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🎧Your Perfect Romantic Weekend Getaway
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What is mental health? I asked myself this question many times during my recovery from serious mental illness. For twenty-five years, doctors had medicalized my mental and emotional pain. Those diagnoses said I was sick, but how would I know when I was well? We don’t talk about mental health recovery. Psychiatry doesn’t have a manual for it. The media doesn’t run segments about it. Journalists rarely write about it.
Like many people, I was trying to recover on my own. At first, I assumed it meant going off medication and leaving therapy. It turns out recovery requires neither.
Then I made another mistake. I confused mental health with meeting societal expectations—specifically, the pressure to be in a romantic relationship, a.k.a. amatonormativity. Heterosexual single women are often perceived as being somehow defective and probably mentally unstable if they aren’t in one. In the dating world, the worst thing a woman can be is “psycho.” The potentially “crazy girlfriend” must be dumped and returned to singledom where she belongs.
It wouldn’t be till much later that I’d learn that recovery looks different for each person, and being “normal” or socially acceptable isn’t part of it.
The plan is to spend the weekend at Matt’s farm. It seems like a good idea. Matt drove to Chicago to pick me up. It’s one of the coldest Januarys on record.
Once we’re off the highway, Matt’s truck skids on the ice. Driving painfully slowly through this tiny town in Michigan (town is an overstatement; it’s more of a depot), we pass a seemingly vacant church, a closed feed store, and the Freedom Bar & Grill.
I’m not in danger (Matt and I have been dating for a few weeks and I’ve known him for years), but when we pull into the driveway, I realize I’m trapped. There’s no way out of here without a car.
His house is one story and has the feel of a storage unit. The kitchen and living room are one open space. Then there’s a bedroom, Matt’s study, and a bathroom.
There’s no heat. Well, there’s heat but only from the wood stove in Matt’s living room. He likes to keep his house cool, he says. To save money. And he likes the wood stove, likes the challenge of heating the entire house with it.
Even after an hour, it’s not see-your-breath cold but cold enough that my long underwear beneath my jeans, the camisole and turtleneck under my wool sweater, and the double pair of socks on my feet aren’t enough. I put on my down coat.
He watches a football game on TV. I’ve never owned a TV. (Movies and streaming are beautiful things.) The sound of the commercials is like nails on a chalkboard to me.
I try to write. I’m working on a novel—a thriller—that’s not particularly thrilling. I get nowhere, so I read workshop submissions from the Introduction to Creative Writing class I’m teaching.
My mind races: I want out. I want to go home. Two days. How will I make it through the night and then a day and then another night? Why am I there? I’m sick. I’m a sick person. That’s why I feel this way. I’m bipolar. I’m—
Or maybe this just sucks, and I’m not interested.
It’s as difficult to find an agreed-upon definition of romantic love as it is to pinpoint when it started. If we go with the American Psychological Association’s definition, it’s “a type of love in which intimacy and passion are prominent features” and the beloved is idealized. The idealized part seems like it will always lead to trouble. (The meaning of intimacy is slightly unsettling—“an interpersonal state of extreme emotional closeness such that each party’s personal space can be entered by any of the other parties without causing discomfort to that person”—though the fact that I find it unsettling probably says a lot about me and my need for “alone time.”) Marriages occurred in Ancient Greece though Plato said the highest form of love is non-sexual. The Prophet Mohammad and his beloved Aisha are thought to be proof that romantic love existed in the pre-Islamic era. Most scholars place the beginnings of romance in the Middle Ages when it was a mix of spiritual attainment and knightly chivalry. During the twelfth century, French poets invented l’amour courtois (courtly love) though that had nothing to do with marriage.
We assume romantic love is endemic to all beings. Yet we can’t know if animals feel it. And pair-bonding e.g., “swans mate for life,” isn’t the same as “being in love.” (Swans, by the way, don’t all mate for life; sadly, they break up and have swan affairs.) Our closest relative, chimps, don’t couple. Evolutionary biologists convincingly argue that humans learned to bond and form communities in order to pool resources and make other humans, but that’s about perpetuating the species, not chocolate, roses, and an expensive dinner on Valentine’s Day.
Elizabeth Brake, a philosophy professor at Arizona State and the author of Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality, and the Law coined the term amatonormativity to describe “the assumptions that a central, exclusive, amorous relationship is normal for humans, in that it is a universally shared goal, and that such a relationship is normative, in that it should be aimed at in preference to other relationship types.”
Amatonormativity is everywhere. It’s the dominant ideology in heterosexual relationships, the LGBTQ+ community (except those who identify as asexual and aromantic), and many polyamorous relationships. It makes bad rom-coms a box office draw. It’s the reason comically uncomfortable lingerie exists.
It also tells single people there’s something wrong with them. The message is that even a toxic or abusive relationship is better than being alone.
Despite the “madness” often associated with passion, I equated romantic love with being acceptable and normal and normality with mental health.
We make dinner. He chops peppers. Whack! Whack! Whack! We eat.
Afterward, we sit on the couch. Matt looks at the ceiling. I do too. I didn’t notice, but twenty, maybe fifty flies have come from somewhere and buzz around the light. Matt gets a fly swatter, stands on the couch, and starts at them: swat, swat, swat.
