Most women my age have a favourite Disney heroine, or can name a Disney flick they loved most as a child. Mine was Snow White, largely, I think, because food was a strong theme in the film. Also, she had black hair at a time when the market was saturated with blonde Sleeping Beauties and Cinderellas. Basically, becoming a chubby goth was on the cards for me from the get-go.
It’s no revelation that these films have one pervasive ideology in common: women get saved by men. Hollywood basically exists because of this trope, and while Disney has gradually dialled down the helpless female protagonists, the idea that women are somehow incomplete without a man forms the basis for a huge number of movies (and books) churned out every year. It’s no surprise that this ideology is so entrenched in the social narrative.
So I guess I wasn’t too shocked when a well-meaning individual asked me recently if I was going to come off anti-depressants “because I have a new boyfriend”, the subtext being, I suppose, that I was ever so sad by my loser single self but now I am saved. As a woman with a partner, my life now has meaning so what do I need Prozac for?
This mindset is of course compounded by the relentless and hugely damaging romanticising of mental illness. This post, doing the rounds on social media, sums it up perfectly:
Mental illness is an intensely personal experience, and no matter how well someone knows you, they can’t rewire your brain. Because that’s what mental illness is – your brain is literally malfunctioning. It’s not feeling glum or sorry for yourself or being unable to ‘snap out of it’ or being dramatic or attention-seeking or anything else attributable to free will or personality. It’s a hardware fault.
I’m a fan of the tonsillitis analogy, having had the joy of experiencing acute and recurrent bouts throughout my 20s. It hits without warning, often for no obvious reason. You have no control over it, and it’ll generally get worse if left untreated. Just like mental illness. But all the times I was lying in bed with a fat face, swollen throat and volcanic temperature nobody ever told me to get over it or that I should be grateful because there were people out there sicker than me, and certainly no-one ever questioned my illness because I had a boyfriend. “You’ve got a boyfriend, so what do you need these antibiotics for?” The notion is absurd, but bears repeating because of the pervasive idea that mental illness isn’t a ‘real’ illness.
That’s not to say, of course, that your partner can’t influence your mental health, and it’s probably because a partner can have such a negative effect on our mental health that we’ve come to believe they can offer salvation in equal measure. Let’s go back to the tonsillitis analogy. If you’re lying in bed in pain and your partner calls you overdramatic or throws a strop because you won’t go on a 20-mile bike ride in the middle of winter (true story) or gets huffy because you don’t feel like having sex or makes snarky comments about your sweaty appearance, chances are you’re gonna feel considerably worse, right? This isn’t conducive to a swift recovery. If, on the other hand, they’re patient and forthcoming with hugs and are considerate of your needs and generous with the ice-cream, then your life is just a little bit easier. But the infection rages on either way, whether they’re there or not.
So no, well-meaning person, despite our culture’s questionable portrayal of romantic love as a route to personal salvation, having a boyfriend (as truly marvellous as is he – HI DARLING) probably isn’t going to magically cure my depression. That’s not a reflection on him, or our relationship. That’s just SCIENCE and FACTS, and when it comes to mental health it’s this we need to pay attention to, and not flowery rom-coms where love conquers all.