Crafting characters / Disability Tropes 101 / mental health

Disability Tropes 101: The Lithium Kiss

Editor’s note: There’s still time to submit short stories to the Nothing Without Us anthology! Submissions close December 31, 2018. Read more about the submission guidelines here! And Derek’s Disability Tropes 101 series is great reference material to provide tips about what tropes to avoid! 

The Lithium Kiss feature image
ID: Loose leaf paper with the trope topic: The Lithium Kiss (by Derek Newman-Stille) Heading above it reads: A Spoonie Authors Network Series, Disability Tropes 101. The O of tropes is the wheel of the accessibility symbol.

One of the tropes of disability I have wanted to write about is the one I have named The Lithium Kiss. I called it this because in this trope, which involves mental illness being “overcome” by a relationship, the lover’s lips are treated like medication, making a person suddenly stop having mental illness once they are in a relationship. I realize that the title I have given this trope is a bit tongue in cheek, but I thought the trope needed a little bit of shaking up and that there needs to be a reminder that mental illness is not dependent on relationship status.

The Lithium Kiss trope is not only problematic in its presentation of a “cure” through the simple act of getting a romantic partner, it is also problematic in the way that it furthers the image that woman in particular need a partner in order to be happy and complete. It assumes that mental illness/psychiatric disability is a form of incompleteness and distress and that someone can be “saved” by a romantic partner and made “complete” by being with their partner. Lithium Kiss narratives are another of the White Knight narratives that present the need for a hero, which is doubly problematic in terms of mental illness/psychiatric disability because people with disabilities in general are portrayed as being in constant need of help and as being needy as a result. People with mental illness/ psychiatric disability are frequently treated as being needy and as incomplete people who rely on the able-minded for support and frequently this assumption portrays disability as dependency.

All-too-often our ableist society thinks of the partners of disabled people as being generous to be with disabled people, as people who are being charitable for being in a relationship with us, and the Lithium Kiss narrative reinforces it with the notion that our partners are cures for our disability and are offering services as a caregiver. This leads to the conception that our relationships are lopsided and that we (people with psychiatric disabilities/mental illness) are not bringing anything to our relationship but are getting free caregiving out of it. We are presented as objects of care instead of equal partners who each bring value to the relationship.

There are a lot of more complex relationships that we can be writing for our mentally ill/ psychiatrically disabled characters by crafting these characters as more complex people not people seeking a cure, by presenting these relationships as mutually beneficial, and by ensuring that the character’s mental illness/psychiatric disability doesn’t suddenly disappear in a relationship. Well-rounded characters are far more interesting and dynamic, and they resist problematic tropes of “madness.”

No one’s kiss is a cure, remedy, or medication.

Derek Newman-Stille
Derek Newman-Stille

Derek Newman-Stille is the eight-time Prix Aurora Award winning creator of Speculating Canada. They are completing their PhD at Trent University, researching representations of disability in Canadian speculative fiction. Derek is the editor of the upcoming anthologies: Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales From the Margins and We Shall Be Monsters. Derek has published in fora like Quill & Quire, The Canadian Fantastic in Focus, Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, Misfit Children: An Inquiry into Childhood Belongings, The Playground of Lost Toys, and Accessing the Future.

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