One of the things that endlessly frustrates me about some YA novels that revolve around themes of mental health is the idea that the love interest, or romance itself, can “cure” mental illness. Don’t get me wrong — I love reading books to do with mental illness because I think they’re so important and powerful. Not only can they help those battling to see that they’re not alone in feeling how they do and that there’s always hope and someone who loves you, but also to educate other readers about the reality of living with a mental illness. It’s not sunshines and rainbows, and it’s certainly not romantic. I wrote a post about how self-harm is often glamorised or romanticised in the media and our literature, but today I’m going to be discussing how harmful it is to portray mental illness as something that can be “cured” when you fall in love, or when the “right person” comes along and saves you.
A book I was reading recently called Optimists Die First really got me thinking about the place romance has in novels that are attempting to give an accurate and raw portrayal about what it’s like to live with a mental illness. I’m not saying that there should be a ban on love in these sorts of novels, or books with these themes, but I strongly believe that love should never be written as “the thing that saves you” from your mental illness. While we didn’t see our protagonist “cured” from her social anxiety and OCD (though the OCD isn’t given a label in the narrative), the love interest had some dubious motives for why he wanted to become close with her, and as their relationship grew, Petula’s symptoms were seen to recede. All because of “love”.
If there’s a love that I’d be happy to see more of in YA novels about mental illness is the love and support given by friends and family. There’s so much emphasis placed on romantic love in helping one “cope with” or “overcome” their mental illness, but to me, that seems very unrealistic and potentially hurtful. It sends readers the message that falling in love with “cure” your mental illness, and even that you’re a lesser person because of the battles you’re facing, as you become “whole” when you meet that “special someone” that changes your life for the better. It’s awfully clichéd, and exceptionally trite. I’ve had enough of these types of books.
For a long time, before I could understand that books had more of a responsibility to readers than just providing them with entertainment, I didn’t recognise the problematic elements entrenched in my favourite novels. I overlooked what parts could be hurtful, or were subliminally filling me with a false idea of what falling in love when you’re battling a mental illness would be like. And while I don’t want to bore you with my life story, I have depression and anxiety (though I like to think of myself as “recovering” rather than those still being an active part of my life) and I feel that reading the literature I did during that time gave me a warped perspective of what my life should be like. I was in a dark place for a long time, and it definitely wasn’t like how some of the novels described. There were days I couldn’t get out of bed. There were days I wanted to end it all. And falling in love didn’t “fix” me.
When I fell in love for the first time, I was naive and foolish. I was in a dark place, and I honestly thought this boy could “cure” me, like what happened in all the books I’d been reading. And at first, I thought his love and support was helping me. I told him everything, and he didn’t judge me. Or so I thought. He didn’t think my scars made me broken, or unfixable. Or so I thought. But by the time we’d been together for just over a year, it was clear he’d been getting sick of me all along. One night after a fight he cracked and spewed everything he was really thinking the whole time. He was one of the main reasons why I could fathom getting up in the morning, and when he told me what he must have been thinking all along, I realised that the books had got it wrong. Love doesn’t cure you. Another person can’t save you. Only you can save you.
So understandably, I’m very conscious of novels romanticising mental illness now, and I despise books that insinuate that falling in love can “cure” you. Including Optimists Die First. I’m not going to spoil the “twist” for you, but when Petula’s symptoms basically disappeared after she got with her Romeo, I couldn’t help but feel angry. When you’re living with a mental illness, your symptoms don’t just disappear once you fall in love, and I honestly felt that’s what Optimists Die First was insinuating.
If there was one thing I liked about Optimists Die First, it’d be the amputee representation shown in one of the main characters. We definitely need more YA novels with amputee representation, and for that this novel should be commended. However, there were a couple of jibes towards amputees said by the amputee themselves which could be considered hurtful, and you should be cautious when reading. Ultimately, Optimists Die First wasn’t a book I enjoyed and could be quite harmful for some readers, so please take that into consideration if you decide to pick it up.
Have you read Optimists Die First, or any other books that seem to show a character’s mental illness to be “cured” by love? What place do you think romance has in novels that are centred around mental health issues? What are some YA novels that portray mental illness realistically? I’d love to know!
Thanks to Penguin Australia for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!
Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen
Petula has avoided friendship and happiness ever since tragedy struck her family and took her beloved younger sister Maxine. Worse, Petula blames herself. If only she’d kept an eye on her sister, if only she’d sewn the button Maxine choked on better, if only…
Now her anxiety is getting out of control, she is forced to attend the world’s most hopeless art therapy class. But one day, in walks the Bionic Man: a charming, amazingly tall newcomer called Jacob, who is also an amputee. Petula’s ready to freeze him out, just like she did with her former best friend, but when she’s paired with Jacob for a class project, there’s no denying they have brilliant ideas together – ideas like remaking Wuthering Heights with cats.
But Petula and Jacob each have desperately painful secrets in their pasts – and when the truth comes out, there’s no way Petula is ready for it.