Unlicensed to Ill: Navigating the Messy Intersection of Mental Illness, Love, Sex, and Social Justice

By Little Bear ‘The Bearded Lady’ Schwarz cross posted with permission from Guerrilla Feminism

A few weeks ago, I miraculously found the clarity to write this article about a breakup that left me emotionally and financially gutted.  It was concise, and insightful (if overly tidy). So why then did I, just days after I wrote it, fly back off the rails? Why then did I have to spend a 10-day stint in a psychiatric health ward after getting drunk (following year and a half of sobriety), writing a long detailed goodbye letter, and trying to kill myself via asphyxiation – two days in a row?

I’m mentally ill. I’m mentally ill and in the middle of heartbreak and financial ruin. My codependency convinced me it was a personal failure.  My depression told me I deserve it. My anxiety told me it was all my fault. That’s why. The gift of clarity, for me, is fleeting. Insight is a privilege I’ve yet to obtain.

That doesn’t mean, however, that I didn’t learn a few things along the way. The intersection of sexual attraction and societal conditioning, mental illness and ableist platitudes about romance, receiving closure, and emotional health vs the fear of moral failing is a messy one.  I’m here to try and clean that shit up.

Codependency, Ableist Platitudes, and Moral Failing

We’ve ALL heard some incarnation of this old chestnut: “You can’t love someone else until you love yourself.”  We use it to sagely pat ourselves on the back for coming up with a good excuse to not have to date anyone who might burden (read: annoy) us with their mental illness. (I’ve overheard plenty bros warning each other: “Don’t stick your dick in crazy.”) We use it to find some sort of moral causality between being ill and being undeserving of love – or worse, being held responsible for the end of love. I did it. I still struggle not to.

The idea of being “more deserving” than others is a fallacy, as is the measurement of a person’s ability to love another based on their own self-esteem. In fact, the more I hated myself, the more I was able to invest in my relationship because it was a way to avoid facing my personal demons. And that’s where this gets sticky.  Even though I can’t get behind applying such ableist platitudes to society en masse? I’ve unfortunately found that my own mental illness was keeping me from loving with healthy boundaries.

When the relationship began, I was already knee deep in my depression. I didn’t love myself or see myself as complete. The fact that women are taught to seek their other half didn’t help me overcome the feelings that I was, in fact, half a person. Therefore, the more serious we became, the more it affirmed on my behalf that I was a “good” person. I was good because I was loved. I used to look back on our first few dates and recall how I cried at the end of all of them, with misty sentimentality. I now see how they were the seeds of an unhealthy dynamic that were never really confronted until our partnership boiled over.

Does that make me “bad?” Did I “fail” the relationship? Was this “all my fault?” No, no, and no. I, like many other women, was simply caught in the dichotomous expectation of being both The Strong Independent Woman and One Half of a Relationship. Add my chemical imbalance to the mix and you’ve got a mountain that’s impossible for me (for now) to climb.

So how should people go about balancing their own mental faculties and the venture of love? The short answer is, they should do whatever the fuck they want. Blanket statements leave as many people cold as they comfort. Using them as a yardstick for your own self-worth is even worse. That said, I do think, on an individual basis, that it’s worth introspecting – do you see yourself as a whole? No one should go into a relationship seeking their completion. We are already complete.

Sexual Attraction, Social Justice, and Autonomy

Ooh, this one’s a doozy.

I recently stumbled upon an article warning about the dangers of using Social Justice language to justify toxic behaviors – among those being the entitlement of sexual attraction. It was eye-opening and I’m not too proud to admit that I’ve been guilty of some of it. In the case of when someone falls physically out of love with you?  It’s easy to do.  It’s also important, however, to explore why it’s not entirely unfounded.

Here’s the sad, hard truth:  cis men – yes, even the “woke” ones – are programmed to see women as useful as their sex appeal and as disposable as their lack thereof.  It’s often subconscious, and is a lot easier to point out in someone else than to recognize in yourself.  No one is an island and very few people can say that they aren’t influenced in some way by societal conditioning. It doesn’t necessarily make a man “bad,”  but if he’s been built up to be a “good” guy, it’s a quick fall from the pedestal.

This behavior is also excused copiously.  Look at what often happens when men cheat on or leave women.  We ask what the woman did wrong.  Did she cut her hair “too short?” Did she get “too comfortable” and put on weight? Did she “go crazy?” Men get dismissed as committing, at best, “typical male behavior,” and, at worst, as “being dogs.” Either way, personal responsibility isn’t part of the equation. Not for them.

When the dreaded ceasing of sexual attraction claimed me as a victim, I, once again, struggled to not hold myself at fault. Once those feelings directed outward as anger, I struggled to not slander a person as a misogynist for no longer being turned on by me. It’s a fine line, cupcakes.  Did “falling out” just happen? Is it ingrained misogyny telling them I’ve been around too long to remain useful? Is it a little bit of both? We may never find that out. What I can tell you is this: regardless of their reasoning and regardless of how much society’s influence is at play – it is not your fault.  I don’t care what you do with your hair or how much weight you put on. (I’m fully expecting hyperbolic exceptions from devils’ advocates: “what if she put on 300lbs?”  “What if she shaved her head?” My sentiment remains.)

You may not be entitled to be the stirring in someone’s loins forever, but you have the right to be able to do as you wish (or sometimes not wish) with your body without the fear that it makes you undesirable or unlovable. You have the right to question. You have a right to be skeptical. You have the right to be accepted as you are. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Just as mental illness isn’t mine, falling out of lust with me isn’t necessarily their moral failing, either. But it is their loss. I will eventually see what is sensual and beautiful about me. So will someone else. They will have lost that. There is absolutely nothing wrong coming to that as a place of peace.

Closure – the Truth & Myth

I’ve never heard the phrase “closure is a myth” come from any place other than privilege-speak gobbledygook.  Closure is sought by those who need it, and put down by those who don’t. It’s an example of “consider the source.”

For those of us whose anxiety keeps us up at night wondering could have been, what caused the end, and what lies ahead,  hashing out all of the unanswered questions can be healing.  For me, it was necessary. What is important to understand is that closure is not always a mutual understanding or an answer to a question. Closure can also be coming to terms that some things will never be agreed upon, and some questions will never be answered.

Despite finally moving past the initial shock, hurt, and depression-fueled spiral downward that lead to my suicide attempts, and finally coming to a mutual place of tentative friendship? Their narrative and mine will never sync up completely.

Truth is a funny concept – everyone’s is different (you know, like in Rashomon). In the end I let go of my obsession with seeing eye to eye since our visions were no longer directed at each other.  If nothing else, the inability to agree on some details can make the dissolution seem more inevitable, and maybe a little easier to digest.  I left my 10-day stint at the ward with that understanding, and that that understanding was worth staying alive for.

My codependency still wants to tell me I’m failure for losing a partner.  My depression still wants to tell me I’m undeserving of love.  My anxiety still wants to tell me it’s my fault.

In reaction to these messages, my solution, over time, is to simply yell louder: I’m not a failure. I deserve love. The end was not my fault. The end simply was.

Little Bear ‘The Bearded Lady’ Schwarz is a writer, sideshow performer with Wreckless Freeks, opera singer, burlesquer, and artist, and writer. Her work has been featured in Everyday Feminism, Offbeat Home, Ravishly, and The Establishment. She lives in Seattle. Yes, the beard is real.