Today on the site I’m pleased to welcome Jude Sierra, author of A Tiny Piece of Something Greater, to talk about a common but harmful trope in literature: love as a cure for mental illness. Before we get to the post, here’s the info on the book:
Reid Watsford has a lot of secrets and a past he can’t quite escape. While staying at his grandmother’s condo in Key Largo, he signs up for introductory dive classes, where he meets Joaquim Oliveira, a Brazilian dive instructor with wanderlust. Driven by an instant, magnetic pull, what could have been just a hookup quickly deepens. As their relationship evolves, they must learn to navigate the challenges of Reid’s mental illness on their own and with each other.
And here’s the post!
There’s a popular trope I see in media. Movies, books, and television shows often depict falling in love or starting a relationship as a catalyst for fixing or curing someone with mental illness. The burdens or struggles of a character’s illness cease in the light of love. This is a dangerously misleading and painful narrative to perpetuate for many reasons, including the implication that there’s “fixing” to be done. It implies that someone with mental illness cannot be loved as they are, setting up false and damaging expectations. It requires an alteration to an aspect of who we are to be worthy of love. As someone with mental illness who sought out stories with mentally ill characters for years, this trope really drove home several key ideas. Love never “fixed” or “cured” me. Even in love and loved, nothing went away. I constantly searched for myself in stories and walked away feeling more hopeless and broken. Love hadn’t changed what couldn’t be changed.
I was nineteen when I met my husband. It was my sophomore year of college and while I knew I was struggling, there was nothing about that struggle that felt unusual. I’d been low before. There were days when I couldn’t get out of bed. In my entire, perfectionist, over-achieving life, I actually came close to failing classes. I called in “sick” to work so often I almost lost my job.
But I’d been worse. I wasn’t self-harming. I wasn’t in an abusive relationship anymore.
On our one year anniversary, I remember turning to him and saying, “This has been the best year of my life.” It had; perhaps because feeling bad felt so normal that my bar for “bad” was set at a different level than that of others. What I remembered most that year was the way I was loved, the kindness and care, the sweetness we shared. Being loved like that was a completely new experience for me.
But when I said that, he cried. He tried to explain, but it was something I never really understood until years later, once I’d begun to understand the scope of my mental illness, and once I began working on recovery. That year was a test for him in a way I wasn’t able to appreciate; watching my depression, watching me navigate a strained relationship with my parents, watching me struggle with absolutely no self-esteem and very little self-worth.
We’ve been together for almost 17 years now, and in that time, we’ve seen and been through a lot. We were together for years before I confessed that I self-harmed, before I ever confessed to having suicidal ideations, and before I ever articulated what my highs and lows felt like. He loved me unconditionally through years when I suffered in silence; I never doubted that love, and it never altered basic truths about who I am. There was no way that any amount of love between us or from him that could have prevented the eventual mental breakdown I had in the wake of a serious postpartum depression.
In many ways, Reid’s story in A Tiny Piece of Something Greater is my own. While I was in long term psychiatric care I worked with a team of professionals in order to find a diagnosis, cyclothemia, a rare mental illness that can be very hard to articulate and see. I learned skills and how to fight, actively, for my own wellness. After I came home my husband and I had to learn to reorient and rework every aspect of our relationship.
There were many lessons and takeaways I can mine from these experiences, one which is very, very important to me. Love is not a cure.
When I first imagined Reid’s story I committed to writing a book about what it is like to live with mental illness, to work recovery, to relearn living, and also, to fall in love, I knew that writing about falling in love would be the fun part. But personally, one of the biggest draws to this story was the idea of exploring what it means to stay in love in these circumstances. In my own experience, navigating a mood disorder such a cyclothemia involves being attuned to subtle cues that my moods are going to swing or are unstable. As someone who works their wellness and recovery the way that I do (constant practice, willingness and strength) it can be chafing or irritating when others try to tell me what they’re seeing or perceiving. It feel like they don’t trust me to know what’s best. But the truth is that sometimes I cannot see the forest for the trees, and the tension these situations cause are very real.
These are moments I wanted to highlight for Reid and Joaquim. The reality of being in love in these situations is that there will be tensions and struggle, and that finding the right person—even the perfect person—for you won’t make those things go away. On the flip side, writing characters who cared for each other so much, for whom falling in love was so beautiful, that writing them learning and struggling to communicate was its own joy. A Tiny Piece of Something Greater was a balancing act: I tried my hardest to represent as accurately as possible the experience of everyday mental illness, but also, the realistic power of love.
A Tiny Piece of Something Greater is a love story, true, but it’s also a story about a boy learning to thrive and manage a new life and recovery. Falling in love with Joaquim enriches Reid’s life just as much as falling for Reid enriches Joaquim’s life. Their love story is just beginning. What A Tiny Piece of Something Greater tries to achieve is a depiction of the first steps of many that people in a loving relationship must take.
Seventeen years into my own relationship, I can look back at this life my husband and I have made made and understand that what we have is a love story and a relationship I am proud of. When I look back at my own life, what I see is a story about surviving my mental illness and right now, absolutely thriving. And that thriving? Our love is a part of that narrative, but isn’t responsible for it. It is not what my wellness hinges on. The most important factor in my wellness is me. In this book, it’s Reid. I can’t say enough about how wonderful it was to write Reid and Joaquim’s love story; but separately, how much it means to me to have written this story that reflects an honest truth. Love doesn’t cure or fix; it supports. It supplements. It enriches.
Jude Sierra is a Latinx poet, author, academic and mother working toward her PhD in Writing and Rhetoric, looking at the intersections of Queer, Feminist and Pop Culture Studies. She also works as an LGBTQAI+ book reviewer for From Top to Bottom Reviews. Her novels include Hush, What it Takes, and Idlewild, a contemporary LGBT romance set in Detroit’s renaissance, which was named a Best Book of 2016 by Kirkus Reviews. Her most recent novel, A Tiny Piece of Something Greater was released in May of 2018.