Depression is not romantic. There, I said it, topic sentence, tired media-directed muttering of the week.
It is a mental disorder that messes with a person’s biochemistry and leads to mood swings, crashes in self-esteem, anxiety, apathy and a range of other difficult things. It varies from person to person, so I will try to avoid making sweeping generalisations or flippant comments as I know this is an awful, awful affliction that makes life horrendously hard for millions of people all over the world. It should not be brushed off as teenaged moodiness, midlife crises or something people can get over as simply as getting out of bed, and it should not be made into something desirable.
On the one hand, it’s sort of good to have mental disorders making appearances in popular media, as it shows the stigma around them is lifting and it’s becoming accepted enough that we can dare to acknowledge its existence in our fiction, even if the name is not dropped and the characters in play don’t necessarily have depression but merely symptoms, which are, of course, part of human life. It’s only when they reach their extremes by some skewiff neurology that they become illnesses, and we have to remember that. The media of the world, of course, does not always do this, and these inclusive appearances have quickly bundled themselves into a series of recurring and not entirely tactful tropes.
When not parcelled into stock-standard ‘emo’, angsty poet or other horrid suicidal stereotypes, characters with symptoms of depression are made into the stars of the show. There’s been a stream of annoyed blog posts about this recently, and I don’t know exactly what brought them on, but I have to agree with the notion: the picturesque imagery of a troubled, self-conscious lost soul wafting around reading Keats on a rainy day with her hair falling into her face and the expression of a mournful marble angel is one that many a hero has fallen in love with, and this is not necessarily a good message to encourage.
Problem number one, this trope equates sadness (and clinical, inescapable sadness at that) with intellectualism, shoving anyone who actually and openly surrounds themselves with positivity into the category of the vapid ditz that clearly does not understand the harsh complexities of reality. Certainly, a lot of the great artists and poets and writers of our world have suffered from some sort of emotional affliction, but it doesn’t mean that to be intelligent and creative you have to be clinically depressed. This leads into people eagerly misdiagnosing themselves (and writers their characters) to seem smarter or deeper, influenced by this romantic image of the tortured intellectual.
Problem number two, it equates sadness with captivating beauty. Sure, there’s a certain poetry to the figure of the tormented soul, but it also really, really sucks. Being sad is not fun. The people you love being sad is even less fun. Why are we idolising it and making it the very thing that people fall in love with? It’s a double-edged sword to grip, of course, because you also don’t want to portray the ideal love interest as one that is constantly bubbly and bright (you could just, you know, give them a believable range of emotions, and show the ups and downs of their illness and make them human, that works too), but equating depth of character and beauty with mental sickness is going a step too far.
On the flipside, you could have the down-in-the-dumps one be the hero of the story, and have a bouncing ball of delightful neurosis sweep them off their feet, a la the dying type of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (who are not doing anyone any favours either, making the ambiguously manic, unstable and emotionally frazzled into the pinnacle of desire). This plays into the same trope, the idea that the depressed (whether ambiguously or clinically) just needs someone to discover them, love them, spring into their personal bubble and cart them off into adventure and out of their funk. Either way this is a damaging idea as it negates the weight of the illness itself—granted, great friends and positivity can help with depression, and be the saving grace of many that suffer it, but it is not a magical cure.
The power of love is all very well, but using it as a deus ex machina to wipe away that pesky black cloud entirely breezes over the exact nature of depression that makes it awful. As Stephen Fry points out, people without the sickness tend to forget that it is just that is just that, a sickness, and can’t be whisked away or soldiered through with happiness, light and willpower alone. Slapping a magic, selfless love interest into the fray seems to be another allegory for the most common retorts against depressive mental illnesses: ‘It’s all in your head, you’re doing this to yourself, why don’t you just get up, get over it, grab a girlfriend and stop being so negative?’
It all plays into this ideal that characters (and thus people) with these debilitating twists and knots in their biochemistry just need to be saved. There is truth in that, yes, as seeking help of any kind is recommended, but that is rarely the path that these dark moping heroes take. Their saving will be thrust upon them, however sweetly, by their doting, selfless partner. Perhaps it provides balance in the relationship, one half’s emotional strength contrasted and complimenting the other’s physical—a common case is that the man will rescue the woman in some literal way, perhaps carrying her unconscious from a blizzard or saving her from ruffians on the moor, and then the woman repaying that in some more subtle, traditionally feminine way like becoming his emotional crutch.
It’s the poetic dichotomy of one giving the other life and the other giving them reason to live, and yes, it’s quite lovely, but when every romance (look for the relationship type, it’s everywhere. The world is full of broody men who just need to be loved and selfless positive women to do it) takes it on board you have to wonder what exactly our obsession is. It makes sense, in a way: we want to believe in the healing power of love, and believe that if we’re feeling this crappy there will be some sweet-natured angel waiting out there for us to lift us from our darkness. And if we love someone afflicted, we want to believe that we hold the power to zap it away with our kindness alone. This is putting pressure on both parties: in the case of the depressed, why aren’t they fitting into the role of the saved, rising majestically out of their negative spiral? What right have they to still be sad if they’re surrounded by love?
And in the case of the love interest (and it’s more commonly a love interest, very rarely a friend or family member), why aren’t they fitting into the role of the saviour? What do you mean supporting someone with cripplingly low self-esteem, uncontrollable anxiety and mood swings is difficult sometimes? What do you mean kindness alone can’t remove an uncontrollable chemical imbalance? More often than not the issues of human frustration, fear and contagious despair from the saviour character are not addressed, and they come off as a saintly and selfless figure of white light and loveliness.
I suppose we write about these things because we’re trying to understand them and make them less scary, and fluffing out this fix-all happy ending is a kind of wish fulfillment. It’s a pretty romantic concept, sure, but it robs the story in question of any depth or realism. It would make it grittier if you showed that relationships cannot work that way on such a shallow level, and that to cure this horribly romanticised sickness it takes more than a sweet smiling partner and heroic willpower. Depression is not pretty, and it is not a cheap plot device or trendy character trait. It’s hard work, for everyone involved, and if you’re going to have it present in your story, do some research instead of playing into overly hopeful clichés.
Also, on a more positive note, David Levithan. More than one of his protagonists have had depression, and he has carried it off legitimately well, both in his YA novels and his sci-fi (or is it fantasy? Magical realism? We’ll never know) Every Day, where the body-hopping protagonist acknowledges full-pelt that it is a chemical problem that lies in the brain’s wiring, and not the bearer’s own fault. I may have whooped for joy throughout that entire part of the book, though it was, naturally enough, a bit confronting and, well, depressing. But that’s just the thing. If you’re going to borrow people’s pain for your books, do it justice and don’t just use it as a romance device, because it is not romantic. This has been my frustrated fist-pump into the media sphere for the week.