with the labels since high school) which consisted of me, two gay boys, and a bisexual girl. The meetings were mostly the other three gossiping about which other students might be gay, and me trying very, very hard to feel comfortable and fit in. And failing.
At one meeting we had a silly conversation about what animals our friends most resembled. I asked them their opinion on me, hoping for something cute and soft. In perfect unison, as though they’d rehearsed it, the other three all immediately said “turtle”. I hadn’t been expecting that. They took a photo of me and showed me just how hunched over I was. It was like I was trying to retreat into a non-existent shell. I was horrified. I tried to fix it, but it didn’t work. It was like pushing against a vice. I chalked it up to scoliosis and kept on slouching.
At some point during this period I discovered Eddie Izzard. I was amazed to see this man in women’s clothing on a stage making hilarious, intelligent jokes in front of a whole crowd of people, and I thought that I’d finally found my answer. I rushed into the next club meeting and excitedly announced that I was a transvestite.
No, they replied. I most certainly was not.
In fact, all three of them seemed angry at me for even suggesting it. I couldn’t understand. I was a girl, but I only felt comfortable when I wore boys’ clothes. That was transvestite, wasn’t it?
As it turned out, that wasn’t it at all, because I was a girl. Girls, they explained to me in scornful tones, can’t be transvestites, because it’s not socially unacceptable for girls to wear jeans and t-shirts. But it was socially unacceptable for men to wear dresses and make-up, so only they could be transvestites. If I wanted to look the way I did, I could be a butch lesbian. Otherwise I’d better learn to look a bit more feminine — unless, of course, I wanted to die alone and unloved.
I was shattered by this, especially coming from the one group of people who I’d thought were supposed to accept me. I told them that I wasn’t butch at all. And I didn’t really think I was a lesbian either. I tried to explain that in fact I had found it quite socially unacceptable for me to dress and look the way I did, but they were having none of it. They made it clear that I’d committed a grave insult to all the actual transvestites in the world and made everyone in the group very uncomfortable. I was wracked with guilt. I left the club not long after.
I was Bad.
I was Wrong.
And I was Not Allowed.
My depression gradually got worse. Now and then the word “suicide” crossed my mind, but I was too afraid of death to even really consider it. I felt like a coward.
Crowley and Aziraphale’s relationship finally having been explained to me, I watched the series a few more times, and the experience was much more rewarding. I was finally able to recognize all the sweet gestures they made to each other. The story as a whole acquired a far greater depth. I loved Crowley the most. Something about him just spoke to me in a way I couldn’t explain. The show was amazing and it made me happy to watch. But it hadn’t changed my life quite yet.
It was actually Neil himself who finally did it. He shared a post someone had made praising the show’s treatment of gender, respect for gender non-conformity, and dismissal of the gender binary as a whole. It pointed out the non-binary they/them Pollution who is treated with respect and Beelzebub’s androgynous style. It included the phrase “Crowley’s pure, unfiltered non-binary/gender-fluid energy”.
That was the one that did it for me. Well, that and the alluring image of him staring down his terrified houseplants.
Neil had responded to this with gratitude and confirmation that yes, they had in fact put in effort to tear down the gender binary in this series, and he’d been worried that people might not understand that. Crowley as the nanny wasn’t a man in a dress, it was a demon presenting as female for a while (and not even for the only time in the series). He shared how liberating it was to have both male and female actors auditioning for the same roles and just choosing the ones who fit best.
Crowley’s pure, unfiltered non-binary/gender-fluid energy.
Something inside of me clicked.
I moved to Europe in my twenties and immediately resolved never to go back. A coworker with a lot of experience with autism diagnosed me, and I finally had an explanation for why I was so different from everyone else. I started learning better social skills. I started making real friends for the first time.
I got a job. I found an apartment. I surrounded myself with hippie-types who thought my neurological differences were just swell and welcomed me with open arms.
But I didn’t really feel any less lost. I still didn’t fit. Now and then someone would demand to know what my “deal” was. Was I a lesbian? Was I bi? Straight? Trans? Why did I cut my hair short and dress in those ridiculously oversized male clothes if I was at all interested in men?
Desperate for affection and approval, I landed in several abusive relationships. I eventually escaped them. I felt lonelier and lonelier. I reached out to my friends for help. I was so tired of being alone. What did I have to do to find love?
