We're All Mad Here: Dating While Crazy

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s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California.

Common perceptions of mental illness and relationships suggest that mentally ill people do not belong in relationships, do not deserve love and affection, and are even dangerous to marry or get involved with. Not for nothing are undesirable prospective partners ‘crazy bitches,’ are former partners whom we’re supposed to hate ‘crazy exes.’ It is highly unusual to see a depiction of a functional relationship with a mentally ill partner or partners; such a thing is alien to the arbiters of relationships in pop culture.

Some depictions of mental illness in pop culture suggest that we are all overflowing with libido, unable to exercise any degree of control or restraint when it comes to sexuality. The oversexed female character in particular is a very familiar stereotype; look at Brenda on Six Feet Under, who is introduced to us having sex in an airport closet. On the road with Nate to give him a ride home, she says they shouldn’t pretend this is the first time either one of them has had sex with a stranger. Implication: Stranger sex is just a thing that she does, and over the course of the series, it becomes apparent that this is because of her mental illness.

Brenda on Six Feet Under, dressed up for an art opening.

Mentally ill people are also boyfriend stealers, particularly on teen dramas. Unable to have relationships of their own, they horn in (so to speak) on existing ones, without a care to the impact that it might have on their friends. Again, these characters are often depicted as out of control and scary; it is not uncommon to have a boyfriend stealer turn into a stalker, for instance, relentlessly refusing to give up after a one night stand.

Or mentally ill characters are abusive, and it is very much attributed to their illness within the context of the story. Commonly the mentally ill partner in this context is male, and uses both physical and emotional violence against his partner. Mentally ill men, pop culture tells us, are either abusive and terrifying or oddly brilliant and inspired by their illness. (See Billy, again on Six Feet Under, who is miraculously creative as a result of his bipolar disorder, except when he’s in the height of a manic phase and he’s running around doing things like trying to knife people and trashing offices.)

They can also be controlling and manipulative. Terri on Glee is one example—she doesn’t let Will have a life and tries to exert as much control as possible over everything, right down to forcing Will to do things he doesn’t want to do. Such partners become impossible to escape because they are so obsessive, and they drag their other halves down. Create a burden.

Terri from Glee, facing the camera with her hands on her hips in a promo still.

In all cases, mental illness becomes an object of resentment and hatred, both within the text and for viewers. One of the fastest ways to code a romantic partner or love interest as inappropriate or undesirable is to make that character mentally ill, or to give that character vague symptoms of unspecified mental illness. Viewers are encouraged to hate such characters.

They make ideal foils for emotions viewers may not feel comfortable expressing as well; they don’t hate her because she engages in stereotypically feminine behavior, but because she’s mentally ill, say. It’s notable that many of the traits associated with mental illness in pop culture, like being self-centered and controlling, are also associated with women in misogynistic narratives.

Free to hate these characters, consumers of pop culture can hope that the hero eventually escapes and manages to date the real love interest, the nice, normal, fun character who is enjoyable to be around. This plays out in real life as well, of course; how many people are told to leave partners who behave erratically or are open about living with mental illness? How many “friends” secretly hope that so and so leaves her “annoying” partner because she’s just too unstable to invite to dinner parties?

Issues like controlling behavior, selfishness, abuse, and incompatibility can come up in all relationships, not just those involving mentally ill people. And they are all good reasons to leave relationships; no one should be forced to stay in a dangerous or unhappy relationship. But, at the same time, when these things are always attributed to mental illness, it suggests that relationships with mentally ill people will be inherently dangerous or unpleasant, that mentally ill people have nothing to bring to relationships, even that mentally ill people should not be allowed to have relationships.

The stereotypes about mental illness and relationships that appear in pop culture have very real implications for actual people with mental illness. Many of us navigate relationships just fine every day. Many more of us are actually at increased risk for abuse; emotional, physical, financial, because mental illness can make us vulnerable. And yet, we don’t see depictions of rape of mentally ill women, for example, or financial abuse of mentally ill men by “caregivers.” These very real issues are not often depicted in pop culture.

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22 Comments Have Been Posted

Thank you for this post. As

Thank you for this post. As someone who has aspergers (more of a "condition" than an "illness", if you really want to classify it), I have experienced this. When I first met my current partner, it took a while for me to disclose this diagnosis. However, I have a very healthy relationship and we have been together for close to a year now. Yes, I have moments where I can be selfish in that it doesn't always occur to me to consider the way that some things affect her, but the level of communication necessary to talk through these things can create a level of closeness that I didn't think was possible.

