From merchandising depression to romanticizing Zelda Fitzgerald, treating mental illness as a fun gambit is damaging for those who live with it.
I was seeing a guy from London, and he told me Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were his favorite couple. He was charming, exciting and “got” me. His choice sounded so romantic, so like him.
Obviously I knew who they were, but I wasn’t familiar with the details of their relationship. I lay in bed and Googled eagerly. Was this the kind of great love he envisioned for us?
Zelda Fitzgerald was intensely glamorous and hauntingly beautiful. Scott called her the original flapper. Oh, and they had a turbulent relationship racked with infidelity and excessive drinking: a love affair that ended with her dying after a fire broke out in the mental institution where she was a patient. She was schizophrenic and spent the last of her years hospitalized.
Is this how he saw me? I had clinical depression, not schizophrenia.
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In my head (and, clearly, mine alone) we shared a blind devotion. When the reality of our relationship sank in, he got busy at work fast before disappearing entirely. He told me, over text, that he was “gut-wrenchingly sorry.”
Although the devastation passed, his words lingered.
I pulled up more articles on the Fitzgeralds. The Guardian wrote that Scott Fitzgerald’s “troubled wife” was a “beautiful and damned” socialite, per the title of his second novel, who would be played by Scarlett Johansson in an upcoming drama. The romanticism was bothersome to me.
Elsewhere, on Facebook, an ad for a sale at Skinnydip, a London brand, popped up. It included a cute miniature backpack, emblazoned with the words “I’ve got issues” and embroidered pink roses. The catchy Julia Michaels hit played in my head, her soft voice gently singing, “When I’m down, I get real down,” before breaking into the chorus: “’Cause baby I’ve got issues.”
Looking further, I found gold nameplate necklaces that spell “Anxiety” and “Depression” in a trendy bold italic font, available at ban.do for $48. Their manufacturer claims the pendants will “open a dialogue.” They’re sold out.
The problem with the prettification of mental illness is just how out-of-kilter it is with reality. It’s almost suggested as a desirable character trait for women to have. In my experience, partners find it frustrating, not nearly as endearing and whimsical as these statements and products would suggest.
Don’t expect an honest depiction from television and the movies either. The 1986 movie “Betty Blue” turned men on to a concept of women with mental illness as impossibly chic, French and sexually insatiable. More recently the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why,” which has been commissioned for a third season, has explored the reasons a pretty high-school teenager takes her own life from the point of view of her classmate and colleague Clay, who is in love with her.
Clay “sure has a thing for complicated girls,” one character on the show says. But the conceit falls apart when you replace mental illness with something physical. “You sure have a thing for girls with respiratory problems” doesn’t work. Nor do I forecast Skinnydip achieving the same sales results with accessories that read “I have Lyme disease.”
At the beginning of “13 Reasons Why” season two, a popular cheerleader named Jessica returns to school to face her rapist. Her pal reassures her, “You’re pretty and sad, people love that,” as if sadness only added to her magnetism and allure.
At least Lena Dunham’s character Hannah Horvath, suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder on “Girls,” presented mental illness in an unvarnished way (remember the Q-tip scene?). Still, when Hannah calls her boyfriend (Adam Driver) to tell him she’s “unraveling,” he runs the streets of New York to be with her. His topless chiseled torso is slightly dampened and glistens under the beam of streetlights. Upon arriving at her apartment, he boots down the door and scoops her up into his safe muscular arms. Really?
My experience was closer to Miss Havisham’s in “Great Expectations.” Only instead of refusing to take off a wedding gown, it was a worn-out robe I rattled around in, with one of the pockets hanging loose.
The limp fabric that used to form a pocket now dangled free, because my depleted partner ripped it off in a fight. A fight in which he begged and pleaded with me to take it off, only for a day, only so he could wash it, like a spent parent bargaining with a toddler to eat just one spoon of those vegetables. I wanted to be alone, but I was nothing like Greta Garbo.
Seeing or experiencing illness makes any glamorization of it entirely ridiculous. Depression is not an effective way of ensnaring a man. Nor is it a love song to bop along with, a fashionable illness, or a fad for bloggers to wear for a few weeks, post about on Instagram, favorite and then disregard.