My friends were only too happy to help. The answer was simple: I just had to learn to be more feminine.
(…echoes of my grandmother’s voice spitting the word “ladylike”…)
I was Bad. I was Wrong.
I really wanted to shop in the men’s department. That’s where the comfortable, attractive clothes were. But if I didn’t want to die alone and unloved, I had to learn to wear women’s clothes.
I was Not Allowed.
I grew my hair out. I bought the most loose-fitting women’s clothes I could find. I was scolded by my friends for wearing clothes that didn’t fit me “properly”. It wasn’t enough to pick out jeans and a t-shirt in the women’s department. I had to learn to be feminine.
I would look at myself in the mirror, wearing the most feminine clothing I could tolerate, my hair grown long. I looked wrong. I looked miserable. “This is who I am,” I told my reflection unconvincingly. “I’m a woman, and this is how women look.” People started to compliment my new style. I gave away my old men’s clothes. I reassured people that I would never cut my hair short again.
Around age 30 I heard the word “non-binary” for the first time. I saw a video which explained that non-binary people don’t consider themselves male or female, which meant that they were uncomfortable being called “she” or “he” and always used “they” pronouns.
Shucks. I had never been bothered by being called “she” or “her”. And I didn’t like to be called “they”. I was stuck being a woman after all.
I slowly tried to train myself to wear tighter clothes. It was difficult with my sensory issues. They rubbed painfully against my skin.
My depression continued to get worse. I gave antidepressant medication a shot but reacted badly to every type I tried.
I’d always been one of those ridiculously thin people that everyone hates because I’d just stuff myself constantly with whatever food I wanted and never gain any weight. I tried to explain to people that it was terrible, actually, always being so hungry, never feeling full, always feeling like my clothes were too big, and then having everyone hate me on top of it all. No one wanted to hear it. But as I entered my thirties, that metabolism finally began to slow down, though my appetite did not. Still constantly starving (and constantly eating), I rapidly gained weight. At first I was excited — finally, maybe I’d be able to wear the clothes I wanted. But to my horror, the weight didn’t come on evenly. My arms were as thin as they’d always been, but my thighs, hips, and breasts grew uncomfortably large. I had to buy an entirely new wardrobe. When I looked in the mirror, I saw to my horror that I looked unmistakably female.
The word “dysphoria” wandered through my head, but that couldn’t be it. I was a cis female and that was that. There weren’t any other options. My depression got progressively worse. Eventually it was so bad that I started to wonder how much longer I’d be able to function on my own.
I started to slouch more than ever, on purpose this time, in an attempt to hide my breasts from view. It felt like the universe was crushing me into a tiny ball.
One day I saw a video of someone who appeared quite female talking about being non-binary. She explained that she wasn’t bothered by being seen as female or being called she/her. She just knew that she was something else, on the inside.
This was an option that had never been presented to me — that one could be perceived as female, referred to as “she”, but not actually have to be a woman. Or a man. Or anything.
I broke down. I cried for hours.
As soon as I’d calmed down, I immediately cut my hair. I went out and bought a few articles of men’s clothing (which did fit me a bit better now that I’d gained weight, though to my chagrin the breasts were still very apparent underneath). But it was frightening. Walking towards the men’s section in the clothes shop, I prepared to explain to anyone who asked that I was buying them for a boyfriend or brother.
And that was as far as I felt I could go. With every step I took towards trying to be myself, I felt resistance in my own mind. All the voices of every person who’d ever told me I wasn’t allowed to look like this, wasn’t allowed to be like this. That if I did, I’d die alone and unloved. Considering the fact that I was autistic, hopelessly awkward, and perceived flirting as a confusing, nonsensical mystery, the odds were already stacked pretty highly against me without adding any gender non-conformity into the mix.
I discreetly polled some of my friends about whether they’d ever be attracted to a woman who wasn’t feminine. The answer was a universal resounding NO. What if I decided to be androgynous and in doing so repulsed everyone I came across? What if I really did die alone and unloved? What if being myself would seal my solitary fate forever?
Somehow, I was still Bad and Wrong.