Please continue to cover issues like this... and I think it would be interesting to further this critique by using the mad movement to break down the idea of mental illness itself in this context.

Yes, we need a far more

Yes, we need a far more radical discousre that disrupts the very problematic category of "mental illness."

Great Article

It sucks that I feel the pressure to remain anonymous when commenting on this article.'But, I do so therefore I am.

The author probably knows that it is best to experience, not explain, the happenings of a relationship where one of the partners is "mentally ill" if you are seeking to understand it. From my experience, being in a relationship with someone who is mentally ill is only as risky as the lack of communication. Unfortunately, most regular folk don't have elaborate "talking abilities" as their language is limited, again, by their experiences. But, as a "mentally ill person" when you find someone who is patient and communicative, ring the bell.

Now, don't get me wrong, there is quite a bit of responsibility placed on the "mentally ill" partner; 50%. They need to be self aware, communicative, part of a healthy community and always working towards mutual compromise. These are big tasks for someone who might have spent most of their life in ignorance and "darkness". But, it is critical.

I really appreciate the empathy from this article. Thank you. I would love to hear your response.

Your point about

Your point about communication is very important&mdash;there's often an assumption that mental illness makes it impossible to 'reach' people, and thus that communication isn't possible in relationships. This is, of course, hogwash, but it's quite pervasive and very harmful. And it also seems like people place <em>more</em> of a burden on the mentally ill partner, and act like poor communication isn't a problem in people who aren't mentally ill!

It's about consent

In my relationship, navigating being crazy (my self-identifier, I don't put it on anyone else) and married is all about consent. Just like the rules about our bodies, if something is getting to be too much, my partner has the ability (and responsibility) to tell me I need to seek help elsewhere. Ze will help me find a way to seek that help if I need it, but ze's allowed to say that particular problems are beyond the weight ze can carry. Likewise, I have the responsibility, especially in my worse or more prolonged moments, to check in and make sure ze is holding up ok. Ze entered our relationship under full disclosure that I have mental health concerns, some of them occasionally severe, and we constantly check in to make sure we're both getting what we need.

I've had my share of relationships where I didn't feel safe being clear about my ish when I got into them, and therefore didn't feel safe disclosing them later. It was easier to be in an unhealthy relationship than to admit I was legitimately crazy. Trying to pretend it was just everyday worries made it so those relationships were unhealthy in every direction, but once I was in one where I was safe to disclose what was really going on, it became much easier to navigate.

As an LPC in-training, I say,

As an LPC in-training, I say, "Thank you". As a woman, I say, "Thank you, thank you." As the member of a family with pervasive mental illness I say, "Thank you, Thank you, thank you.". All of thesee identities intersect as one is taught not to assert herself lest she be thought crazy, not to have a relationship with anyone "crazy", including family members, and fellow professionals herald the unspoken agreement that our clients are not capable of healthy relationships, even and especially when the relationship issues they encounter are typical. You even scraped up against the objectification of mentally ill women: "She wanted sex, so I sexed her, but after that she turned crazy, so I was out of there."

Ummmm, what about Emma

Ummmm, what about Emma Pillsbury in Glee? She is OCD but she is still a character a lot of Glee fans love and root for.

In my opinion, her OCD is

In my opinion, her OCD is positioned as the main reason she can't form a stable, mutually satisfying, or lasting relationship.


I think you raise a lot of valid points here, especially in the way the media often ascribes irrational behavior solely to mental illness, even though supposedly "healthy" people often exhibit the same behavior.

I'd love to see a follow-up article regarding what I call "the quirkification of mental illness." As another commenter noted, one character on Glee has OCD, but this is often presented more as an adorable quirk than a debilitating disorder. There have also been movies like Garden State which, though flawed, does show a (bipolar? depressed? overmedicated?) young man falling in love with an epileptic (manic pixie dream girl) young woman. There was also the film (I don't recall the name) about a woman who falls in love with an autistic man, and another called My Sassy Girl, in which a "normal" man falls in love with a (schizophrenic? I never saw it, so help me out here!) woman, seeing her "craziness" as adorable.

