Disability and sex: Love and friendship beneath the bell jar

Alison Traynor discusses the way in which mental illness can impact our personal lives

Few people examine interpersonal relationships in a more profound way than film director Paul Thomas Anderson. In his most recent feature, Phantom Thread, he explores the complexity of human interactions through his characterisation of the film’s protagonist, Reynolds Woodcock, an aloof and erratic fashion designer. Woodcock’s mercurial behaviour causes him to regularly have explosive fights with his romantic partner, Alma Elson. In this scenario, most quarrelling lovers would decide to either resolve their issues or part ways, but Alma has other ideas: instead, she poisons his tea.

Most of us would be rather indignant if our partner attempted to feed us poisonous mushrooms, but Woodcock is in fact delighted. Those unfortunate people who are unversed in the Paul Thomas Anderson canon are probably wondering why this is the case, and the answer is simple. It is only when Woodcock becomes ill that he can have a relationship free of conflict with Alma. It forces him to relax and allow himself to be cared for by his partner without any external factors triggering his temper. When his illness is added to the mix, Woodcock and Alma’s relationship becomes a toxic – yet intoxicating – codependency, something which many of us will have experienced at some point in our lives.

It is true that I have had my fair share of infuriating boyfriends over the course of my life, but I have never actually tried to poison any of them (unless you count my cooking, of course). However, if I had taken this course of action, things would have inevitably gone awry, because illness and relationships do not complement each other. While physical illness can undoubtedly pose problems in relationships, mental illness is a whole other ball game. The intrinsic connection between mental health and relationship health is something which everybody, especially young people, should consider.

As a society, we are thankfully getting better at discussing mental illness. In fact, we hear about the physical and personal impact of mental health conditions in the media and from our peers on a regular basis. However, the way in which mental illness affects our relationships is still a taboo topic. Not only is mental illness incredibly difficult for the sufferer, but it is also challenging for their loved ones. When a partner, friend, or family member is experiencing mental health difficulties, standard relationship expectations vanish into the ether quicker than Usain Bolt running a 50 metre sprint. While we need to accept this reality to a certain extent, we also need to be educated about it. 

One of the major issues that people suffering from mental illness can face is learning how to act in a relationship in order to allow it to flourish while also grappling with symptoms that affect your behaviours. We are all constantly bombarded with conflicting advice about maintaining healthy relationships, especially from the media. It seems impossible to go on online nowadays without being faced with one of those dreaded Buzzfeed articles, the standard of journalism in which makes the content of Hello! magazine read like The Brothers Karamazov. These articles are easy to recognise. They are usually entitled How to Totally Bag a Man when you’re a Pisces, or something equally intellectually stimulating. They generally start by emphatically declaring that you should always be honest with your partner. They then ironically go on to state that you should never inform your partner if you are feeling insecure, or sad, or angry, or anxious, because men don’t like that. Basically, you should be yourself, as long as you are completely flawless and are fine with your boyfriend fucking you over constantly. Also, you should definitely consider getting a boob job.

In my own experience, I am not somebody who is often described as a “talker”. I like to keep my feelings to myself. The endless droning cries of “talk about it”, “share your problems” and “reach out” float past my ears and make no impression on me. It is often assumed that people having a difficult time are afraid of stigma. Yet, whenever I am feeling depressed, anxious or stressed, it is certainly not because of any unspoken taboo that I decide not to talk about it. I am not crippled by a fear of non-acceptance because my friend didn’t happen to pin that green ribbon that they got for free in the DART station onto their coat. I simply believe that if my problems have the power to drag me down, they have the power to drag those around me down too.

It is time that we find a different, more in-depth approach, and stopped pretending that a poster campaign is going to solve anybody’s problems, even with its cutesy pastel colour scheme.

Discussing mental illness is not as simple as it seems. By saying this, I am certainly not advocating that we should hide our problems from our loved ones. Undoubtedly, leaving those around us in the dark is going to cause much more serious problems. I am simply highlighting the way in which talking about our problems is a delicate balancing act that can be worrisome, especially for people who may also be experiencing feelings of guilt and self-loathing. Endless sloganeering, while well-meaning, is rarely helpful. It is time that we find a different, more in-depth approach, and stopped pretending that a poster campaign is going to solve anybody’s problems, even with its cutesy pastel colour scheme.

Mental illness can make people moody, irritable, angry, and erratic. It can make people shut out their friends and family. It can make people exhausted and overly reliant on those around them. It can cause frustration and pain and uncertainty. Because of this, we need to reach out to each other. We need to be willing to help and listen, but at the same time, we must set boundaries and take care of ourselves in the best way that we can. It will never be easy, but we are all still learning. And just remember, even if your partner has cancelled on your date three times in a row, at least they’ve never put death caps in your omelette. 

Alison Traynor

Alison Traynor is the current Life Editor of Trinity News.