I didn’t expect a stupid internet fight to alter the course of my life, but in 2016, a lot of my relationships were being torn apart by one man: Bernie Sanders.
Politically, I was more liberal than Hillary Clinton, and yet the way people, especially men, talked about her hit a nerve. As a female comic, I was often held to a higher standard than my male peers. My ambition was regarded with disdain and my competence with skepticism. I identified with what I imagined Clinton’s life had been like and felt compelled to defend her.
In the end, I begrudgingly voted for Bernie in an effort to push Hillary to the left. Still, I hated how much he yelled (at a woman, no less) and I hated his online supporters. I was sick of being told not to “vote with my vagina” by dudes who have issues with their moms. The internet felt like a battleground of socialism vs. feminism.
Two years later, Jake, a comic I had never met in real life, tweeted a joke about Clinton that I thought was sexist. Still scarred from 2016, I told him off. Our argument escalated quickly, and we agreed there was “no reason to ever communicate in the future.”
Bernie Bros, man.
There was one good thing to come out of the experience, though—getting to know Raghav, a thoughtful comic I loved talking to at comedy shows. We had occasionally messaged about politics, so it didn’t surprise me to see him liking my tweets arguing with Jake, although I didn’t know at the time that they hosted a political podcast together.
When Raghav asked me to meet for tacos a week later, I assumed it was an act of diplomacy on his co-host’s behalf. When he told me he wanted to kiss me, I learned it was a date. He was incredibly cute, the smartest person I’d ever met, and pretty soon, I found myself relitigating the 2016 primary in my bedroom with my Bernie Bro boyfriend.
Despite being a feminist, I spent years secretly feeling that I’d always have to tone down my opinions and hide my strengths to avoid scaring a guy off. But Raghav wasn’t scared of my talents and passion; he loved me for them. We both had hard childhoods, felt like outcasts in school, and made parties weird talking about politics. We laughed together at comedy shows, then came home and laughed harder about the most fucked up things that ever happened to us. He hated anyone who was mean to me. When we said “I love you” three weeks in, we meant it.
"Despite being a feminist, I spent years secretly feeling that I’d always have to tone down my opinions and hide my strengths to avoid scaring a guy off."
Then last winter, Raghav slid into a deep depression. He’d had depression for some time but was managing it with Lexapro. Although Raghav’s day job didn’t give him insurance, a former doctor continued to call in his prescription, a fix he knew wouldn’t last forever. When the side effects of the medication became overwhelming, Raghav went off it, and when his depression worsened, he tried self-medicating with Zoloft he got from a friend. It didn’t work.
He couldn’t afford to see a psychiatrist. Talk therapy was too expensive, and although his friends and I offered to help with the cost, he understandably wanted to handle it himself. Many days Raghav slept until 5 p.m.; every day I scrambled and failed to find ways to cheer him up. His depression made him angry. Our political debates stopped feeling flirty and started to hurt. We broke up, got back together, and broke up again.
One of the biggest arguments we ever had was about Medicare for All. Although I didn’t have insurance, I believed that with tweaks to Obamacare, our problems could be solved. But Raghav believed true Medicare for All—healthcare that was free at the point of service with everyone automatically enrolled—was a life or death issue.
It turned out he was right: Six months after we said I love you, Raghav was dead. I was told his death was an accident—self-medicating gone wrong. When the pills weren’t working, Raghav drank in an effort to numb his inescapable pain. I’m convinced he’d still be here if he had health insurance to get the care he needed. At his funeral, I finally met Jake, the Bernie Bro I swore I’d never speak to.
About 45,000 people in the US die every year from not having insurance. Sometimes the causes are obvious—a lack of insulin or a cancerous tumor that goes unchecked. But there are also more insidious, cumulative circumstances that lead to the same conclusion. One morning Raghav didn’t wake up, and he never would again.
After his death, I was steeped in a kind of pain I didn’t know was possible—heavy, consuming, shattering. I finally understood how Raghav felt all the time. I got into secular Buddhism, muted happy couples on Instagram. I painted my room teal and decorated, trying to make it look like a place I could someday, one day, have sex again. I stormed out on a friend who suggested Raghav died because of astrology. The only thing that really helped was trying to better understand Raghav’s politics. I followed the journalists he followed on Twitter and read his favorite political authors. I retraced his steps to understand how he’d make sense of a tragedy like this.
I didn’t grieve alone. Raghav’s Bernie Bro friends were not a bunch of sexists after all. Some were socialist feminist women, some were great guys. In the months that followed Raghav’s death, they made sure I ate and didn’t isolate myself. We’ve since stayed up till 3 a.m. working on jokes and talking a lot about Bernie Sanders. This weekend, all of us, including Jake, are heading to New Hampshire to canvass for Bernie, the only 2020 candidate who unequivocally supports for Medicare for All. I’m one of the bros now, I guess.
"Six months after we said I love you, Raghav was dead."
I recently went out to lunch with a friend I used to hate on Sanders with in 2016. She’s supporting Joe Biden now, whose healthcare plan would leave 10 million people uninsured. As well as I could, I attempted to persuade her any other candidate’s plan means people will keep dying preventable deaths—but I don’t think she was convinced. I tried not to get too mad, because before it hit home for me, I couldn’t fully grasp the reality either.
I used to think supporting Sanders would also somehow make me less of a feminist. Now I know that couldn’t be further from the truth—my feminism needs to fight for women who don’t have $500 a month to spend on health insurance premiums, for single moms working three part-time jobs and still not making ends meet, for women who can’t leave an abusive marriage because her insurance is tied to her husband’s job. In 2016, I thought Bernie was prioritizing economic issues over women’s issues—now I understand that they’re connected.
Contrary to the Bernie Bro narrative, the growing progressive movement in this country is multiracial, includes all genders, and is full of people who care deeply about creating a better world for everyone, including future generations. Anyone telling you otherwise is likely not on your side. I even kind of like when Sanders yells now, because he’s yelling for me. He’s yelling for Raghav.
Kate Willett Kate Willett is a stand up comedian who has appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.