I should have been happy to finally have some clue about who I was, but my depression only continued to get worse. I stopped talking to my friends almost entirely. It was all I could do to maintain the bare minimum of effort at work to keep my job and keep the bills paid. I was dangerously close to losing even that. I occasionally fell asleep at my desk. Being awake didn’t seem appealing enough to make the effort. I spent entire days lying on the floor crying. I knew that I didn’t have any good reason for feeling this way, and I hated myself for being so weak. I plastered a smile across my face whenever someone talked to me and waved any concern away by insisting I was Just Tired. I didn’t want to be a bother.
I switched back to women’s clothes.
Somehow, I was still Not Allowed.
I hadn’t even noticed Beelzebub’s “androgyny” or Crowley’s “non-binary/gender-fluid energy” when I’d first watched the series. Why not? It was simple, really: they were Just People. For once, a cast of characters wasn’t comprised of Men and Women. There were very few displays of masculinity or femininity at all. The story was all about love — romantic love, familial love, divine love, love of all shapes and sizes and types — but it wasn’t about that sort of love you usually see in movies, too often featuring inappropriate or even predatory behavior framed as romance, almost always between a capital-M Man and a capital-W Woman. Even in the few heterosexual relationships portrayed, the characters didn’t fit neatly into any of the standard tropes.
That was what had made me so comfortable watching the show. It was the first time I was watching a complex, interesting, funny story with a brilliant cast where almost no one was bothering with any gender roles at all. Where just about everyone was like me.
I’ve always disliked gender roles. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate that until recently, but I never even really understood them in other people. I’ve always found masculinity and femininity equally off-putting. I was never really a Girl, nor was I a Boy. I was just a person. I was just me. And I was always told in no uncertain terms that this was unacceptable. You can’t just be a person in this world, you have to be a gender, and you have to follow that gender’s rules.
Now and then I had seen representations of people somewhat like me, of course. Now and then there was a story about a trans or non-binary character. But those stories were always about that character’s identity. They were about how hard it was, how confusing. They were about how society didn’t accept them. They often featured violence, abuse, and assault. All of those stories are real and need to be told, but they hardly inspired me to announce that sort of identity to the world.
But Good Omens is a story populated overwhelmingly with fun, interesting, diverse characters who have no sex or gender, and the story has nothing whatsoever to do with that. None of them face discrimination or confusion or abuse because of their gender(s) or lack thereof. That’s just who they are, and absolutely no one has a problem with that. These were characters I could look up to. These were characters I wanted to be like.
God in Good Omens is referred to with gendered terms exactly three times. As “they” by Crowley in the Noah’s Ark scene, as “father” by Jesus in the crucifixion scene, and as “her” by Aziraphale in the final episode. Because the Almighty’s gender, according to Good Omens, is ineffable. And if it’s good enough for God…
Something inside of me had clicked into place. Something that had been there all along, but had been knocked loose at a very young age, constantly poked at by my parents, teachers, bullies, and friends, and had been rattling around inside me ever since. I went into the bathroom and took a long look in the mirror. I grabbed my scissors and gave my hair a new trim, trying to make it spiky and cool. I went out and bought a few new T-shirts. This time, I went directly to the men’s department without a trace of self-consciousness, daring anyone to suggest I didn’t belong there.
The something now properly settled inside me was warm and comfortable. It radiated energy. In the shopping center, loud and chaotic and usually terrifying, I was smiling. I caught my reflection in a shop window and was astounded to realize that without ever having intended to do so, I was standing up perfectly straight.
I’d heard people say that posture is indicative of your level of confidence, but I’d never believed it. Surely anyone could position their body how they liked regardless of how they felt about themselves. But I’d spent my entire life being told off for slouching, trying and failing to stand up straight, feeling physically prevented from doing so. And now that mysterious weight that had been pulling me down was completely gone. I felt literally, physically lighter.
I had begun to saunter.
For the first time in my life, I felt comfortable in my own skin. It turned out to be quite a nice skin to be in, as a matter of fact. I checked myself out in every reflective surface, admiring my new haircut.
I meandered through the city, confident, calm, happy. I tossed flirty smiles at strangers and saw their faces light up in response. I felt cool. I felt sexy. I felt attractive. I felt like a gift to the world, looking around at all the little people and not wasting a bit of energy wondering what they thought of me.
