Invisible Work: On Loving While Queer and Mentally Ill

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People who live with mental illness often have fraught relationships with love. Throughout the course of our lives, many of us do not receive adequate support from family, partners, and our communities. Our perceived nonconformity can leave us ostracized or abandoned. As a result, we often struggle to trust ourselves and other people, convinced that we are unreliable narrators—too “crazy” to be loveable, valuable, and worthy. Our mental illnesses can also make us inordinately vulnerable to abuse and violence, both systemically and personally. Laced with so much hardship and rejection, loving while mentally ill can seem daunting—unachievable, even.

Queer people, too, often have fraught relationships with love. Many of us experience similar rejection or alienation from our families, partners, and communities. Taught from birth to idealize heteropatriarchal myths about family and romance, we struggle to forge an affirming space for our identities and desires in a society that marks them as deviant and shameful. We internalize the morality codes that are weaponized against us, and then struggle to unlearn their influence. Here in the rural south, we often undergo this process in isolation—caught in conservative strongholds, vulnerable to homophobic violence and other overlapping systems of oppression like racism, poverty, and incarceration. Trauma can instigate or exacerbate mental illness, and so it’s not surprising that the LGBTQ community experiences alarmingly high levels of depression, anxiety, and PTSD. For queer people who are also mentally ill (and there are millions of us) loving ourselves and others can be a lifelong challenge, and one that requires a reimagining of what love and romantic fulfillment can mean. I am currently enmeshed within that process which is, for me, a continuous unraveling. What follows is some of what I’ve learned.

After graduating from college, I committed myself to unpacking the emotional baggage that I had long buried behind my school work. I started to “come out,” talking more concretely about my romantic and sexual desires—especially those that I had repressed or refused to acknowledge. I also “came out” in other ways: writing publically about being a sexual assault survivor, discussing my struggles with anorexia and debilitating anxiety, and mapping out my fractured relationship with home. It was not a graceful liberation. Every time I spoke or wrote, I doubted the ways I was identifying myself. I was suspicious of my ability to make sound, honest judgments about who I was. This bled into my personal relationships—I wondered if my community thought I was an imposter. Was I? I had spent much of my adolescence in talk therapy, in school counseling sessions, and in doctor’s offices listening to other people, people who wanted to help, talk about how my perception was fundamentally flawed. Now, I felt like I couldn’t give myself the authority to change, to wander, to become.

After several breakdowns and countless sleepless nights, my determination to do good work won out over my fear, as it sometimes does. I bunkered down and continued to ask myself what I wanted, and how I could let myself have it. In love, that meant rethinking my expectations. Throughout my life, I had been taught to believe in monogamy, in marriage, in finding a soulmate and building a lifelong partnership anchored by a shared commitment to not sleep with other people. But, as time went on and I saw myself more clearly and independently, I lost my faith. I was deeply in love, and wanted to stay that way, but I also wanted a future with more fluidity, more experimentation, more freedom, and more productive honesty about my desires and the desires of my partners.

This was not a graceful liberation either. Much of the literature I’ve read about polyamory and ethical nonmonogamy has emphasized the potential that open relationships have to bring about newfound passion, clarity, empathy, and communicative healing. Some feminist and queer theory I’ve read posits monogamy as inherently heterosexist and patriarchal, propagated more to uphold the nuclear family and normative gender roles than to give people what they want in sex and love. I don’t disagree with these points in general. But, unlearning something that, to me, was ubiquitous and naturalized is fucking rough—especially when mental illness and trauma are thrown into the mix. Growing up, my biggest fear was losing control. Thus, even the specious stability of a monogamous relationship could feel comforting and, worse, necessary. I didn’t want to feel “in competition” with anyone else because I saw love as a finite resource, and often doubted my partners’ sincerity and commitment. I told myself I wasn’t worthy of other people’s attention and support, and, most insidiously, failed to recognize that I was enough on my own. Deluded about my self-evident value, it was easy to turn to habits and ways of being that promised structure, even if that structure was ultimately hollow. I’m now actively working to unpack and address these anxieties, but loving my partners and their partners openly and honestly will be a continuous struggle—not unlike the struggles of the last ten years. But, this time, I am convinced that the struggle is taking me somewhere—somewhere better.

When I first started speaking my truth about love, identity, and desire, I felt like I had to get it exactly right. I wondered: if I struggle, or fail, or became illegible, will I still be believed and respected? But I was always critiquing myself from the perspectives of other people; often, people who were absent from my life: past boyfriends, therapists, middle school bullies, friends I only ever saw on Facebook. Now, when I look inward, I see something different: someone who is bravely, if imperfectly, making a commitment to understand herself and heal. Truthfully, I have not yet learned how to love while mentally ill and queer. But I am learning, and I am giving myself permission to fuck up, to stumble, to make a mess. Getting to that space of leniency and forgiveness has taken a lifetime of thankless, invisible work. All of us fighting similar battles know how it feels to have our labors overlooked. But we deserve, at least, to feel proud of ourselves. We have survived, and that makes us miraculous.

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RM Barton is a writer and activist living in Roanoke, Virginia. Originally from Maryland, she moved to Southwest Virginia for school some five years ago, and has since become invested in queering southern space. She is the co-lead of The Southwest Virginia LGBTQ History Project and the publisher of The Southwest Virginia LGBTQ History Project Zine, which aims to illuminate queer history through queer art and storytelling. She blogs at rmbartonblog.wordpress.com