Let me set the scene: approximately one in the morning, awake typing at the computer, eyes sliding shut, surrounded by anime posters and photos of my friends taped to the wall, trapped in forums and social media sites. At fifteen, I was your average blunt-bangs-wearing, journal-writing, hanging-out-in-a-graveyard teenage queer girl stereotype.
I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I romanticized mental illness and mental health issues. I longed for an emotionally tortured soul who might be able to accompany me into the late hours of the night, kept awake by insomnia, angry at the world for its discrimination. I ached for someone who I could save – or the other way around – from the trials and traumas that life hands us. With low self-esteem and a deep sense of loss after my mother’s death, I was a mess of Post-Traumatic Martyr Syndrome (that’s not real – it’s my name for how survivors of loss feel the constant need to sacrifice themselves for ‘the greater good’ because they lived and the other person did not) and striped arm warmers courtesy of the mid-2000s.
As years passed, I gradually grew into my identity as a young queer woman and, although I believe Post-Traumatic Martyr is a somewhat lifelong condition, I began to believe that there was a reason I was still here. Then, in my freshman year of college, I was raped in a dorm room.
Post-Traumatic Martyr morphed into actual full-fledged Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. What were once sleepless nights filled with creative bursts of energy were now short sessions of sleep interrupted by chronic nightmares. I struggled to eat, sleep, and function on a regular basis. The most casual incidents of physical encounters with strangers – a bump on the bus downtown, a glance into the eyes of someone who resembled my attacker, a grope from behind at the club – reduced me to a shaking, anxious shell.
If I’m being candid, before my own experiences with post-rape trauma, I had other reasons to doubt romanticizing mental illness. I’d already visited one of my best friends at a mental hospital for suicide, sitting in the blank white room while patients played cards and tried to steal items from other patients. I’d already witnessed a friend’s self harm and had seen that it was not a problem that unconditional affection could fix. I’d already seen bipolar disorder in family and friends, watching someone cycle from a manic flurry of activity and then quickly disappear for weeks, even months, without a single word. As much as I wanted to believe it could, I knew that being loved was not a cure. It was a bandaid, and a support system, but it didn’t stop someone from living with mental health issues.
After I was raped, I was the kind of person I would have read about in a book and rooted for: the sad girl, traumatized and lonely, isolating herself in her dorm room, watching episodes of Dexter on repeat to quell her newfound insatiable anger problems. I was a protagonist in desperate need of saving – except I already had a girlfriend, and we’d been together for over three years.
My girlfriend was not the love interest in the novel of my life; that is to say, mental illness is not something to romanticize, something that we should hope our significant others have just so we can shield them from it with our love. It isn’t something we should cross our fingers to be saved from. I’ve heard time and time again, from friends both with diagnosed mental illnesses and without, that, “If I only found someone to love me, things would be better. I would be okay.”
As I healed from my rape, my girlfriend was not my storybook love interest. First and foremost, she was my trusted partner and friend. I was barely interested in romance for a while, and the idea of trusting someone with my body in any way terrified me. She was someone who sat beside me watching the same episodes of Dexter, gently rubbing my back and holding my hand. She was someone who would walk me to the dining hall because I was scared to eat alone. As I healed, she healed too. She faced as much anger and frustration about what happened to me, as well as unnecessary and unwarranted guilt that she hadn’t been there to stop it. I didn’t need to be saved from what happened to me, and it wouldn’t have been possible even if I did.
My delusions about the romance of illness faded into the background, and I began to live with the fact that I will always be a rape survivor. I’ve grown comfortable in my own body and mind, but that’s through my own hard work and volition, not through the fact that anyone else has given me permission to be okay with what happened to me simply by loving me.
Mental illness is not something that mysterious writerly-type characters live with until the eleventh hour of the plot, when their often also-somewhat-mysterious, but kind and understanding love interest heals all their ails simply by loving them unconditionally. It’s extremely important to love those dealing with mental illness, don’t get me wrong. It’s not an issue that should be demonized or stigmatized, either, because I believe it can happen to anyone, whether it’s through traumatic life events or genetic predisposition. It’s something that people live with, both the mentally ill and their loved ones, on a daily basis.
Loving someone who is dealing with mental health issues means listening to them when they need it, but giving them space when they need that instead. It’s about showing your support, but understanding that the problems they’re facing may not be something that can be ‘fixed.’ (It’s incredibly damaging and ableist to paint every illness and disability story as something to overcome, anyway.) It’s about living life together, as equals.