Why Romance Is Important to Me
So, this is normally the part where I make a quirky opening salvo — in the hopes that you do, in fact, see it as quirky, and not annoying or silly or whatever. But today, I’m going to be doing things a little differently.
Today, I’m going to be serious.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and one of the reasons it came into being was to break the stigma that surrounds mental illness. It was created, in part, to try and illustrate that mental health is as important as physical health, and that we should treat it as such — with care and kindness and understanding — not as something to be hidden and of which we should be ashamed. Which is why I am going to share my experience with mental illness with you, and how reading romance novels got me through one of the hardest, most painful times of my life.
Quick backstory to get us started: I was first diagnosed as having Clinical Depression (and later, General Anxiety Disorder) when I was 18. At the time I was struggling with not only body issues (I went through a bout of refusing to eat until I nearly passed out from hunger), but also with a need to self-harm. Which, for me, came in the form of cutting myself. My parents and my friends, who recognized the changes in me though I was sneaky about hiding the physical damage I was causing, helped me find someone to talk to and since then, I have been seeing a psychologist and psychiatrist — albeit without the regularity that I perhaps should have.
“I didn’t even like to call and make an appointment to see a dentist or a doctor or a hairdresser, so how was I going to find mental health help?”
I went years without seeing anyone, suffering in silence, hurting myself (and by extension, others) and trying to brave my way through, all because I didn’t want anyone to think there was something wrong with me. But perhaps worse than that, think I was just pretending, and it was all an act. I had (and have) no “real” reason to be depressed, after all. I have a wonderful family, including two healthy (touch wood) kids, and although I now live a long way from home, I have FaceTime to stay easily in touch. I have a good job, two cute dogs, and easy access to Nutella. Life is good.
But… life isn’t always good. Like millions of other mental health sufferers, life is sometimes bad. It’s hard and it hurts, and I want to escape it. Every new day brings with it reasons to stress about the future, to worry myself literally sick about all the ways things can go wrong. And when that happens, all I want is to finally rest, because it feels like I haven’t rested in so long, and I’m tired.
It was only after my move to America that I finally sought help after years of going without. I’d hit my breaking point, again. Only this time, I had to put someone else — two someone elses, my kids — above my need to protect what people thought or didn’t think of me. It was actually after my son was born in 2013 that I first started to feel the need to talk to someone again. That I first started to feel out of control enough that I was worried about what I would do. Not to him, or to my then four-year-old daughter, at least not directly, but to myself. I knew then, as I know now, that harming myself (and not getting the help I need is a form of self-harm, I truly believe that) hurts them. But at the time, I was scared. I was still finding my feet in a new country and the support system I had built in Australia — if not always used — was no longer there. I had to build a new one, and let me tell you, it was a scary prospect. I didn’t even like to call and make an appointment to see a dentist or a doctor or a hairdresser, so how was I going to find mental health help? My parents had stepped in the first time to help me get started, but not only were they not here, at 30 years old, it really was time I stood up and said, “I need help,” with my own voice.
Eventually, I did. And I’m proud of that. But I didn’t do it right away. Instead, I sank into books. Long sleepless nights were spent reading the romance novels I’d only recently discovered while I either took care of my baby, or just sat there, thinking dark, angry, and sad thoughts, unable to sleep but exhausted beyond all recognition. I overloaded my Kindle with every romance book I could find that was free (through author promotions or the digital library in my area, not through book piracy), and read. And read. And read.
I tore through Nalini Singh, which I’ve talked about before. I read Kresley Cole’s Immortals After Dark and Gena Showalter’s Lords of the Underworld, along with a bunch of other Paranormal romances that I loved because they weren’t real. I could suspend disbelief and live in a world where an Archangel and a human could overcome a massive power imbalance (not to mention that tricky little thing called immortality) to find a love so true, it verily jumped off the pages.
And then I tripped my way over to Contemporary Romance. And fell in love with these love stories that read like they happened in the real world. The world I was living in, which at times didn’t feel like it could provide true love. Or hope. Or happiness. Paranormal love and hope and happiness, I could believe that, if only for a minute, because I knew it couldn’t happen. But real love?
