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Why I Challenge the Idea That Love Can Cure Mental Illness

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I enjoyed the movie “Silver Linings Playbook.” It humanized mental illness in a way that Hollywood often doesn’t do. Hollywood loves mental illness, but many movies don’t bother to capture the nuances. Most moviemakers cherry-pick dramatic, provocative manifestations of mental turmoil, all of which help fuel the stigma that “mentally ill” individuals are dangerous, scary, weird and incapable of functioning in society. “Girl Interrupted,” “Psycho,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Shutter Island,” “Silence of the Lambs” and “American Psycho” come to mind.

Of course, things like insanity, asylums, mania, hallucinations and psychopaths provide for colorful entertainment. When’s the last time you saw a Halloween display featuring diabetics or heart patients, and when’s the last time you saw one featuring psychiatric patients and asylums? The prior, never. The latter, last Halloween. We are conditioned to fear those with mental illness, yet it’s a fear rooted in warped, albeit popular, misconceptions. Statistically, most individuals with mental illness are benign and, like all of us, just trying to get through the day. I’m reminded of the words of an empathetic psychiatrist who was dying of a terminal illness. He had seen hundreds of patients in his lifetime. A student came to visit him and asked him what the difference was between those with mental illness and those without. He responded, “They are more gentle.”

“Silver Linings Playbook” captured the gentleness of mental illness. However, the movie’s ending really bothered me. The two main characters, each battling their own mental demons, fall in love despite their resistance and then face a conflict which makes the hopeful audience question whether love will triumph. At the end of the movie, the couple is together. They look and talk completely “sane.” They are in each other’s arms and kissing under the stars. When the credits start rolling, the audience feels like the couple have successfully conquered their mental demons and you leave the film with a warm, optimistic feeling that, indeed, all you need is love.

I had a very different reaction. I left disappointed. Just like I think many movies simplify the nature of mental illness and underplay its normalcy, I felt “Silver Linings Playbook” simplified the cure. You need a lot more than love to overcome a mental illness.

When I was first hit with major depression, I avoided falling in love. Instead, I looked for and chose the easy, fleeting, breakable bonds: The type of bond which when broken might make you shrug, but nothing more. I wasn’t running away from love; I was running away from the inevitable heartbreak because, like many depressives, I was a fatalist. My brain automatically added a morbid disclaimer to every potential chance of falling in love: “Don’t do it. You won’t be able to move when it’s over.”

I wasn’t just a fatalist. Like many depressives, I was also highly sensitive. A heartbreak to me was like a nuclear bomb exploding in my soul and the only way to avoid that was to never give anyone else access to my heart. If hearing his name made my blood dance, I wouldn’t date him. If seeing him triggered a spasm through my nerves, I wouldn’t date him. If I secretly longed for him for days on end and if he managed to sneak inside the fabric of my brain and be the star of my dreams, I wouldn’t date him. I believe that to love and let yourself be loved, you have to be capable of handling loss, and in my depressed state, I wasn’t. Love could never be my cure until I learned how to accept and deal with heartbreak, and to do that, I had to first learn how to accept and deal with my depression, my highly sensitive nature, my natural tendency to be fatalistic and, most importantly, my inability to love myself.

Perhaps that is why I found the characters in “Silver Linings Playbook” so frustratingly simple and unrelatable at the end. They were able to skip all the hard steps: all the grit; all the tantrums of tears which turned into full-blown asthma attacks; all the chiseling away of destructive thoughts and the slow, tedious construction of helpful ones; the nearly impossible task of summoning will, effort and humility at your darkest, heaviest hours to start to accept and love yourself without judgment; and the painful rebirth of an individual who has his or her wounds but emerges as fierce and strong despite them. All they needed was love, but that was never all I needed.

— Dr. Eeks

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Unsplash photo via Shelby Deeter

Originally published: April 25, 2017
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