My fiancée and I are currently working on our thank you notes from our bridal shower, but there’s someone I have to thank for our relationship even existing. Three months from now, I’ll be walking down the aisle and marrying a woman I never would have met if it was not for The West Wing. More specifically, I wouldn’t be marrying Danica if it was not for the character Donnatella Moss and the actor that played her, the lovely Janel Moloney.
Janel has been my hero since I first watched The West Wing and heard her story. For those of you who don’t know, Donna was never supposed to be a main character. Janel auditioned for the role of C.J. Cregg. She was offered the “petite” (as Janel says) part of Donna in the pilot instead. Janel took the part, but she went to set with the intention of doing so well that the creative team wouldn’t want to get rid of her.
Her outstanding work in the pilot inspired Aaron Sorkin to write Donna into every episode of season 1. In fact, after watching the first few episodes back in 2013, I texted my best friend and said “I need Donna Moss to be in this show more.” Little did I know that she would play a huge part in the show, and in my life.
By season 2, she was part of the main cast. And do you know what casting directors call a smaller role in a pilot that has potential for more? “A Janel Moloney part.” When we learn Donna’s origin story in the season 2 premiere, it mirrors Janel’s West Wing journey in a delightful way. After a terrible breakup, Donna moves across the country and hires herself to be Josh Lyman’s assistant. She forces Josh to sit down and take her seriously, and she delivers one of the best lines of the series while doing it.
Janel’s agency over her career is reason enough to love her, and for a while, that was my number one reason for admiring both Janel and Donna as much as I did. However, over the last few years, my love for both the actor and the character has grown immensely for deeply personal reasons.
In July of 2014, I started talking with a girl I met online named Danica. Her favorite character was also Donna Moss. We started chatting about our favorite show and other things we had in common and became internet acquaintances. Danica and I talked on and off for a few months, but our relationship really started to grow in September of that year.
On September 14, 2014, Janel Moloney reunited in DC with her West Wing costars Allison Janney and Melissa Fitzgerald to raise money for Justice for Vets. (Melissa is now the director of the organization.) I wasn’t living near DC at the time so, when it was announced, I wasn’t able to get off work to travel for the event. Danica already lived in the area and immediately purchased tickets. She was beyond excited for that experience, and I was so thrilled for her (and slightly jealous). When the event ended, Danica was lucky enough to meet Melissa Fitzgerald’s mom, who happened to be sitting nearby. When Mrs. Fitzgerald found out what a big fan Danica was, she was kind enough to take her backstage to meet the actors.
Danica’s stories from her time with Janel, Allison, and Melissa are amazing. But Janel went the extra mile when she agreed to record a video for Danica’s friends who, like me, love Donna Moss more than any other character on the show. Since Danica and I were only acquaintances at the time, I was a last minute addition to the list of names she handed to Janel.
The morning after the event, Danica sent me the video. Janel read each name and gave us all personalized and hilarious messages. I watched it at work and started crying as soon as I heard my name. And then I continued to watch it throughout the week. That moment was a turning point in my relationship with Danica. If you look back at our messages to each other at the time, they go from a few paragraphs here and there about various popular culture things to lengthy and extremely personal messages. In December of 2014, we met in person for the first time and officially started our long-distance relationship.
In January of 2015, I started having extreme depression and anxiety. It wasn’t the first time I had experienced this, but it was the first time I was willing to acknowledge my mental illness. That was, in large part, because Danica noticed and encouraged me to get help. I was unbelievably happy with her, but I could only see her every other weekend. In those weeks we were separated, I was in a city I had grown to hate with a job that gave me almost daily anxiety attacks. I wasn’t eating or sleeping, and I barely left my apartment on the weekends that Danica wasn’t with me. The only thing that got me through my work day was having The West Wing playing in the background. I couldn’t watch the scenes, but hearing their voices, especially Janel’s, had a calming effect on me. It helped me stay in control of my anxiety and made the work day go by faster. It became my comfort television show.
I got the help I needed from a medical professional and moved close to DC to live with Danica later that year. I started substitute teaching and got into graduate school to become an elementary school teacher. My mental health had completely improved, and I was happier than I had ever been. And then Donald Trump became president.
During Trump’s first few months in office, my anxiety and depression started coming back. I couldn’t watch the news. I only got bits of information from Twitter, Samantha Bee, and John Oliver. Anything else had me panicking. Danica and I got engaged, but I was scared that things would happen to dismantle LGBTQ+ rights before we ever got the chance to say “I do.” To be honest, I’m still terrified of that, but that fear lessens as we get closer to the wedding date. So, I turned to my favorite comfort show, The West Wing. Its idealism gave me hope when I couldn’t find any. That all changed on July 3, 2017, when I spent 10 hours in the waiting room of an ER in immense pain before finally being seen.
I had started experiencing some strange symptoms: shooting pain up my arms and legs, numbness and tingling in my extremities, extreme fatigue, randomly dropping things like a pen or my cell phone. I missed almost 15 days of my summer job as a camp counselor because my body couldn’t take it. I went to the ER after googling my symptoms (I know I shouldn’t do this, but I couldn’t help it), but the doctors were not helpful at all. They had no interest in figuring out what was wrong, and it felt like they thought I was making these symptoms up.
After the E.R. visit, I continued to experience the symptoms. My primary care physician was not super helpful either. I had to fight for almost a month for anyone to believe me and to do something about it. Finally, she told me what Danica and I feared the most: my symptoms were often signs of multiple sclerosis. I was terrified, and I couldn’t even turn to my favorite show to help me calm down.
When I first started wondering if I could have M.S., I was in the middle of season 2 in my rewatch of The West Wing, which is when the President’s hidden illness (M.S., of course) becomes a major storyline. For the last half of season 2 and most of season 3, the show is riddled with arguments between the President and those around him about his illness. The hardest one for me to watch, though, was his fight with the First Lady in season 2’s “The War at Home.”
Hearing those words and knowing it was possible that I had the same disease brought the anxiety completely back. I did the one thing I never thought I’d have to do: I shut off The West Wing for months. I couldn’t watch a full episode, but because I was home from work so many days and dealing with incompetent and unhelpful doctors, I needed a distraction.
Between all of the medical stress and Trump still being president, I was going crazy. I needed The West Wing now more than ever, but I still couldn’t watch it because of the M.S. content. So, I did the only thing I could think of: I turned to Netflix and watched only the scenes with Donna Moss. It worked. It kept my mind off my medical problems when I was stuck at home due to my pain and fatigue. Scenes between Donna and Josh kept me sane and made me smile when almost nothing else could.
I spend a lot of time thinking about “What Ifs?”, which I know stems from my anxiety and depression. What if Danica had never met Janel after the Justice for Vets event or she hadn’t included me in the video? What if I had never sent that first message to Danica in July 2014? What if her favorite character wasn’t Donna Moss or her favorite show wasn’t also The West Wing? What if Janel had never been on more than a few episodes of The West Wing? What if I had never listened to my best friend and watched The West Wing during my winter break in 2013? I have no idea where I’d be if one of those things had been different, but I’ve never been happier than I am now. I owe it all to The West Wing, and mostly to Janel Moloney.
There are a few West Wing events in the DC area that I’ll be at this year, and I’m hoping Janel attends them so I can meet her and thank her for all of this in person. Until then, I’ll simply use the internet to say…Thank you, Janel Moloney. I am so grateful for this life you’ve given me.