Despite the fact that I knew real love — my husband, my kids, my parents, my siblings, my friends, need I go on? — I couldn’t feel it, not at that time. I felt disconnected from the world around me. I loved my baby, and my little girl. But I didn’t always really feel that, if that makes sense. It was like the bad crowding my mind had left so little room for anything else, it had shoved all the tender feelings out. Or perhaps numbed them. Either way, books gave me an escape that let me think about things that weren’t so fucking depressing. And slowly, slowly, I stopped dreading the nights, when things always seemed at their worst.
Books gave me a reason to almost look forward to the sleeplessness, the insomnia. They gave me the ability to simply hold my son and rock in the rocking chair in the corner of his carefully and lovingly planned bedroom, and escape to a world where I had a reason to smile and to laugh instead of cry. (Which, I know, sounds terrible. See above about having no reason to be depressed; I had then, as I have now, plenty of reasons to smile and laugh.) I could be halfway through a book and eager for the formerly haunting dark so I could finish it and find out what I already knew — that it would end in happily ever after.
“It was like the bad crowding my mind had left so little room for anything else, it had shoved all the tender feelings out. Or perhaps numbed them. Either way, books gave me an escape that let me think about things that weren’t so fucking depressing.”
Gradually, the nights got easier. I was tired anyway, and reading has always had a way of soothing me, probably because my parents used to read me to sleep when I was a kid. I would find myself falling asleep with my Kindle still on and the story at the forefront of my mind instead of the bad stuff. And as the nights and my sleep fell back into a more regular schedule, so did my days. It wasn’t such a chore to play with the kids and pretend everything was fine when it wasn’t. Yes, like most card-carrying bookworms, I wanted to get back to my current read with fervor, but if I was distracted from my kids, at least it wasn’t with thoughts of hurting myself.
That’s not to say I was cured. Far from, in fact. I wrote a post on my personal blog in 2016 where I talked about living with depression and how I’d relapsed into self-harm and was working to get better again. It was a difficult post to share then, as this one is now. There is some catharsis in letting loose your truths, for sure, but it’s also incredibly scary, especially for someone who puts (far too much) value on what others think of her. But, even not cured — because mental illness isn’t something that can be cured — I was better.
Better than I had been for months. More able to see the world, my own little world in particular, clearly. Able to appreciate and even revel in the true love that I’d had all along and had felt disconnected from. I felt well enough and strong enough and brave enough to finally ask for help — which I found with a few phone calls and lots of question asking and research — and to admit something that I had been unwilling to admit for years: I needed medication and a long-term plan for getting through the dark days. That’s not to say that romance alone did that for me, but it helped. It was a lifeline when I needed one, a floatation device to keep my head above water while I made my way back to the shallows and onto solid ground.
So, yes, there is a reason romance is so important to me, and that’s it. It was there for me when I needed it and has continued to be. Indeed, it remains part of my self-care routine when the depression hits and I know I just have to hold on. For a few days, hold on to the knowledge that I can and will get through the black, and back into the light. That, as much as I might wish for peace and rest and a goddamn break, that isn’t what I really want — not when it would cause such pain for those I love.
And there it is. My story. It’s maybe not romance-worthy. There’s not a hot doctor or a forbidden love affair to be seen. There’s no miracle cure. But there is me, able and willing to talk about it in the hope that something I say resonates with even one person, whether it’s a fellow sufferer, or someone who needs to be made aware that mental illness is just like any other kind of illness — something that needs care and acknowledgment and understanding, and not a stigma that can have deadly side effects.
“Mental illness is just like any other kind of illness — something that needs care and acknowledgment and understanding, and not a stigma that can have deadly side effects.”
My story is my own — and what worked for me will not necessarily work for others. That’s why it’s important to know what to do and who to call if you too are in need of help. The following is an (incomplete) list of resources that offer knowledge on mental health. Feel free to share any other resources you may be familiar with in the comments below!
Are you in crisis?
Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (USA).
Earlier this month, I had the chance to chat with Denise Milano Sprung about the 9th Annual Mental Health Awareness Book Fundraiser, and her work with the Keith Milano Memorial Fund to #BreakTheStigma around mental illness. See the interview — and #1ClickForCharity while you’re at it — by clicking the button below.
Beth Cranford was born and raised in Australia, but followed her heart (and her husband) to the United States in her late 20s. As the mother of two kids, she’s learned that you can turn anything into a song and that slime does not belong in carpeted areas (or polite society). You can most often find her with her Kindle in hand, listening to Taylor Swift on repeat, or spending way too many hours playing Animal Crossing.
Follow her @BethCranford on B+M Bites.
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