Discover more from Sarah Fay
🎧Your Happy, Stable Romantic Relationship
You can start reading ‘Cured’ anywhere.
Be part of the solution to the current mental health crisis. Each free subscription sends a message to the media and publishers that people are interested in learning more about mental health recovery. Subscribe to and share ‘Cured.’
🎧 Listen to Sarah read this installment of Cured:
I straighten my skirt and enter the café. Matt’s already there, waiting. He sits at the counter, a full cup of hot chocolate in front of him. The cafe isn’t crowded. He stands and hugs me, pressing his body against mine. Definitely not a friendly hug. I think people call this lust. How long has it been—a decade?—since anyone hugged me like this?
At the counter, I order a cappuccino, which the barista starts to make with glacial slowness.
This is the third mistake I make in my recovery from mental illness. The first: believing that I couldn’t continue in therapy because (supposedly, to my misguided brain) mentally healthy people aren’t in therapy. The second: thinking I needed to be off my meds. Neither, it turns out is true.
This time, my logic goes something like this: If I can be in a romantic relationship it will mean I’ve recovered from serious mental illness. Isn’t that the sign of mental wellness—being in a happy, stable romantic relationship? Don’t you need to be mentally healthy to cohabitate and compromise and commit? Certainly someone with a fragile mind, someone who’s been chronically suicidal and hasn’t been able to live independently and has instead been living with her mother would be considered too disabled to even think of partnering with another human.
I turn back to Matt, who’s looking at me with such longing, my face flushes and I turn away. We met on a dating app years ago. We won’t talk for six months or a year and then get together, always with that underlying sexual tension. Nothing’s ever happened.
The barista finishes frothing the milk for my coffee and expertly fluffs it into the cup. I pay and sit on the stool next to Matt. He tells me about the house he’s building on his farm.
To say we have nothing in common is an understatement. He was once a trader who retired at forty-five and now farms soybeans in Michigan. He also sails on racing teams. His hobbies include being outdoors and hunting, which he says he does responsibly though I’ve never been able to understand how killing animals for sport is responsible.
I’ve spent the past twenty-five years reading, writing, and teaching others how to read and write while battling mental illness. Most of my energy has gone toward managing manic nights of pacing the streets of Brooklyn, the compulsive need to eat only one color of food, racing thoughts that tell me I’m dying, and depressions so thick I’ve had to duck into Chicago alleys and cry. I’ve tried to make sense of my thoughts and feelings, those ineffable parts of us, via diagnoses and initialisms (GAD, OCD, MDD, ADHD, BP, etc.).
“I’m ready now,” Matt says, smiling sheepishly, and I wonder what he’s ready for. “I’m ready to settle down.” He’s almost fifty, balding but attractively so, and has never been in a long-term relationship. “Well, not marry, but…” He gives me a look: I would have sex with you right now. After a beat: “I’ve missed you.”
This seems unlikely, given we’ve collectively spent maybe fifteen hours together, but my stomach flutters. It’s a dull flutter because I’ve taken a healthy dose of Klonopin to be here. It has me feeling open, not so much at ease but easy. And it feels good to be wanted.
He knows about my illness—though not the depths of it. The last time we saw each other, sitting in this same café, I blurted out my current diagnosis—reckless, wanting to see what would happen. Would he say, oh in a tone that makes the word sound more like ick, and lean back in his chair, establishing a little more space between us? No, he was unfazed, practically oblivious. His uncle, he said, was bipolar too. He loved his uncle.
“I think we should…try,” he says. “Long distance.”
He leans over, and we kiss. The thought I can do this meets another—This is all wrong.
I don’t know it then, but much of the reason I equate being in a relationship with normalcy (which I then equate with health) comes from America’s couple-obsessed culture. Our marriage/relationship fascination has not just one name but two: amatonormativity and matrimania (my favorite). The cultural conversation insists that being married is something to strive for (at least for women), and studies show that most Americans want to be in a serious relationship and cohabitate—for better or worse, till death do them part.
One of the most potent cultural myths is that having a partner makes a person happy, healthy, and fulfilled. It doesn’t. Married people aren’t any happier. (The studies that said married people are happier were found to be flawed.) A single person is just as likely to be healthy as someone legally bound to another person is. For some time, it was assumed that married people were more likely to survive cancer because they were married; it turns out it’s because doctors are biased against single people. Doctors presume we don’t have the social support to survive more aggressive treatments and therefore aren’t as likely to recommend them.
A third of Americans are single by choice. Half of all singletons (a stupid name) don’t even pine for coupledom. Ninety million Americans exist dating-app-free and get to live in a home where the household tasks are done exactly how they like them.
I never asked myself if coupledom was really essential to a happy, fulfilling, healthy life. I just assumed it was. And in my attempt at mental health recovery, thinking that way made me go very far astray.
Michigan Avenue is crowded with shoppers. Christmas music comes from speakers mounted to one of the streetlights. I’m nearly at the hotel where I’ll meet Matt.
We text daily—me more than him, me much more than him—and have decided to spend the night together. His farm is an hour-and-a-half drive away and I don’t drive. My apartment just didn’t feel right.
He meets me in the hotel lobby, which buzzes with tourist energy. We hug that same hug. It might be romantic except my heart hurts, and I believe I’m dying. I should know it’s a panic attack surging through my chest and mind, but a panic attack only causes panic because it pretends to be something else.
Luckily, a Klonopin has started to settle me in a soupy way. It’s like being there but not there.
At a sushi restaurant, we have California rolls and awkward conversation. Then we go back to the hotel. After we have sex, the Klonopin and the heavy curtains make the room seem like it’s not there either. I don’t sleep. He does—heavily. Another Klonopin. A little sleep.
Morning comes, and all I want is to escape. Be alone. Walk in the cold. Gingerly, I dress. He doesn’t stir. In the elevator, I text him to say I had to go and thank him for such a wonderful evening. I xx and oo, wondering if that’s too many x’s or too many o’s.
By the afternoon, he still hasn’t texted. My mood swings. Walking, I feel heavy and brittle at the same time. I text. No response. I text again. Soon, the need to hear from him takes hold of my mind like a vice and tightens.
I text again. My mind goes on repeat, texting and checking again and again for the red notification bubble that says everything’s okay, I’m okay, he’s there and we’re together and I’m recovering.
I’ve become the dreaded “desperate” woman. In a romantic relationship, it’s the worst thing you can be. Magazines, websites, and morning talk shows devote whole articles and posts and segments to instructing women on how not to appear desperate. According to Brian Alexander, a writer who’s covered sex and relationships for NBC and Glamour and elsewhere (so many places), men actually have a “neediness radar system” that allows them to “home in on sexually deprived women.” (Who knew they had such extra-sensory gifts?) The desperate woman gives off “telltale signs.” She shows too much affection, dresses scantily, comes on too strong, and buys too many gifts. And, of course, she texts too much.
But I’m way past the point of “seeming” desperate and besides, I’ve felt real desperation. Those nights sitting on the edge of my bed with the pill bottle in my hand. That day walking by the lake trying to figure out how I might avoid having my body wash up on shore.
The despair I feel now is mild and mostly about control. I need him to do what I want—play a role and prove I’m mentally healthy or at least mentally okay. Later, much later, I’ll learn that only I can do this.
Enjoying ‘Cured’? Read the prequel, ‘Pathological’ (HarperCollins):
Continue to Chapter 11.