It seems like we should be able to find a happy medium wherein mental illness is neither terrifying nor adorable, but just something that neither overcomes nor fades into the background of a relationship. The movie Shine comes close, but I'd like to see one that acknowledges that not all mental illness is so extreme as to be immediately apparent.

I don't think this is a

I don't think this is a counterpoint as much as an expansion of the original topic! There's definitely a thing that happens in pop culture (that ties in with the manic pixie) where mental ill women are cute and adorable and fun and quirky. TV OCD like Emma's in <em>Glee</em> makes me want to spit fire. I don't know if we're going to have time to cover that in this series, but you could always suggest that Bitch invite us back!

Terry Bellefleur in True Blood?

The character in My Sassy Girl isn't schizophrenic. I think she's just a very manic pixie.

I would add the character of Terry Bellefleur from True Blood. He's a veteran with PTSD, and mentions at one point hearing voices when he doesn't take his meds. But he is a character that appears to me always depicted in a respectful way. He is shown to be a good prospect to Arlene. But I agree with the author ; most of the time, mental illness in movies and on TV is badly pictured and full of prejudices.

It seems to me like True

<p>It seems to me like True Blood usually deals with PTSD appropriately, although Terry can easily veer into "quirky" (especially in the first season I think). They bring it up again with Lafayette at the beginning of the second season too.</p>


I love Terry Bellefleur and agree with you that he's a nuanced character with a back story and a romantic relationship who happens to have a mental illness (well, he's nuanced some of the time anyway). However, SPOILER ALERT, it looks like season five is going to have his "craziness" turn dangerous for Arlene and the kids. Apparently he's hiding a dark secret(s) and even René's ghost is afraid of him? Ugh, it bums me out.

Hmmm... this post has me

Hmmm... this post has me thinking. Not sure I would read/classify Brenda Chenowith (my absolute favourite character on one of my favourite shows ever) as a "mentally ill" person. We certainly see her character as going through periods of psychological instability. And her sexuality does deviate from prescribed cultural norms. But I personally do not make a clear connection between the two.

I do see your point, however, and agree that the creative team behind SFU consciouly played with the "crazy sexual girl" trope. In season 1, the viewer is meant to never be quite sure about the state of Brenda's mental health - and in season 2, her unconventional sexual behaviour is heightened because of a prolonged period of psychological distress.

Your observations about Billy and Terri are spot-on though.

Thank you!

Great post

This was a great post. I was actually just recently thinking of this exact issue the other day while watching some television show (I can't really remember what it was :/). There was this lady who had broken up with her boyfriend and she was crying 24/7 and stalking her ex and showing up at his house insisting that they had never broken up and it was really disturbing to me the way the characters kept calling her crazy. So yeah, I'm definitely feeling what you're saying here.
Another thing I think it's interesting to discuss is the fetishizing of crazy ladies. I don't just mean in the "over-sexed" way but in the "Broken (I really hate that word in this context) girls are fun and interesting projects" way. As a crazy lady I know I've experienced this in my own life and I feel like there's definitely an idea in the culture that the "right guy" can come along and "fix you."
Anyway, I've really been loving this series.

Yeah I know what you mean. I

Yeah I know what you mean. I thought that was kind of happening on Glee (I've only seen through the first half of the second season so maybe it's a little different) but there was the "adorable" aspect going on with Emma and I also felt like Will wanted to fix her. In one of the early episodes when he's cleaning, he puts some chalk dust on her nose, with the implication of "go a little wild, ignore your OCD a little!" I wanted to punch him in the face.

What about "United States of

What about "United States of Tara"? I'm aware that it's portrayal of Multiple Personality Disorder is far from accurate and there have been quite a few people who had problems with the series, but I really liked the way it showed a family acknowledge there's crazy with them and dealing with it - both as a child of a (not self identified, but diagnosed) "crazy" person and someone who's got their share of mental baggage themselves.
They showed facets of living with a mentally ill family member you seldom see - not how scary and unprecedented and surprising a condition can be, but how it gets integrated into daily life, how it becomes your own normalcy. How after a fit or an episode you sometimes face the question: do I accept the illness as part of my loved one and live him/her as is, i.e. with it, or do I see it as something intruding from outside his/her character and love the person despite his/her condition - and what consequences do I draw from the answer.
And I really liked that there was an open communication about their sexuality between the "normal" husband and the "crazy" wife - they could both articulate their needs and desires and took their turns in taking the initiative - none of that "crazy woman alsways needs sex to feel loved" or "normal guy cure's wacky bitch through multiple orgasms so she's fine in the end" shit.