“This happens at night,” he says. Swat! Swat!
“In the winter?” I ask.
Then it’s as if the night is inside me: depression mixed with mania mixed with anxiety, maybe mixed with something else. My depression isn’t like other people’s—or at least not the way I hear people talk about it or the way it’s portrayed on TV. It doesn’t cause me to stay in bed all day. My depression is jagged and sharp. Black, yes, and heavy but charged with irritability and passive-aggression.
Pressure builds in my chest. I’m there, but I’m not there. My cheeks go numb. A thought: I’m going to die out here. There’s a rushing energy behind my ribcage. I can’t catch my breath.
Part of the problem is that I never considered what recovered/mentally healthy means to me. I should have thought about the terms mental health, mental wellness, and mental well-being, so I understood what I was aiming for.
The WHO states that mental health is “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” Realize our potential, cope with stress, be productive, and be good citizens? Really? That seems like a very high bar to set.
Other definitions aren’t as stringent but are also not widely accepted. Mental health can also refer to our overall mental, emotional, social, and behavioral well-being. Merriam-Webster’s definition is often seen as problematic: “the condition of being sound mentally and emotionally that is characterized by the absence of mental illness.” The WHO and others have taken pains to refute this description, stating that mental health isn’t just the absence of a mental disorder or a disability. I can be bipolar and have good mental health, i.e., manage my illness.
Then there’s mental wellness, which is basically mental health meets capitalism. Mental wellness is an industry with an economy that brings in $121 billion each year. It associates our mental stability with our ability to create value and revenue for a company. Its week-long mental health breaks are meant to combat burnout, which, in turn, increases profits. The term appears on job postings and corporate websites to signal on-the-job perks and “health-focused workplace environments.” It indicates medical benefits, time off, and life insurance. It can mean luxury: corporate massages, in-office meditation breaks, and catered gourmet meals. It’s epitomized by Googleplex, a corporate campus flush with tennis and volleyball courts, organic gardens, and “nap pods.”
Mental well-being has complex layers of meaning and a long history. Although it can be traced back to ancient Greece, it didn’t fully emerge until the post-WWII era. The 1940s saw the ratification of the National Mental Health Act and the creation of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Mental well-being—particularly hedonic well-being, i.e., how we find meaning, has been a subject of research by psychologists and sociologists ever since. Simply put, well-being is quality of life. It can be divided into two subtypes: objective well-being (how we’re judged by others) and subjective well-being (how we judge ourselves). Recovery entails the latter.
Meanwhile, I’m in a strange house with someone I barely know with a whole lot of flies swarming around the ceiling.
The flies continue to buzz as Matt turns out the lights. We go to bed. I manage to sleep but wake impossibly early. It’s still dark. Something isn’t right—not in my mind but in my body. Pain lingers in my lower abdomen. Any woman who’s had a urinary tract infection will tell you the feeling is unmistakable.
I wake Matt and tell him I need to go home.
He gets out of bed—naked—and hugs me. I feel him—his warmth. Has he been this welcoming the whole time? I wanted him to show me I’m well, better, which he can’t do. He’s not a “shitty guy,” just someone with preferences and a singular way of interacting with the world. There’s a woman out there who likes rural environments and doesn’t mind flies.
The two-hour drive back to Chicago is excruciating. A look of concern occupies Matt’s face. He drops me off. I go to Immediate Care and get antibiotics. They make everything better. A simple remedy.
A week later, I’m walking my usual route through the park. Same path every day: from my apartment past the Benjamin Franklin monument, around the pond, along the lagoon to a tree I ritualistically loop, and then back again. The zoo sits just west of me. It’s free, but I never go through it. Not on my usual route. No deviating from the path.
Recovery is different for each person. It doesn’t have uniform requirements. William Anthony, who founded Boston University’s Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, put it this way: “Recovery is described as a deeply personal, unique process of changing one’s attitudes, values, feelings, goals, skills, and/or roles. It is a way of living a satisfying, hopeful, and contributing life even with limitations caused by illness. Recovery involves the development of new meaning and purpose in one’s life as one grows beyond the catastrophic effects of mental illness.”
I grew up blocks from here. Each morning, my babysitter, a Polish woman named Sophie, who was firm but kind, took me to the zoo. She’d sit on a bench and talk to the mothers and other babysitters while the other children and I watched the seals bob and glide in the water and galumph along the rocks. Even to me, a child, the zoo was both exciting and not quite right. The animals’ cages were obviously too small; their “habitats” were dilapidated, made of tile and rope instead of dirt and trees. It’s a little better now—slightly larger areas for the animals, more natural-habitat-like.
On the left is a pond and beyond it, the flamingo atrium. On the right is the reptile house. I stop outside the Lion House. In one of the outdoor cages is a tree—fake or real, I can’t tell. It reaches almost to the very top.
A branch extends. It takes a moment for me to spot the snow leopard. He’s stunning and regal. His plush fur is white and beige, dotted with black circles. His huge paws hang over the edge.
His expression should be pained, but it’s strangely serene.
According to the information plaque, his name is Taza. It also says snow leopards are solitary creatures who only come together to breed. Otherwise, they live happily on their own. They can’t roar, but they’re one of the few big cats that purr.
Continue to Chapter 12.