The Blog

Almost Like Salvation: Why Love Alone Is Not the Cure for Mental Illness

Love is not a cure for mental illness, in that the simple presence of love in someone's life will never be able to change the fact that they are mentally ill, or the way in which their illness presents itself. The presence of love alone is not what cures ailments, or heals wounds, or makes a life worth living.

When I was fourteen years old I was miserable and I craved escapism, similar to perhaps almost every other fourteen year old growing up in a landlocked provincial town. I existed in a persistent state of melancholy. My favourite song was 'Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want' by The Smiths, and I listened to it on repeat every day via my old battered Walkman. The Walkman fit perfectly into the pocket of my school blazer so I would listen to the song - perhaps as blunt of an ode to longing as you will ever find - as I walked between classes, as I travelled on the school bus, as I ate my lunch. I'll put it bluntly: I moped. I moped so very hard. I suppose it was a special kind of talent. I devoured films and books, anything that would temporarily transport me from the slope-ceilinged bedroom I shared with my sister in a house that was never quiet.

They were rarely happy occurrences, my forays into escapism. The books I read and the films I watched were all touched with danger, with mortality, and especially with sadness; but the difference was that it was someone else's sadness, and therefore it offered me a brief respite from my own. One of the books that particularly affected me at that time was the now-infamous young adult novel 'The Perks of Being a Wallflower'. Perhaps now more well-known for the eye-rollingly childlike naivety of its protagonist - I mean, his initial response to discovering the modern miracle of masturbation is simply to state the word 'Wow!' over and over again - there is nevertheless a line in the book that impacted me so much that I returned to it many times after completing the novel. After the protagonist witnesses his sister being hit by her boyfriend and tells his father, there is silence before the father responds by informing him that "we accept the love we think we deserve". I still think about it now, whenever my mind wanders towards the shadowy terrain that connects mental illness and love - and as a recent successfully-medicated manic depressive with delusions of grandeur and moments of immobilising self-hatred, this is sadly more often than I would perhaps initially be prepared to admit.

There is something about confessing to thoughts of love, of desire and wanting to be loved, and acknowledging the absence of some forms of love within my life that I have always viewed as a weakness. It is a weakness that only I possess. I am both jealous of and irritated by how easily other people seem to welcome love, in all of its many forms, into their lives. We accept the love we think we deserve. In the context of the book, this means that we accept 'bad' forms of love because we do not view ourselves as being worthy of anything else. It is, simply put, a clever rewording of the common belief that if you can't love yourself, then how can you expect anyone else to love you? Why should they have to bear all of that weight? As someone who is mentally ill, this idea has always terrified me, but perhaps not in the way that most people would assume. I am not scared of being incapable of love, or of feeling that I do not deserve it. When I am not ill, when my bipolar disorder is well-medicated and rewards me with long stretches of lucidity and clarity, I know that I am a person, neither brilliant nor doomed, and that I am loved. Being unloved is not what scares me. What scares me is knowing that love alone is not a cure - will never be a cure - for mental illness.

Society teaches us from birth that love is all, love is a jewel, love is very often the only thing that can cure us from our many ailments. It's what symphonies were written about. It's what saved Harry Potter, time and time again. Numerous biblical figures killed for love: so did Myra Hindley. It is perhaps one of the few driving forces that is shared throughout the world. Love is powerful, love is the drug, love is all you need. So much importance is placed on the healing capabilities of love: we live in a world where self-help books have now outsold every genre of text other than the Bible, which I'd probably label as the ultimate self-help book. The question of how to fix yourself, how to live a better life, always seems to arrive at the same conclusion in those books: love yourself first, and everything else will follow. This obviously presents somewhat of a problem when you're mentally ill. 'Loving myself' seems laughable on the days where even getting out of bed is unbearable. At best, it is a pleasant thought, but one that I have never seriously entertained. No problem, society answers. You don't have to love yourself. Other people will love you, and then they will remind you that they love you, and you will be cured. You may think you are worthless, but here is undeniable proof that you are not.

The only issue with this line of thought is that the love you receive from others will never be a viable cure to mental illness, as long as the hatred you feel for yourself continues to outweigh it. It's a particularly kind of cruelty, to be unable to stop hating yourself even when you are abound with love. It feels like a failure. I remember my mother repeating to me, "but I love you, we all love you", and how even through the fog of dead-eyed suicidal depression I felt like I had failed her. How painful it must be to hear from your child, or any loved one, that your love is not enough to alleviate their sadness. How painful it is to be that child, to be unable to control the parts of yourself that respond to love, are capable of loving. To be fully aware that the pain that your mind inflicts on you far outweighs any love that any person could ever offer, and how this is another way in which you have failed.

Love is not a cure for mental illness, in that the simple presence of love in someone's life will never be able to change the fact that they are mentally ill, or the way in which their illness presents itself. The presence of love alone is not what cures ailments, or heals wounds, or makes a life worth living. The actions that come from love, however, are small cures. The ability to recognise when someone is unwell, when someone needs medication, when someone is experiencing a self-hatred so profound that they can no longer function. To be willing and able to unlearn what society has taught you, the myth that simply loving someone throughout the bad times will be enough to save them. To recognise that the acceptance of love is a tangled, difficult thing for some people, and that being unable to show gratitude for love does not mean that it is not felt, and felt strongly and purely. To keep on loving despite this, because to love honestly is to realise that there is rarely a tangible reward for your actions. It is, to quote David Foster Wallace, "unsexy". Love is not a cure, but the absence of love is an ailment to which there is no known antidote but to love: even though, despite, in spite of, because you should, because you want to, because you meant to.