I'm unclear on what "mental

I'm unclear on what "mental illness" you are ascribing to Brenda (also one of my favourite television characters) - certainly she goes to an AA type group for people who are sexual addicts, but sexual addiction is highly controversial and not an established disorder - most psychologists remain unconvinced. Brenda may feel guilty about her apparent inabiltiy to control her impulses, but I always understood that there was a fairly large part of her that didn't want to control herself, because she didn't want anybody to believe they understood who she was or what she wanted. Brenda's earlier classification as a Borderline was also very likely erroneous, and that is another disorder that has received a lot of criticism.

Brenda and Billy are both scarily brilliant - Billy artistically and Brenda in most other regards, so I think your point falls flat here given that they are siblings. Many great artists have mental illnesses ascribed to them, so I don't think it's a leap for them to both have creative outlets. Billy was never chanelling his inner artist when he was manic - he was getting into all sorts of trouble. As far as I understand, his disorder was actually pretty accurate. It was a bit over the top perhaps, but people do suffer in those ways.

One thing you have completely ignored are issues of consent though, because mentally ill people may not always be able to be in intimate relationships: we are deemed a vulnerable population. People may not just avoid us (and we them) because we're "crazy," but because it's extremely difficult to get involved with anybody (romantically or otherwise) when they and/or you are not in your right mind. One hardly wants to wind up in a better place and realise that their emotional instabilities were taken advantage of (or conversely, that you may have been the one to take advantage of someone else). This is not to say that mentally ill people can't or shouldn't be in relationships, but it is an issue that deserves some hashing out.

My 2 cents: Personally I'd

My 2 cents:
Personally I'd much rather people refer to people they didn't like as "crazy" than try to give them a specific diagnosis. In particular, there seems to be a trend among otherwise P.C. people to say... acting like a borderline, when they think a person is behaving inappropriately, or "teach how to be borderline" when referring to messed up communication advice in relationships.

For me that hurts so much more than crazy. That's literally saying that a borderline, in particular, cannot have a relationship, full stop. The lack of specificity of crazy, to me, makes it a more appropriate word for general behavior that one does not understand and thinks is having negative effects.

I don't tell people about the borderline. I tell them I have depression. THe few people I told otherwise (who weren't themselves in treatment with me) tell me, oh, you can't be borderline, I like you. That hurts. I'll take crazy bitch any day over that.

I just share this overly personal story to illustrate why I think the word crazy is ok to use, and has a purpose. And also because oversharing is just my thing.


I recently started therapy for my depression and mentioned it offhandedly to a boy I'd been talking to for a while and all of a sudden he called the whole thing off. I was pretty surprised that he would say we should reconsider since I was in therapy since he is a psych major and all, but after this article all the dots have connected: since I'm in therapy I must be crazy (despite not having been diagnosed with anything other than anxiety and a nervous breakdown. Yet.) and a horrible idea to get involved with. If I were slightly less dysfunctional my feelings would be hurt. Which I find just too ironic.

Thank You

Thank you for sharing your thoughts about this subject. I think many of the comments have focused on the media aspect of your post but I think for me it was the point about 'crazy' people not being deserving of relationships that touched a cord with me. As someone who has two parents who both suffer from depression and having suffered from it myself I know exactly what you refer to when you speak of people avoiding the 'crazy'. I've been told more than once by well meaning friends or acquaintances that I should abandon my relationship with my mother because its 'co-dependent' or 'unhealthy'. Mostly because she requires a little more of my time or assistance with things that more people can manage themselves. I understand that 'crazy' people require a little more investment of time and attention but I think that the rewards of having those relationships more than outweighs the difficulties. I have in the past learned to not talk about mental things with friends and lovers people because it can be very hurtful when friends turn on you and tell you that your 'crazy' or 'need help' or that you need to be 'fixed'. Now I find its much nicer to have relationships with people who I can talk to than ones built on the premise of 'don't talk about the crazy' so people don't leave you. You always feel that you are one step away from loosing your social network.

(In this comment I use the word crazy because I don't necessarily refer to actual diagnosed conditions just the behavior or feelings that people seem to feel are 'crazy'.)

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