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Romanticizing demons: Why mental illness is NOT a character trait

Jun. 20, 2017
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My father likes to tell me how much I’ve changed over the years. When he looks at me, he no longer sees the daughter who used to wait with her face pressed against the glass of the door of her childhood home, waiting for him to walk in and wrap her up in a hug.     

I am no longer the little girl who stole cookies from the top of the cabinet by climbing up the shelves and stretching her narrow arms up until they ached just to feel the rush of sugar across her tongue when the cookie melted from her lips and down her throat. 

He no longer sees the little girl who used to worship him and his opinions, who believed he was the smartest man in the world and would give anything just to make him happy.

My father tells me this little girl is dead, and she will not be coming back.

She was murdered by the person who took up residence in his daughter’s body during her freshman and sophomore years of high school, coming of age with a diagnosis strapped to her brain and a fading heartbeat, a ceaseless desire to give it all up to let go of the way she ached inside of her chest. 

I had been diagnosed as both Anorexic and Bipolar. I hated myself, and I would give anything to give myself away to become somebody else. I hated everything I'd see when I looked in the mirror, recounting every moment I'd spent attempting to avoid dinner conversation or outings with friends that involved food or it’s discussion. I hated the way my mother cried when the skirt we had sewn together just a few months before fell loosely around my hips, eventually slipping down to the floor as my body continued it’s disappearing act. 

I would give anything back to forget the way all of these things made me feel, the way that they changed who I was and who I have become as a human being. It has influenced my life more than I ever thought possible, yet without it, I know that I would still be my father’s daughter, unafraid and unshaken by life much earlier than I had been.

In modern pop culture, there is an increasing amount of artists using a character’s mental illness to give them a more significant amount of depth, causing them to be considered a person more rare and special, whether through their romantic relationships or interactions with others. 

It is becoming commonplace to see girls with Anorexia on screen who require the love and support of someone else in order to love their bodies again, or the man with Schizophrenia who needs only the gentle touch of the person he loves to become at ease with the monsters at play in his mind causing his hallucinations and frightening terrors.

These assertions are false. 

Mental illness should never be used as an identity, a perk, or way to make a person seem significant to the audience or reader. There is so much more to human beings -- with and without mental illness -- and by blatantly ignoring the other, much more significant and powerful aspects of a character, we are creating a system of poor representation for those who have been diagnosed with illnesses they battle on a day to day basis and do not use for the benefit of seeming deeper and more interesting as a human being.

I have come across a variety of people who describe themselves as “self diagnosed” with depression, bipolar disorder, or even as psychotic, claiming that they themselves are suffering on a daily basis and cannot go on. 

They do not seek help. 

They do not consult a doctor. 

They do not think for more than a second about what it means to really be sick and require the assistance of a professional to make you feel like a human being again. 

They do not seem to understand what it feels like to know you will never really be whole again because you are trapped with the memories of your past sickness on replay over and over again inside your head, like water filling your lungs and constantly lapping for air that you will never again reach. 

They do not understand the look that their father gives them when he tells them they have changed and they will never be the same as they were before.

An imaginary diagnosis, romanticized by the media and those seeking attention, is cured as easily as discontinuing stating that you are sick.

Example of something as serious as cutting yourself being portrayed as "art."

A real diagnosis and recovery requires so much more than the glamor portrayed on screen and in the conversations of artists struggling to find their own depth, simply choosing to create it for themselves instead. 

As someone who has been through the highs and lows of sickness, diagnosis, treatment, and recovery, I mean it when I say I would give it all back to banish those two years of my life from my memory forever and eliminate all of the little dark thoughts that have hung around even after the recovery process is long over. Each day, I realize how much I lost during those two years of my life and how much I continue to lose in the years that have come afterwards, simply because my father was right. 

I am not that little girl anymore, and I am still learning to grow and welcome new things back into my life to brighten it up again. 

We as media creators and viewers have to begin to look past the creations of relationships and characters built solely on the idea that mental illness only manifests itself in one way, that those with mental illness are somehow more interesting and fetishized, and that the cure for the illness is the love and support of someone else. If we forget to show the reality involved in the recovery process and the depths to which a person must dive in order to see the light again, we will continue to see those who are sick as the way we see them currently, never evolving to become something bigger than a misrepresentation or a conversational point of interest. 

Representation of mental illness is not going to be easy, but it’s going to be worth it, so that someday we may treat it with the same normalcy we treat a common cold: curable, no longer feared, and something that makes up such a small part of who someone is and who they will someday become. 

Maybe even giving a chance for that little girl to come back again.