IT'S A TRAP!: Curing Mental Illness With Love

| Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Today's Tune: Earthquakes and Sharks

IT’S A TRAP! entries are posts in which I discuss newbie writing mistakes that seem like a good idea at the time, but usually end in burning wreckage. I’ve made many of these mistakes myself and thankfully learned from them, but I needed a few years and wake-up calls to recognize them for what they were.

DISCLAIMER: there are aaaaalways exceptions. The topics discussed herein are not always mistakes. But most of the time they are *shifty eyes*

Curing Mental Illness With Love: IT’S A TRAP!

As you may be able to tell by my unapologetic use of Admiral Ackbar up there, these themed posts tend to be on the light and frothy side. However, this particular subject is a little more serious - at least, it's one I take pretty seriously.

Here's a storyline set-up for you... one you've probably seen before.

Main character is introduced. MC has a debilitating mental illness - but they're not TOO CRAZY, if you know what I mean. It will be something that impedes their happiness, but not an illness that makes them an "undesirable" (I say somewhat sarcastically, because mentally ill people are not really "undesirables," but that's another post). I'm talking moderate OCD, not severe schizophrenia.

So, MC has this disorder that is acting as their personal demon. It's impeding their path to happiness. They're often pessimistic and cranky, resigned to being miserable. Or it will be pitiable and tragic, like Alzheimer's Disease. UNTIL! They meet or reconnect with Love Interest. Then things change.

Slowly but surely, the resigned-to-their-miserable-fate MC finds a new zest for life. Love Interest's attention and care actually makes them better. Their germophobia is lessened! They can remember things! They power of love is healing them! Happy happy!

This is a fairly popular story, and one that is often attributed to the warm fuzzies. Love heals all wounds!

But I have a different position, which I will openly admit is colored by the fact that I have known and loved people with debilitating mental disorders such as manic depression and Alzheimer's. Now, I'll also say up front that I understand works of fiction are... well, works of fiction. Sometimes the goal *is* the fantasy of the feel-good happy ending. I get that.

That said, stories of this nature can be ill-informed and sometimes even callous about the reality of mental illness. As a person who is, for instance, slowly watching her grandfather turn into a shell of the person he once was, it's almost insulting to read a story in which a person with a similar illness is regifted their memories via the "power of love." It's like saying if we only LOVED someone enough, we could make them better. Change the chemistry of their brain, or restore destroyed tissue.

This is simply not reality. Which, I know, it's fiction, yeah yeah. But just because it's fiction doesn't mean it can't strike someone as disingenuous. I mean, imagine it from all sides. Picture yourself as the disordered individual, struggling to help your loved ones understand that it's not that they don't love you enough, it's not that you don't want to get better, it's that you're struggling with this thing that can't be completely overcome. Love and good intentions won't make it go away.

Mental illness is not this "all in your head" monster people can banish with the right combination of support and will power. This is a potentially hurtful position to take. For the individual affected, and for their loved ones. Those of us who have loved a disordered or handicapped person can feel like we've been kicked in the chest when we see this storyline and realize that our love wasn't enough to "cure" our loved one.

As always, this story can be done well when treated with the appropriate level of care. Just, you know, some food for thought. There are some things love can't fix. No matter how raw or powerful it is. If you understand this, you can craft a stronger story. Unless, of course, you're going for a fantasy. Because that's what the "love can cure anything!" plot is - a fantasy. A fantasy that many people may connect with and find warming, but not all.

Just... please, if you're writing about a mental illness or disease, make sure you research it and understand how it works. Really. Don't pull a disorder out of a hat for the insta-tearjerker factor. Do it with purpose. Do everything with purpose.

I got all serious on you with this post. SORRY! I lighten up sometimes, honest.


{ fairyhedgehog } at: June 23, 2010 at 9:32 AM said...

Don't apologise for a really interesting post!

The point you make is entirely valid. One of the better stories I've read about a mental condition is Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Dark. It's about autism, and towards the end of the book a cure is offered through science and medicine - but the question is whether the people with high-functioning autism want to be "cured". There are advantages to their mental functioning that they may lose if they become "normal", plus the procedure is difficult and carries risks.

{ jjdebenedictis } at: June 23, 2010 at 1:37 PM said...

A milder version of this is all the rebellious young men in fiction who are transformed into perfect, trustworthy-yet-hot boyfriends by the love of a good woman.

People don't generally change their core personality with a quick application of love--only with a quick application of trauma or a slow application of maturity.

And, as you note, when the rebelliousness is upgraded to a personality disorder, then the fix will require a whole lot more than love--support might be useful, but chemicals and therapy more so.

{ Whirlochre } at: June 23, 2010 at 3:32 PM said...

I suppose it boils down to the old maxim of writing from experience — if you don't know anyone who has dangled from the clifftop of sanity by their fingertips, your attempts to portray their hopes, fears, illusions (etc etc) had better be based on research rather than whim, and even then, frankly, I wouldn't bother.

{ Christi Goddard } at: June 23, 2010 at 4:30 PM said...

Having many a relative with mental issues (shocking, right? me of all people?), I hate those sort of stories. I can never read them, nor feel a desire to.

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