The next day I got to work on time for the first time in months. I strode into the office smiling with my head held high. One of my coworkers nervously approached me with a stack of papers and told me we’d have to do an extra audio recording session — normally an incredibly stressful part of my job that only happens once a month. I made a dramatic display of indignation, then laughed and asked if I could do silly voices for some of it. I recorded all of the tracks perfectly on the first try (and indeed I did do a silly voice or two) and my coworkers actually applauded when I left the recording booth. I took a bow and sauntered back to my desk to start my usual work.
My coworkers were confused by my uncharacteristic good mood and asked me what had me feeling so chipper.
“Have any of you seen Good Omens?” I asked. Only one of them had, but we lost the next hour of work time enthusiastically reminiscing over our favorite moments. We talked about the humor, the expressions of gender, the different types of love, the brilliance of the writing, the acting, the directing, the music — how perfect the whole damn thing was. My coworker kept coming back to the same point: somehow, watching it just made her so incredibly happy. She couldn’t explain why. It was ineffable.
Everyone else in the office vowed to watch it as soon as they could. The joy spreads ever onward.
I was more productive at the office that day than I’d ever been. I was full of energy and creativity. I was so happy.
I felt like, for the first time, I’d been given permission to be me. A stamp of approval, even. For the first time, I knew, and I felt that the rest of the world would recognize, that I was Good. I was Right. I was as Allowed as a person can be. And with my newly improved posture, I was several centimeters taller, as well.
It was the first day of the rest of my life.
Good Omens is a lot of stories.
It’s a story about an angel with a lot of typically autistic traits. Rules are very important to him, and he spends six millennia trying desperately to follow them even when they feel wrong. His colleagues and superiors laugh at him, but his one friend, a demon who is supposed to be his enemy, treats him with respect and patience, looks out for him, and comforts him when he needs it. In the end, he wins when he finally accepts that the people who make the rules aren’t always right and trusts in the one person who was always there for him.
It’s a story about a demon who never meant to fall. For the crime of asking questions, he was condemned to live in hell and informed that he was now evil. He befriends an angel and spends six millennia trying to make him understand that Good and Evil don’t mean what he’s been told, but patiently tolerating him when he refuses to listen. When things go wrong, he wants nothing more than to run away, but he can’t abandon his friend. In the end, he wins when his love overcomes his fear and he stands with the one person who has always seen the good in him.
It’s a story about an angel and a demon who are told right from the start that angels are a certain way, and demons are a certain way, and any deviation is impossible. They spend six millennia desperately trying to be who everyone tells them they are supposed to be. In the end, they only win when they finally become themselves. Everyone around them says it’s Bad and Wrong and they are Not Allowed. In the end, they win when they do it anyway.
My terrible decades-long depression grew out of a lifetime of being told that who I was on the inside was wrong. Out of the fear that I would fail to wear the correct mask, or that someone would see through it. Out of the constant denial of my true self.
That’s gone now.
At last I have come to understand that in the great battle between who you know you are inside and who everyone else tells you you’re supposed to be, your true self is always right. If it’s the real me against the world, the world doesn’t stand a chance.
I’ve never been a believer in the fairy tale “happily ever after”. I know that life will continue to throw me curveballs for as long as it lasts. I’ll have great days, I’ll have awful ones. There will be problems and stresses and worries aplenty. But it’s different now. I know who I am now. I like who I am now. That part of me that finally clicked into place after 34 years of rattling around and gumming up the works is not going to come loose again.
My gender? My sexuality? My identity? They’re all ineffable. And that is a beautiful thing.
And it’s all thanks to a comedy series about the end of the world. It’s all because of Good Omens. And though it may have come into my life a bit later than I would have liked, the next generation will get to grow up in a world where this exists. That can’t be taken away now.
I started writing this little essay over a week ago. It began as a thank-you note to Neil Gaiman, Michael Sheen, David Tennant, Douglas Mackinnon, and all the other wonderful people who made this series happen. But somehow a simple thank-you didn’t feel like enough. I needed you all to know exactly why I was so grateful. Exactly how big, how important this series is to me. I know I’m not the only one whose life has been changed. But I’m at least one. At least one person who was healed and made whole by your efforts. At least one person who, thanks to you, has learned to saunter.
(All script images are taken from The Quite Nice and Fairly Accurate Good Omens Script Book by Neil Gaiman, my copy of which I shall treasure for the rest of my days.)