In media, mental illness and romance pair just as well as strawberries and beans…a disjointed mixture that just ends up stinking.
Too frequently, people with mental illnesses are depicted as either 1) incapable of having healthy, positive and affirming relationships or 2) tantalizing their partners with the beauty of their pain. Make that love story involve two women and you have the perfect recipe for a thriller that results in a lot of awkward sex followed by unnecessary death. (The movie Chloe with Amanda Seyfried ring any bells?)
No, Amanda, it doesn’t.
This terrible representation of mentally ill people in love is why the relationship between Alice and Robin (also known as Tilly and Margot) on ABC’s Once Upon a Time is such a breath of fresh air. For those not familiar with the show, Once reimagines classic fairytales by bringing them into modern contexts. For instance, Tilly, the quirky daughter of the town’s detective, is actually Alice from Alice in Wonderland/Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland while Margot, the world traveling bohemian, is Robin Hood.
Prior to falling victim to a curse that forced them to forget their true identities, Alice and Robin were deeply in love. I’m talking literal wifey status. (Just look at how domestically adorable they were)
Watching them rekindle their forgotten love, as Tilly and Margot, has been my favorite part of this season. Their love story is depicted as genuine, honest and pure. Unlike the show’s prior attempts at portraying a same-sex relationship, which just came across as rushed and sloppy, Alice’s and Robin’s love is given the consideration it deserves.
However, their relationship isn’t all heart shaped beignets and intensely lingering eye contact. It’s complicated, it’s messy and it’s real. Alice, like her namesake’s character in the Disney classic, struggles with some unspecified form of mental illness. This makes her feel isolated and frequently unable to trust her own mind.
As someone who struggles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), I couldn’t relate more to Alice’s feelings. I’ve had OCD as long as I can remember. In fact, some of my earliest memories consist of me repeatedly doing the sign of the cross until it felt “right” (…can you tell I was raised Catholic?) or absolutely losing my mind if someone disturbed the pillows I spent 20 minutes arranging. However, I was only officially diagnosed about two and a half years ago.
When you have a mental health issue, it sometimes forces you to act in ways that make absolutely no sense to other people. Why did I have to walk in a half circle, touch the door knob and then double back before I finally went into my house? Why did I have to constantly check my heart rate after the most minimal movement to ensure it’s “okay”?
It’s incredibly difficult to turn to a perfect stranger and say, “I’m so sorry, I have OCD so I have to do these ten rituals before I can get to what you asked me to do. Could you wait?” It’s always been easier for me to just come up with excuses to avoid admitting the truth. This has made forming romantic relationships ridiculously dramatic and, like Alice, I felt entirely alone.
For this reason, watching Robin lovingly interact with Alice after she had an episode during the “The Guardian” (7×18) brought me to tears. The pair was on a date, exploring the town and enjoying quality time together, when Alice suddenly begins hearing voices. Frustrated at their appearance, Alice hits herself in the head.
Clearly unsure how to act, Robin backs away and offers to get Alice some water. However, Alice doesn’t want to accept Robin’s help and instead abruptly ends their date, leaving Robin confused and hurt.
Watching this scene was almost painful because of how strongly it resonated with me. Like most people with mental illnesses, I too get overwhelmed and angry that I can’t control my brain. Embarrassingly, I have also hit myself in the head countless times in an attempt to ease the torment in my brain. Watching Alice lose control in front of Robin absolutely terrified me. Choruses of “Your OCD is pushing me away”, “You need SERIOUS help” and “I can’t handle your mental illness” uttered by former girlfriends immediately began echoing in my head.
Fortunately, Alice realizes her mistake and quickly seeks Robin to explain her situation. With visible vulnerability and heart-wrenching honesty, Alice explains that she never knows what type of day she’s going to have. She speaks for everyone with mental health issues when she admits that some days are good and some days simply aren’t.
Try as she might, and through no fault of her own, Alice just can’t control her mental illness. As I know all too well, some potential partners are just not interested or equipped to navigate the complexities of mental illness. Even worse, some people falsely believe that love will cure a person of their mental health issues. But, just as love won’t cure cancer or stop the progression of diabetes, it won’t suddenly reverse mental illness.
Alice admits that she doesn’t want Robin to witness her “not good days” because it could be “too much” for her to handle.
Just look at the pain in Alice’s eyes. Her small head nod, averting her gaze and clenching her jaw. You can tell she’s been misunderstood and deeply injured by people who didn’t understand how to love her properly. Thankfully, Robin listens to Alice with an open mind and an open heart. She acknowledges that she won’t ever truly understand the struggle but she loves Alice and is ready to accept the good, the bad and the mediocre days.
After all, isn’t handling the days as the come the foundation of any good relationship?
Seeing a positive representation of mental illness in a relationship between two women is the queer content that we need to see. It sends an incredibly powerful message: just because you have a mental illness does not mean you are not worthy of love. It illustrates that love is not the cure to your aliments but it can be such a comfort during the bad days. It’s not always easy but people are capable of loving you exactly as you are.
Thank you, Once. You’ve created a beautiful, multifaceted love story that has become one of my favorites. Also, watch the scene between Alice and Robin here and try not to ugly cry.